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Oliver Wendell Holmes 1809–1894

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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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

*Principal Works

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Poems (poetry) 1836; also published in revised form as Poems, 1846, 1848, 1849

Homeopathy and Its Kindred Delusions (essay) 1842

The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever (essay) 1843

Urania: A Rhymed Lesson (poetry) 1846

Astraea: The Balance of Illusions (poetry) 1850

The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (essays) 1858

The Professor at the Breakfast-Table (essays) 1860

Currents and Counter-Currents in Medical Science (essays) 1861

Elsie Venner: A Romance of Destiny (novel) 1861

Songs in Many Keys (poetry) 1862

Soundings from the Atlantic (poetry) 1864

The Guardian Angel (novel) 1867

Mechanism in Thought and Morals (essay) 1871

The Poet at the Breakfast-Table (essays) 1872

"Crime and Automatism" (essay) 1875; published in periodical Atlantic Monthly

Songs of Many Seasons (poetry) 1875

John Lothrop Motley (memoir) 1879

The School-Boy (poetry) 1879

The Iron Gate, and Other Poems (poetry) 1880

Medical Essays, 1842-1882 (essays) 1883

Pages from an Old Volume of Life (essays) 1883

A Moral Antipathy: First Opening of the New Portfolio (novel) 1885

Ralph Waldo Emerson (biography) 1885

The Last Leaf (poetry) 1886

One Hundred Days in Europe (diary) 1887

Before the Curfew, and Other Poems (poetry) 1888

Memoir of Henry Jacob Bigelow (memoir) 1891

Over the Teacups (essays) 1891

The Writings of Oliver Wendell Holmes. 13 vols, (novels, essays, poetry, diary, biography, and memoir) 1891-92

The Poetical Works of Oliver Wendell Holmes (poetry) 1975

*Many of Holmes's works were first published in the Atlantic Monthly.

Miriam Rossiter Small (essay date 1962)

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SOURCE: "The Breakfast-Table Series," in Oliver Wendell Holmes, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1962, pp. 88-115.

[In the following essay, Small analyzes the various pieces that make up the Breakfast-Table series. In each, Holmes created a different main character in order to emphasize and illustrate various issues in society that concerned him.]

In December, 1884, when Holmes was opening the "New Portfolio" with his third and last novel A Mortal Antipathy, he devoted the first number to an introduction in which he talked over with "the whole family of readers belonging to my list of intimates" (VII [l]-32) his career as a man of letters up to that time. His first Portfolio began with the poems for occasions and for the "showy annuals," but its contents had "boyhood written on every page." The "best scraps" he justly selected from the first Portfolio were "Old Ironsides … a single passionate outcry when the old war-ship I had read about … was threatened with demolition"; and "The Last Leaf" suggested by old Major Melville in his cocked hat and breeches. The second Portfolio was opened in the autumn of 1857, when the Atlantic Monthly "which I had the honor of naming was started by the enterprising firm of Phillips & Sampson, under the editorship of Mr. James Russell Lowell."

After the success of the magazine was assured, Holmes and Lowell each generously cited the part the other had played in that achievement. It cannot now be accurately measured how much urging Holmes needed to set down in print the kind of talk which had made him sought after as companion and speaker at gatherings formal and informal. Whether coincidental or causative, Lowell as editor and Holmes as the writer of an easy, concrete prose neatly alternating with poems that gave emphasis or variety, helped to make successful the first literary magazine in this country to have an enduring life. The Atlantic could take advantage of many talents: the melody of Longfellow; the lyric intensity of Whittier; the fascinating thought and expression of Emerson; the haunting power of Hawthorne, "the great Romancer"; and the vivid exposition of the scientist Agassiz and the diplomat Motley. Besides all these, to balance the more radical reformers like Underwood and Lowell who had cut their editorial teeth on abolitionist papers, Holmes's record indicated he could be counted upon for brief and witty comment; if he did ridicule, surprise and recognition removed the sting.

I The Autocrat

When Holmes wrote the opening number of The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, as Autocrat he took up the advantages of Societies of Mutual Admiration, with "the young man named John" and the divinity student dissenting. He cited as an example the Société de l'Observation Médicale to which he had belonged in Paris, and an American club of which he was not a member but which thrived on the well-deserved admiration exchanged among the generous company of "artists, authors, philanthropists, men of science." That he was not a member of the Saturday Club until October 31, before the first number of the Atlantic appeared in November, 1857, was probably because, with other studies and duties, he was "outside of the charmed circle drawn around the scholars and poets of Cambridge and Concord" (VII, 10). The club met the last Saturday of each month at the Parker House in Boston.

At his class dinners Holmes had come to take it for granted that he would play an important part, by warm loyalty, by quick repartee, and by reading at least one poem. Although many of "The Boys" were wealthier or of higher social background than he, his place was secure. But the Saturday Club was a place of exchange rather than performance; and although both Lowell and Holmes inclined to take over as if on the lecture platform, such self-indulgence came later rather than at the beginning of his membership, when Holmes was gratified to be accepted in the group headed by Longfellow and Agassiz and including Emerson and Hawthorne, the lawyers Rockwood Hoar and Richard Henry Dana, and the society leaders Sam Ward and Tom Appleton. The anecdote which tells of the meeting of the club after the Atlantic had just come out when each member sat down quietly to read his own contribution is probably not a gross exaggeration. That both Lowell and Holmes were quick of wit and word and enjoyed a verbal fencing-match gives substance to the story that when the Saturday Club entertained the Reverend Calvin Stowe and his wife Harriet Beecher, at one end of the table Lowell was busy proving to the daughter of the crusading Beechers and the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin that Fielding's lusty Tom Jones was the greatest novel ever written while at the other end Holmes was explaining to the Reverend Calvin Stowe that people learned their swearing from ministers in the pulpit.

The Saturday Club and the Atlantic Monthly were two important outlets for Holmes which also enriched his life. The people concerned with the new magazine were frankly amazed at the immediate popularity of The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table. The title and pattern depended on the dramatic scene Holmes had first created twenty-five years earlier; the Autocrat was now more experienced and assured and the other figures more sharply etched, often more recognizable as types, like "the economically organized female in the black bombazine." Holmes remarked it was "dipped from the running stream of my thoughts." An important key to its success was that it answered so well the second reason Holmes gave as justification for an author: the first was if he had a story to tell that everyone wanted to hear; the second, "if he can put in fitting words any common experiences not already well told, so that readers will say, 'Why, yes! I have had that sensation, thought, emotion, a hundred times, but I never heard it spoken of before, and I never saw any mention of it in print'" (I, 12).

The pleasure readers still derive from the books of the Breakfast-Table series is that of recognition, with a subsequent quickening of interest to find out what the author has made of the human interplay he has developed. The richness Holmes offered in his treatment was only rarely of philosophical depth or lyrical intensity, but frequent analogies with concrete vividness threw light on some aspect of a situation we all recognize. Thus Truth was contrasted with "an old lying falsehood" in the shape of a flat stone that kills normal growth and breeds "hideous crawling creatures" which come to light when the stone is turned over by one who "puts the staff of truth to the old lying incubus"; children are early given a choice between the cubes of truth which won't roll, have "a great talent for standing still, and always keep right side up" and the spheres of lies "which are the most convenient things in the world" because they roll so easily, but "are apt to roll into the wrong corner, and to get out of his way when he most wants them" (I, 111-16). Sprinkled among these concrete images which suggest more than they say are brief quotable statements: "Good feeling helps society to make liars of most of us—not absolute liars, but such careless handlers of truth that its sharp corners get terribly rounded"; or, at the opening of the next number, "Sin has many tools, but a lie is the handle which fits them all."

Familiar diction gives an extra tang to comments like "All lecturers, all professors, all schoolmasters, have ruts and grooves into which their conversation is perpetually sliding" (I, 65): "habit is a labor-saving invention which enables a man to get along with less fuel" (I, 155); "They [cant or slang terms instead of precise words] are the blank checks of intellectual bankruptcy;—you may fill them up with what idea you like; it makes no difference, for there are no funds in the treasury upon which they are drawn" (I, 256). Figures contributed to the sharp effects, and were quick and suggested in a word or two or followed through with growing relevance, as in his picture of human feelings:

Every person's feelings have a front-door and a side-door by which they must be entered. The front-door is on the street…. This front-door leads into a passage which opens into an anteroom, and this into the interior apartments. The side-door opens at once into the sacred chambers….

Be very careful to whom you trust one of these keys of the side-door. The fact of possessing one renders those even who are dear to you very terrible at times. You can keep the world from your front-door, or receive visitors only when you are ready for them; but those of your own flesh and blood, or of certain grades of intimacy, can come in at the side-door, if they will, at any hour or in any mood….

No stranger can get a great many notes of torture out of a human soul; it takes one that knows it well,—parent, child, brother, sister, intimate. Be very careful to whom you give a side-door key; too many have them already (I, 128-30).

Dramatic interplay gives variety, and makes extreme statements acceptable or ridiculous. The landlady is primarily concerned with keeping her boarders; her son Benjamin Franklin proves convenient for errands, for interruptions, for instruction in French and Latin. The Poor Relation provides an acid touch, but the most effective dissenter is the young fellow named John, who has both feet on the ground as well as active voice and hands. When the Autocrat has outlined psychologically the six personalities taking part in a dialogue between John and Thomas—"I. The real John; known only to his Maker. / 2. John's ideal John; never the real one, and often very unlike him. / 3. Thomas's ideal John; never the real John, nor John's John, but often very unlike either" and three similar Thomases (I, 53)—the literal John took the remaining peaches in the basket before it reached the Autocrat, since "there was just one apiece for him." The divinity student and the old gentleman opposite speak up less frequently; the former is the voice of dogma, the latter is wise in years and experience. The school-mistress is a contrast to the landlady's daughter in appearance, taste, and manner, and she provides the romantic finale as she and the Autocrat take "the long path together." The Autocrat hints that the romance comes at the request of his readers: they, especially the women, were as advisory as to what should happen in the next number as Richardson's had been about what should happen to Pamela and Clarissa Harlowe. It was Holmes's fault; he admitted, "I purr very loud over a good honest letter that says pretty things to me" (I, 289).

Holmes often uses his intimacy with his readers to give them advice: although he is not so didactic as the modern How To Read A Book (he would surely have preferred How To Read Two Books), he asks that his readers be creative; that they realize the "saturation-point of each mind differs" (I, 133); that the reader's imagination is needed to transfigure "a string of trivialities" (I, 199). Holmes states a preference for life over books that recalls Emerson's American Scholar which he had heard at Harvard in 1837. After distinguishing between the use and abuse of books, Emerson asserted: "Books are for the scholar's idle times. When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men's transcripts of their readings." Holmes accents the mind: "there are times in which every active mind feels itself above any and all human books"; or he asserts: "I always believed in life rather than in books" (I, 132, 134). Like Dr. Johnson too in finding books no substitute for life, Holmes announced the game he was playing with the eighteenth-century magister by his subtitle here: "Every Man His Own Boswell." The most detailed account of the game of identity Holmes gave on December 13, 1884, when "I have just lost my dear and honored contemporary of the last century." Since Johnson was baptized on the day he was born and Holmes not for three weeks, the date, September 18, was the same in 1709 and 1809. "Year by year, and almost month by month, my life has kept pace in this century with his life in the last century…. It was for me a kind of unison between two instruments, both playing that old familiar air, 'Life,'—one a bassoon, if you will, and the other an oaten pipe" (VII, 20-21).

The Autocrat has to share the stage with two facets of Holmes's career already established—the Poet and the Professor: "… I think myself fortunate in having the Poet and the Professor for my intimates. We are so much together, that we no doubt think and talk a good deal alike; yet our points of view are in many respects individual and peculiar" (I, 178-79). The Poet offers only one poem, the occasional "A Good Time Going" (I, 223-24; 155-56), which Holmes had written for a farewell dinner for Charles Mackay on May 18, 1858. The preface to the poem in the Autocrat explains how eager the Poet is to leave town before the anniversaries begin and he will have to "get up and make speeches, or songs, or toasts." Like the poem, the protest here is perfunctory and lifeless compared to the fireworks of the Autocrat's talk or the vivacity Holmes could muster on this subject in a letter to T. W. Higginson on September 30, 1872, after he had been succumbing to such demands for another ten years.

Your kind words are pleasant and your request is far from unreasonable, yet I must excuse myself from the very slight task—as it seems at least—to which you invite me.

I am thoroughly tired of my own voice at all sorts of occasional gatherings. I have handled the epithets of eulogy until the mere touch of a warm adjective blisters my palm. I have tried not to do myself discredit by unseemly flattery, but I do really feel as if by force of repetition my welcomes were growing if not unwelcome, at least outworn, and should in common propriety give place to something a little fresher. I have greeted representatives from all parts of the civilized and half-civilized world and am expecting to be called on whenever the King of Dahomey or a minister from Ujiji makes his appearance.

The most desperate attempts were made by men with argument and women with entreaty to get me to play Orpheus to the stones of the Pittsfield monument, but I resisted both successfully. These invitations keep coming to me all the time, and I mean to decline them all unless for some very special reason that happens to strike me full in the centre of volition. Here are Froude, and Edmund Yates, and George MacDonald, and nobody knows how many more—Tyndall and by and by perhaps Huxley and one must draw the line somewhere—suppose we say "Rhyming done here only for crowned heads or their representatives?" I have done England, France, Russia (twice), China, Japan, Germany (in the person of Ehrenberg) and so belabored my own countrymen of every degree with occasional verses that I must have coupled "name" and "fame" together scores of times and made "story" and "glory" as intimate as if they had been born twins.

I know you are on your knees by this time asking the Lord to forgive you for making a suggestion that I should try this last experiment on the patience of mankind. I cannot say whether He will forgive you or not but you have my full pardon inasmuch as you have joined a very complimentary request with a word of praise which coming from so good a judge of what will bear praising makes me willing to do almost anything except what you ask me to.1

This delightful play of concrete detail, exaggeration, colorful diction combined with the winning personal tone of the verbal tour de force at the end reveals Holmes still writing, on occasion in 1872, as he had written for The Autocrat in 1857-58. It is as Holmes the talker that the Autocrat shines: "Sometimes it becomes almost a physical necessity to talk out what is in the mind, before putting anything else into it" (I, 134) helps explain the social trait he was famous for. "Real talkers" are defined as "people with fresh ideas, of course, and plenty of good warm words to dress them in" (I, 143). But the Autocrat warns against wit; an author is not pleased to be told he is droll because he knows, like the clown, that the women are not in love with him but with "the fellow in the black coat and plumed hat" and that his place is "at the tail of the procession." A figure of white light in contrast to colored lights, which is one of the "grooves" into which Holmes's "conversation is perpetually sliding," illuminates his estimate of wit. A single ray of color—red, yellow, blue—illustrates that wit. "consists in a partial and incomplete view of whatever it touches…. We get beautiful effects from wit,—all the prismatic colors,—but never the object as it is in fair daylight…. Poetry uses the rainbow tints for special effects, but always keeps its essential object in the purest white light of truth" (I, 50). Within a paragraph contrasting lights have led him from wit to poetry. To illustrate how easily he could slide into this "groove" and how genuinely he could fuse the truth of poetry with the truth of religion, another use of this figure in a letter to a lady who was trying to interest him in her newly adopted religion, Roman Catholicism, may be cited:

I think myself that this planet is lighted by a stained window. One sees through a blue pane, another through a red or yellow one—but outside the light is white, and those see it most truly who are next an open window.

But I do not quarrel with this saint because he (or she more likely) is in a patch of blue light or with that other because she is in a yellow one. The accidents of your church please my taste and stimulate my imagination. I love the pictures, the incense, the tingling of the boyish choristers' voices. There is the difference between your service and the puritan preachment that there is between the maple in October, dressed in its flaming robes, and the same tree in January naked in the blast. But the course of nature is that the painted leaves must fall, and the bare tree bud with new foliage.2

The Autocrat is rich in biographical intimacies of Holmes. His moving to Charles Street in 1858 had meant that the Charles River was his backyard, and he could indulge in boating, the outdoor activity he enjoyed next after riding and driving fast horses, which had become expensive and inconvenient with the Pittsfield vacations gone. The Autocrat gives a full account of the three boats Holmes owned and used on the river, especially the race-boat and the pride he took in his speed and skill rowing on the river and in the bay. Travel in Italy and the voice of a child in Paris are part of the Autocrat's memories, and he uses Holmes's Class Poem for 1854, "The Old Man Dreams." He begins a series of three figures with the class and its log of competition, the opening epigrammatic: "I find the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving" (I, 93). The Derby is used as the image for commencement, and the log is checked through the decades against individual achievements. The third figure is of the sea-shell, the Pearly Nautilus, and the passage closes with Holmes's poetic masterpiece "The Chambered Nautilus" (I, 97; 149-50).

The success of this poem, growing out of a close following of one idea through many pages and using as concrete image an object he had long known and studied, argues for the truth of his statement: "Certain things are good for nothing until they have been kept for a long while; and some are good for nothing until they have been kept and used…. Of those which must be kept and used I will name three,—meerschaum pipes, violins, and poems" (I, 101). In the poem, "The ship of pearl" is described in the first stanza and wrecked in the second with such suggestive diction as "shadowed main," "webs of living gauze," and "irised ceiling"; the stanza has a special lyric beauty, with the change to the short lines Holmes had early displayed a mastery of. The brevity, the melody, and the artful consistency of image have won it continuing praise, although the proportion of two stanzas for the exposition of the idea as against three for the concrete image is almost too much for the twentieth-century aversion to any So live's. But the vocabulary keeps the coils of the shell with the lesson to the end: "Leaving thine outgrown shell by life's unresting sea!"

This poem was one of the two that Osler suggested when he expressed the wish that Holmes would evaluate his own contributions to medicine and to poetry. Osier was writing of doctors who were also men of letters; and, after mentioning Goldsmith and Keats, he continued:

The most conspicuous modern example of success in both fields is offered by the Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, who for many years occupied the Chair of Anatomy at Harvard, and who as a young man made permanent contributions to practical medicine. In his last book, "Our Hundred Days in Europe," he mentions having sat next to Mr. Lawson Tait at dinner and he suggests the question, "Which would give most satisfaction to a thoroughly humane and unselfish being of cultivated intelligence and lively sense—to have written the plays which Shakespeare has left for an inheritance to mankind, or to have snatched from the jaws of death scores of suffering women and restored them to a sound and comfortable existence?" I know of no man who could so well make answer to this question as the Autocrat himself. Would he rather go down to posterity as the man who, in this country at least, first roused the profession to a sense of the perils of puerperal fever as an infectious disease—and who thereby has probably saved more lives than Lawson Tait—and whose essay on the subject—pace shades of Meigs and Hodge—is a classic in American literature, or would he choose to be remembered as the author of "The Pearly Nautilus" and "The Last Leaf"?

The printed query came to Holmes's attention, and in his reply to Osier he chose to consider only "The Chambered Nautilus" as the poem.

I have rarely been more pleased than by your allusions to an old paper of mine. There was a time certainly in which I would have said that the best page of my record was that in which I had fought my battle for the poor poisoned women. I am reminded of that essay from time to time, but it was published in a periodical which died after one year's life, and therefore escaped the wider notice it would have found if printed in the American Journal of Medical Sciences. A lecturer at one of the great London hospitals referred to it the other day and coupled it with some fine phrases about myself which made me blush, either with modesty or vanity, I forget which.

I think I will not answer the question you put me. I think oftenest of "The Chambered Nautilus," which is a favorite poem of mine, though I wrote it myself. The essay only comes up at long intervals, the poem repeats itself in my memory. And is very often spoken of by correspondents in terms of more than ordinary praise. I had a savage pleasure, I confess, in handling those two Professors—learned men both of them, skillful experts, but babies, as it seemed to me, in their capacity of reasoning and arguing. But in writing the poem I was filled with a better feeling, the highest state of mental exaltation and the most crystalline clairvoyance, as it seemed to me, that had ever been granted to me—I mean that lucid vision of one's thought and all forms of expression which will be at once precise and musical, which is the poet's special gift, however large or small in amount or value. There is more selfish pleasure to be had out of the poem—perhaps a nobler satisfaction from the life-saving labor.3

Once again Holmes reveals that he held firm ideas about a poet's experience and expression.

Of the poems the Autocrat gave as his own, the most sentimental and the one which drew the most popular response, especially from women, was "The Voiceless" (I, 306-7; 99). It appeared in the parenthesis "The Long Path" which the Autocrat was taking with the schoolmistress, and it was addressed to "hearts that break and give no sign." The last four lines of the stanza were the ones most often requested by autograph collectors or for sale at the many charitable fairs during and after the Civil War. To such charities Holmes sometimes sent as many as a hundred signed autograph copies of specified lines.

