Oliver Wendell Holmes 1809–1894
American essayist, poet, novelist, and biographer.
For additional information on Holmes's life and works, see NCLC, Volume 14.
Oliver Wendell Holmes is considered one of the most versatile American authors of the nineteenth-century. Although he wrote in a wide variety of genres, he is best known for his popular collection of essays, The Breakfast-Table Series. Critics believe that these fictional conversations provided Holmes with the ideal medium for expressing his views on humankind and its institutions and for acting, as he put it, as "his own Boswell." Holmes's novels, too, have attracted the interest of scholars. In these, most notably in Elsie Venner, Holmes incorporated his pioneering theories of psychology and clarified his arguments against Calvinism and the concept of original sin. In addition to his literary works, Holmes was respected for his controversial scientific essays and for his brilliant skill as a conversationalist. Holmes's reputation has diminished considerably in recent years. Perhaps the most famous and important figure in Boston intellectual circles during the second half of the nineteenth-century, he is remembered now chiefly for the sparkling wit of The Autocrat and for the spirit of free inquiry demonstrated by the wide range of his interests.
Holmes was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1809 to Sarah Wendell Holmes and the Reverend Abiel Holmes. A Calvinist minister, the Reverend Holmes was forced out of his parish in 1829 as a result of a conflict between the conservative and liberal factions within his congregation. For the young Oliver Holmes, this event, as well as his early religious training, engendered a lifelong antagonism toward the Puritan strictures of Calvinism—an antagonism that critics trace throughout his literary and scientific writings. Holmes attended Phillips Academy at Andover from 1824 to 1825 and then entered Harvard University. Losing interest in his law studies, he transferred to medicine. After taking advanced courses in Paris in 1833, he returned to Harvard and completed the requirements for his medical degree in 1836. Holmes practiced as a personal physician until 1839 when he was appointed to a professorship at
Dartmouth College. The following year, he married Amelia Lee Jackson with whom he had three children. Holmes achieved distinction during the 1840s and 1850s as a teacher and scientific writer, and he later won great respect as Dean of the Harvard Medical School. He was also active on the lecture circuit, speaking on a wide variety of medical topics. In his 1842 essay, Homeopathy and Its Kindred Delusions, Holmes demonstrated the futility and danger of some existing medical treatments. For example, in The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever (1843), he suggested that physicians themselves could be the carriers of disease. Despite the uproar of criticism that his essays elicited, he held his ground. Holmes retired from Harvard in 1882 and remained active as a writer and public speaker. Having outlived most of his family and friends, he died at the age of eighty-five.
While his medical career was flourishing, Holmes was also gaining respect as a poet. He first caught the attention of the public in 1830 with the publication in a Boston newspaper of "Old Ironsides," a poem protesting the government's plans to dismantle the frigate U.S.S. Constitution. The poem touched a patriotic nerve, and the ensuing public outcry saved the ship from destruction. Buoyed by his early popular success, Holmes published Poems in 1836; expanded and revised editions of the collection followed in 1846, 1848, and 1849. Holmes wrote much serious poetry but his output also included a large number of occasional verses composed in either heroic and octosyllabic couplets or in the meter of the folk ballad. Most of Holmes's poems express his views about the human condition and his hopes for its improvement. In "The Chambered Nautilus," for example, Holmes speculated on the growth of the soul and in "The Last Leaf," he depicted the problems of old age. Holmes is generally considered neither an innovator nor an influence on the development of American poetry, and many commentators point out that his style derives from the neo-classicism of the Augustan age of eighteenth-century England. Nevertheless, critics consistently note that he successfully used poetry as a forum for expressing his philosophy, particularly in such pieces as "The Deacon's Masterpiece; or The Wonderful 'One-Hoss Shay,'" his strongest poetic statement against Calvinism. Holmes's approach to writing also demonstrates his scientific bent: he claimed that his meter was modeled on the pulse and respiration rate of a speaker reading poetry aloud. Scholars affirm that his many later collections, including Songs in Many Keys, Soundings from the Atlantic, Songs of Many Seasons, and The Last Leaf, attest to the endurance of Holmes's poetic gift.
