Oliver Wendell Holmes: Contribution as American Writer

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      The year 1809 was prolific in the birth of great men, producing Holmes, Poe, Lincoln, Tennyson, and Darwin. Holmes was descended from Anne Bradstreet, New England's "Tenth Muse" His father was a Congregational clergyman, preaching at Cambridge when Oliver was born. The family was in comfortable circumstances, and the boy was reared in a cultured atmosphere. In middle age Holmes wrote, "I like books,—I was born and bred among them, and have the easy feeling, when I get into their presence, that a stable boy has among horses."

Oliver Wendell Holmes as American Writer
Oliver Wendell Holmes

      Oliver Wendell Holmes graduated from Harvard in the famous class of 1829, for which he afterward wrote many anniversary poems. He went to Paris to study medicine, a science that held his interest through life. For thirty-five years he was professor of anatomy in the Harvard Medical School, where he was the only member of the faculty who could at the end of the day take the class, fagged and wearied, and by his wit, stories, and lively illustrations both instruct and interest the students.

      His announcement, "small fevers gratefully received," his humor in general, and his poetry especially, did not aid him in securing patients. His biographer says that Holmes learned at his cost as a doctor that the world had made up its mind "that he who writes rhymes must not write prescriptions, and he who makes jests should not escort people to their graves." He later warned his students that if they would succeed in any one calling they must not let the world find out that they were interested in anything else. From his own point of view, he wrote:—

"It's a vastly pleasing prospect, when you're screwing out a laugh, That your very next year's income is diminished by a half, And a little boy trips barefoot that your Pegasus may go, And the baby's milk is watered that your Helicon may flow."

      He was driven, like Emerson and Lowell, to supplement his modest income by what he called "lecture peddling." Although Holmes did not have the platform presence of these two contemporaries, he had the power of reaching his audiences and of quickly gaining their sympathy, so that he was very popular and could always get engagements.

      His scientific training made him intolerant of any philosophical or religious creed which seemed to him to be based merely upon superstition or tradition. He was thoroughly alert, open-minded, and liberal upon all such questions. On subjects of politics, war, or the abolition of slavery, he was, on the other hand, strongly conservative. He had the aristocratic dread of change. He was distinctly the courtly gentleman, the gifted talker, and the social, genial, refined companion.

      Oliver Wendell Holmes was the son of a rich and prominent local minister. His mother was a descendant of the poet, Anne Bradstreet. In his time and more so thereafter, he symbolized wit, intelligence, and chann not as a discovered or a trailblazer but rather as an exemplary interpreter of everything nom society and language to medicine and human nature. Many do not know that he is a celebrated physician and professor of Anatomy and Physiology at Harvard. He is also the harder of the three well-known Brahmins to categorize because his work is marked by a refreshing versatility of artistic expression. In 1836 he published his first Poems - a collection of occasional and witty verses. He published two important medical books also. In 1847 he became the Parkman Professor of Anatomy and Physiology at Harvard - chair he held till his retirement in 1882.

      Being a very popular teacher and an after-dinner speaker, Holmes achieved considerable success with his prose works. It encompasses collections of humorous essays (for example, The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (1858), novels Elsie Venner, (1861), biographies (Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1885), and verse that could be sprightly (“The Deacon’s Masterpiece, or, The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay”), philosophical (“The Chambered Nautilus”), or fervently patriotic (“Old Ironsides”). Ramu Autocrat at the Breakfast Table is a collection of humorous essays originally published in The Atlantic Monthly which he had co-founded with James Russell Lowell in 1857. His other collections are The Professor at the Breakfast Table (1860) The Poet at the Breakfast Table (1872) and Over the Teacups (1891). Holmes also wrote light verses such as ‘The Chambered Nautilus’ and ‘The Deacon’s Masterpiece’ and three novels exploring the biological and psychological factors determining human behavior. Elsie Vernier (1861), The Guardian Angel (1867) and Moral Antipathy (1885).

      Holmes was a conscientious worker, but he characteristically treated his mental processes in a joking way, and wrote to a friend: "I like nine tenths of any matter I study, but I do not like to lick the plate. If I did, I suppose I should be more of a man of science and find my brain tired oftener than I do." Again he wrote, "my nature is to snatch at all the fruits of knowledge and take a good bite out of the sunny side—after that let in the pigs." Despite these statements, Holmes worked steadily every year at his medical lectures. He was very particular about the exactness and finish of all that he wrote, and he was neither careless nor slipshod in anything. His life, while filled with steady, hard work, was a placid one, full of love and friendships, and he passed into his eightieth year with a young heart. He died in 1894, at the age of eighty-five, and was buried in Mt. Auburn cemetery not far from Longfellow and Lowell.

      POETRY.—In 1836 he published his first volume of verse. This contained his first widely known poem, Old Ironsides, a successful plea for saving the old battleship, Constitution, which had been ordered destroyed. With the exception of this poem and The Last Leaf, the volume is remarkable for little except the rollicking fun which we find in such favorites as The Ballad of the Oysterman and My Aunt. This type of humor is shown in this simile from The Ballad:—

"Her hair drooped round her pallid cheeks, like seaweed on a clam," and in his description of his aunt:— "Her waist is ampler than her life,  For life is but a span."

      He continued to write verses until his death. Among the last poems which he wrote were memorials on the death of Lowell (1891) and Whittier (1892). As we search the three volumes of his verse, we find few serious poems of a high order. The best, and the one by which he himself wished to be remembered, is The Chambered Nautilus. No member of the New England group voiced higher ideals than we find in the noble closing stanza of this poem:—

"Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,  As the swift seasons roll!  Leave thy low-vaulted past!  Let each new temple, nobler than the last,  Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,  Till thou at length art free,  Leaving thine outgrown shell by life's unresting sea!"