A few can touch the magic string,
And noisy Fame is proud to win them;—
Alas for those who never sing,
And die with all their music in them!

The humorous play the Autocrat often indulged in is illustrated by two of the poems he recited for the group at the Breakfast-Table. One was later given the title "Ode for a Social Meeting / With slight alterations by a teetotaler" (I, 48; 162), and it shows Holmes completely recovered from any restraint Lowell's objections might have suggested: in the line "…summer's last roses lie hid in the wines," last roses is crossed out and rank poisons written in, and the last line is altered from "Long live the gay servant that laughs for us all" to "Down, down with the tyrant that masters us all." The poem "Contentment" with the epigraph "Man wants but little here below" (I, 268-70; 157-58) reveals a more subtly developed irony than this exercise, and it shows the Autocrat—and Holmes—laughing at the importance both give to ancestors, a library and family portraits, and tasteful elegance. "Simple tastes" are defined as content with "Titians and Raphaels three or four," one Stradivarius but two Meerschaums, "A ruby and a pearl or so":

Wealth's wasteful tricks I will not learn,
Nor ape the glittering upstart foot;—


Thus humble let me live and die,
Nor long for Midas' golden touch,
If Heaven more generous gifts deny,
I shall not miss them much,—


In The Autocrat Holmes saved some of his reminiscences and characteristic verses for the Professor; like Holmes, he had resided at Central Court, at Dartmouth, and along the Housatonic. Literary allusions were divided between the Professor and the Autocrat: the latter spoke tenderly of Cowper's poem about his mother's picture and composed a Houyhnhnm Gazette in which his horses won Swift's Gulliver by offering lilac leaves and hyacinths till his "eyes filled as if with raindrops"; the Professor turned Cicero's "De Senectute" into journalistic English remarks on old age, revising some Latin phrases to match the familiar English. He shared Holmes's preference for "old-fashioned heroics," although the most professional poem Holmes ever wrote, "The Living Temple" (I, 175-76; 101-2), called by the Professor "The Anatomist's Hymn," was in octosyllabic couplets arranged in eight-line stanzas. It shares the wonder at the human body of Fletcher's "Purple Island," but it begins and ends with a tribute to the Divine Maker of "these mystic temples." The Professor also contributed the Class Poem for 1858, "Mare Rubrum," and the farewell to Motley of 1857.

But the professor's real triumph, again in the octosyllabic couplet, was "The Deacon's Masterpiece; or the Wonderful 'One-Hoss Shay'" (I, 252-56; 158-60), the success of which puffed him up ridiculously—until he found he could not repeat his success. Anyone familiar with New England dialect is delighted with the "Settler's ellum" that rhymes perfectly with "Couldn't sell 'em." The picturesque narrative is so entertaining that to lay on it a burden of allegory seems intrusive. But the dates of 1755 and 1855 are as carefully given as the proper wood for spokes and thills, crossbars and panels; and, reluctant as the reader may be to accept the tale as an account of the downfall of Calvinism, the stress on logic—the subtitle is a "A Logical Story" and the last line is "Logic is logic. That's all I say"—surely points in that direction, especially as the principle of Calvinism developed by Jonathan Edwards and rejected by Holmes was its irrefutable logic. This allegorical reading of the poem is the strongest argument that may be offered against Holmes's being "crippled" by his early orthodox exposure, as he had remarked a child brought up under the shadow of the doctrine of original sin must be. The wound was surely there; but, as Holmes often urged in his medical addresses, nothing is more healing than fresh air and sunshine, here the sunshine of wholesome laughter.

When The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table appeared as a book late in 1859, it was warmly welcomed, as had been the numbers appearing in the Atlantic Monthly. It has been the most popular of Holmes's books, and generally regarded as best preserving the talk which his contemporaries maintained was more scintillating and delightful than any of his printed works. Henry James, Sr., told him once: "Holmes, you are intellectually the most alive man I know." As the first of its kind, it had the advantages of originality of form, variety of subject matter, imaginative play with history and literature, and a warm familiar style which won loyal friends then and has continued to win them.4

II The Professor

The Professor at the Breakfast-Table suffered from being second on the scene, from being only the alter ego of the more lively Autocrat, and from too many serious openings like "I have a long theological talk to relate." As the Autocrat took his leave, hoping "you will love me none the less for anything I have told you," he announced that the Professor was to be his successor. That was in the Atlantic for October, 1858, but the Autocrat continued to appear in titles of articles for the November and December numbers in order to get the twelve numbers on a calendar-year basis, a program which the other two in the series and the novels followed. The titles in the November and December issues explained they were filling in: "A Visit to the Autocrat's Landlady" and "The Autocrat gives a Breakfast to the Public." When the Professor took over in January, 1859, a change was immediately apparent, particularly during the early numbers. The Professor tried to take up his subject, "the great end of being is…," but was interrupted. A new boarder, a vulgar man with dyed hair and a diamond pin dubbed the "Kohinoor," was paying attention to the landlady's daughter; but these, the young man named John, and the divinity student—all are perfunctory and lifeless until the drama of the cripple Little Boston and the warm-hearted Iris develops.

Statements are still made memorable by brief figurative phrasing, as when the Professor replies to the divinity student's warning to stay off important subjects like religion: "Truth is tough. It will not break like a bubble at a touch; nay, you may kick it about all day, like a football, and it will be round and full at evening" (II, 109). Or when he notes wisely of the true artist: "A moment's insight is sometimes worth a life's experience" (II, 239). The Professor is careful to explain he does not call phrenology a pseudo-science; but he points out how it imposes on human gullibility, uses the name of Bumpus & Crane for his practitioners, and by the way they go through a group concludes "They go only by the bumps"—and is interrupted by the boarders' laughter. His incidental comment sometimes gives the same pleasure and surprise of recognition as the Autocrat's did so often, as when he notes we are all surprised by our own pictures; we think we know how we look, but "no genuine expression can be studied by the subject of it in the looking-glass" (II, 190). He also takes a shot at the portrayals of children in contemporary publications; "these tearful records of premature decay" is an apt summary of the popular engravings of ill or dying children in gift-books or the moral tales in a period when Poe gave us Annabel Lee and Harriet Beecher Stowe, little Eva.

Such apt and amusing comment is less frequent in The Professor than in The Autocrat; also less frequent are vivid scenes from Holmes's experience. An exception is the poem "The Opening of the Piano" (II, 73-74; 166-67), when Holmes takes us back to the family in the gambrel-roofed house as the "London-made piano" was opened to the eager cries of pushing children quieted by the grave father, and the mother's "'Now, Mary, play.'"

The emphasis in this book is more serious and more theological, although in his first indictment the Professor links medicine with religion: homeopathy in medicine and spiritualism in religion are "out of the mouths of fools and cheats" and "the folly of the world … confounds the wisdom" (II, 13). The strong language called forth attacks in many church papers and caused some ministers to warn their congregations away from heresy. Many subscriptions to the Atlantic were canceled, but not enough to worry the publishers. Holmes did make a scrap-book5 out of the clippings sent to him or to the editor of attacks in newspapers or magazines; he did not, therefore, so entirely ignore them as he pretended in the prefaces he wrote later and in his refusal to answer.

The Professor uses strong language again when he adds law to medicine and religion: "The three learned professions have but recently emerged from a state of quasi barbarism." After citing examples of super stition and cruelty, with all too recent dates, he concludes that primal instincts are violated "when the ideas of the healing art, of the administration of justice, of Christian love, could not exclude systematic poisoning, judicial dueling, and murder for opinion's sake" (II, 105-6). In this book Holmes combines logic and Jonathan Edwards in a way which argues that the logic in "The Deacon's Masterpiece" did point to an allegory of orthodox Calvinism; after reference to the Northampton church's dismissing Edwards, he closes the paragraph: "A man's logical and analytical adjustments are of little consequence, compared to his primary relations with Nature and truth; and people have sense enough to find it out in the long run; they know what 'logic' is worth" (II, 114)—a phrasing only slightly different from "Logic is logic. That's all I say."

The Professor does not use merely the weapon of straight attack, however. Like Swift, Holmes made up names: Bumpus & Crane ridiculed phrenology; the Muggletonians are called to mind by the divinity student's stubborn dogma. But the figures still do the most to clarify and interest, as with the classification of Broad Church and Narrow. The latter is a garden fenced in; without a forcing system only plants of one zone—arctic, tropical, or temperate—will grow there together. More vivid is the contrast of Broad and Narrow in the figure of boats: the Broad working the pumps on board to save all; the Narrow "in the long boat, in the jolly boat, in the captain's gig, lying off the poor old vessel, thanking God that they are safe" (II, 296-98).

The theological issues become poignant and dramatic when they concern the cripple and Iris. The latter is a sensitive, beautiful orphan who has been given study and training in the city by her patroness, "the Model of all Virtues." Her week at the boarding house did not add to the enjoyment of any—"that excellent lady whose only fault was, that Nature had written out her list of virtues on ruled paper, and forgotten to rub out the lines" (II, 316). Holmes reminds us we must find "a weak spot or two in a character before we can love it much." The cripple's changing status in the group is indicated by his names: at first he is the Sculpin; as pity and respect for him grow but, as he harps on Boston as the Hub of the Universe and the view from the State House as unequaled for what is worth seeing, he becomes Little Boston; by the closing pages he is the Little Gentleman. He talks much about making our religion match our politics: "a man's soul has a vote in the spiritual community; and it doesn't do, Sir, or it won't do long, to call him 'schismatic' or 'heretic' and those other wicked names that old murderous Inquisitors have left us to help along 'peace and good-will to men'" (II, 207). After he has said we are battling for a new faith in the United States and the divinity student remarks it is late in the world's history to be looking for a new faith, his reply is consciously American: "I didn't say a new faith … old or new, it can't help being different here in this American mind of ours from anything that ever was before; the people are new, Sir, and that makes the difference" (II, 218). The Professor also expresses faith in our national growth toward more freedom from Old World traditions and superstitions, and waxes eloquent with the vision:

Never, since man came into this atmosphere of oxygen and azote, was there anything like the condition of the young American of the nineteenth century…. heir of all old civilizations, founder of that new one which, if all the prophecies of the human heart are not lies, is to be the noblest, as it is the last; isolated in space from the races that are governed by dynasties whose divine right grows out of human wrong, yet knit into the most absolute solidarity with mankind of all times and places by the one great thought he inherits as his national birthright; free to form and express his opinions on almost every subject, and assured that he will soon acquire the last franchise which men withhold from man,—that of stating the laws of his spiritual being and the beliefs he accepts without hindrance except from clearer views of truth,—he seems to want nothing for a large, wholesome, noble, beneficient life. In fact, the chief danger is that he will think the whole planet is made for him, and forget that there are some possibilities left in the débris of the old-world civilization which deserve a certain respectful consideration at his hands (II, 284).

Walt Whitman was not the only American who had a vision and a faith during those politically troubled years before the firing on Fort Sumter. But Holmes's enthusiasm is rationally tied down by the play with scientific terms for atmosphere at the beginning and by the wry warning at the end.

The romance between the young Marylander and Iris, as they sit nearer each other at table and walk together, is less tense and moving than the growing tenderness between the Little Gentleman and Iris. The high point, emotionally and theologically, is when the Little Gentleman is ill, probably fatally, and the Professor attends him while the divinity student prays for him. When he asks the Little Gentleman conventional questions about repenting of his human sins, the latter passionately denies having in any way shared the life of men in this world. His left arm alone has escaped the curse of crippling; its beauty of form and movement is often mentioned. It contrasts sharply with the misshapen body, where even the heart is misplaced: it is on the right side instead of the left. All he has ever known in his encounters with other mortals has been curiosity, repulsion, sometimes pity. As he ends his passionate avowal of how completely he has been isolated from all ordinary human experience, of his loneliness without love of man or caress of woman, Iris leans to kiss him, and is repaid by his grateful tears. Even the divinity student realizes "he could trust this crippled child of sorrow to the Infinite Parent" (II, 302), and he asks to pray with rather than for him.

The end comes quickly, with the Little Gentleman crushing Iris' hand in a last desperate struggle to make up for a lifetime of isolation from his kind. The mystery which has gathered about his rooms because of the strange sounds of heavy movements at night and of a human voice in pain is solved a trifle arbitrarily. During sleepless nights he relieved his suffering by sharing it with the loving Saviour on the Cross, whose statue he could not reach without pulling out a heavy cabinet; the voice in pain is the vox humana stop on the fine organ which he has willed to the Professor. Holmes's lively interest in musical instruments, especially in any new invention, is reflected here. The note of scientific curiosity is odd in the midst of slightly Gothic shadows and suspense. But this mixture of shadowy mystery with active contemporary curiosity counts less as an artistic flaw because all is relaxed and anticlimactic after the death of the cripple. One detail is stressed and carries symbolic tension: Little Boston had wanted a six-foot coffin and a grave to match so that, after death, he could take his place in the world of men without the blunted deformity he had carried while living. His wish is fulfilled and Iris' annual return from Maryland to visit that grave, later with children, leaves all happily taken care of at the end.

It is appropriate to the prevailingly serious tone of the arguments and the dramatic intensity of Little Boston's proud struggle that the two best-known poems from this book are hymns. Iris' tender "Hymn of Trust" (II, 282; 163), "O Love Divine, that stooped to share / Our sharpest pang, our bitterest tear," has brought surcease from pain to others besides Little Boston, with its closing "Content to suffer while we know, / Living or dying, Thou art near." At the end the Professor asks all his readers—the friends and the vexed alike—to join in singing his hymn to "the warmth that alone can make us all brothers." It is called "A Sun-Day Hymn" (II, 319; 163-64), and begins "Lord of all being! throned afar"; the lines most characteristically Holmes's are "Lord of all life, below, above, / Whose light is truth, whose warmth is love." Less devotional than the other, it has become one of the great hymns of the Protestant church.6

The subtitle of The Professor was changed for book publication in 1860. In the magazine under the title had been, in italics, "What he said, what he heard, and what he saw." In his farewell remarks the Professor made reference to this: "The Professor has talked less than his predecessor, but he has heard and seen more," a fair estimate of the way interest shifted from the talk of the Professor to the tender relations between the cripple and Iris. It was artistically fitting that the subtitle in the book be changed to "With the Story of Iris."7

III Medical Lecturer

Chronologically and thematically a medical lecture, "Currents and Counter-Currents in Medical Science," deserves mention. On May 20, 1860, Holmes addressed the Annual Meeting of the Massachusetts Medical Society, and he argued as eloquently against entrenched ignorance in medical practice as the Professor and Little Boston had argued against the narrow fencing-in by creeds in religion. He first exposed the delusion doctors suffered when they supposed they were treating their patients according to the techniques of experience. All too often the treatment was based merely on some prevalent fashionable belief which was accepted without testing because it had prevailed for so long. He warned the physician who prided himself on being a practical man and on leaving mere theorists to watch the currents of progress that he needed to look out and up and find out where he was going. Colorful examples are introduced of an arctic expedition on which no traveler would have known he was traveling backward if he had not lifted his eyes from the track; of the workman who covered the niche in the wall without noticing the human figure within; of the Jewish artisan who nailed together two pieces of timber for Pontius Pilate. Then these examples are pointed home in one sentence: "… with subtler tool than trowels and axes, the statesman who works in policy without principle, the theologian who works in forms without a soul, the physician who, calling himself a practical man, refuses to recognize the larger laws which govern his changing practice, may all find that they have been building truth into the wall, and hanging humanity upon the cross" (IX, 176-77).

The fact that there was a closer relation between the medical sciences and the prevailing social and political thought of a period than most people realized, was made persuasive—as had been his previous handling of "Homeopathy and Its Kindred Delusions,"—by his beginning with examples far enough in the past to be seen objectively. Andreas Vesalius was linked with Luther in his defiance of a church authority that forbade investigation and protected corruption; Marie François Xavier Bichat's practice caused as great an upheaval in surgical circles as Napoleon's in military and political ones; Dr. Benjamin Rush, who emancipated American medicine from slavish following of European practices, was a contemporary of men who founded a new nation.

Holmes prepared his audience psychologically for what he wanted it to give undivided attention to. "The more positive knowledge we gain, the more we incline to question all that has been received without absolute proof (IX, 181). Homeopathy and Spiritualism were paired, as they were in The Professor, as caves of folly to which the frightened retreated when their old beliefs were threatened. But the real target here was overmedication, the resort to drugs and specifics with no attempt to find out the causes in order to prevent the diseases. Hippocrates' distinction between Nature and Art—what the body will do on its own and what should be done by the attending doctor—was traced through the centuries as it had been passionately defended or as passionately denounced. Dr. Rush was cited again and his denunciation quoted; his connection with the American Revolution was used with different effect from the first citation: the huge doses he prescribed were as "heroic" as the times in which he lived. Holmes was too serious here to indulge in the colloquial or the amusing, but the witty turning of the coin to see both sides marked poise of intellect rather than unleashed invective. He recommended the life and writings of Rush to the student who wished "to understand the tendencies of the American medical mind, its sanguine enterprise, its self-confidence, its audacious handling of Nature, its impatience with her old-fashioned ways of taking time to get a sick man well" (IX, 192).

Although the science of semantics would not be born till the next century, Holmes was practicing it when he pointed out the need to find workable definitions for words that had become emotionally confused such as Nature, Art, Disease, Food, Medicine, Physic; he went on to offer such definitions (IX, 196-97). One attack sounds like a page out of today's newspaper: "Add to this the great number of Medical Journals … many of them excellently well conducted, but which must find something to fill their columns, and so print all the new plans of treatment and new remedies they can get hold of …" (IX, 193-94). A modern reader misses only the stress on the income from advertising which paves the way for quack remedies in large type. After several examples of widespread misuse of such drugs as opiates, Holmes recommended the following for consideration: "The presumption always is that every noxious agent, including medicines proper, which hurts a well man, hurts a sick one" (IX, 201). He cited his experience as physician at the Boston Dispensary as his chance to learn that "medication without insuring hygienic conditions is like amputation without ligatures" (IX, 203).

In his closing words Holmes exhorted his "friends and brothers in Art … to save all our old treasures of knowledge and mine deeply for new, … to stand together for truth." Self-governing Americans were reminded that our history, unlike the Old World's, was not a history of "mounted majorities, clad in iron," but of a land where "the majority is only the flower of the passing noon, and the minority is the bud which may open in the next morning's sun." The attack here on traditional authority not tested by close and constant observation is the characteristic attack of Holmes the scientific thinker: he used as an example of failure to study actual cases the opposition to "The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever." But his respect for the great medical works of the past was, as the word treasures indicates, more than intellectual respect; it was combined with a lover's delight in old books and a collector's joy in knowing their fine points.

Shall I ever forget that rainy day in Lyons, that dingy bookshop, where I found the Aëtius, long missing from my Artis Medicae Principes, and where I bought for a small pecuniary consideration, though it was marked rare, and was really très rare, the Aphorisms of Hippocrates, edited by and with a preface from the hand of Francis Rabelais? And the vellum-bound Tulpius, which I came upon in Venice, afterwards my only reading when imprisoned in quarantine at Marseilles, so that the two hundred and twenty-eight cases he has recorded are, many of them, to this day still fresh in my memory. And the Schenckius,—the folio filled with casus rariores, which had strayed in among the rubbish of the bookstall on the boulevard,—and the noble old Vesalius with its grand frontispiece not unworthy of Titian, and the fine old Ambroise Paré, long waited for even in Paris and long ago, and the colossal Spigelius with his eviscerated beauties, and Dutch Bidloo with its miracles of fine engraving and bad dissection, and Italian Mascagni, the despair of all would-be imitators, and pre-Adamite John de Ketam, and antediluvian Berengarius Carpensis,—but why multiply names, every one of which brings back the accession of a book which was an event almost like the birth of an infant? (IX, 410-11)

I quote these remarks here, which are from his Dedicatory Address at the Opening of the Boston Medical Library on December 3, 1878, because they convey so vividly the loving attention he lavished on medical works of the past, estimating justly their excellences and their mistakes. The purchases he was recounting in intimate detail were made during his study years in Europe, more than forty years before. Hence the warning sounded to students in the medical sciences in 1860 arose from a deep-seated concern for human welfare, not from impatience with the past or personal desire for novelty or notoriety. Although "Currents and Counter-Currents in Medical Science" was printed by the society in June, opposition to Dr. Holmes's stand arose: at an adjourned meeting on May 31, Dr. Childs of Pittsfield introduced a motion that "the Society disclaim all responsibility for the sentiments," and it was passed by a vote of nine to seven. The implied censure was recalled at a regular meeting on October 3, 1860, by a vote of twenty-seven to seventeen. Dr. Holmes was not disturbed by this opposition as he had been when authorities attacked his diagnosis of puerperal fever; nor did he need to be, for the doctors he respected shared his convictions and applauded his vigor and leadership. This serious professional address by Holmes at a time when he was capturing a large lay audience with his essays in the Atlantic illustrates the facility with which he moved from one area to the other. Examples and analogies are no more picturesque and only slightly more frequent for the lay reader. If anything, the concentration and close thought of the medical address lend it as much interest and even greater force.

