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During his long career, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in a variety of genres and attained considerable popularity among his nineteenth-century contemporaries. Though interest in his work has declined, he is still remembered for four significant works, three of them literary, the fourth scientific. Two of them—his poem ”Old Ironsides” (1830) and his medical investigation of puerperal fever (1843)—appeared early in his career. The other two—his collection of essays The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (1858) and his novel Elsie Venner: A Romance of Destiny (1861)—were published in mid-career, just as Holmes entered his most productive period. Taken together, the four works represent Holmes’s versatility and his dedication to writing.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
The fourth of five children and a descendant of the noted seventeenth-century poet Anne Bradstreet, Oliver Wendell Holmes was born to Abiel Holmes and his second wife, Sarah, on August 29, 1809, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His father was a graduate of Yale and a moderate Congregationalist minister, while his mother was part of what eventually would be the Unitarian Church. His father was probably the parent who fostered Holmes’s interest in books and authorship.
A Childhood Full of Classics
Abiel Holmes possessed an impressive library that included some British classics among its mostly religious texts. He did not encourage an interest in fiction, however; for novels Holmes had to turn to his brother, who borrowed them from the library at Harvard. Holmes began his formal education with Dame Prentiss at her Dame School, continued it at William Biglow’s school, and then entered the private Port School, which his father had helped found. Here, Holmes first met Richard Henry Dana Jr. and Margaret Fuller. To prepare him for college, Abiel then sent his son to the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. A year later, in 1825, Holmes entered Harvard, and after his 1829 graduation, he began to study law, eventually abandoning it in favor of medicine.
Possibly Holmes published some of his work prior to his 1829 graduation, but his earliest known pieces appeared in The Collegian, a monthly magazine begun by his college friends. The first copy was published in February 1830 and featured three of Holmes’s poems. He contributed to every issue until the periodical ceased production later that year. Occasionally, the newspapers picked up his poems and gave them a wider circulation. Before the end of 1830 Holmes had already produced fifty poems, and in 1831 he wrote one of his most popular ones, ”The Last Leaf.” The poem depicts Major Thomas Melvill—Herman Melville’s grandfather—as the last of his generation, an anachronism in contemporary Boston. The poem was one of his finest achievements and eventually gained the approval of both Edgar Allan Poe and Abraham Lincoln.
None of Holmes’s early poems, however, produced the sensation that ”Old Ironsides” did in late 1830. On September 14, 1830, the Boston Daily Advertiser printed a brief notice stating that the warship USS Constitution was to be dismantled and used as scrap. Outraged that the United States would allow one of the most prized and famous vessels in the short history of the country to meet with such an end, Holmes wrote his poetic response and submitted it to the Advertiser, which printed it on September 16. Soon, the poem appeared across the country in newspapers and on broadsides, stirring up enough public outcry to ensure the preservation of the ship for future generations. While Holmes had not used his full name (he was in the habit of publishing anonymously or with his initials), ”Old Ironsides” significantly shaped his career. For the next sixty-four years Holmes continued to produce occasional poems, many of them linked to specific gatherings, such as college commencements and professional meetings.
Shortly, an essay by Holmes appeared in the November 1831 issue of the New England Magazine, and a second appeared in February 1832. Both featured a small group of characters gathered around a boardinghouse table (Holmes was living in a boardinghouse at the time), talking among themselves. Though he wrote no more than two of these essays in the 1830s, twenty-five years later they evolved into his popular series, The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table (1858).
Back to Medicine
By 1833 Holmes had advanced his medical education as far as he could in the United States. Many American doctors of the period spent at least some time training in Europe, so on March 10, 1833, he sailed for England. Stopping there long enough to visit Stonehenge, Salisbury Cathedral, and the estate of the Earl of Pembroke, he then traveled on to Paris on May 4. There, he studied under the pathologist Charles Pierre Alexandre Louis. Medical studies in the French capital were highly respected in the 1830s, and Holmes learned the scientific method, worked with the microscope, and gained an appreciation for the value of observation and experience. He stayed on in Europe for two years, studying and traveling, and in December 1835 he returned to New York City.
Holmes largely ignored writing and focused on medicine for several years. In 1847 he accepted the position of Dean of the Medical School at Harvard, a position he held for six years, and delivered the opening address of the year for the Medical School. Though Holmes dedicated much of his time to producing literary pieces in The Atlantic Monthly, he did not abandon medicine. He published Currents and Counter-Currents in Medical Science (1861), a collection of his best medical essays. In this volume appeared his now classic essay on puerperal fever and his attacks on the use of ”cures” and ”remedies” to treat illness. Holmes was disgusted by quacks peddling cures that really only treated the symptoms of illness or had no beneficial effect at all. He believed that such drugs were merely a placebo to relieve the pain and suffering of patients, and he severely criticized those who claimed otherwise.
The Last Leaf
The 1870s were a sad time for Holmes personally, because he suffered the loss of his sister and his son-in-law as well as several close friends and colleagues. Despite his personal difficulties and his hiatus from writing literature, major literary figures of both the pre- and post-war generations turned out on December 3, 1879, to celebrate his seventieth birthday. William Dean Howells organized the breakfast, and many of the guests delivered presentations. John Greenleaf Whittier, Annie Fields, Julia Ward Howe, and Julia Dorr all contributed poems. Mark Twain found a receptive audience for his speech as well.
In November 1893 Holmes made his last public appearance. His literary career had slowed considerably; he produced only a few poems and introductions in the 1890s. A long illness plagued him in the spring of 1894. On October 10, 1894, he was sitting with his son when he simply stopped breathing. He was, like the old man in his famous poem ”The Last Leaf,” the last of his literary generation to die, ”the last leaf” to fall.