      Probably The Last Leaf, which was such a favorite with Lincoln, would rank second. This poem is remarkable for preserving the reader's equilibrium between laughter and tears. Some lines from The Voiceless are not likely to be soon forgotten:—

"A few can touch the magic string,  And noisy Fame is proud to win them:—  Alas for those that never sing,  But die with all their music in them!"

      He wrote no more serious poem than Homesick in Heaven, certain stanzas of which appeal strongly to bereaved hearts. It is not easy to forget the song of the spirits who have recently come from earth, of the mother who was torn from her clinging babe, of the bride called away with the kiss of love still burning on her cheek, of the daughter taken from her blind and helpless father:—

"Children of earth, our half-weaned nature clings To earth's fond memories, and her whispered name Untunes our quivering lips, our saddened strings; For there we loved, and where we love is home."

      When Holmes went to Oxford in 1886, to receive an honorary degree, it is probable that, as in the case of Irving, the Oxford boys in the gallery voiced the popular verdict. As Holmes stepped on the platform, they called, "Did he come in the One-Hoss Shay?" This humorous poem, first known as The Deacon's Masterpiece, has been a universal favorite. How the Old Hoss Won the Bet tells with rollicking humor what the parson's nag did at a race. The Boys, with its mingled humor and pathos, written for the thirtieth reunion of his class, is one of the best of the many poems which he was so frequently asked to compose for special celebrations. No other poet of his time could equal him in furnishing to order clever, apt, humorous verses for ever recurring occasions.

      PROSE.—He was nearly fifty when he published his first famous prose work. He had named the Atlantic Monthly, and Lowell had agreed to edit it only on condition that Holmes would promise to be a contributor. In the first number appeared The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table. Holmes had hit upon a style that exactly suited his temperament, and had invented a new prose form. His great conversational gift was now crystallized in these breakfast table talks, which the Autocrat all but monopolizes. However, the other characters at the table of this remarkable boarding house in Boston join in often enough to keep up the interest in their opinions, feelings, and relations to each other. The reader always wants to know the impression that the Autocrat's fine talk makes upon "the young man whom they call 'John.'" John sometimes puts his feelings into action, as when the Autocrat gives a typical illustration of his mixture of reasoning and humor, in explaining that there are always six persons present when two people are talking:—

      "Three Johns. 1. The real John; known only to his Maker. 2. John's ideal John; never the real one, and often very unlike him. 3. Thomas's ideal John; never the real John, nor John's John, but often very unlike either. "Three Thomases. 1. The real Thomas. 2. Thomas's ideal Thomas. 3. John's ideal Thomas."

 "A certain basket of peaches, a rare vegetable, little known to boarding-houses, was on its way to me," says the Autocrat, "via this unlettered Johannes. He appropriated the three that remained in the basket, remarking that there was just one apiece for him. I convinced him that his practical inference was hasty and illogical, but in the meantime he had eaten the peaches." When John enters the debates with his crushing logic of facts, he never fails to make a ten strike.

      A few years after the Autocrat series had been closed, Holmes wrote The Professor at the Breakfast Table; many years later The Poet at the Breakfast Table appeared; and in the evening of life, he brought out Over the Teacups, in which he discoursed at the tea table in a similar vein, but not in quite the same fresh, buoyant, humorous way in which the Autocrat talked over his morning coffee. The decline in these books is gradual, although it is barely perceptible in the Professor. The Autocrat is, however, the brightest, crispest, and most vigorous of the series, while Over the Teacups is the calmest, as well as the soberest and most leisurely. Holmes wrote three novels, Elsie Venner, The Guardian Angel, and The Mortal Antipathy, which have been called "medicated novels" because his medical knowledge is so apparent in them. These books also have a moral purpose, each in turn considering the question whether an individual is responsible for his acts. The first two of these novels are the strongest, and hold the attention to the end because of the interest aroused by the characters and by the descriptive scenes.

      GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS.—Humor is the most characteristic quality of Holmes's writings. He indeed is the only member of the New England group who often wrote with the sole object of entertaining readers. Lowell also was a humorist, but he employed humor either in the cause of reform, as in The Biglow Papers, or in the field of knowledge, in endeavoring to make his literary criticisms more expressive and more certain to impress the mind of his readers.

      Whenever Holmes wrote to entertain, he did not aim to be deep or to exercise the thinking powers of his readers. Much of his work skims the surface of things in an amusing and delightful way. Yet he was too much of a New Englander not to write some things in both poetry and prose with a deeper purpose than mere entertainment. The Chambered Nautilus, for instance, was so written, as were all of his novels. His genial humor is thus frequently blended with unlooked-for wisdom or pathos.

      Whittier has been called provincial because he takes only the point of view of New England. The province of Holmes is still narrower, being mainly confined to Boston. He expresses in a humorous way his own feelings, as well as those of his fellow townsmen, when he says in The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table:—

"Boston State House is the hub of the solar system. You couldn't pry that out of a Boston man if you had the tire of all creation straightened out for a crowbar."

      Like Irving, Holmes was fond of eighteenth-century English writers, and much of his verse is modeled after the couplets of Pope. Holmes writes fluid and rippling prose, without a trace of effort. His meaning is never left to conjecture, but is stated in pure, exact English. He not only expresses his ideas perfectly, but he seems to achieve this result without premeditation. This apparent artlessness is a great charm. He has left America a new form of prose, which bears the stamp of pure literature, and which is distinguished not so much for philosophy and depth as for grace, versatility, refined humor, bright intellectual flashes, and artistic finish.

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