IV The Poet

Holmes's next two long writings for the Atlantic were novels, Elsie Venner and The Guardian Angel. The Autocrat had stated that every man has at least one novel in him; the direction The Professor had taken With the Story of Iris had given him a taste of the excitement which might await him, and his alert mind was always eager to branch out into new fields of human study. I shall consider the novels together in the next chapter, since they, like the three books of the Breakfast-Table series, share features which emerge more clearly when examined comparatively.

The Poet at the Breakfast-Table did not begin in the Atlantic until January, 1872, and it was published as a book at the end of that year. Besides the two novels in the 1860's Soundings From the Atlantic appeared in 1864—a collection of essays reprinted from the magazine. Three of the articles have been mentioned previously in connection with the Civil War: "Bread and the Newspaper," "My Hunt After 'The Captain,' " and "The Inevitable Trial." The last-named oration of July 4, 1863, had not appeared in the Atlantic because it had been immediately printed separately and widely distributed. Other essays dealt with new inventions which had caught Holmes's interest, usually through their similarity to natural processes of the human anatomy or of the natural world. Thus the titles of two of the three essays dealing with photography used "sun": "Doings of the Sun Beam" and "Sun-Painting and Sun-Sculpture"; the other was about the stereoscope, the use and study of which Holmes found so absorbing that by 1868 he had investigated "The History of the American Stereoscope." The subtitles of two essays explained the analogies he developed: "The Great Instrument: The organ in the Boston Music Hall, with a brief description of the anatomy of the human ear" and "The Human Wheel: The Physiology of Walking."

Occasional poems were still called for, and from farther away or for more distant celebrations. Besides appearing with Liszt, the piano virtuoso, and Ole Bull, the violinist, at Boston's overblown Peace Jubilee in June, 1869, he wrote poems for two anniversaries in Germany: President Barnard of Columbia University asked him to contribute to the Fiftieth Anniversary of Ehrenberg as Doctor of Medicine in November, 1868, and in 1869 Holmes and Agassiz helped make Boston aware of the centennial of the birth of Friedrich Humboldt. The subtitle of Holmes's poem "Humboldt's Birthday" (213-14) showed him still drawing a parallel between medicine and politics, "Bonaparte, August 11, 1769.—Humboldt, September 14, 1769." In 1869, Holmes was one of the members of the Massachusetts Historical Society who gave the Lowell Institute Lectures. His lecture, "The Medical Profession in Massachusetts," took him again to Colonial records, but he developed the relation between local practices and the general state of medical science instead of proceeding as he had with intermittent fever to a narrow but substantially supported conclusion—a contrast between broad and narrow that he had illustrated in religion in The Professor and that he would investigate in science in The Poet.

The inauguration of a new president at Harvard in 1869, Charles William Eliot, had brought the new emphasis on specialization into Holmes's professional life; he was made Professor of Anatomy, and Physiology was set off in a field of its own. President Eliot, who was affecting all people connected with Harvard, was "proposing in the calmest way to turn everything topsy-turvy," according to Holmes. Although Holmes was suspicious of the new emphasis on more lectures in the medical school instead of so much clinical work as he advocated, his position was more moderate than belligerent, and he wanted to reconcile the opposing sides. This position is echoed in the ambivalent arguments delivered in The Poet. Another personal effect The Poet echoed was the sale of the Holmes house in Cambridge to Harvard to make way for Eliot's program of change and of building which was soon to change or convert many familiar landmarks.

The necessity of cleaning out the old gambrel-roofed house took John and Wendell and Ann Upham back to the old days. The memories that found their way into Holmes's writing were published in the Atlantic Monthly in January of 1871 and 1872. The first was the poem "Dorothy Q." (186-87), delightful in its combination of pride, humor, and tenderness caught in quick rhyming couplets, about the portrait whose "rent the light shines through." He had learned as a child that the rent was made by a British "Redcoat's rapier thrust." He included early in the new book in the Breakfast-Table series his essay on "The Gambrel-Roofed House and its Outlook" (III, 10-31), and in it he not only indulged his own pleasure in going over experiences of his early years but also sketched a vivid and valuable picture of the old village Cambridge had been.

The immediate opening of The Poet identified some of the people now at the Breakfast-Table, which had been out of sight for twelve years: the gently satirized "Member of the Haouse" with his dialect and huckleberry-conscious constituents; the six-year-old Boy, whom the Poet refused to call Bub, because he knew that was the diminutive of Beelzebub; the Old Master, who had prejudices strong enough to rub against; and the Landlady, who was always interrupting. The Poet used her interruptions to introduce a comic literary interlude, like the Professor's Houhynhym Gazette, in which Shakespeare was imagined being likewise interrupted by Anne's query about his preference for pudding or flapjacks today when he was in the midst of composing Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech. The looser organization of this book is one reason its effect is more diffused. The essay on early Cambridge comes before the introduction of the opponents of the Old Master; they are the scientists called the Scarabee and the Young Astronomer, and their absorption in special studies means narrow living and narrow loving. The Lady and Scheherezade appear later and are less sharply contrasted than the other feminine pairs. Holmes is determinedly seeing good in the young who are breaking up the old patterns. The Young Girl's being called Scheherezade has the old refreshing play: she too keeps herself alive by telling stories—only hers are sold to newspapers and magazines, a far cry from any Arabian nights. She differs from the Lady only in background and in enjoying the scientific discussions the latter finds tiresome and distressing. The link with the earlier books is managed through the Landlady and her family. Her daughter is now married to an undertaker, a cheerful soul when not on professional duty, and the Landlady goes to live with her when she gives up her boarding-house at the end. Benjamin Franklin has become a medical doctor, and Holmes ridicules him for his enthusiasm about all the new gadgets in his profession and for insisting on getting every detail of his patient's history before he will venture a diagnosis—Dr. Holmes laughing at the medical innovations he had proudly brought back from Paris, as he had earlier invited laughter at himself in "The Stethoscope Ballad." Minor figures like the Register of Deeds, the Capitalist, and Mrs. Midas Goldenrod (who takes up with the Lady again as soon as the Register of Deeds has restored her wealth by finding an old paper) remain names for dominant traits rather than human beings.

An inner circle is composed of the Old Master, the Poet, the Young Astronomer, the Scarabee, and occasionally Scheherezade. The Young Astronomer's poem "Wind-Clouds and Star-Drifts" closes seven chapters and is written in blank verse; both the form and the subject matter are attempts by Holmes to present sympathetically a reconciliation of his "narrow" and "broad." The compromise is only dimly etched in; the real life is in the Old Master and the Scarabee. The Young Astronomer may be a failure because of Holmes's lack of conviction or because he was trying to understand and interpret a young man near and dear to him, his son Oliver Wendell Holmes who was pursuing an independent course of life with marked success, was devoted to his law profession and was writing brilliant studies based on close and concentrated analysis, and who was rescued from lonely eccentricity by his brilliant wife and their richly shared social relations. The Poet gives an accurate estimate of the book when he is reflecting on the doubt the Lady expressed as to "whether she would find better company in any circle she was like to move in than she left behind her at our boarding-house. I give the Old Master the credit of this compliment. If one does not agree with half of what he says, at any rate he always has something to say, and entertains and lets out opinions and whims and notions of one kind and another that one can quarrel with if he is out of humor, or carry away to think about if he happens to be in the receptive mood" (III, 297).

The Old Master has an occasional epigrammatic sentence: "Sin, like disease, is a vital process" (III, 306). An elaborate figure he develops to illustrate "broad" and "narrow" is emotionally slanted: the eagle's flight leaves no track while the patient mollusc's boring into a marble column outlasts the temple. He sees it as a just picture of his ranging far and wide to investigate the "Order of Things" in contrast to the Scarabee's confining himself to beetles and thereby leaving a single point "finally settled for the instruction and, it may be, the admiration of all coming time" (III, 251-52). The Old Master summarizes Holmes's treatment of new inventions in Soundings: "There are many modern contrivances that are of as early date as the first man, if not thousands of centuries older" (III, 322-23). Telescope and microscope are related to the human eye, instruments to the larynx, and the new heating apparatuses of furnace and radiators to the human frame. Like the Professor, he is interrupted in his statement "The one central fact in the Order of Things which solves all questions is, " and when the Young Astronomer and the Poet want him to give his conclusion, he replies it is all there in his books and advises them to reach individual conclusions with a characteristically colloquial figure of speech: "It's quite as well to crack your own filberts as to borrow the use of other people's teeth" (III, 339; 344).

The vivid colloquial language and memorable figure are less frequent in The Poet than in earlier works; nevertheless the Poet's classification of men into one-story, two-story, and three-story intellects has been echoed so often, with or without attribution, that it may justly be named one of his famous figures. Its clarity and brevity are part of its power: "All fact-collectors who have no aim beyond the facts, are one-story men. Two-story men compare, reason, generalize, using the labors of the fact-collectors as well as their own. Three-story men idealize, imagine, predict; their best illumination comes from above, through the skylight" (III, 43). Some librarians are noted as examples of the one-story mind which stops at the fact; lawyers, as examples of the two-story; poets, of the three-story, "full of light, if sometimes rather bare of furniture, in the attics." The colloquial humor placed at the end to relieve the sharp classifications, would seem desirable for a man who made lawyers second-story intellects when his mother's father was a distinguished judge, his wife's father was equally renowned as a judge in his day, and his eldest son was already exhibiting, besides an intense devotion to his work, a range of imaginative thought and phrase and a poise of intellect which could employ the comic to advantage. For three decades of the twentieth century these characteristics would make the name Oliver Wendell Holmes mean to the public the brilliant judge and legal writer.

Though the Old Master sets the tone of the book and we are at home with him in his library, or reading from his published book or his new notes, no such emotional quickening takes place as Little Boston and Iris gave to The Professor. The Scarabee lives his part, and does finally manage one smile, but his correspondence is only with professional colleagues who are suspected as competitors eager to publish their papers ahead of his, and only his spider loves him. He and the Young Astronomer often refer to Darwin, and to the great logical advantages to be found in his theory of species as contrasted to the universe conceived in the Old Testament. Our national love of display is ridiculed, but gently, as when the Poet admits to the inordinate pride he takes in wearing a tiny particolored ribbon in his buttonhole. The most amusing puncturing of the inflated diction that Holmes, like Mencken later, finds characteristic of our national vainglory, is the Scarabee's Muscarium, which he explains is "my home for house-flies" (III, 244). A reference is made to the crusade for women's rights, but it is only gently satiric. There may be humorous diction or an incongruous comparison, but the tone is never one of attack or satire.

Besides the seven parts of the long poem the Young Astronomer is working on, the Poet closes his return to the gambrel-roofed house with the tender and comforting "Homesick in Heaven." The Angel is gentle as he helps the mourners seeking earthly forms in Heaven to comprehend that these forms belong only to the earth left behind. Only two poems offer comic relief. In "Aunt Tabitha" (III, 87-88; 171), Scheherezade makes Aunt Tabitha's manners amusing "When she was a girl (forty summers ago) … How wicked we are, and how good they were then." The book closes with an "Epilogue to the Breakfast-Table Series: Autocrat—Professor—Poet. At a Book store. Anno Domini 1972" (III, 349-51; 183-84). A passerby stops to look through "Your choice among these books, I Dime," and finds "A Boswell, writing out himself…. One actor in a dozen parts … Thy years on every page confessed … Thy hopeful nature, light and free, / I start to find myself in thee." His start of recognition makes him take all three, but he puts them in a class we also recognize: "Read you,—perhaps,—some other time."

At least for The Autocrat this prediction was wrong. In The Poet Holmes has talked frankly with his readers about the likelihood that the series will now have a diminished audience: he follows this by deciding he will take advantage of it and be more intimate with his one reader.8 The first time this one reader is addressed as "Beloved," the effect is disconcerting, but gradually the reader begins to enjoy it. The tone is frequently less intimate than in The Autocrat—necessarily so when serious speakers and subjects are present—but it is as easy and more tender. The form is less developed, for fewer characters are brought to life and divisions are acknowledged and named; the range is narrowed and the sparkle dimmed. The Old Master and the Scarabee are alive and appealing each in his way, but the solution by way of the Young Astronomer is dim and contrived. He is saved from the lonely fate of the Scarabee by marrying the alert and independent Scheherezade, but his problem, variously presented in "Wind-Clouds and Star-Drift,"9 remains the dilemma of the scientific humanist: to dedicate himself utterly to his work and, like the Scarabee, become important only to and for his beetles; or to respond freely to all living situations and creatures and to be welcome, like the Old Master, in any group because he wears his learning lightly, is tolerant, humorous, and wise. Little wonder that Holmes, by 1872 a confirmed occasional poet, skillful lecturer, and popular essayist, gave the Old Master all the advantages—except the lasting renown of a single achievement.


1 Although this a.l.s. was marked "Private" at the top of the first leaf, it was printed in fascimile in Higginson and Boynton, A Reader's History of American Literature (Boston [1903]), facing p. 158. The reading here is from the autograph owned by the late discriminating collector-scholar Carroll A. Wilson, and called by him the finest Holmes letter he owned.

2 a.l.s. Holmes to Miss Charlotte Dana, April 18, 1863, in the Massachusetts Historical Society, Dana Papers; used here with the permission of Director Stephen T. Riley.

3 Osier's first reference to this question was in the "Notes and Commentaries" he had been writing for the Montreal Medical Journal (January, 1889). Holmes's reply was written on Jan. 21, 1889, and was twice printed by Osler. The original letter is now in the collection of Osleriana in the McGill Medical Library in Montreal. For a full account of Osler's regard for Holmes, see Harvey Cushing, Life of Sir William Osier (Oxford, 1926), I, 301-2.

4 Four editions of The Autocrat appeared in this country before the new and revised edition in 1883; five issues of it came before Holmes's death in 1894, five after. Modern reprints have appeared in Oxford's World's Classics in 1904 (reprinted 1906, 1909, 1923, then allowed to lapse); in Macmillan's Modern Readers' series in 1927; and in the New American Library of World Literature's Signet Classics in 1961.

Both the first and the revised editions appeared promptly in Edinburgh: the first, 1859; the revised, 1883. Although there were only two English editions—one in 1859, and an illustrated edition in 1865—The Autocrat won an enthusiastic audience there, as a result of which Holmes's distaste for that country began to give way to an eager desire to visit it again, especially after his friends Lowell and Motley were writing him of English experiences he could wish to share. A German translation came out in Stuttgart in 1876, Der Tisch-Despot; in Leipzig, a Tauchnitz edition in 1883. In 1922, it was published in Japan as one of the Kenkyusha English Classics.

Besides these single printings, it was Volume I in the collected editions of 1891, 1892, and 1893.

5 This scrapbook is now in the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library of Phillips-Andover Academy.

6 I omit American here intentionally. In 1933, when I attended at the Crystal Palace in London a service of song presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury and performed by the different cathedral choirs of England in their robes of varying colors and with their choir-masters and organists, this hymn by Holmes was chosen to close the program.

7 That The Professor by no means matched The Autocrat in popularity is shown by a brief review of the printings. Under the title The Story of Iris, the parts concerning her were published separately in 1877; a reprint of this, with a section of Favorite Poems by Holmes and another section of five sermons by Dr. John Brown was issued in the Modern Classics, No. 30, in 1882. A revised edition, to match that of The Autocrat, appeared in 1883. A Birthday edition in two volumes was put out in 1891, the same year it became Vol. II of the Riverside edition of the Writings, and of the subsequent editions of 1892 and 1893. Only two editions have appeared since Holmes's death in 1894; one in Boston and London, 1902, which ran to four issues; the last, Boston, 1916. An English edition came out the same year as the first book publication here (1860), making only two; the revised edition, in two volumes, came out in Edinburgh in 1883.

8 When The Poet came out as a book in 1872, the subtitle emphasized the supposed single reader: "His [changed in 1883 to He] talks with his Fellow-Boarders and the Reader." The London edition, in 1872, omitted the subtitle, but noted the author was the author of The Autocrat. Editions followed the pattern of The Professor: a revised edition, 1883; a two-volume Edinburgh edition, 1884; the Birthday, 1890; the three in the collected Writings of 1891, 1892, and 1893; an edition in Boston and London, 1902; in Boston, 1916. Sales were also about the same; the marked difference was between them and The Autocrat, which has sold about twice as many copies as any other of Holmes's works.

9 That Holmes worked hard over "Wind-Clouds and Star-Drifts" (pp. 171-84) as central to the problem he was treating in The Poet, is proven by the changes he made when it was published in editions of his poems. He shortened the sections, making twelve instead of seven, and gave each a title. From "Ambition," the progress of the young scientist was marked by "Regrets," "Sympathies," the comfort of "Master and Scholar" to the isolation of "Alone"; he proceeded to brave "Questioning" and "Worship" (a significant juxtaposition); achieved "Manhood" with its "Rights" and "Truths"; but was tempted by "Idols" until finally rescued by "Love." Middle sections were rearranged and sharpened by rewriting some lines and omitting many. Indicative not only of how real to Holmes was the problem of the young scientist but also of how natural to his poetic expression were rhyme and stanza, especially the rhyming couplet for long poems, are the effort, revision, and ultimate failure of this venture into blank verse. I note these changes because they reveal Holmes's special poetic taste and gift; also because it is one of the few instances where textual changes are not carefully recorded in Bibliog.

John Martin (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2013

SOURCE: "This is the ship of pearl …" in Books at Iowa, No. 45, November, 1986, pp. 17-25.

[In the following essay, Martin compares Holmes's life and writing with that of his contemporaries and fellow New Englanders, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.]

The nineteenth century saw a starveling infant nation grow into a muscular, prosperous giant whose strong arms spanned the land from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Aggressive, assertive, brawling; ridden by political scandal and social strife; hungering for land and getting it by purchase, treaty, war (Mexico), or disenfranchisement of the aboriginals (that is, decimation of the American Indians), the United States seemed more concerned with power and material gain than with "human rights" and spiritual development. Yet there was a brighter side to this country in that noisy century. Movements for social reform were many (the abolitionists, the attempts at communism at New England's Brook Farm and Fruitland). The festering wound of slavery was closed at great cost, though the pain lingered on. Science and education flourished, to create a better life for the teeming new millions. A new breed of intellectuals dared to break the bonds of Europe, which had for too long restrained independent thought. Most surprisingly, amidst all the ongoing turmoil and possibly because of it, there grew a body of literature uniquely American, expressing basic philosophies with new voices and a spirituality which must have puzzled certain foreign contemporaries.

The list is long and familiar: Hawthorne, Poe, Lowell, Bryant, Longfellow, Prescott, Parkman, Clemens, Harte, Greeley, Cooper, Whitman, Thoreau, Emerson, Holmes, and still others. Each sang his own song and each was his own man in his own special way; each left his personal stamp on world literature and on the American conscience. To read them is to savor some of the world's most satisfying classics.

The last three named, Henry David Thoreau (1817-62), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82), and Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-94), hold a special attraction for this writer, with an admitted choice of Holmes for first place. These three quintessential New Englanders had much in common and yet were so different in many ways. But in this they were alike: undeterred by the barbs of critics, they trod their own particular paths and produced their written works under the command of their own unswerving convictions.


Of these three, Holmes was more in the world, more with his fellow men, tolerant yet critical of fools, cool and smooth in that speech rich with just the right metaphor, ever ready with the right anecdote to drive home a point. His head may have been too large for his body, his sloping shoulders too narrow, his waistline a bit too full, but before his audience, be it in a public lecture, with his cronies at the Saturday Club, or before his class at Harvard Medical School, he enlivened his listeners with his fresh spirit, sparkling wit, and astounding fund of information. He was a happy man, enjoyed a long life, and surely must never have allowed himself an idle moment. No worried introvert, he. Thoreau said, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation" (Walden: Economy). He wasn't thinking of Oliver Wendell Holmes when he wrote that. Holmes was neither desperate nor resigned. He enjoyed his old age when he was widowed and had as his joyful companion his daughter Amelia. His son was for many years one of the most honored jurists ever to serve on the United States Supreme Court.

