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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Annie Adams Fields (1834–1915)

By Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809–1894)

OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the year 1809, under the shadow—or the sunshine, shall we say?—of Harvard University. “I remember that week well,” the doctor wrote in after years: “for something happened to me once at that time; namely, I was born.” “Nature was active that year,” says his biographer, “like a stirred volcano; casting forth also upon the world Gladstone, Tennyson, Darwin, and Abraham Lincoln.” The discovery of a pile of old almanacs belonging to his father gave Dr. Holmes, late in life, a whimsical view of his own birthday, “I took up that for the year 1809: opposite a certain date was an asterisk, and a note below consisting of four letters, thus:—

  • August27
  • “28
  • “29*
  • “30
  • *Son b.
  • My father thus recorded my advent; and after he wrote the four letters, according to his wont, he threw black sand upon them to keep them from blotting. I am looking at it now, and there the black sand glistens still.”

    Dr. Holmes even went so far as to have the page photographed, and never failed to regard the brief memorandum with a kind of odd pathos.

    He came of the Brahmin caste of New England, to quote a phrase of his own invention: his father being a minister of the old-fashioned severe type of that period; while his mother was a lady, he once wrote, bred in quite a different atmosphere from that of the strait-laced Puritanism. She was a bright, vivacious woman, of small size, sprightly manners, and good education. She lived to a great age, a quaint figure, youthful and sympathetic to the end. “Like a faithful wife as she was,” her son says, “she sobered her pleasant countenance and sat down to hear us recite of ‘justification,’ ‘adoption,’ and ‘sanctification,’ and the rest of the programme…. I was given to questionings, and my mind early revolted.” Those who knew Dr. Holmes’s father and mother well, say there was more of the intellectual character of the mother than of the father in him. There was a human and humane side to his mother, something akin to her neighbors because of their common humanity; a simple trait of kindly interest in all who drew within the scope of their acquaintance, which also belonged to her son and made him what he became. The simplicity of the life of a minister’s family in the Cambridge of that period was very unlike anything we know to-day, when Cambridge has become a large city; and it is difficult to believe so few years have passed since boyish rambles were carried on in the very heart of what is now a town.

    Dr. Holmes’s writings, of course, give something more than a hint of these conditions: we are made to see them pretty clearly; but there is nothing in the life of old England which is a match for them,—nothing by which men nurtured under different conditions can estimate the advantages and drawbacks of the New England of that time. The men of his day were not nursed in letters; there was no Eton, and no Bluecoat School to which the younger boys were sent. They stayed at home and learned their first lessons, but they frequently studied on the principle of some church-goers who trust that an hour on Sunday will give them absolution for a week of indulgence: studying served by the way, as it were; a kind of tollgate to be passed before the good things of life set in. The boys of those days chopped wood, made fires, ran errands, skated, birds’-nested, or went nutting, according to the seasons. Their heads were not burthened by breathing a scholastic atmosphere. But if the education to a life of literature was wanting, the finer inciters to true thought and life were not wanting. “My birth chamber,” writes Dr. Holmes, “and the places most familiar to my early years, looked out to the west. My sunsets were as beautiful as any poet could ask for. Between my chamber and the sunset were hills covered with trees, from amid which peeped out here and there the walls of a summer mansion, which my imagination turned into a palace.”

    His scheme of life did not readily mature. At school in Andover, and while in Harvard College, he was “totally undecided what to study.” “It will be law or physick,” he wrote, “for I cannot say that I think the trade of authorship quite adapted to this meridian.”

    It is very curious to see how his mind wavered between these three careers. Neither Lowell nor Longfellow appears to have been detained for an instant from the pursuit of literature by “the meridian”! But Dr. Holmes was not a great reader; he was not trained, as we have said, in a home atmosphere of letters, and it was like putting to sea in an untrimmed boat. On the whole, the law presented itself to his mind as possessing the largest advantages to a man of gifts; and after leaving college in 1829 he decided to devote a year to that study. He says of himself, in reverting to this period: “I had been busy, more or less, with the pages of Blackstone and Chitty and other text-books of legal study. More or less, I say, but I am afraid it was less rather than more. For during that year I first tasted the intoxicating pleasure of authorship. A college periodical conducted by friends of mine, still undergraduates, tempted me into print; and there is no form of lead textbook which more rapidly and thoroughly pervades the blood and bones and marrow than that which reaches the young author through mental contact with type-metal…. What determined me to give up law and apply myself to medicine I can hardly say; but I had from the first looked upon that year’s study as an experiment.”

    It appears that his second choice of profession, although most conscientiously followed and always considered by him as final, was not the career which was to make his name and fame nor his modest fortune. One might say even more: a certain turn for or faith in science was a substratum of his mind. He loved to see the proof of what his imagination or that of other men had suggested. In this we are reminded of Shelley, who said once that whatever the imagination of a man can see clearly, the man can reproduce in words. Dr. Holmes looked askance at what could not be proved; and his study of medicine enlarged his intellectual sphere. He was immediately associated in Paris with the most distinguished scientists of his day, who doubtless found their eager pupil very engaging. He had an overwhelming distaste for many details of his profession; but as the years went on, he found his place on the scientific rather than the more immediately practical side of his profession. He was chosen professor and lecturer to the Harvard Medical School, a position which he filled for thirty-five years, only relinquishing it when age gave him warning against over-fatigue.

