"The Brahmin Caste Of New England"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: This essay, which forms the first chapter of a novel called Elsie Venner, is a description of the intellectual aristocracy of New England. Holmes clarifies the various meanings of "aristocracy": "There is nothing in New England corresponding at all to the feudal aristocracies of the Old World. . . . What our people mean by 'aristocracy' is merely the richer part of the community. . . ." But the monetary aristocracy is not a permanent class, for money continually changes hands. "There is, however, in New England, an aristocracy . . . which has a far greater character of permanence. It has grown to be a caste . . . it has acquired a distinct organization and physiognomy. . . ." Young men in colleges are of two types: one is coarse, rough-hewn, "inelegant"; the other is delicate and refined. The latter, who comes from a refined and scholarly family, will make a good scholar. "Nature has adapted the family organization to the kind of life it has lived," and the scion of a robust and unlearned family may "become distinguished in practical life" but will rarely become a great scholar. But occasionally there arises from the "great multitude" a "large uncombed youth" who surpasses all the "Brahmins" in scholarship. "That is Nature's republicanism." Such a scholar from a robust family naturally "overmatches" pallid aristocrats. But the fact remains that "our scholars come chiefly from a privileged order." Holmes describes this "privileged order" (the Brahmins are the highest Hindu priestly caste):

A scholar is, almost always, the son of scholars or scholarly persons.
That is exactly what the young man is. He comes of the Brahmin caste of New England. This is the harmless, inoffensive, untitled aristocracy to which I have referred, and which I am sure you will at once acknowledge. There are races of scholars among us, in which aptitude for learning, and all these marks of it I have spoken of, are congenital and hereditary. Their names are always on some college catalogue or other.