Most likely the informed scholar of American Poetry would not place Holmes's work in the front rank. Yet it is all eminently readable and above all else it is understandable. His poetry was not made up of fragments of thought obscure to all but himself. They are poems of defined structure, with the clarity that comes with the use of simple words. They could tell a story with appealing whimsy and a gentle smile (The Last Leaf, 1831). They could poke the ribs of his own medical profession (The Stethoscope Song, 1848). They could rattle the pomposity of his own Calvinistic background and the Unitarian Church, with the collapse of the cart, the parson, and "logic" in front of the meetin' house (The Deacon's Masterpiece, or The Wonderful 'One-Hoss Shay,' 1858). What finer prayer than his … A Sun-day Hymn (1859)? Bryant's Thanatopsis (1811) is one of America's hallowed poems, and rightly so. But even more lyrical, even richer in hopeful outlook and without the somber overtones of Thanatopsis, Holmes's The Chambered Nautilus (1858) routs depression and makes the spirit soar. "Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul…." How could that last stanza be im proved? No wonder the Atlantic Monthly, to which Holmes was a major contributor, was a continuing publishing success. To me it is a great poem and his finest.

Besides the well-known Breakfast Table Series, which were poems and essays written as early as 1833, Holmes's prose works include that delightful account of a vacation in Europe with Amelia in the spring and summer of 1886. He visited old haunts from his student days in medical training at the University of Paris, but most of the trip was spent touring the cities, countryside, cathedrals, and historic sites of England. In this, Our Hundred Days in Europe (1887), the reader will make an armchair visit to places hallowed in British history, meet the cream of literary and social life, make the acquaintance of a direct descendant of that old curiosity, Sir Kenelm Digby, visit the shop of Bernard Quaritch, meet the founder-owner of that still-flourishing establishment, and wonder with Holmes at the collection of rare books and manuscripts there. (He remarked that the prices asked were high. Alas! they still are.) The reader is granted a brief visit with Tennyson and Palgrave and others equally famous and well-known to us.

A vein of kindly satire runs through all of Holmes's essays. These varied works, covering a wide range of subjects, are written with a steady flow of elegant prose backed by a massive knowledge of world history and literature from the time of the early classics, and especially with a knowledge of human nature with all its beauty as well as its meanness and warts. The essays and poetry have kept Holmes before us, for they are common readings in high school and college literature courses. His three novels, A Mortal Antipathy, The Guardian Angel, and Elsie Venner are less well-known. All are now dated, "unmodern." However, Elsie Venner (1861), if not the perfect novel as judged by structure, is nevertheless a powerful work, a masterful depiction of abnormal psychology, and proof of his ability as a physician to probe the psyche. It is a hint as to why Holmes was both a successful practitioner of medicine and a clear-eyed critic of the world about him.

With his education at Phillips Academy at Andover and his degree from Harvard in 1829, and with his father a learned historian and Congregational minister, the young Wendell of that era might have been expected to go into the ministry, devote himself to literature, or even study law, but instead he chose science. Though he continued to write poetry and essays throughout his life, Holmes was, by career, a physician. He had some of his first medical training in Boston, but the more formal part of it was in Paris, where his mentor was the famous general practitioner and pulmonary specialist, P. C. A. Louis at the Pitié Hospital. The first half of the nineteenth century were heady days in French medicine. That was the time of Magendie, of bloody Broussais and Bouillaud, of irreverent Ricord, of Malgaigne, Andral, Dupuytren, Duchenne, Brown-Séquard, Leuret, and Velpeau. Thus the young medical student was exposed to the best of contemporary French medical practice. He returned home with an appreciation for all of it except the unbridled bloodletting of certain of his teachers. For a man so honest, so direct and simple in his care of the sick, and for a man of his sensitive nature, such practices as that and overdosing the patient with useless and dangerous drugs was totally repugnant. His indig-nation is strongly stated in Medical Essays, published in 1861 and in many later editions.

In his lectures before various medical societies in and around Boston, in essays written especially for publication, and in his classroom lectures to medical students, the only strident notes one finds in the words of this kind man were directed toward all that is dishonest and incompetent in medical practice. In the essay Homeopathy and Its Kindred Delusions (1842), such patent fakes as Perkin's Metallic Tractors and Digby's "powders of sympathy," along with other quackery, were effectively reduced to their proper level. Hahnemann and homeopathy receive rough handling in this essay. To fully understand Holmes as a physician, one must have read these essays. His admonitions to medical students are as valid today as they were then, and could reasonably be required reading in the modern medical curriculum. He urged the teaching of medicine at the bedside, apprentice with master, directly observing the sick person. Much in books and lectures, he felt, was useless and a waste of time. These pungent essays, packed with wit and keen, sane observations, rich in historical lore, are impassioned with Holmes's great wish to clear out all the old fallacies and pretensions and to make simpler and more humane the medical career which he so highly esteemed. At times he was prophetic and accurately so, as one sees in his appreciation of Florence Nightingale, and in his belief that a day would come when nursing would be an honored profession, based on a structured plan for training.

Holmes accurately described the cause, nature, and prevention of puerperal fever before Ignaz Semmelweis took up the fight and published his famous book in 1861. Like Semmelweis, Holmes suffered bitter criticism and vicious attacks from such contemporaries as the famous and influential Charles D. Meigs of Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. But Holmes, knowing he was right and having a tougher skin than Semmelweis, let all this roll off his back and continued a successful fight, not suffering the fate of that tragic Viennese. American medicine was fortunate to have Oliver Wendell Holmes on stage at a time of ferment and change in medical knowledge and teaching, to have him set the facts straight in candid, unmistakable language, and boldly to associate errors with names, dates, and places.

Sometimes I have thought how much more pleasant some of my medical classes would have been if Oliver Wendell Holmes had been my teacher. A successful practitioner early in his career, he was thereafter for the rest of his life professor of anatomy at Harvard Medical School, where he was a much-beloved teacher. He did not slavishly follow the prescribed plan of lectures. Many "facts" that students must memorize he considered a wasteful approach to the actual care of the patient. He accused the curriculum of redundancy, too often concerned with science for science's sake. His lectures could ramble far and wide, only loosely related to the cadaver or skeleton under discussion, for his mind bubbled with historical allusions and colorful metaphors, making his lectures much more than a recitation of the facts of anatomy.

Long ago I heard a story told of Dr. Holmes that I like to believe is true and not apocryphal. One day this uniquely humane genius stood before his class, a skull in hand, intending to describe that most complicated of bones, the bone which has been the downfall of many a freshman medical student on examination day—the dreaded sphenoid bone. The greater and lesser wings, the various processes, canals, foramina and tuberosities, the fissures, margins, plates and recesses—Holmes did his best to put it together into a sensible, coherent demonstration. He became more and more entangled and hopelessly lost, and he for one time lacked words to say what he wished. So he abruptly stopped speaking, looked at the class, smiled, put the skull on the table before him, and quietly said, "Gentlemen, to hell with the sphenoid bone."

Anne Dalke (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: "Economics, or the Bosom Serpent: Oliver Wendell Holmes's Elsie Venner: A Romance of Destiny" in American Transcendental Quarterly, N. S., Vol. 2, No. 1, March, 1988, pp. 57-68.

[In the following essay, Dalke examines Holmes's intent in Elsie Venner: A Romance of Destiny, in which he argues that human beings cannot be held accountable for misdeeds because of their heredity.]

Oliver Wendell Holmes's first novel, Elsie Venner, has three prefaces, each allowing the reader less license than its predecessor. In the first, Holmes describes the book as a "romance," and leaves the reader to "judge for himself what "actually happened," what is "possible" and what "more or less probable" (vii). In the second preface Holmes much more pointedly explains that the aim of his story is "to test the doctrine of Original sin' and human responsibility." The thesis of the story is here presented in the form of a question: "Was Elsie Venner, poisoned by the venom of a crotalus before she was born, morally responsible…?" (ix-x). In the third preface Holmes says even more expressly that his novel is a tract, in which he "tried to make out a case for my poor Elsie, whom the most hardened theologian would find it hard to blame for her inherited ophidian tastes and tendencies." The "only use of the story," Holmes this time asserts, "is to bring the dogmas of inherited guilt and its consequences into a clearer point of view" (xii).

Critics have long observed that, by strongly emphasizing heredity and environment, Holmes "seemed to be teaching materialistic determinism no less binding than the Calvinistic predestination which he ridiculed" (LHUS, 1:598). In the novel the young schoolmaster Bernard Langdon argues, for example, that "Each of us is only the footing-up of a long sum in addition and subtraction" (74). Bernard's general equation is applied to a specific example, when Dudley Venner reflects on his daughter's strange behavior and detects "the impressive movement of hereditary impulse in looks and acts. To be a parent is almost to be a fatalist" (271). Holmes's theory, expressed by these characters, was that "our ancestors' lives shape ours; we cannot be held accountable. This was the doctrine of original sin turned inside out" (Parker 52).

The snake bite which Catalina Venner suffers, and which poisons Elsie before birth, thus functions both as a discounted symbol for original sin, and as a representative of inherited genetic tendencies. It also carries a range of association not described in Holmes's introduction. As Stanton Garner has suggested, the snake clearly has sexual implications (293). Mrs. Venner is vulnerable to attack because she is immobilized at home, and she is immobile because she is pregnant. The original sin, in Holmes's retelling of the story of Genesis, is a sexual transgression, and the knowledge attained is purely carnal. Catalina and Dudley Venner share that knowledge, "that one early summer when they walked arm in arm through the wilderness of roses that ran riot in the garden" (243). Their sympathetic union results in Elsie's isolation of being; the punishment for their Edenic experience is a child who is the embodiment of sexuality (Garner 293), but unable to love.

Gail Parker has discussed in detail the degree to which Holmes portrayed his anxiety and guilt about sexual impulses in his fiction, and the means he used to "make the evil phallic principle clear" (56). She has also suggested that "Holmes could never really sort out the components of the male role in his mind," that "concentrated sexual energy" and "concentrated mental energy," "phallicism" and "professionalism" become confused in his work (57). In Elsie Venner, the concentrated pursuit of economic success in particular becomes a substitute for sexual activity.

For characters other than Elsie, the forbidden activity of sex is transmuted not into isolation, but into financial engagement. With curious obliquity, sexuality is displayed as monetary desire throughout Elsie Venner. What Holmes presents as a disquisition on original/sexual sin is also the story of a "new" society in which money-getting replaces all other concerns, particularly the affectional.

Holmes's insistence that people should not be held morally responsible for misbehavior conditioned before birth is clearly central to Elsie Venner; asserted with increasing strength in each of his three introductions, it is also argued consistently by his spokesman in the novel proper, Dr. Kittredge. But Holmes does hold his characters accountable for one form of willed activity, in which all of them but Elsie engage: that of economic practice.

The money-grubbing world of this novel is a world which Holmes condemns, sometimes obliquely or ironically, sometimes roundly. All "commercial transactions in regard to the most sacred interests of life are hateful even to those who profit by them," he explains.

The clergyman, the physician, the teacher, must be paid; but each of them, if his duty be performed in the true spirit, can hardly help a shiver of disgust when money is counted out to him for administering the consolations of religion, for saving some precious life, for sowing the seeds of Christian civilization in young ingenuous souls. (171-172)

This catalogue omits the "sacred interest" of love, as expressed in courtship, but that interest clearly and repeatedly becomes an economic transaction in the course of the novel.

Holmes thus puts Elsie Venner to a use not mentioned in the multiple qualifications and restatements which preface the book, a use less time-worn than his explicit argument with Calvinism (which, by 1860, was a "negligible opponent" anyway; cf. Garner 283, Martin 115). By substituting economics for sex as a central motivation throughout the novel, Holmes explores the degree to which financial necessity and desire influence behavior. The economic motive impels all but the title character, who proves unfit to live in a "new" world where even Brahmins accomodate themselves to monetary considerations.

When the novel begins, Elsie Venner is attending classes at the Apollinean Institute, a school where the "business of instruction" is "incidental"; "its real business was making money by taking young girls in as boarders." The principal of the school has a single-minded intention: to make "just as much money in just as few years as could be safely done" (48). Silas Peckham tries very hard to get "the most work for the least money out of his assistants" and so "pocket[s]" the "profits" of their hard work (129). His establishment, "got up on commercial principles" (68), is a "rude market" in which at least one of his teachers, Helen Darley, has "bartered away the life of her youth" (124).

Silas Peckham and his employees are only the first of the residents of Rockland, Maine, who are introduced in monetary terms. The principal's "commercial spirit" is an accurate reflection of the whole town's (131). Even the most minor, and the most positive, characters are described in economic terms. Dr. Kittredge's hired man Abel Stebbins, for instance, "sold his time to the Doctor, and, having sold it … took care to fulfil his half of the bargain" (135).

If economics are an explicit concern in the town of Rockland, sex is a subliminal obsession for its residents. When Bernard Langdon arrives at the Apollinean Female Institute to begin his duties as schoolmaster, for example, he moves

about among these young girls day after day, his eyes meeting theirs, his breath mingling with theirs, his voice growing familiar to them … with its male depth and breadth of sound among the chorus of trebles, as if it were a river in which a hundred of these little piping streamlets might lose themselves. (174)

Such an attraction is unconscious, not quite understood: "Dear souls! they only half knew what they were doing" (175).

Holmes reinforces the obsession which underpins his novel by multiple allusions to the Biblical fall, in which he makes the sexual element paramount. Bernard Langdon, for example, experiences schoolteaching as a modern-day Adam responding to the overwhelming sexual attractions of Eve. The knowledge his pupil desires is clearly sensual as well:

What was there to distract him or disturb him? He did not know,—but there was something. This sumptuous creature, this Eve just within the gate of an untried Paradise, untutored in the ways of the world, but on tiptoe to reach the fruit of the tree of knowledge,—alive to the moist vitality of that warm atmosphere palpitating with voices and music….—this almost overwomanized woman might well have bewitched him. (105)

Schoolgirls entice Bernard Langdon to sexual consciousness; Elsie has done the same for her cousin Dick: "when those who parted as children meet as man and woman, there is always a renewal of that early experience which followed the taste of the forbidden fruit—a natural blush of consciousness, not without its charm" (157). Elsie herself describes Eve as "a good woman," and asserts that "she'd have done just so, if she'd been there" (256).

Significantly and repeatedly in this novel, such forces, which are implicitly sexual, are made literally economic. Sentimental relations become business operations, described in the language of finance, and with decided economic consequences. Economics replace affection, as financial interest becomes not only a means of expression but an open substitution for love. Sexual attraction is displaced by financial dealing, sentimental relations supplemented with economic ones. Sexual fantasies are presented as economic fears (cf. Baym 20, 28, 45; Dalke 295-296; Michaels 279).

The Widow Rowens, for example, is in search of a gentleman "with an ample fortune" (289); her hunt duplicates that of numerous "fair … dowerless ladies," who are "smiling and singing and fading" away (182). Those faded gentlewomen form a marked contrast to the flourishing Colonel Sprowle, who succeeds "in trade, and also by matrimony" (82) in achieving what they pursue so fruitlessly. The Colonel and his wife plan a great party as a quite literal means of offering their daughter for marriage in turn: "'There's one piece of goods,' said the Colonel to his wife, 'that we ha'n't disposed of, nor got a customer for yet…. Let's have a party, and give her a chance to show herself (83).

The Colonel describes his daughter as if she were an item of merchandise for sale. The young clerks who walk by the Institute, hoping to catch a word or a glance from the young ladies there, describe themselves in the same way: they use

that style of address … acquired in the retail business, as if the salesman were recommending himself to a customer,—"First-rate family article, Ma'am; warranted to wear a lifetime; just one yard and three quarters in this pattern, Ma'am; sha'n't I have the pleasure?" (174)

The replacement of affectional by financial language is perhaps most succinctly accomplished by Silas Peckham, who taunts Helen Darley on her return from the Dudley mansion-house:

"Hope the Squire treated you hahnsomely,—liberal pecooniary compensation,—hey? A'n't much of a loser, I guess, by acceptin' his propositions?" Helen blushed at this last question, as if Silas had meant something by it beyond asking what money she had received; but his own double-meaning expression and her blush were too nice points for him to have taken cognizance of. (471)

The distinction between the languages of love and of economics is too fine not only for Silas Peckham, but for most of the characters in this novel, who have substituted financial interest for affection. Their confusion is made explicit when Holmes describes love as a treasure which costs a great deal. It involves an expenditure which most people are unable to pay:

No man or woman can appropriate beauty without paying for it,—in endowments, in fortune, in position, in self-surrender, or other valuable stock; and there are a great many who are too poor, too ordinary, too humble, too busy, too proud, to pay any of these prices for it. (126)

The wealthiest family in Rockland remain, of course, as oblivious to financial concerns as they are to financial need. But it is precisely the inattention of Elsie Venner and her father to such matters which makes them vulnerable to the economic schemes of their closest relative. Dudley Venner does not imagine that his nephew Dick might "wish to become his son-in-law for the sake of his property" (271).

Dick carefully catalogues the attractions of his uncle's home—"The old house … fat with the deposits of rich generations which had gone before" (197)—and, with the air of an accountant, weighs them against the drawbacks "of establishing himself as the heir of the Dudley mansion house and fortune":

There was much to be said on both sides. It was a balance to be struck after the two columns were added up. He struck the balance, and came to the conclusion that he would fall in love with Elsie Venner…. business is business…. (198-199)

It was plain enough to him that the road to fortune was before him and that the first thing was to marry Elsie…. In short, he must have the property, and Elsie Venner, as she was to go with it…. (262-263)

For Dick, as for the smaller-minded schemer Silas Peckham, monetary gain is the single aim. All other actions are judged by that standard. Dick reflects, for instance, that he himself "was not principled against virtue, provided virtue were a better investment than its opposite" (264, my emphasis). Even moral issues are expressed in economic terms.

A confirmed fortune hunter, Dick assumes that all others share his motives. He attributes Elsie's attraction to Bernard Langdon to the scheming of the latter: "Estates like the Dudley property were not to had every day, and no doubt the Yankee usher was willing to take some pains to make sure of Elsie" (310). When Dick attempts to kill the schoolmaster, and so dispose of what he views as an economic rival, he is driven from town. But his departure fails to cleanse Rockland of the fortune-hunting impulse. It is embraced, and successfully realized, by his supposed opponent.

The keynote of Bernard Langdon's concern is sounded in the first chapter of the novel, "The Brahmin Caste of New England." There Holmes explains the lack of an American artistocracy, by tracing the usual cycle of large fortunes: "subdivided and distributed," they "diminish rapidly": "the millionocracy … is not at all an affair of persons and families, but a perpetual fact of money with a variable human element" (2). Money is long-standing, even permanent; its owners, however, change constantly.

Against this unsettled order Holmes juxtaposes the constancy of the Brahmins, a "harmless. inoffensive, untitled aristocracy" distinguished by its aptitude for learning (4). This "race of the hereditary scholar has exchanged a certain portion of its animal vigor for its new instincts"; it possesses only a "compromised and lowered vitality" (5).

It becomes very clear in the second chapter, when Holmes turns to the consideration of a particular young Brahmin, that the lack of vitality attributed to this class is less physiological than economic. To be sure, Bernard Langdon's face is a "little too place" (7), his jaw slightly narrowed, his whiskers thin; altogether he is a "delicate" and "reflective" "form of physical life" (8). But when Bernard speaks for the first time, the lack he displays is not one of physical vitality, but rather an habitual financial failing:

"There's trouble at home, and they cannot keep me here as they have done. So I must look out for myself for a while. It's what I've done before, and am ready to do again"…. our young man had been obliged, from an early period, to do something to support himself, and found himself stopped short in his studies by the inability of the good people at home to furnish him the present means of support as a student. (16)

The first act of Holmes's story, the decision of an impoverished young man to teach in a provincial town, is thus motivated by a need for cash. Like most other significant acts in Elsie Venner, Bernard's behavior has an economic cause. The young man goes into service for the money it will bring; he gives up his first position, in Pigwacket Centre, for "a proposition so much more agreeable and advantageous"—that is, with higher wages—in Rockland (40).

He there encounters a young lady assistant, who finds herself in precisely the same position as he:

She was dependent, frail, sensitive, conscientious. She was in the power of a hard, grasping, thin-blooded, tough-fibred, trading educator, who … meant to have his money's worth out of her brains, and as much more than his money's worth as he could get. (69)

Bernard Langdon discovers in Helen Darley a kindred spirit. Their companionship is one of displaced class:

When two persons of this exceptional breeding meet…. they seek each other's company at once by the natural law of elective affinity. It is wonderful how men and women know their peers. If two stranger queens, sole survivors of two shipwrecked vessels, were cast, half-naked, on a rock together, each would at once address the other as "Our Royal Sister." (74-75)

Like two dethroned monarchs, Bernard and Helen meet in the desolation that is Rockland (my emphasis), and revel in one another's gentle breeding. Bernard discovers, to his great pleasure, that Helen is a "lady"; "that word meant a good deal to the descendent of the courtly Wentworths and the scholarly Langdons" (75).