    Dr. Holmes did not wish in after years to recognize his first literary ventures, which were even earlier than the year of his law studies. ‘The Spectre Pig’ and a few other juvenile verses had actually found their way into print, but he never looked upon them with favor. He understood himself well enough to recognize that year in the law school as the moment of his first poetic inspiration. The frigate Constitution was at that time lying in the Navy Yard at Charlestown. Dr. Holmes saw a paragraph in a newspaper saying that the ship was condemned by the Navy Department to be destroyed. He was on fire at the idea; with a pencil hurriedly writing down his verses ‘Old Ironsides’ on a scrap of paper, he soon wrought them into shape and sent them to a Boston newspaper. They flew from end to end of the country; were reprinted on slips and distributed in the streets of Washington. The old man-of-war was saved, and the country learned the name of Oliver Wendell Holmes, a young law student in Cambridge, for the first time.

    Edward Everett Hale, a man who is an electric storage-battery of thought to the men of his time, long ago said that “every man should have his vocation and his avocation.” For many years Dr. Holmes looked upon his profession as the vocation of his life and literature as his avocation; but by degrees, and perhaps without acknowledgment to himself, the tables were gradually turned, and the pen-point became his weapon with which to front the world.

    After returning from his studies in Paris and putting up his sign as a physician in Boston, he found himself, while waiting “for the smallest favors or fevers,” again writing verses. There was something about his self-occupied yet gay boyishness which did not incline the hypochondriac to face such strong sunshine. Whatever the reasons may have been, his calls as a physician were few and his verses were many. ‘The Last Leaf’ among others was written in this pause; and at the end of a twelvemonth he was so unwise, from a professional point of view, as to publish a volume. In brief, his light was one not to be concealed. His quickness of sympathy and readiness of expression marked him immediately as the spokesman of great occasions. He was invited to deliver the Phi Beta Kappa poem of 1836, and from this date there was probably never a year of his life without invitations to perform some such service, public or private. What is still more important to record as a part of literary history, his prose style was beginning to take form. He took prizes for medical essays and dissertations. “It is somewhat pleasant,” he wrote this same year of 1836, “to have cut out a fifty-dollar prize under the guns of two old blazers, who have each of them swamped their competitors in preceding trials.” In 1834 his essay on ‘The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever’ marked him to the eyes of the scientific world as a man of original thought and careful but determined expression of the truth. The qualities which distinguished him afterward in the larger world of letters were then slowly acknowledged for the first time by men of science. In after years he referred to this experience in ‘The Professor at the Breakfast-Table’:—“When, by the permission of Providence, I held up to the professional public the damnable facts connected with the conveyance of poison from one young mother’s chamber to another’s,—for doing which humble office I desire to be thankful that I have lived, though nothing else good should ever come of my life,—I had to hear the sneers of those whose position I had assailed, and as I believe, have at last demolished, so that nothing but the ghosts of dead women stir among the ruins.”

    Among Dr. Holmes’s early writings were two prose essays published in the New England Magazine, which lived briefly from 1831 to 1835. They bore the title of ‘The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table’; but they appeared afterward to the author as “early windfalls,” and he was not willing to incorporate them among his acknowledged works, except as he acknowledges and quotes from them in one of his prefaces to the ‘Autocrat’ of 1857. Whether Lowell had seen these papers, or whether he judged what Dr. Holmes could do from his scientific productions and his incomparable conversation, no one can say; but when the Atlantic Monthly was launched, and a little later Lowell was asked to become its editor, he made one condition: “that Dr. Holmes should be the first contributor to be engaged.” “I looked at the old Portfolio,” said Dr. Holmes, “and said to myself, ‘Too late! too late!’” But Lowell insisted—otherwise there would be no Atlantic; and Dr. Holmes yielded. “Lowell,” he wrote afterward, “woke me from a kind of literary lethargy in which I was half slumbering, to call me to active service.” Dr. Holmes’s genius, as seen in the ‘Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table,’ will carry his name down the tide of time. It was succeeded by nine volumes of prose, interrupted only by what now amounts to three volumes of verse, making thirteen volumes of his complete works. It is, even in quantity, no small showing, when we recall in addition his thirty-five years of medical professorship. Dr. Holmes was no idler: he loved to work and to do his work well. He scorned no expenditure of time in order to find the right word and to bring his verse into accurate form.

    In 1840 Dr. Holmes married Amelia Lee Jackson, a woman exquisitely adapted to make him happy. She was not beautiful, nor in common phrase a woman of society; but she possessed a refinement, a wit, a charm, a power of self-forgetfulness, which were all her own. She was known to a small circle only, but wherever she allowed herself the opportunity to know and be known, she was beloved.

    There were three children; only one of whom, Judge Holmes, survives his father. Dr. Holmes suffered the pain of seeing his wife and a son and daughter go before him. Nevertheless life was very sweet to him, and he bore the trials of age cheerfully, dying October 7th, 1894. He wrote once to Lowell: “Life is never monotonous, absolutely, to me. I am a series of surprises to myself in the changes that years and ripening, and it may be a still further process which I need not name, bring about. The movement onward is like changing place in a picture gallery,—the light fades from this picture and falls on that;… but what a strange thing life is, when you have waded in up to your neck and remember the shelving sands you have trodden!”

    But all the writing in the world about Dr. Holmes appears totally inefficient to represent his delightful ebullient spirit, freshening and sweetening every subject that he touched. The world soon found that a new wit was astir under the old pudding-stone, and that wit they could not do without. Every year, from 1851 until just before the end, he wrote and read a class poem; every dinner-table in Boston aspired to listen to his words; every occasion of importance called for his presence. Loving and beloved, he passed on his cheerful way. The cabman who drove him, the maid who put on his shoes, every one who performed the slightest service for him, loved him. No wonder life was not all dark to the one who shed such sunshine.