In a note about her methods, Bowen calls her book “a picture and a translation, an attempt to bring Justice Holmes out of legal terms into human terms.” In other words, while it is clearly impossible to separate the man from the legal aspects of his career, Bowen was not interested in merely examining Holmes’s life as a background to understanding his decisions and writings. Instead, she has written a complete biography of Holmes, with attention focused on his life outside the legal profession as well as within it. This makes the book of general interest to readers, including young adults, who do not need a specialized legal background in order to understand the author’s discussions of Holmes’s writings, the development of his thought, and his judicial opinions. This is very much a book for nonspecialists.
Another method used by Bowen, in addition to her emphasis on Holmes’s humanity, is her use of invented conversations and physical settings. There are numerous places throughout the book where individuals are quoted in private conversations, such as those between Holmes and his father or between one of the Holmeses and a personage outside the family. Such a technique appeals to the reader by conveying an intimacy with the book’s subjects through seeming to overhear their private discussions. The author also indicates at various points in the narrative what specific people were thinking as well as saying, thus moving from the realm of private conversations to private thoughts. Occasionally individuals are portrayed as leaning against trees or sitting in certain chairs looking out windows when events occur, thus creating a concrete mental picture of physical...
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Bowen began researching Yankee from Olympus a few years after Justice Holmes’s death in 1935. This allowed her to interview many people who knew Holmes personally, mainly during his years in Washington while he served on the Supreme Court. The result is a close-up view of Holmes’s personality and a deeper understanding of the subject than the author of a biography usually attains. On the other hand, when Bowen researched the life of Holmes, she did not have access to his private papers, which were not available to scholars until the 1980’s. Thus, some details of his private life and his own writing about some aspects of his career were not available to Bowen when she prepared her book.
Interest in Holmes’s career remains more than half a century after his death. Part of the judge’s fascination was his lifelong interest in learning. Asked at the age of ninety-two why he read Plato’s works, he responded that he was interested in improving his mind. Beyond that, as Bowen stated, “He had a genius for living, a genius for finding himself wholly, using himself wholly. He loved life and believed in it.” This quality of Holmes’s life makes Yankee from Olympus valuable not only for history students but also for all young readers.