Much as Bernard comes to care for Helen Darley, he never considers her as a possible mate. She may be noble, but she is also poor. When the schoolmaster discovers that same nobility at the Widow Rowens' tea-party, attached to a fortune that is intact, the displacement of one companion by another is palpable. Bernard acknowledges that Helen "never looked more charmingly … but, to be sure, he had just been looking at the young girl next him, so that his eyes were brimful of beauty" (305). If Holmes presented Helen as a dethroned queen, Bernard imagines Letty Forrester as a princess, a potential ruler:

This thorough-bred schoolgirl quite enchanted Mr. Bernard. He could not understand where she got her style, her way of dress, her enunciation, her easy manners … this young girl [was] fit to be a Crown Prince's partner where there were a thousand to choose from. (304-305)

The use of the queenly metaphor points accurately to the relative finances of the two women, as well as to their relationships with Bernard. Helen has no estate but her breeding, while Letty is soon to add to her good breeding immense wealth. As decidedly as Dick Venner pursued his wealthy cousin, Bernard sets out to capture the heiress.

Fortune-hunting is not foreign to Bernard's family. His grandfather had engaged in that pursuit with some success:

It is a charming thing for the scholar, when his fortune carries him in this way…. His narrow study expands into a stately library, his books are counted by thousands … and his favorites are dressed in gilded calf…. The Reverend Jedediah Langdon, grandfather of our young gentleman, had made an advantageous alliance of this kind. (10-11)

If this minister did not worship the golden calf, he most assuredly surrounded himself with its images.

The activity which Holmes implicitly rebukes in the grandfather is pursued even more successfully by the grandson. In the mercenary world of this novel, as Bernard's professor makes clear from the first, it is imperative to sublimate the sexual urges to achieve monetary success. When the professor writes Bernard's recommendation, he hesitates to recommend him as a teacher for either sex, in fear that sexual dalliance, or "misalliance" (17), will hamper his career:

He should … work his way up to a better kind of practice,—better, that is, in the vulgar, worldly sense…. there would soon be an opening into the Doctor's Paradise…. I would not have him marry until he knew his level,—that is, again, looking at the matter in a purely worldly point of view, and not taking the sentiments at all into consideration. (19-20)

Bernard follows the professor's advice not to "undervalue" himself (482): he "took a genteel office, furnished it neatly, dressed with a certain elegance, soon made a circle of acquaintances, and began to work his way into the right kind of business" (484). This list of material successes is crowned by the announcement of Bernard's engagement to a woman who is ironically presented as the product, not of her parents, but of a financial concern: "'that is neither more nor less than Miss Letitia Forrester, daughter of—of—why, the great banking firm, you know, Bilyums Brothers and Forrester"' (485). Bernard ends the novel having surpassed not only his grandfather's achievement, but those of the "millionocracy" of Chapter One: he contemplates, in the novel's final pages, the potential billions of his wife's estate.

The real "romance of destiny" of the novel's subtitle thus belongs, quite clearly, to Bernard. It is he, and not Elsie, who realizes the destiny offered tantalizingly throughout the novel which bears her name, a destiny from which she is pointedly excluded: the possibility of improving oneself by marriage to money.

Bernard's romantic fate is not far different from that of Helen Darley, whose forthcoming marriage is also imagined in monetary terms. Dudley Venner's proposal surprises Helen because of the enormous economic difference between them:

a man like this … [who] lived in another sphere than hers, working as she was for her bread [,] a poor operative in the factory of a hard master and jealous overseer, the salaried drudge of Mr. Silas Peckham…. [was] a man so far removed from her in outward circumstance. (468).

Dudley Venner hopes to enjoy with his second wife the same unity of spirit he knew with his first. But that unity has a decidedly materialistic beginning. He makes his marriage plans public at the moment when Helen is deprived of her salary. Once more, the metaphor of queenship is invoked, this time to describe Helen's belated coming into wealth. Bernard begs Mr. Venner,

"as one of the Trustees of this Institution, to look at the manner in which its Principal has attempted to swindle this faithful teacher"…. Dudley Venner took the account and read it through…. Then he turned to Silas Peckham.

"You may make arrangements for a new assistant in the branches this lady has taught. Miss Helen Darley is to be my wife"…. Mr. Bernard … turned to Dudley Venner, and said,—

"She is a queen, but has never found it out. The world has nothing nobler than this dear woman, whom you have discovered in the disguise of a teacher." (479)

Helen Darley's marriage involves, as clearly as does Bernard Langdon's, a displacement. Helen can only marry Dudley Venner after his daughter has died, and after she herself has undertaken "the sisterly task" of nursing Elsie in her last illness (431). As Michael Paul Rogin observes,

Elsie Venner addressed anxieties over female sexual power and family breakdown. Holmes titillated those anxieties, [but then] defused them…. Elsie's death … frees the other characters…. After she dies, [her father] marries the school teacher…. [a] restoration of family happiness…. (185-186)

Indeed, the structural principle of Elsie Venner seems to be one of displacement. There is a continual shift in focus and emphasis throughout the novel. Its original narrator, the professor, is replaced by Dr. Kittredge as advisor to young Langdon. Dick's fortune-hunting activities are taken over by Bernard. Bernard's interest shifts from Helen to Letty, as Dudley's shifts from Elsie to Helen. Yet another significant displacement involves the two types of women Holmes portrays in this novel. The original means of distinguishing between them is purely aesthetic. The schoolgirls, for example, are contrasted by hue (50-51). Helen and Elsie are likewise first brought together in a chapter entitled "Sunbeam and Shadow." The Widow Rowens attempts—mistakenly—to plan her tea-party on the same principle of contrast, with Helen Darley as a faded foil to her own brilliant coloring:

"—why, yes, just the thing,—light brown hair, blue eyes,—won't my pattern show off well against her? … nobody knows what a 'thunder-and-lightening woman' … is, till she gets alongside one of those old-maidish girls, with hair the color of brown sugar, and eyes like the blue of a teacup." (292)

The varied complexions of these women represent, surely, their relative sexual natures. Holmes hints as much when he describes the "probable want of force" of Helen Darley (128), or when he compares her "femineity" with the "muliebrity," the "color and flavor" of the "tropical" young girls she teaches (126). But the sexual rivalry of such women is essentially an economic one, as the outcome of the tea-party makes clear. When Helen captivates Dudley's attention, and Letty Bernard's, the loss of the dark women is primarily monetary.

In an extended discussion, Leslie Fiedler argues that "the Dark Lady" represents "the hunger of the Protestant, Anglo-Saxon male … for the rich sexuality, the dangerous warmth he rejected as unworthy of his wife"—who is, of course, always a Fair Maiden. Fiedler suggests that Holmes deliberately exploits such a contrast in Elsie Venner,

where he sets up with some care the customary opposition of a "dependent, frail, sensitive" blue-eyed lady … and the darkeyed "ophidian" girl, Elsie, but he does not permit them to enter into the archetypal contest for the soul of the hero. (300-301)

That contest has been forestalled by another: Bernard is not an object of rivalry between Helen and Elsie because he himself is engaged in a different pursuit, that of getting cash from a well-to-do student. It is significant that the girl he marries, like Dudley Venner's second wife, is younger than her husband: he retains thereby a measure of superiority in a marriage to which she brings all the financial resources.

Fiedler maintains that the "class-war meanings" of the English sentimental novel are lost in America, whose culture could provide no artistocratic seducers to prey on poor young maidens (89). But those meanings have been transmuted: in the land without aristocracy which Holmes portrays in his first chapter, everyone is scrambling for cash. Bernard is in no position to play Lovelace or Don Juan, but he engages quite successfully in the pursuit of a wealthy wife.

The same novel which charts Bernard Langdon's accumulation of wealth, by hard work, good breeding and marriage, and the duplication of that accomplishment by Helen Darley, demonstrates as well Elsie Venner's exclusion from such activity. Elsie's stigmata prevent her from expressing or receiving affection. More remarkably, they represent her exclusion from the act of buying and selling which defines marriage for the other characters of this novel. In the climactic scene of this book, Elsie doesn't ask Bernard for money, nor—as she could easily do—offer it to him, but begs him instead for love. Bernard is patently unable to offer her the affection she so desperately needs: "'Give me your hand, dear Elsie, and trust me that I will be as true a friend to you as if we were children of the same mother'" (423).

Bernard offers Elsie a form of love not demonstrated anywhere in the world of this novel, where siblings do not exist. He offers a similar brotherly substitution to Helen Darley, who, in pursuit of her own fortune, accepts the appelation. But Elsie cannot accept, much less understand, the terms on which marriage is concluded by her peers. Her infection has disabled her for life in plutocratic society. She is a woman entirely out of date in Holmes's fiction: she seeks affection in a world in which destiny is, immutably, economic.

The exclusion of Elsie Venner thus becomes not only a judgment on out-moded theology, not only an exploration of genetic determinism, but also a commentary on the destructive economic practices of a "new" social order. What began as a treatise on original sin becomes criticism of a society in which wealth is the central obsession (cf. Garner 292, Martin 119).

Destiny in this book seems to be shaped as much by financial motive as by heredity. The "new" society is congenial only to certain genetic traits, those which involve an obsession with moneygetting. Holmes's targets are both old dogma and new belief: he passes judgment on forms of determinism that are theological and physiological, but he also criticizes financial motives. He supplements the predestination of the Calvinists and the blood line of the family with an equally powerful but much more worldly form of influence, that of money. The snake which bites Catalina Venner represents original sin, of a sexual nature, as well as inherited genetic tendencies; but it also represents a fall into the world of economics. The bite of the serpent, and the disruption which results, usher in an era in which, distressingly, all relationships are based on cash.

Works Cited

Baym, Nina. Women's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-70. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1978.

Dalke, Anne. '"The Shameless Woman is the Worst of Men': Sexual Aggression in Nineteenth-Century Sensational Novels." Studies in the Novel 18 (Fall 1986): 291-303.

Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel. Rev. ed. New York: Stein and Day, 1966.

Gallagher, Kathleen. "The Art of Snake Handling: Lamia, Elsie Venner, and 'Rappaccini's Daughter.'" Studies in American Fiction 3 (Spring 1975): 51-64.

Garner, Stanton. "Elsie Venner: Holmes's Deadly 'Book of Life.'" Huntington Library Quarterly 37 (May 1974): 283-298.

Holmes, Oliver Wendell. Elsie Venner: A Romance of Destiny. 1861; rpt. Standard Library Edition, 15 vols. Vol. 5. New York: Arno, 1976.

Martin, John Stephen. "The Novels of Oliver Wendell Holmes: A Re-interpretation." Literature and Ideas in America. Ed. Robert Falk. Columbus: Ohio University Press, 1975. 111-127.

Michaels, Walter Benn. "Dreiser's Financier: The Man of Business as a Man of Letters." American Realism: New Essays. Ed. Eric Sundquist. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982. 278-294.

Parker, Gail Thain. "Sex, Sentiment, and Oliver Wendell Holmes." Women's Studies 1 (1972): 47-63.

Rogin, Michael Paul. Subversive Geneology: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville. New York: Knopf, 1983.

Spiller, Robert E. et al., eds. "The New England Triumvirate: Longfellow, Holmes, Lowell." Literary History of the United States: History. 4th ed. rev. New York: Macmillan, 1974. 587-606.

Len Gougeon (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: "Holmes's Emerson and the Conservative Critique of Realism," in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 59, No. 1, January, 1994, pp. 107-25.

[In the following essay, Gougeon examines Holmes's attempt in his biography, Ralph Waldo Emerson, to make Emerson into an icon of cultural conservatism.]

The controversy generated by the emergence of American realism and naturalism in the post-Civil War period affected not only the criticism directed toward contemporary representatives of the movement but also critical interpretations of the works of previously established and highly regarded authors. Not surprisingly, in some cases deliberate efforts were made by opposing camps to appropriate the authority of past idols in order to reinforce arguments for or against the new realism and naturalism. Nowhere is evidence of this historic literary controversy more apparent than in the critical discussions of Ralph Waldo Emerson that appeared at this time. The following narrative documents the redoubtable efforts of Oliver Wendell Holmes to create, in his 1884 biography of Emerson, and later in the pages of the Atlantic Monthly, an icon of cultural conservatism. Holmes's efforts would, in turn, find a counterpoint in a critical response from one of America's foremost literary figures of the time, William Dean Howells. For Howells, Emerson was a harbinger of literary revolution.

Oliver Wendell Holmes was one of the nineteenth century's most prominent custodians of the "genteel tradition" in American culture. These individuals are described by Daniel Aaron as "men and women of culture and taste who did their best to mitigate the crudities of the Gilded Age" and who "glanced back nostalgically to the myth of unspoiled homogeneous America, and shrank from the squalor, violence, and vulgarity of their own times." Offering more than a brief stay against confusion, these stalwart souls "plumped for unchanging moral values and traditional culture. They closed ranks against naturalism, literary experimentation, and social heterodoxy, against any movement that might endanger … the 'spiritual rootage of art'" (734, 735). All of these values would emerge conspicuously in Holmes's popular biography Ralph Waldo Emerson, published by Houghton, Mifflin and Company in their prestigious American Men of Letters series in 1884. This biography has always been an influential work, and it remains very firmly established in the canon of Emerson scholarship to this day.1

Holmes's conservative and genteel values are expressed throughout the biography in a variety of subtle and sometimes surprising ways, not the least of which are the unflattering allusions he makes to two of Emerson's best-known literary contemporaries and friends, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. While these references are relatively brief, it is clear from Holmes's working notes in his papers at the Library of Congress that the Brahmin saw them both as representatives of the Zola school of literary realism, that is, as writers who rejected the traditional rules of both literary and social decorum. In his view these individuals sought to nullify civilization and in the process reduce literary subject matter to a disgusting "slop-pail" level. The notes also suggest that Holmes was clearly disturbed by Emerson's consistent admiration for, and support of, both Thoreau and Whitman. While readers familiar with Emerson's essay "The Poet" would have no trouble in understanding his admiration for Whitman, and those familiar with "Self-Reliance" could not be puzzled by his high regard for Thoreau, for Holmes these relationships presented a problem, and possibly an opportunity. By criticizing both Thoreau and Whitman for what he considered to be their degenerate eccentricities, Holmes could deflect such criticisms from Emerson and thus preserve, for the most part, a decidedly conservative view of the man.

In the large bound volume of handwritten notes used in preparing the biography, Holmes initially associates Thoreau's experiment at Walden Pond with the failed transcendentalist community at Brook Farm.2 For Holmes, both of these enterprises were the products of a pernicious tendency toward whimsy. Of course it was Emerson himself who had once claimed in "Self Reliance," "I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation" (Collected Works 2: 30). And it was also Emerson who consistently encouraged others to challenge the placid assumptions of the world about and to follow their instincts regardless of society's judgments. For Holmes such inclinations could lead to unwholesome consequences that he felt, or chose to assert, Emerson would never have approved. In his view Thoreau and Whitman provided two good examples of such excess. Holmes's notation reads as follows:

Brook Farm

Its failure. Conduct of Life 112.3

Thoreau who worked out one whim as Brook Farm worked out another.

He goes on to note:

Thoreau a great boy—we all like to build huts when we are boys and make ourselves uncomfortable in every ingenious way possible. (1)

While this Thoreauvian whimsy may appear innocuous enough to most, for Holmes such puerile lawlessness inevitably leads one away from conventional civilization and its standards and discipline. Inevitably, it is a course fraught with danger. Hence, he notes further:

Thoreau, Walt Whitman. One dispensed with the architect and the cook, the other with the tailor, at last in Zola we reached the scavenger and the slop-pail. Antisthenes the first cynic with the holes in his coat. (2)

These observations then lead Holmes into something of a conundrum. What did Emerson, whom Holmes depicts as the epitome of conservative, civilized, and "genteel" values, see in these individuals during his lifelong relationships with them? How could he admire such men? When considering the topic of the "Influence of others on E.," Holmes asks in his notebook: "What was the meaning for his fancy for Walt Whitman? Of his liking for Thoreau and for others."

A typescript of these handwritten notes provides some additional materials, as well as some further insights into Holmes's view of Whitman and Thoreau.4 This typescript includes the following statement under the heading "Influence of E. on others."

Influence on Thoreau, Whitman, Alcott, Channing and others.

Relation between Thoreau and Whitman; what they had in common.

Under the heading "Influence of others on E." in the typescript, Holmes again asks, "What is the meaning of his fancy for Walt Whitman? Of his liking for Thoreau and others?" and he then records the following "Comments."

Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Zola. Scavenger and slop pail.

E's mind acted on a second series of minds and his force was by them converted into definite action. Th. Parker was the best example of this. But look at Brownson, Father Hecker, W. Channing, Mrs. Ripley. The ridiculous in Transcendentalism, see Cranch's caricatures. Also Conway page 233.5

These comments suggest the strategy that Holmes eventually devised for the troublesome conundrum of Emerson's personal relationships. He simply asserted that Emerson's influence on others was a philosophical rather than a practical one. These "others," Holmes insists, would put into practice what Emerson preached, but not necessarily in ways he would have approved. By offering this condemnation of the other two, Holmes could implicitly defend Emerson against similar charges by insisting that he would not have approved such conduct and never intended to encourage such "excess." Thus we have the "ridiculousness" of transcendentalism, especially as represented in the example of Brook Farm; the pernicious "whimsy" of Thoreau's experiment at Walden Pond; and the "slop-pail" poetry of Walt Whitman. Holmes goes on to note:

E's assertion of the individual to be found in Thoreau's cabin, in Brook farm, Walt Whitman, T. Parker, etc.

See E's lect. on the Times what he says about reforms, abolition, etc.

Walt Whitman threw the sponge and thought he should make a picture.

All of these views are finally developed in the biography but in a somewhat adumbrated way. For example, Holmes's first reference to Thoreau in the work itself does not mention him by name but his identity is obvious enough. In discussing Concord's reputation for producing unique characters, Holmes refers, among others, to "that unique individual, half college-graduate and half Algonquin, the Robinson Crusoe of Walden Pond, who carried out a school-boy whim to its full proportions, and told the story of Nature in undress as only one who had hidden in her bedroom could have told it" (72).6 The associations Holmes makes here are clear and certainly less than flattering to say the least. Not only is Thoreau's sojourn at Walden Pond seen as little more than a schoolboy's whim, as suggested in Holmes's notes, but Thoreau's exposure to raw nature seems almost prurient—which is undoubtedly, in his mind at least, one of the untoward consequences of nullifying civilization.

Additionally, for Holmes, Thoreau's primitive sojourn at Walden was lacking in "common sense," and in the biography he is at pains to distance Emerson from it. Even though Emerson was known to have experimented with a variety of social schemes in his own household and was open to a variety of strategies for bringing about the general reform of society, Holmes assures his readers that "[i]t would never have occurred to him [Emerson] to leave all the conveniences and comforts of life to go and dwell in a shanty, so as to prove to himself that he could live like a savage, or like his friends 'Teague and his jade,' as he called the man and brother and sister, more commonly known nowadays as Pat, or Patrick, and his old woman" (143). As Holmes would have it, Thoreau's move to Walden Pond would have been seen by Emerson as tantamount to an atavistic reversion to a life-style characteristic of the poor and primitive Irish, a life-style from which civilized New Englanders had long ago evolved.

As suggested by his notes, Holmes saw the failure of Brook Farm as the result of the same kind of whimsy and impracticality represented in Thoreau's experiment. At one point, when discussing Emerson's 1844 lecture "New England Reformers," he points out that "[t]he Brook Farm experiment was an index of the state of mind among one section of the Reformers of whom he [Emerson] was writing." The purpose of this group, according to Holmes, was "[t]o remodel society and the world into a 'happy family' …" (189). Thus, "Some attacked one part of the old system, some another; … one was for a phalanstery, where all should live in common, and another was meditating the plan and place of the wigwam where he was to dwell apart in the proud independence of the woodchuck and the musquash." In Holmes's view Emerson could never have approved of such an addled enterprise. He goes on to note that while "Emerson had the largest and kindliest sympathy with their ideals and aims, … he was too cleareyed not to see through the whims and extravagances of the unpractical experiments" (189). To reinforce even further this dissociation of Emerson from the extravagant "whimsy" of such reformers, Holmes assures his readers that "Emerson has had the name of being a leader in many movements in which he had very limited confidence" and that, while "the idealizing impulse derived from him lent its force" to such groups, "he was in no sense responsible" for their organization. According to Holmes, Emerson's "sympathies were not allowed to mislead him; he knew human nature too well to believe in a Noah's ark full of idealists" (191).

