The Improper Bostonian

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Of the two Oliver Wendell Holmeses—father and son—the father seems the less important and the more interesting, while Oliver Wendell Homes, Jr., the legal thinker and Supreme Court justice, remains of stellar importance in the development of American jurisprudence. His father, the medical professor and writer, is remembered as the author of much forgotten prose and some unforgettable poems.

The useful or amusing if evanescent prose and the immortal if minor verse form the appropriate testament of a man of talent. Oliver Wendell Holmes was a man of genius saddled with the achievements of a man of talent; but Edwin Hoyt in The Improper Bostonian ignores this fascinating facet of his subject’s life. Hoyt’s journalistic survey of the elder Holmes is amusing reading that skirts the edges of, but deliberately does not penetrate the mystery of Holmes’s relative failure. Hoyt portrays an incurable, insecure egotist coping in his chosen careers of medicine and literature, but he stops short of analysis.

The son of a strict Calvinist preacher, Holmes had no use for his father’s bleak religious view, but he would not take a stand against it. He conformed; after his father’s church split away in controversy, he continued to attend that church. When studying medicine in Paris, supported by his father, he studied hard, taking care to amuse himself quietly in ways that would certainly have distressed his father had he known. Instead of being honest, Holmes wheedled money out of his father by means of the most outrageous hypocritical twaddle: “Were I a parent. . . I should consider no sacrifice too great. . . and I should hesitate long before I would say to him, pale and fatigued with study—leave Europe forever, the only one among your companions who has not been beneath the dome of St. Peter’s.”

Holmes’s inability...

(The entire section is 764 words.)