Works in Literary Context
Holmes was a student, a researcher, a lecturer, a physician, a teacher, and a poet. He was acknowledged as a wit and a brilliant conversationalist in a circle that included James Russell Lowell, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wads-worth Longfellow. While literary history is replete with examples of writers who were physicians—including Francois Rabelais, W. Somerset Maugham, and William Carlos Williams—few expended as much energy in the practice and profession of medicine as Holmes did. Indeed, it has often been argued that medicine was Holmes’s vocation and literature his avocation. His commemorative tablet at King’s Chapel, Boston, reads ”Teacher of Anatomy, Essayist, and Poet”—in that order.
During the 1870s Holmes produced two essays that summarized his positions on determinism, freedom, and responsibility. ”Mechanism in Thought and Morals” was delivered as a lecture in June 1870 before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard University. Holmes began with a description of thought as a mechanical function of the brain. According to Holmes, people control their thinking no more than they control their breathing. Additionally, one’s thoughts are activated or propelled by one’s unconscious—an idea that was current in Holmes’s time and that he used to underpin his argument that people’s thinking is mechanical and automatic. Yet, the condition of the moral world according to Holmes is that every act depends upon choice, upon a personal and individual act of the will. How does one reconcile the mechanistic nature of one’s being with the freedom of the will that is a prerequisite for a moral order? Holmes turned to this issue in ”Crime and Automatism,” a review of a study by a French criminologist that he wrote for the Atlantic Monthly in April 1875. He believed that human will was not free. In the case of criminals it was frequently governed by organic conditions, such as insanity, and environmental conditions, such as child abuse. Individuals who suffered these conditions could not be held legally or morally accountable for their behavior. Holmes asserted that criminals were damaged physically and emotionally. His position augmented a general shift in society’s attitude toward criminals and the insane from a moral model (that they were evil) to a medical model (that they were diseased and needed treatment).
Holmes’s poem ”Old Ironsides” is a good example of how the author infused much of his work with patriotic themes. In the poem, Holmes offers emotional reminiscence of the ship’s past glory, of her deck ”red with heroes’ blood.” Although the poem’s patriotic tone might seem a bit maudlin, it still provides a good example of poetry’s ability to sway public sentiment: the Constitution was saved in 1830 and is today docked just north of Boston, making it the U.S. Navy’s oldest commissioned vessel.
Works in Critical Context
By the early part of the twentieth century, literary criticism of Holmes had established common themes. If he no longer enjoyed the popular audience that his works had commanded during his lifetime, he nevertheless appeared regularly in literary histories. He was admired for his liberal spirit, for his common sense and practical philosophy, for his rationalism, and, above all, for his impeccable style in the breakfast-table books. But, a number of negative evaluations of Holmes’s work were published in the 1920s. He was seen as social conservative who failed to appreciate the economic and social changes of his own time. One critic chided him for his reticence about sex, and he was dismissed as a minor figure in New England’s literary history.
Holmes’s most famous poem was first published in book form in his collection Poems (1836). ”He knows how to be sentimental without silliness, and vigorous without violence,” an anonymous reviewer commented in The Yale Literary Magazine in 1837. The reviewer noted that Holmes avoids the ”sin” of clever writers: ”a disposition to run as near to mawkishness as possible without falling into it.” On the contrary, the reviewer gently accused Holmes of failing to exploit the more serious side of his vision. If anything, the reviewer suggested, ”there is too little sentimentality; and we could wish he had allowed himself more latitude where he shows himself most capable.” Another anonymous critic, writing in an 1837 volume of The North American Review, remarked upon the ”easy and natural flow” of Holmes’s lyrics.
Elsie Venner: A Romance of Destiny
Holmes’s first novel, Elsie Venner: A Romance of Destiny, includes a mysterious heroine, a marriage plot, and a touch of darkness. Still, Holmes showed great creativity in developing his story by writing what he knew—medicine and issues of religion in science. Although twentieth-century readers would later criticize Holmes for being too politely Victorian about matters of sex, the content shocked and outraged some of his conservative contemporaries. Religious conservatives in particular singled out Elsie Venner, and the Northwest Christian Advocate of Chicago chose to run an attack on the novel each time a new installment appeared in The Atlantic Monthly. The story apparently placed too much emphasis on Elsie’s physicality for some people, while Holmes’s remarks on religion infuriated others. Nevertheless, the work was popular with many readers, and in 1861 Ticknor and Fields brought out Elsie Venner in book form. Several subsequent editions have appeared, including a centennial edition, and it has become the best known of Holmes’s novels.
- Brown, E. E. Life of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Akron, Ohio: Saalfield, 1903.
- Currier, Thomas Franklin and Eleanor M. Tilton. A References: of Oliver Wendell Holmes. New York: New York University Press, 1953.
- Howe, M. A. DeWolfe. Holmes of the Breakfast-Table. New York: Oxford University Press, 1939.
- Hoyt, Edwin P. The Improper Bostonian: Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. New York: William Morrow, 1979.
- Kennedy, William Sloane. Oliver Wendell Holmes: Poet, Litterateur, Scientist. Boston: S. E. Cassino, 1883.
- Menikoff, Barry. ”Oliver Wendell Holmes,” in Fifteen American Authors Before 1900, edited by Robert A. Rees and Earl N. Harbert. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1971; revised edition, 1984.
- Morse, John T., Jr. Life and Letters of Oliver Wendell Holmes, 2 volumes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1896.
- Oberndorf, Clarence P. The Psychiatric Novels of Oliver Wendell Holmes. New York: Columbia University Press, 1943.
- Small, Miriam Rossiter. Oliver Wendell Holmes. New York: Twayne, 1962.
- Tilton, Eleanor M. Amiable Autocrat: A Biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes. New York: Shuman, 1947.
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