If Thoreau did have a redeeming characteristic for Holmes, it was his clarity of vision in perceiving the natural world. "Thoreau," says Holmes, lent Emerson "a new set of organs of sense of wonderful delicacy." While Emerson "looked at nature as a poet, and his natural history, if left to himself, would have been as vague as that of Polonius, … Thoreau had a pair of eyes which, like those of the Indian deity, could see the smallest emmet on the blackest stone in the darkest night,—or come nearer to seeing it than those of most mortals." According to Holmes, "Emerson's long intimacy with [Thoreau] taught him to give an outline to many natural objects which would have been poetic nebulae to him but for this companionship" (389).

Here again, however, this closeness to nature was fraught with danger, as Holmes would point out when speaking of Whitman. Interestingly enough, the unusual association of Thoreau and Whitman and Zola is only suggested in the biography and never overtly made as it is in the notes. As Holmes's notes make clear, however, he saw all three as being in the same literary boat. Additionally, Holmes's concern with distancing Emerson from Whitman at this time was undoubtedly amplified because just two years earlier Leaves of Grass had been "banned in Boston." On 1 March 1882 the District Attorney of Boston notified Whitman's publisher, Osgood and Company, that he had officially classified Leaves of Grass as obscene literature and demanded substantive deletions of offensive materials from the work. After a brief and unsuccessful negotiation with Whitman, who refused to make the changes, Osgood ceased publication of the book. The case caused a great deal of notoriety at the time (Allen 498-99).

When speaking of the natural quality of Emerson's poetic diction, a characteristic that he attributes in part to Thoreau's influence in the statement above, Holmes asserts that Emerson "called upon the poet to 'Tell men what they knew before ;/Paint the prospect from their door,' "7 and he insists that "his practice was like his counsel." Emerson, he says, "saw our plain New England life with as honest New England eyes as ever looked at a huckleberry-bush or into a milking-pail." However, according to Holmes, "this noble quality of his had its dangerous side. In one of his exalted moods he would have us 'Give to barrows, trays and pans/Grace and glimmer of romance'" (324-25).8 The "danger" here, of course, is that by directing the poet's attention to the mundane and potentially tawdry elements of the real world about, the elegant, the civilized, and, for Holmes, the truly poetic quality of life is lost. Consequently, to compensate for this dangerous tendency, Holmes offers an ingenious corrective taken from Emerson's own writings. From Emerson's lecture "Poetry and Imagination," he quotes the following: "What we once admired as poetry has long since come to be a sound of tin pans; and many of our later books we have outgrown. Perhaps Homer and Milton will be tin pans yet" (Emerson Complete Works 8: 68; qtd. in Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson 325). While Emerson's point here is obviously that the poetry of the past does not always wear well, that it eventually becomes like the sound of "tin pans" and must be foregone in favor of the new, Holmes offers the following interpretation that makes the tin pans, not poetry, the object of Emerson's comment: "The 'grace and glimmer of romance' which were to invest the tin pan are," he says, "forgotten," and Emerson "uses it as a belittling object for comparison." Following this rather extraordinary feat of verbal legerdemain, Holmes assures his readers that Emerson himself "was not often betrayed into the mistake of confounding the prosaic with the poetical, but his followers, so far as the 'realists' have taken their hint from him, have done it most thoroughly" (325).

In this discussion of Emerson's poetics, Holmes goes on to make specific reference to Whitman. In Holmes's view the poetic principles articulated by Emerson must be interpreted with common sense and reasonable restraint lest they mislead one. Unfortunately, in Holmes's opinion, it is the latter that has frequently happened. Just as Emerson's philosophy of individualism had been perverted into an uncivilized and whimsical impracticality at Walden Pond and Brook Farm, so too the literary "realists" are now perverting his poetic principles into a disgusting preference for the lowly and offensive. For Holmes this addled "realistic" tendency of some who claim to be Emerson's cohorts is indicative of the assault on established literary values generally. One of the chief American offenders in this regard, as Holmes would have it, is Walt Whitman. "Mr. Whitman," says Holmes, "enumerates all the objects he happens to be looking at as if they were equally suggestive to the poetical mind, furnishing his reader a large assortment on which he may exercise the fullest freedom of selection." This, he says, "is only giving him the same liberty that Lord Timothy Dexter allowed his readers in the matter of punctuation, by leaving all stops out of his sentences, and printing at the end of his book a page of commas, semicolons, colons, periods, notes of interrogation and exclamation, with which the reader is expected to 'pepper' the pages as he might see fit" (325-26).9

The criticism here is tame enough but for Holmes, as his notes make clear, this tendency leaves both Thoreau and Whitman dangerously close to the corruption of European realism and naturalism, the influence of which was manifesting itself just then in the rise of a new generation of American writers that included Mark Twain, Henry James, William Dean Howells, and several others. Shoring up the crumbling literary citadel of Boston in the face of this onslaught was a constant concern to Holmes, and he never missed an opportunity to fire a shot. Consequently, making what must have seemed something of a surprising leap to his readers, Holmes goes on directly to state: "French realism does not stop at the tin pan, but must deal with the slop-pail and the wash-tub as if it were literally true that 'In the mud and scum of things/There alway, alway something sings.'"10 Holmes further states; "Happy were it for the world if M. Zola and his tribe would stop even there; but when they cross the borders of science into its infected districts, leaving behind them the reserve and delicacy which the genuine scientific observer never forgets to carry with him, they disgust even those to whom the worst scenes they describe are too wretchedly familiar" (326). Holmes always felt a strong antipathy toward Zola and the corrupting realistic/naturalistic movement in literature that he represented. Eleanor Tilton notes that Holmes told a correspondent in September of 1885 that "the naturalism of 'unwashed Zola' offered him nothing"; she notes further that, in his notebook for his appropriately titled novel, A Mortal Antipathy (1885), he expressed the opinion that it was "time for the decently immoral to interfere with the nauseating realism of Zola and the rest" (352, 353). "The rest" in this case would include Flaubert, whose Madame Bovary (1857) Holmes found particularly offensive.

Following the publication of his biography, Holmes would frequently invoke his conservative image of Emerson while continuing the struggle against literary innovation. For the most part, he relied upon his easy access to the pages of the Atlantic Monthly to provide an outlet for his views. However, with changing times and the accelerating acceptance of realism and naturalism in the late 1880s and early 1890s, his position would become increasingly difficult to maintain. Additionally, there were other powerful figures on the literary scene who would frequently turn to Emerson's writings in defending the dreaded infidels. Not the least of these champions of realism was William Dean Howells.

It is somewhat ironic that very early in his literary career Howells was declared the heir apparent to the New England literary tradition by Oliver Wendell Holmes.11 During his years as editor of the Atlantic Monthly, 1871-81, Holmes was something of a mentor, and a nemesis, to him. Howells, in return, was dutiful. As Kenneth Lynn points out, during the time of his editorship, when Holmes "submitted his literary work to the Atlantic, … Howells never failed to accept it. [And] after Howells began to write novels in the early 1870s, Holmes not only read them, but also monitored them for social errors" (96). Eventually, however, Howells came to feel an increasing tension between his growing commitment to the principles and practices of literary realism and the traditional dedication of the Atlantic to an increasingly effete romantic idealism, represented most immediately to Howells by the aging Holmes as well as Longfellow, Lowell, and others. By 1882 Howells was, as he told a correspondent at the time, "reading everything of Zola's that [he could] get [his] hands on" and feeling increasingly cramped by his Boston environment (qtd. in Lynn 258). (Holmes literally lived two doors down from him on Beacon Street.) After moving to New York in 1889, a cultural world away from Boston, Howells would continue to show a public deference toward the aged Holmes, but in his monthly "Editor's Study" column, he would openly promote the cause of realism and the works of continental and British authors in words that must have made Holmes's ears burn. Indeed, Lynn indicates "that Howells was possessed by a new boldness of purpose and imaginative freedom [that were] made explicit at the very outset of his career at Harper's…. The proprietor of 'The Editor's Study' made it clear that he would review mostly novels, because in his bluntly stated opinion they constituted 'the only living movement in imaginative literature.' Various 'professors' were given to denunciations of this new literature, which they justified by pointing to 'certain objectionable French novels,' yet Howells not only went on to defend the masters of the modern novel, but he did so with a flamboyant scorn for the detractors that reminded some observers of Mark Twain's remarkable zest for verbal battle" (285).12

Holmes was undoubtedly hurt by his proétgé's transition from apostle to apostate but he never said so publicly. However, from the pages of his own Atlantic Monthly column, "Over the Teacups," Holmes continued the good fight against the emerging realism and naturalism and often seemed to engage his former protégé in a point-counterpoint argument on the question of literary tastes and values. Eventually in 1891 both writers published selections from their columns. Howells's appeared as the well-known Criticism and Fiction, while Holmes retained Over the Teacups for his title. Holmes was no doubt encouraged in his efforts to defend gentility in literature by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, who had assumed editorship of the Atlantic in 1881 after Howells's departure. As Willard Thorp has pointed out, Aldrich "and his friends R. H. Stoddard and E. C. Stedman … were bent on upholding the Ideal in literature. They despised naturalism (an abominable Gaulish invention of Zola and Flaubert) and fought to keep American letters free from its taint." In their eyes, literature should always "be the preserver of the True and the Beautiful" (4).

In his columns Holmes not only frequently invoked Emerson's name and reputation in making his arguments against literary innovation, but he also continued his simultaneous attacks on Whitman, who was himself an increasingly important figure on the American literary scene. For his part, Howells frequently invoked Emerson in his defense of realism and naturalism and, additionally, often praised Walt Whitman for his literary innovation and boldness. The following exchange is representative.

In his "Editor's Study" column in the February 1888 issue of Harper's, Howells published a brief review of James Elliot Cabot's recent biography, A Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The Memoir itself, while in no way radically revisionist, did serve as something of a corrective to the image of Emerson projected by Holmes. Among other things, it brought forward more clearly Emerson's role as social reformer and literary nonconformist. In his review Howells respectfully asserts that "in humanity, as in his theories of what literature should be to us, Emerson is still the foremost of all our seers, and will be so a hundred years hence." It is, however, primarily Emerson's revolutionary spirit that appeals to Howells, who was promoting literary revolution himself. He goes on to say of Emerson, "every new thing, every new thought, challenged him: abolition, Brook Farm, Walt Whitman: he was just to each and, with Emerson as with all high souls, to be just was to be generous" (478), a position diametrically opposite to that taken by Holmes in his biographical study.

Howells is particularly interested in the Emerson/Whitman relationship and the one flaw that he finds in Cabot's study is that "he has not touched at all one of the most interesting facts, from a literary point of view, in Emerson's history," namely, Emerson's "perception of the great and fruitful elements in Walt Whitman's work" (478). While allowing for certain occasional reservations on the moral side, Howells asserts that "there is no doubt that Emerson felt a keen sympathy with the aesthetic revolt so courageously embodied" in Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Comparing Whitman and Emerson as poets, Howells contends that the former is clearly the greater of the two, but he does point out that Emerson's verse was also often unconventional and innovative, and "in a certain beautiful lawlessness expresses … his impatience with smoothness and regularity, his joy in a fractured surface, a broken edge, his exultation in a pace or two outside the traces." Ultimately, according to Howells, both Whitman and Emerson "could foresee the advantages of bringing poetry nearer to the language and the carriage of life" (479), which, of course, was the agenda of the realistic movement.

Not surprisingly, then, as if to confirm Holmes's very fears in this regard, Howells suggests just such an association in terms of the realistic movement. He says of Emerson and Whitman, "[W]e have been thinking of them in connection with a passage of recent criticism in the World newspaper reviewing one of the late translations of Tolstoi. The writer has discovered that 'the Russian absolutely ignores all rules, all efforts at an artistic roundness and finish. He finds life without artistic roundness, and he draws it as he sees it.'" While Howells allows that Whitman has more of a "literary consciousness" than Tolstoi, on the basis of Whitman's conscious rebellion against such a literary consciousness, the result is very much the same in each case, a new and realistic depiction of life without the intervention of literary convention. A few lines later in the article, Howells suggests that Zola is also reasonably successful in this regard since only "half the time [does he] give you the sense of book-making" (479). In his Harper's column of February 1889, Howells returns to the subject of literary realism again in a review of Whitman's recently published November Boughs. In the review he again reflects upon Whitman's revolutionary greatness as a poet and contends that Whitman "produced a new kind in literature, which we may or may not allow to be poetry, but which we cannot deny is something eloquent, suggestive, moving, with a lawless, formless beauty of its own." Because of this, Whitman "dealt literary conventionality one of those blows which eventually show as internal injuries, whatever the immediate effect seems to be." The end result is that "he made it possible for poetry hereafter to be more direct and natural than hitherto." This "naturalness" Howells also finds characteristic of Whitman's prose, and once again he connects him with the Russian realists. The prose passages in Whitman's volume, says Howells, "are alive with a simple pathos and instinct with a love of truth which recall the best new Russian work" (488). Later in the same article, Howells again dutifully refers to Emerson as America's most outstanding writer by the consensus of critics (489). However, Howells's concept of greatness undoubtedly derives from criteria much different from those which might be employed by the likes of Holmes.

Later, in his November 1889 "Editor's Study" column, Howells would make what is probably his most direct and sustained argument for the new realism and naturalism. Not surprisingly, he once again invokes Emerson in justifying his literary values. The lengthy article begins by addressing the question of degeneracy in literary art, a degeneracy wherein "the ugly can come to be preferred to the beautiful" (962). This, of course, was the very danger that Holmes and other genteel critics warned about, the descent to the "slop-pail." In answering charges that realism and naturalism lead inevitably to such decline, Howells turns to the Spanish novelist Armando Placio Valdes, long a favorite of his, and the essay on fiction "with which he prefaces his last novel," The Sister of San Sulpizio, which had not yet been translated from the Spanish. "Señor Valdes," says Howells, "is a realist but a realist according to his own conception of realism, and he has some words of just censure for the French naturalists, whom he finds unnecessarily … nasty." The censure, however, is not universal, and Valdes himself holds that "naturalistic art … is not immoral in itself " In fact, when referring to the " 'prototype of this literature, … Madame Bovary of Flaubert,' " Valdes states, "'I am an admirer of this novelist, and especially of this novel.'" The naturalistic form, then, is immoral only when pushed to unnecessary extremes by unscrupulous practitioners. For his part, Howells adds that "French naturalism is better at its worst than French unnaturalism at its best" (963).

The ideal, according to both Valdes and Howells, and in direct opposition to Holmes, is to depict things as they are and to exclude nothing a priori from artistic view. Paraphrasing Valdes, Howells writes that "beauty … exists in the human spirit, and is the beautiful effect which it receives from the true meaning of things; it does not matter what the things are, and it is the function of the artist who feels this effect to impart it to others." He goes on, extrapolating from Valdes: "[W]e might add that there is no joy in art except this perception of the meaning of things and its communication; when you have felt it, and told it in a poem, a symphony, a novel, a statue, a picture, an edifice, you have fulfilled the purpose for which you were born as an artist" (963). All of this, of course, sounds very Emersonian (or Thoreauvian, or Whitmanesque for that matter), as Howells is undoubtedly well aware. However, it is not the romanticism of these classic authors that he admires, but their realism, their dedication to the notion that literature should address immediate life in all its forms without concern for effete (or genteel) concepts of literary propriety regarding subject matter and style. The past is past for Howells, and "those who continue to celebrate the heroic adventures of Puss in Boots and the hairbreadth escapes of Tom Thumb, under various aliases, only cast disrespect upon the immortals, who have passed beyond these noises" (964).

At the conclusion of his lengthy article—which touches upon the writings of Jane Austen, Tolstoi, Dostoyevsky, George Sand, and Charles Dickens, among others—Howells, quoting from Emerson, contends that, like Emerson, Valdes "believes that 'the foolish man wonders at the unusual, but the wise man at the usual'; that 'the perception of the worth of the vulgar is fruitful in discoveries.' Like Emerson, he 'asks not for the great, the remote, the romantic'; he 'embraces the common,' he 'sits at the feet of the familiar and the low.' " Using Valdes's words, he states: " '[T]hings that appear ugliest in reality to the spectator who is not an artist are transformed into beauty and poetry when the spirit of the artist possesses itself of them' " (966), a thought that clearly echoes Emerson's view of the artist as expressed in "The Poet," where he says, "For it is dislocation and detachment from the life of God, that makes things ugly, the poet, who re-attaches things to nature and the Whole—re-attaching even artificial things, and violations of nature, to nature, by a deeper insight,—disposes very easily of the most disagreeable facts" (Collected Works 3:11). In this context the sentiment leads directly to the notion that all matters, regardless of their ugliness, are potentially fit subjects for a truthful literature and, hence, to Howells's famous dictum: "Realism is nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material."13

Holmes may very well have taken notice of his former protégé's exposition of literary theory conjoining Emerson, Whitman, and the new realists and naturalists; very shortly he attacked Flaubert specifically, along with Whitman and Zola, in articles in the Atlantic Monthly, both repeating and expanding upon the charges first made in his biography of Emerson. In his "Over the Teacups" column in the April 1890 issue, Holmes admits that Madame Bovary is "famous for its realism" and "is recognized as one of the earliest and most brilliant examples of that modern style of novel which, beginning where Balzac left off, attempted to do for literature what the photograph has done for art." However, he goes on to note that "for those who take the trouble to drink out of the cup below the rim of honey, there is a scene where realism is carried to its extreme,—surpassed in horror by no writer, unless it be the one whose name must be looked for at the bottom of the alphabet [Zola], as if its natural place were as low down in the dregs of realism as it could find itself." The scene Holmes found so repulsive was "the death bed where Madame Bovary expires in convulsions" (555). For Holmes, the offensiveness of this scene suggests the fundamental flaw of contemporary realistic and naturalistic writing. As he goes on to note, "the first great mistake made by the ultra-realists like Flaubert and Zola is … their ignoring the line of distinction between imaginative art and science. We can find realism enough in books of anatomy, surgery, and medicine. In studying the human figure, we want to see it clothed in its natural integuments." For the genteel Boston physician, "this is the gravest accusation to bring against realism, old or recent…. Leave the description of the drains and cesspools to the physician, the details of the laundry to the washerwoman." Obviously, for Holmes, not all subjects are elevating, or proper, or fit for literary treatment. Ultimately he suggests, "[I]f we are to have realism in its tedious descriptions of unimportant particulars, let it be of particulars which do not excite disgust" (556).

Later in the year, in the September issue of the Atlantic, Holmes would make essentially the same charge of literary crudity against Whitman, while offering Emerson as a sterling example of literary decorum, thus carrying on the dichotomy first suggested in the biography six years earlier. In the article Holmes points to Emerson as a literary innovator and, speaking of his own study, notes that "one of Mr. Emerson's biographers has claimed that his Phi Beta Kappa Oration was our Declaration of Literary Independence." However, as Holmes would now have it, independence has its limits, and he is quick to remind his audience that "Mr. Emerson did not cut himself loose from all the traditions of Old World scholarship. He spelt his words correctly, he constructed his sentences grammatically. He adhered to the slavish rules of propriety, and observed the reticences which a traditional delicacy has considered inviolable in decent society." To make his point absolutely clear, Holmes goes on to note that when Emerson "wrote poetry he commonly selected subjects which seemed adapted to poetical treatment,—apparently thinking that all things were not equally calculated to inspire the true poet's genius." While recognizing that Emerson did, in fact, make an effort throughout his career to expand the traditional horizons of the artist, Holmes insists that, nevertheless, Emerson "chiefly restricted himself to subjects such as a fastidious conventionalism would approve as having a certain fitness for poetical treatment" (388).

Whitman, however, is another story. In what appears to be a direct response to Howells's recent linkage of the two, Holmes is once again at pains to point out that there is a world of difference between them. For Holmes, Whitman's sins remain legion and, perhaps most distressingly, they place him, as Howells had so recently demonstrated, squarely in the vanguard of the disgusting "ultra-realists" who had been now for some time battering the foundations of polite civilization. Whitman, says Holmes, "takes into his hospitable vocabulary words which no English dictionary recognizes as belonging to the language,—words which will be looked for in vain outside of his own pages." This stylisticl sinfulness, however, is only a symptom of a more serious literary corruption, namely, that Whitman, like Zola, Flaubert, and the other "ultra-realists," "accepts as poetical subjects all things alike, common and unclean, without discrimination, miscellaneous as the contents of the great sheet which Peter saw let down from heaven" (388).