Already an established poet, Holmes began writing prose pieces in 1858 for the Atlantic Monthly at the invitation of its editor, James Russell Lowell. Holmes's first contributions, which were later collected as The Autocrat, present the breakfast-table conversations of a fictional group of boarding house residents, narrated by a member nicknamed "the autocrat." Complete with well-developed characters and plot this work is difficult to place within a genre but is most often classified as a collection of essays. The Autocrat achieved enormous popular and critical success and helped to establish the Atlantic Monthly's reputation. While some pieces were humorous, others contained Holmes's ideas for changing society and still others satirized various aspects of Calvinism. Holmes especially delighted in debunking "any logical system … supposed by its authors to be perfect, uncorrectable, and therefore, everlasting." The Autocrat was followed by The Professor at the Breakfast-Table (1860), the Poet at the Breakfast-Table (1872), and Over the Teacups (1891). These four collections comprise what is usually referred to as the Breakfast-Table series.
Just as he had used the Breakfast-Table books to present his views on society, Holmes utilized his socalled "medicated novels" to explore the causes and treatment of aberrant behavior. Elsie Venner, The Guardian Angel, and A Mortal Antipathy strongly attest to Holmes's scientific interest. Critics are divided on how to categorize these works: some consider them novels concerned with psychology, some regard them as scientific treatises presented in a fictional framework, and others claim that Holmes's novels are not about science, but about morality. In the first, Elsie Venner, which originally appeared serially in the Atlantic Monthly as The Professor's Story, Holmes created a protagonist who is believed to be part human and part serpent as a result of a prenatal snakebite. In this novel, Holmes presents discourses on topics such as prejudice, the Calvinist concept of original sin, and human psychology and sexuality. Most critics contend that Elsie Venner lacks artistic merit although the same critics argue that Holmes's perceptive character studies anticipate the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. In The Guardian Angel, Holmes discussed the influences of heredity and environment on mental and physical health. The novel also warns against a Puritan upbringing for children. A Moral Antipathy, which ran serially in the Atlantic Monthly as The New Portfolio, deals with the causes and cures of childhood trauma. Commentators stress that the issues in these "medicated novels" derive from their author's background as a scientist. Indeed, in each, the characters seek out doctors and professors for help—suggesting that Holmes looked to science, not theology, to provide the answers for humanity's complex problems.
Criticism of Holmes's literary efforts is as varied as his fields of expertise, and a consensus of opinion is difficult to find. Scholars have debated whether he is predominantly a literary figure or predominantly a scientist, focusing on the frequent incorporation of medical themes and terminology into his works. Critics S. I. Hayakawa and Howard Mumford Jones argued that those who view Holmes primarily as an artist overlook his most important quality: his scientific interest. They also point out that his essays on medical topics exhibit his best prose, free of Victorian constraints. Other commentators, both in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, have chosen not to acknowledge Holmes's scientific career as a primary element of his work, having emphasized, instead, his role as an author.
In assessments of Holmes as a writer, emphasis has shifted over time from his poetry to his fictional essays and then to his novels. While early critics of his poetry stressed his humor, wit, and patriotism, some stated that his poetry was shallow and dilettantish, and Holmes himself noted in a preface to an 1862 collection that his poetic promise remained unfulfilled. After he published The Autocrat, critics transferred their attention to his prose. Some reviewers praised his versatility and wit, while others denounced the provincialism, elitism, and political conservatism of his sketches. In addition, Holmes's privileged financial and social position led to charges of insularity: many critics faulted his failure to support the abolitionist and women's rights movements. Conversely, his sympathizers point out that despite his limited contact with persons and ideas outside of New England, Holmes was expansive in his interests and expertise, and the didactic tone of much of his writing can be read as his concern for the welfare of others. However, it is Holmes's novels that have proven most interesting to twentieth-century critics. Controversial when published because of their intimate look at human physiology and psychology, they remain so today. While The Autocrat is still considered his best work, all of Holmes's novels have attracted attention from modern critics who praise them as important early psychological studies.
Although still valued for his contributions to literature, science, theology, and psychology, Holmes is no longer as popular with readers as he once was. Despite this diminution of his reputation, which many critics attribute to the decline of New England's influence on American culture, Holmes and his writings still attract considerable commentary. Today, The Autocrat, likened by Virginia Woolf to the taste of "champagne after breakfast cups of weak tea," continues to occupy an important place in American literature.