Holmes, of course, was not alone among the New England Brahmins in associating Whitman with such slop-pail realism. As Gay Wilson Allen points out, "the more genteel poets, like Longfellow, Holmes, and Lowell, were never to find anything to admire in Leaves of Grass" (174). Indeed, the Brahmins seemed agreed on the unacceptable crudity and "realism" reflected in the style and diction as well as the subject matter of most of Whitman's work, and they were undoubtedly chagrined by Howells's defense of such muck. In a poem prepared in February of 1889, the same month as Howells's Harper's article praising Whitman's November Boughs, Holmes satirizes Whitman's work for its randomness and barbarity:

Or is it he whose random venture throws
His lawless whimseys into moonstruck prose,
Where they who worship the barbarian's creed
Will find a rhythmic cadence as they read,
(qtd. in Tilton 375)

The occasion for the piece was, appropriately, a birthday gathering for James Russell Lowell.

Oliver Wendell Holmes died in 1894 and Howells, in 1920. Slowly, and inevitably, the "genteel tradition," which the former had so gallantly championed throughout his lifetime, gave way to the inexorable forces of cultural change. The battle, of course, was lost even before Holmes drew his last breath, as American writers such as Mark Twain, Henry James, and Howells himself, as well as many others, achieved prominence and recognition as "realists." By the turn of the century, American naturalism would achieve maturity in the powerful Zolaesque writings of Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and others. Holmes might have taken some comfort from the fact that the reputation of Ralph Waldo Emerson would endure throughout the long process of evolutionary change, although he undoubtedly would not have recognized today's Emerson as the subject of his own conservative writings.


1 Holmes's Emerson biography has been reprinted many times since its original publication; opinions of the work, however, have not been uniformly positive. Eleanor Tilton, in her definitive biography of Holmes, states that the work is "useless for the modern student of Emerson" (344). Many Emerson scholars, however, hold a generally favorable view. Frederick Carpenter, in his influential Emerson Handbook, refers to the work as "a readable biography containing much original material, and emphasizing Emerson's social relations. Good as biography … but often poor as criticism" (47). Joel Porte, in his introduction to the Chelsea House edition of the work, states that "Holmes and Emerson had much in common" and that the biography is "peppered with shrewd observations and sound judgments" (xvii, xxv). John McAleer in his biography, Ralph Waldo Emerson: Days of Encounter, affirms Holmes's conservative presentation of Emerson's social views and insists that "Holmes assessed Emerson's role correctly" in such matters (518).

2 Oliver Wendell Holmes, St., Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, vol. 6.

3 The passage in Conduct of Life to which Holmes refers here emphasizes the uniqueness of the individual worker, something that would presumably have worked against the communal approach of Brook Farm. (Complete Works 6: 112).

4 The ts. is located in the Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Papers at the Houghton Library, Harvard University ("Memoranda Books on Emerson," bMS AM 1234.8); quoted with permission. Holmes apparently preferred to work with printed material whenever possible. Since these typed notes largely replicate the handwritten notes at the Library of Congress and then go beyond them a bit, it seems likely that Holmes typed them, or had them typed, sometime after penning the handwritten notes. Because of the similarity between the handwritten notes and the typed notes, and because the latter are included and cataloged at the Houghton with the "Memoranda Books on Emerson," a title that designates the materials generated by Holmes in writing the biography, there can be little doubt as to their authority.

5 Christopher Pearse Cranch was a writer, editor, painter, and sometime contributor to The Dial. He is probably best remembered today for his "New Philosophy Scrapbook," which contains humorous caricatures based on statements from Emerson's writings, the most famous of which is the long-legged, barefoot, dinner-coat-clad, transparent eyeball (Myerson 133-39). Moncure Conway, in his biographical study Emerson at Home and Abroad, offers a humorous and unsympathetic view of transcendentalists generally, a view that Holmes obviously shared.

6 Edward Wagenknecht refers to this statement as indicative of the "ungenerous" attitude of some New England Brahmins toward Thoreau's work (1).

7 Holmes quotes here from Emerson's poem "Life" (Complete Works 9: 354).

8 Holmes quotes here from Emerson's poem "Art" (Complete Works 9: 277).

9 Timothy Dexter (1747-1806) was a minor literary figure known for his highly experimental techniques. The work to which Holmes refers here is the second edition of A Pickle for the Knowing Ones (1802).

10 From Emerson's poem "Music" (Complete Works 9: 365). Apparently this couplet was the cause of long-term consternation for Holmes. In an annotation to the piece, Edward Emerson states: "The present editor obtained Mr. Cabot's permission to include this among the minor poems in the Appendix to the posthumous edition of the Works in 1883, even though Dr. Holmes made some protest against allowing the 'mud and scum of things' to have a voice. At the celebration of the recent centenary of Mr. Emerson's birth, it was pleasant to see that the poem had become a favorite, even with children, and was often quoted" (Complete Works 9: 512).

11 At a Parker House dinner that the young Howells attended in 1860 with James T. Fields, then the publisher of the Atlantic, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Holmes reportedly remarked to Fields regarding their young guest of honor, "Well, James, this is something like the apostolic succession; this is the laying on of hands" (Lynn 96).

Howell's attitude toward Holmes became more critical with the passage of time. In his Literary Friends and Acquaintances he says of him, "He was not a prophet like Emerson, nor even a voice crying in the wilderness like Whittier or Lowell. His note was heard rather amid the sweet security of streets, but it was always for a finer and gentler civility. He imagined no new rule of life, and no philosophy or theory of life will be known by his name. He was not constructive…. First to last he was a censor, but a winning and most delightful censor" (71).

12 It is interesting to note here, given Howells's derogatory use of the term "professors," that one of Holmes's best-known works is The Professor at the Breakfast-Table (1860).

13 It should be noted that Howells revised this section of his essay substantially when he published it in Criticism and Fiction, separating the comments by Emerson and Valdes into different chapters (see Criticism and Fiction and Other Writings 37-38, 40).

Works Cited

Aaron, Daniel. "Literary Scenes and Literary Movements." Columbia Literary History of the United States. Gen. ed. Emory Elliott. New York: Columbia UP, 1988. 733-57.

Allen, Gay Wilson, Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. New York: Macmillan, 1955.

Cabot, James Elliot. A Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Boston: Houghton, 1887.

Carpenter, Frederick, Emerson Handbook. New York: Hendricks, 1953.

Conway, Moncure Daniel. Emerson at Home and Abroad. Boston: Houghton, 1882.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. 12 vols. Ed. Edward Waldo Emerson. Boston: Houghton, 1903-04.

——. The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. 4 vols, to date. Eds. Robert Spiller et al. Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1979-.

Holmes, Oliver Wendell, Sr. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Boston: Houghton, 1884.

——. Over the Teacups. Boston: Houghton, 1891.

——. "Over the Teacups." The Atlantic Monthly April 1890: 549-60.

——. "Over the Teacups." The Atlantic Monthly September 1890: 387-400.

——. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Papers. Vol. 6. Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

——. "Memoranda Book on Emerson," bMS AM 1234.8. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Papers. Houghton Library, Harvard University. Quoted with permission.

Howells, William Dean. Literary Friends and Acquaintances. New York: Harper, 1901.

——. "Editor's Study" Harper's February 1888: 476-82.

——. "Editor's Study" Harper's February 1889: 488-92.

——. "Editor's Study" Harper's November 1889: 962-67.

——. Criticism and Fiction and Other Writings. Ed. Clara Kirk and Rudolf Kirk. New York: New York UP, 1959.

Lynn, Kenneth S. William Dean Howells: An American Life. New York: Harcourt, 1970.

McAleer, John. Ralph Waldo Emerson: Days of Encounter. Boston: Little, 1984.

Myerson, Joel. The New England Transcendentalists and the Dial. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1980.

Porte, Joel. Introduction. Ralph Waldo Emerson. By Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. New York: Chelsea, 1980.

Thorp, Willard. American Writing in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1960.

Tilton, Eleanor. Amiable Autocrat: A Biography of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. New York: Schumann, 1947.

Wagenknecht, Edward. Henry Thoreau: What Manner of Man? Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1981.

David D. Yuan (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8090

SOURCE: "Disfigurement and Reconstruction in Oliver Wendell Holmes's 'The Human Wheel, Its Spokes and Felloes,'" in The Body and Physical Difference: Discourses of Disability, The University of Michigan Press, 1997, pp. 71-88.

[In the following essay, Yuan analyzes Holmes's main work on disability and prosthetics and considers his philosophy that disabled citizens be rehabilitated and assimilated back into society.]

Susan Reynolds Whyte, summarizing Henri-Jacques Stiker's monumental history of the discourse on bodily abnormality in the West, Corps infirmes et sociétés, writes that after World War I "a broad paradigm shift" occurred in Europe and the United States: now "damaged people" were to be "rehabilitated," that is, they were to be "returned to a real or postulated preexisting norm of reference, and reassimilated into society"; "[w]hereas earlier epochs situated the infirm as exceptional in some way, the modern intention (or pretension) is that they are ordinary and should be integrated into ordinary life and work."1 From this perspective, the quintessentially modern concept of rehabilitation began as a strategy for winning "professional control over the damaged bodies" of World War I veterans and preventing old war wounds from hindering the post-world war economy.2 For Stiker, this move was critical, as it marked the "beginning of the denial of difference" that is "characteristic of our time."3 But this "broad paradigm shift" in the treatment of the disabled, as singular as it may have seemed in the wake of the almost unimaginable carnage of World War I, was not entirely unprecedented: many of the tenets of the new ideology (rehabilitation, reassimilation, the social "invisibility" of the disabled) had in fact been anticipated during the aftermath of the American Civil War.

Regarding military technology and strategy, the importance of the American Civil War as a precedent for World War I has been widely acknowledged: the Civil War, after all, introduced ironclad warships, repeating rifles, telegraphy, and the importance of controlling the railways to Western war making. Because weapons technology outstripped medical technology between 1861 and 1865, the Civil War was one of the most injurious wars in history: over 600,000 Americans died as a direct consequence of the Civil War, more than died in both world wars, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War combined.4 In addition, the Civil War produced more amputees than any other war Americans have fought in; three out of every four operations performed on Union soldiers were amputations, and altogether 130,000 men were "scarred or disfigured for life" during the war.5

Thus it is not surprising that the Civil War and Reconstruction not only redefined war but also helped to redefine disability for the modern state.6 Looking past the war that was still convulsing the country, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.—physician, poet, inventor, and futurist—was one of the first to propose that, in effect, rehabilitation and reassimilation should become critical components of a new paradigm for the treatment of the disabled (albeit Holmes, already in his fifties by the start of the war, sometimes shrank from his own vision of the future). But equally important to the modern history of physical difference, Holmes adumbrated what might be called a nationalist body aesthetics whose implications went well beyond the practical task of rehabilitating disabled workers. For Holmes, it was important not only that the disabled citizen be rehabilitated into the workforce but also that his or her body—like the bodies of all citizens—properly emblematized the body politic. For Holmes, the disabled body was not a correct emblem for the Reconstructed United States.

Holmes published his seminal article on disability and prosthetics, "The Human Wheel, Its Spokes and Felloes," in the Atlantic Monthly May 1863. By then any illusion that the Civil War would be brief and casualties few had long been shattered. Holmes writes at the start that the raison d'être for his article is the sudden, alarming ubiquitousness of the amputee.

The starting point of this paper was a desire to call attention to certain remarkable AMERICAN INVENTIONS, especially to one class of mechanical contrivances, which, at the present time, assumes a vast importance and interests great multitudes. The limbs of our friends and countrymen are a part of the melancholy harvest which war is sweeping down with Dahlgren's mowing-machine7 and the patent reapers of Springfield and Hartford. The admirable contrivances of an American inventor, prized as they were in ordinary times, have risen into the character of great national blessings since the necessity for them has become so widely felt. While the weapons that have gone from Mr. Colt's armories have been carrying death to friend and foe, the beneficent and ingenious inventions of MR. PALMER have been repairing the losses inflicted by the implements of war.8

The American inventor B. Frank Palmer (whom Holmes surmises was aptly named for the inventive Benjamin Franklin), an amputee from childhood, designed his own prosthetic leg, allegedly because he was disgusted with the simple "peg leg" that he had worn since childhood. The "Palmer leg" was designed to replace an entire limb—including the complex knee joint. Unlike the peg leg, the Palmer leg was carefully shaped to resemble a natural limb from thigh to foot. Most important, the artificial knee was articulated, thanks to an intricate system of springs and pulleys hidden inside the prosthesis, allowing the amputee to walk much more naturally.

While the Palmer leg is Holmes's ostensible subject, "The Human Wheel" also includes a brief lecture on human locomotion, another on the mass production of boots and shoes, and, to conclude, a chauvinist harangue on American ingenuity. The essay's title refers to the then recent discovery of the true nature of human locomotion, a discovery that could not be made, according to Holmes, until the advent of instantaneous photography made it possible to freeze each moment of the marvelously integrated process that is the act of walking. Instantaneous photography revealed that "Man is a wheel, with two spokes, his legs, and two fragments of a tire, his feet. He rolls successively on each of these fragments from the heel to the toe"; "Walking, then, is a perpetual self-recovery. It is a complex, violent, and perilous operation, which we divest of its extreme danger only by continual practice from a very early period of life … We discover how dangerous it is, when we slip or trip … or overlook the last step of a flight of stairs, and discover with what headlong violence we have been hurling ourselves forward" (571). Like much of Holmes's writing, "The Human Wheel" has allegorical overtones. By 1863, the Civil War, already far from the brief affair that the young recruits had expected, could be allegorized as a national Fall, a Fall that revealed with what headlong violence the young nation had been hurling itself into the future.

The photograph (like the microscope) has the power to reveal the invisible; we would not know that "Man is a wheel" without photography. But the goal of the Palmer leg is a kind of invisibility: its goal is to fool the observer into thinking that the amputee is not an amputee. The highest compliment that Holmes can pay the Palmer leg is that "No victim of the thimblerigger's trickery was ever more completely taken in than we were by the contrivance of the ingenious Surgeon-Artist" (577). Holmes, who begins his essay by making visible the hitherto invisible act of human locomotion, concludes by championing the Palmer leg, a device intended not so much to improve the amputee's mobility as to improve his appearance by rendering his injury invisible: "counterfeiting its aspect so far as possible" (575). Holmes insists that for "polite society" the sight of the "odious 'peg' " is simply intolerable: "misfortunes of a certain obtrusiveness may be pitied, but are never tolerated under the chandeliers" (574). In other words, polite society does not wish to see certain realities, and Holmes recognizes that American ingenuity exists not only to reveal truth but also to hide it.

Holmes, summing up, writes that the United States finds itself in an "age when appearances are realities"; thus the technology of disguise becomes crucial. The fact that the Palmer artificial leg does not quite achieve a perfect illusion of normalcy (see 576) is beside the point. "The Human Wheel" implies that eventually the amputee will be able to "pass" for a whole-limbed person with the aid of an ever-improving American technology: "As we wean ourselves from the Old World, and become more and more nationalized in our great struggle for existence as a free people, we shall carry this aptness for the production of beautiful forms more and more into common life" (578).

"The Human Wheel" recalls the dilemma of photographers who sought to capture the sights of the Civil War. Even as the advent of photography helps to reveal the true nature of war and deconstructs the glamorous image that had long protected society from war's horrors, it provokes the question, To what extent is it desirable to know the truth about war? For Holmes it seems enough for the revelatory photograph (the photograph that reveals the mundane violence of locomotion) to return the secrets of human anatomy and physiology to the realm of the invisible: if the Civil War is reaping a "melancholy harvest" of limbs, then American ingenuity is just as rapidly replacing them with its prostheses. And if the war's devastations can be reversed in this way, then the extent to which the war appears to inflict permanent damage is mitigated. As Timothy Sweet has argued, the very notion of "harvest" that is promulgated by Holmes and others suggests the hopefulness of renewal and rebirth, a rebirth to follow the holocaust of the war.9

Holmes's other analogy for the war is the bloody but lifesaving surgical operation: "We are in trouble just now, on account of a neglected hereditary melanosis"; we must "eliminate the materies morbi" if the body politic is to be cured (580). Like the pastoral analogy, the medical analogy was very popular with intellectuals who sought to explain the Civil War's necessity.

Anticipating a Union victory and the postbellum society that will follow, Holmes finds that not only is the Civil War a kind of surgery but that the prosthesis will assist in a kind of social reconstruction even as it completes the body's reconstruction. Undisguised limblessness is simply not to be tolerated in the postbellum society. But it requires a new technology to create an artificial limb that will convincingly disguise the intolerable fact of the incomplete body. Holmes understands well the broader implications of the problem: "Reconstruction," in all senses of the term, will require new technologies of disguise. Reconstruction will require a national ideology that privileges the new, while disguising or even displacing the past. Holmes even theorizes why Europeans tolerate the sight of the peg leg while Americans do not: it is the fineness of the "national eye for the harmonies of form and color," the superiority of the American's visual aesthetic (578). In short, appearances matter more in America than they do in the Old World

In an earlier article, "The Doings of the Sunbeam," Holmes reveals the mysterious process of production at a commercial photograph factory.10 In "The Human Wheel," Holmes seeks to convey Palmer's extraordinary achievement by dissecting what Holmes calls an Autoperipatetikos, a "walking" automaton, which Holmes gleefully exposes as an impostor. One Autoperipatetikos in particular has become famous because she "toddle[s]" behind a shop window, attracting great crowds of spectators.

An autopsy of one of her family which fell into our hands reveals the secret springs of her action. Wishing to spare her as a member of the defenseless sex, it pains us to say, that, ingenious as her counterfeit walking is, she is an imposter. Worse than this … duty compels us to reveal a fact concerning her which will shock the feelings of those who have watched the stately rigidity of decorum with which she moves … She is a quadruped! Inside of her great golden boots, which represent one pair of feet, is another smaller pair, which move freely through these hollow casings … Her movement, then, is not walking … it is more like that of a person walking with two crutches besides his two legs. (572)

Holmes's ostensible point here is to highlight the ingenuity of the Palmer prosthesis by revealing the authomaton's failings, but the very act of comparing the automaton and the amputee-with-prosthesis suggests the conflation of humans and machines, an idea that Holmes explicitly evokes later in the essay: "gradually the wooden limb seems to become, as it were, penetrated by the nerves, and the intelligence to run downwards until it reaches the last joint of the member" (576-77). Moreover, the conflation of machine and person is further suggested by the way in which Holmes goes on to "dissect" B. Frank Palmer in much the same way as he dissects and explains the prosthesis and the Autoperipatetikos : analyzing Palmer's exterior and interior, extracting his motivation and character. Holmes explains Palmer's motivation, imagining the emotional burden of Palmer's "unsightly appendage" (his peg leg) during "adolescence" and how this misery proved to be the source of his inventiveness (574). Then Holmes explicates and evaluates both the mechanics of Palmer's novel prosthesis as such (the "ingenious arrangement of springs and cords in the inside of the limb") and the mechanics of inventor and invention (amputee and prosthesis) in combination: "He puts his vegetable leg through many of the movements which would seem to demand the contractile animal fibre. He goes up and down stairs with very tolerable ease and dispatch. Only when he comes to stand upon the human limb, we begin to find that it is not in all respects equal to the divine one" (576). If this man-machine hybrid does not perfectly imitate the divine creation, it is a better illusion than the "walking" automaton, which transfixed the crowds gathering around the shop window.

What "The Human Wheel" offers, as Holmes is well aware, is a vision of American society in the near future for which the boundary between bodies and machines has become ambiguous. In other words, Holmes anticipates the "machine culture" (or "prosthetic culture") that was to become dominant in the latter nineteenth century, a culture whose paradigmatic issue is "the problem of the body."11 Holmes's use of the feminized Autoperipatetikos anticipates what Mark Seltzer identifies as the naturalist novel's exploration of "the mechanism of the feminine."12 Furthermore, Holmes's interior and exterior dissection of Palmer (the psychoanalytic pursuit of "what makes Palmer tick" alongside the analysis of how he physically moves) coupled with his dissection of the female automaton anticipates the postbellum assumption "that bodies and persons are things that can be made."13

As noted, production fascinates Holmes. Holmes, who was delighted with the primitive assembly line used by the E. T. Anthony firm to produce thousands of photographs in a day, visits the Palmer factory where "legs are organized," expecting to see another example of machine-driven efficiency (577). But at the Palmer factory, Holmes is surprised to discover that the shaping of the wooden limbs "is all done by hand".

We had expected to see great lathes, worked by steam-power, taking in a rough stick and turning out a finished limb. But it is shaped very much as a sculptor finishes his marble, with an eye to artistic effect,—not so much in the view of the stranger, who does not look upon its naked loveliness, as in that of the wearer, who is seduced by its harmonious outlines into its purchase, and solaced with the consciousness that he carries so much beauty and symmetry about with him. (577)

Holmes's expectation of steam-powered lathes evokes not only the changing face of Northern industry (like the textile factory) but also the role of steam power in the Civil War, with armored steamships skirmishing in the bays and rivers and steam locomotives hauling supplies by rail to the front lines. Melville wrote derisively of the Monitor's battle with the Merrimac: "all went on by crank / Pivot, and screw." Melville recognized that the Civil War had ushered in a new kind of combat, as well as a new kind of soldier: "War yet shall be, but warriors / Are now but operatives."14 Holmes himself has made the connection between a vital new mechanized industry and both the removal and the replacement of limbs, but here at the Palmer factory he is initially both surprised and gratified to discover that production is less an anticipation of the assembly line than a throwback to a vanishing era of handcrafted artisanship. Nevertheless, as we have already glimpsed, there is a disturbing subtext to "The Human Wheel": workers and soldiers seem to be not so much "operatives" as mechanical parts that are being operated. And because they are cogs in the war machine (human wheels), the implication is that they may be summarily repaired or replaced as needed. The Civil War, then, conflated the prosthesis and the soldier, as the industrial revolution conflated the prosthesis and the worker.

Henry Ford, writing sixty years after Holmes, dramatically expands the conflation of worker and prosthesis. Ford, writing about the Model T assembly line in his autobiographical My Life and Work (1923), notes that only 12 percent of the 7,882 work operations along the line required "strong, able-bodied, and practically physically perfect men." The vast majority of operations could be performed by workers who were less than "able bodied": "we found that 670 could be filled by legless men, 2,637 by onelegged men, two by armless men, 715 by one-armed men and ten by blind men."15 Ford, like Holmes, is pondering the problem of reconstruction in the wake of a war of unprecedented mechanization and carnage.16 Ford's analysis suggests a future where the conflation of worker and prosthesis is virtually complete. The "worker" as such is no longer relevant; industry has become so specialized that it is now appropriate to speak of the laboring body part or function rather than the laborer.17 What is striking about Ford's comment is the contrast it presents when compared to Holmes's argument in the "Human Wheel." For Ford, the literal prosthesis has become irrelevant. Instead of a worker needing a prosthesis to appear or perform as if whole bodied, he or she can dispense with this pretense altogether. Thus when industry begins to think of labor "prosthetically," the amputee laborer is liberated from the prosthesis; the 'incomplete" worker is redeemed. Appearances, so important to Holmes, seem to have lost their relevance for Ford, who is concerned with the part of each worker performing its discrete task rather than with the appearance of "wholeness."18

But while Ford, perhaps, felt that he was already living in a prosthetic culture, Holmes, in 1863, is somewhat nervously anticipating its arrival. Holmes unabashedly celebrates the triumphs of mechanized industry elsewhere (as in "The Doings of the Sunbeam"), but in "The Human Wheel" he seems to hesitate before its inexorable advance. At the Palmer factory, Holmes is deeply impressed by the fact that the Palmer leg is not purely an anonymous, machine-molded tool (like the weapons that had proved so proficient at removing limbs), calling it a "true artist's limb" (579). The Palmer leg is a commodity imbued with a soul. But Holmes's ambivalence toward the nascent machine-prosthetic culture is evident in the language he uses to describe the final phase of the Palmer leg's construction: "The hollowing-out of the interior is done by wicked-looking blades and scoops at the end of long stems, suggesting the thought of dentists' instruments as they might have been in the days of the giants" (577). Thus while the exterior shaping of the Palmer leg is done by hand, as "a sculptor finishes his marble," the interior of the prosthesis is prepared by the very sort of intimidating machines that Holmes had expected to see in the first place (there is a resemblance between Holmes's description of the factory machines and his earlier description of the peg leg [which is quoted later in this article]: the latter is "fearful-looking," the former "wicked-looking). Thus the Palmer leg is not simply useful sculpture, it is a peculiar combination of art and machine-produced artifact: the artist handing off the half-completed limb to the "wicked-looking" machinery to finish.

Holmes's mixed reaction to the Palmer factory is a sort of prototype for the ambivalence and confusion that would become a characteristic response as Americans confronted or evaded the implications of the body-machine complex. Like the responses of his later counterparts, Holmes's response to scenes of the "miscegenation of nature and culture," as Seltzer puts it, is itself mixed (21). Holmes is both eager and reluctant to gaze on the new society that machines are ushering into being, and he projects onto the hero of "The Human Wheel" this ambivalence in his very reading of the hero's name (B. Frank Palmer). Holmes initially draws out only the name's evocation of Benjamin Franklin, as noted. But later, Homes alludes to another Palmer "namesake": "We owe the well-shaped, intelligent, docile limb, the half-reasoning willow of Mr. Palmer, to the same sense of beauty and fitness which moulded the soft outlines of the Indian girl and the White Captive in the studio of his namesake in Albany" (578). The Albany namesake is Erastus Dow Palmer (1817-1904), the noted New York sculptor whose two most famous pieces are the Indian Girl (1856) and the White Captive (1858). Thus "B. Frank Palmer" signifies, for Holmes, the combined sensibilities of the artist and the scientist. The inventor is as much a hybrid as his invention.19

In another telling move, Holmes deliberately feminizes the prosthesis: the amputee is "seduced" into buying the beautiful limb, and he relishes its "naked loveliness" even though the public (which he intends to dupe with this counterfeit) will never see it, any more than they would see the naked loveliness of a genuine limb in a polite social context. A romantic description like this one softens the impression, given elsewhere in the essay, that the body itself has been reduced by medicine and technology to its mechanical essentials and that beauty and grace are no longer the body's most important attributes. Holmes's description represents an intriguing regendering of the Palmer leg from the obviously phallic (the Palmer leg "would almost persuade a man with two good legs to provide himself with a third") to the "feminine" as Holmes would define it (the leg is "well-shaped," "docile," and both "intelligent" and "half-reasoning" [577-78]). I will explore the political utility of this regendering of the prosthesis later on, but for now I only want to point out the range of examples of hybridity in Holmes's text: the "female" automaton, a counterfeit woman, is revealed to be a "quadruped"; "B. Frank Palmer" refers to two divergent antecedents; and the Palmer leg is a complex hybrid, emblematic of the complex nation that produced it. The Palmer leg is organic and inorganic, rational and romantic, masculine and feminine, intelligent and half-reasoning. Moreover, the Palmer leg becomes even more complex when it is conjoined with the amputee.

Holmes takes great pains to establish a stark contrast between the peg leg and the Palmer leg. The image of the former is grotesque, the amputee stumping about on the crude peg; the image of the latter is all symmetry and grace. Interestingly the wound itself, the stump that marks the place where the natural limb should be, is not discussed (even though Holmes as a physician would be eminently equipped to discuss amputation and its aftereffects). It is not the absence of the limb that is grotesque or hideous; it is the peg leg's crudity, the rude transparency of its counterfeit, that offends. Or rather it is the lack of disguise that offends: the fact that the peg leg is actually no counterfeit limb at all but is simply a pragmatic response to the amputee's desire to move about. The Palmer leg's "naked loveliness" is enjoyed only by the amputee himself (in Holmes's imagining of it), but the nakedness of the peg leg is seen by all and disgusts all.

According to Holmes, B. Frank Palmer's leg was amputated when he was ten years old; Holmes does not give us the details of the accident, telling us only that the limb was "crushed." Holmes's truncated biography moves directly from the accident to Palmer's adolescence, because it is with the dawning of sexual possibility that the weight of Palmer's aesthetic disability begins to be felt.

We can imagine what he suffered as he grew into adolescence under the cross of this unsightly appendage. He was of comely aspect, tall, wellshaped, with well-marked, regular features. But just at the period when personal graces are most valued, when a good presence is a blank check on the Bank of Fortune, with Nature's signature at the bottom, he found himself made hideous by this fearful-looking counterfeit of a limb. (574)

The peg leg is "hideous," "unsightly," and, perhaps most significantly of all, "fearful-looking." The horror of Palmer's condition is enhanced by the fact that he was otherwise a handsome, well-proportioned young man. Incongruity is a hallmark of the grotesque, and the incongruity of an otherwise thoroughly presentable young man stumping around on the rude peg makes this scenario not only pathetic but hideous. Indeed, the effect is so terrible that young Palmer could not tolerate it, and he abandons the peg leg for the "tender mercies of the crutch," as Holmes cryptically puts it. But the crutch is "at best an instrument of torture," pressing upon a "great bundle of nerves" in the armpit, distorting the figure, perhaps even "distempering the mind itself (575). It seems remarkable that young Palmer would ever have thought the crutch a "tender merc[y]" for even a moment, but such is society's horror of "the odious 'peg'" that Palmer was driven to the attempt. Finally, the ingenous Palmer invents his superior prosthesis and resolves his aesthetic dilemma. Since it is allegedly the public appearance that counts in "The Human Wheel," it does not seem to matter that Palmer must still remove the artificial leg at night and expose his stump to plain view. Holmes is too discreet to imagine a Mrs. Palmer or how she might react to the real state of his bodily affairs.

Holmes's "The Human Wheel," like Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, extrapolates from the individual to the national and addresses the place of the United States in the world scene. "The Human Wheel" is as much a reaction to the national crisis as it is to the specific plight of the amputee. Holmes, who is fond of offering readers the obvious analogy, fails to consider the Civil War as an amputation of the body politic: the nation losing its Southern half. But he does refer to the war as "a neglected hereditary melanosis," which requires the elimination of "the materies morbi" (580). But what are the materies morbi for Holmes? The Confederate government? The institution of slavery? The blacks themselves? A "hereditary melanosis" suggests the origin of the national illness in the black slaves, but are they the cause or only the symptom of the disease?20 Eliminating the materies morbi, in the medical sense, refers to the surgical removal of dead tissue; Holmes probably had the removal of a gangrenous limb in mind. Thus figurative amputation, like literal amputation, is for Holmes a beneficent, lifesaving procedure: the materies morbi are eliminated, and the patient survives. But an unsightly appearance in polite society is intolerable, and the scorn that a critical Europe might have for the struggling United States concerns Holmes. To European critics, Holmes offers a raw rebuttal: "We profess to make men and women out of human beings better than any of the joint-stock companies called dynasties have done or can do it" (580). Holmes will not allow Europe to believe that the United States itself is grotesque; the United States must not be viewed as a cripple among the nations nor a crude yokel whom genteel Europe finds intolerable.

Holmes blatantly uses the invention of the Palmer leg to refute the unexamined notion that Europe always surpasses the United States in the achievement of symmetry, harmony, and beauty. Holmes does not argue that American civilization is catching up with Europe, he argues that it is already surpassing Europe. Holmes proudly proclaims: "American taste was offended, outraged, by the odious 'peg' which the Old-World soldier or beggar was proud to show" (578).

Holmes's pride in the Palmer leg can be read as a remarkable evasion of the Civil War, which, after all, was the severest test that "American civilization" had ever faced. Holmes, in the middle of the most destructive war in history, finds in the very fact of unprecedented carnage the proof of American superiority. First, Holmes finds that the war is proving America's technical prowess: American ingenuity has produced both the best weapons for killing and wounding and the best prostheses. Second, it is not in spite of the war that "American civilization" aspires to a higher aesthetic plane, but, Holmes implies, partly because of the war: "As we wean ourselves from the Old World, and become more and more nationalized in our great struggle for existence as a free people, we shall carry this aptness for the production of beautiful forms more and more into common life" (578). The Civil War, then, is a continuation of the American Revolution; it is another milestone in the nation's growing up and away from the Old World. As most contemporary historians would be quick to agree, the Civil War was, as Holmes suggests, the introduction to a vast expansion of American nationalism. It is true that Holmes qualifies his cultural chauvinism a bit. He admits that "the national car for music is not so acute [as Europe's]," but he insists that "the national eye for the harmonies of form and color is better than we often find in older communities" (578). The image of the peg-legged "beggar" (which is presumably more ubiquitous in the dynastic Old World than in democratic America) subtly invokes Poe's Europe of gothic horrors and grotesques: catacombs, plagues, madhouses, slums replete with the crippled and deformed.

But what is it that allows the European soldier to proudly display his peg, while the American soldier is ashamed to show his? Unlike the beggar's condition, whose meaning may be ambiguous, the veteran's wound is presumably a badge of courage and honor. Holmes implies that the American "eye" is not only more aesthetically refined and demanding but more democratic: American has less tolerance for the sight of the disfigured dregs of society. In the United States, the misshapen cannot be so cavalierly discarded and relegated to the interstices of polite society. American society has an obligation to recuperate the disfigured and offer them the opportunity to make themselves presentable. Importantly, Holmes refutes the idea that the democratic society drags the elite down to the level of the lowest denominator. Rather, it is the task of American technology and culture to raise the coarse and vulgar to the plane of symmetry and refinement—this is precisely what is involved in the process of weaning "ourselves from the Old World."

As an introduction to his analysis of the Palmer leg, Holmes presents Plumer's last: the shoe mold designed by the pioneering American podiatrist Dr. J. C. Plumer. Plumer last produced shoes and boots that conformed well to the actual shape of the human foot, in contrast to the typical nineteenth-century shoe, which forced the foot to do most of the conforming. The standard-issue boots supplied to the soldiers in the Union army were notoriously punishing, and it often took weeks of use before they could be worn without pain. (The Confederate soldiers were often not issued boots at all.) Along the way, the recruits were made uncomfortable, and some were even disabled by the boots—thwarting the men's morale and their readiness to fight. Dr. Plumer, the foot's great liberator, came to the rescue with his innovative last. Holmes applauds him as "the Garrison of these oppressed members of the body corporeal" and declares: "The foot's fingers are the slaves in the republic of the body. Their black leathern integument is only the mask of their servile condition. They bear the burdens, while the hands, their white masters, handle the money and wear the rings" (572). "[B]lack integument" here obviously invokes the slave's black skin, and black skin—to pursue Holmes's analogy—is a mask that helps to disguise the slave's essential humanity, thus justifying the misconception that the African American is a separate species and is biologically suited for subjugation. (Holmes's discourse on toes as slaves and shoes as black skin is echoed later in the essay's closing description of the war as a "hereditary melanosis")

Beneath the innocuous sheen of patent leather, the feet are performing the hardest labor in the republic of the body. Holmes's discourse on feet is comparable to his discourse on photography: in both discourses the overarching theme is the dis-covering of a hitherto invisible labor process. The wider implication of "The Human Wheel" is that medicine and physiology themselves may be understood in the same terms: they are the sciences dedicated to revealing how the body, which is a kind of organic labor process, or organic industry, is ordered and run. The feet suffer, in part, because we do not penetrate their "narrow prisons" to see how they labor. The feet, like the slaves, are de-formed by the severity of their labor and their harsh environment: "they grow into ignoble shapes, they become callous by long abuse, and all their natural gifts are crushed and trodden out of them" (572). The horror of slavery, then, is not simply that the slave suffers but that he literally becomes something grotesque and ignoble. It is not the "black integument"—the slave's physiognomy—that is grotesque, nor is the African American intrinsically benighted; it is the institution of slavery that deforms the slave.

Holmes's discussion of the body corporeal constantly evokes the body politic and vice versa; it seems he cannot investigate the one without investigating the other. As Holmes recounts it, Dr. Plumer began his research by "contemplating the natural foot as it appears in infancy, unspoiled as yet by social corruptions, in adults fortunate enough to have escaped these destructive influences, in the grim skeleton aspect divested of its outward designs" (572). Reading analogically again, it is not only the idea that the slave has been warped and corrupted that is conveyed here but also the idea that the master has been corrupted, which is a familiar, even predominant argument of the abolitionists. Holmes also returns to the contrast between appearance and the deep structures underlying appearance. The "grim skeleton" is "divested of its outward designs," and like the skull grinning in at the banquet that William James posits, the "skeleton" insists that we examine the true nature of our existence and our experience. Holmes directs the reader to dis-cover labor and production. Similarly, he asks the reader to look beneath the surface of the corporeal body and the body politic to view the complex stresses on bone and tendon, the delicate chemical negotiations occurring in the blood, and the despair attending a slave economy content to conduct business as usual.

Ultimately in "The Human Wheel," Holmes capitulates to the demands of appearance and the sanctity of socially approved disguise. But it is important to recognize the polarity in Holmes's thought: the tension between the tyranny of appearance and the need to deconstruct appearance (i.e., to estrange aspects of our experience in order to truly see and understand it). Thus toes are liberated by Plumer's last, but Palmer's wooden leg, schooled by the amputee himself, submits to the amputee's command, and the amputee himself—in wearing the Palmer leg—submits to the command of "American civilization" and conforms to the new code of public appearance.

America has made implements … which out-mow and out-reap the world. She has contrived man-slaying engines which kill people faster than any others … She has bestowed upon you and the world an anodyne which enables you to cut arms and legs off without hurting the patient; and when his leg is cut off, she has given you a true artist's limb for your cripple to walk upon, instead of the peg on which he has stumped from the days of Guy de Chauliac. (579)

Holmes correctly anticipates a postbellum America that will lead rather than follow the other nations. Holmes's description recalls "Harvest of Death," Timothy O'Sullivan's famous photograph of corpses lying on the fields of Gettysburg. But this Civil War pastoralism (which Timothy Sweet correctly explains as an effort to make the carnage "natural" and thus more acceptable) is undercut by mechanoindustrial undertones ("implements" for mowing and reaping; "man-slaying engines"). Such language conveys the opposite idea of "unnatural" processes of production and destruction: farming as agribusiness; war and medicine as industry; the foreshadowing of the assembly line. Holmes seems reluctant to push the parallel he draws between harvesting/replanting and war/medicine (war removes limbs, medicine replaces them) to its conclusion. But what makes Holmes hesitate? Is it a reluctance to "naturalize" war, or is it a reluctance to recuperate a fallen America via the familiar naturalizing imagery?

… The human wheel emblem's evoking of the anthropometrie studies of Leonardo da Vinci is probably intentional, and it serves to underscore one of Holmes's objectives: to provide a more accurate measure and definition of humanity—especially of humanity acting, of humanity moving, as opposed to humanity simply being.21 As instantaneous photography allows us to understand human locomotion, so the arts of historical and cultural analysis allow us to trace the trajectory of the human species through time.

The human wheel as an emblem for the essay is appropriately paradoxical. The figure of the wheel suggests both returning and forward progress—and both ideas are powerfully attractive to Holmes, who is writing, despite his air of assurance, at a time of uncertainty and anxious confusion. Nevertheless, the surface of Holmes's text optimistically declares his dedication to forward progress. Holmes boasts that the "American Wheel is moving through the miseries of the Civil War to a better place in history, a place which will be envied by the great nations of the world." The amputee, the cripple, the grizzled veteran "stumping" around on his peg do not present the image appropriate to a young nation boldly on the rise. The "peg" is neatly opposed to the wheel in Holmes's essay: if America is the efficient, smoothly rolling wheel, then Europe is the splintery, inefficient, old peg.

The wheel does seem an apt metaphor for the United States—the Civil War was itself a demonstration on a vast scale of the wheel's power. First, the Civil War was "the first American conflict in which railroads played a major role."22 The North's rail superiority was a key factor in securing its victory. Second, other innovative wheeled or wheel-like machines, from the field ambulance to the wheeled gun battery that was mounted on its own steel rails, were prominent during this war. And even as the war raged on, the transcontinental railway project was already underway; by 1869 the recently re-United States was spanned by rails from the Pacific to the Atlantic, greatly facilitating Easterners' migration to Western lands. (As the United States entered the twentieth century, the automobile allowed the wheel as national paradigm to continue to dominate the American landscape and imagination, replacing the railroad train as the quintessential wheeled machine.)

But while Holmes seems to believe that the future he envisions will come to pass, "The Human Wheel"'s subtext, as we have already seen, belies this rather bellicose optimism. Beneath Holmes's eager modernism is a deep desire to redeem the past and avoid the full consequences of the modernity Holmes sees hurtling toward him; Holmes hesitates before the prosthetic culture that he has insightfully anticipated. Even as Holmes professes the recuperation of amputees into society via the invisible prosthesis (the Palmer leg), he is compelled to confront the prostheticization of society, that is, the "dismemberment of the natural body" that Seltzer recognizes in Henry Ford's industrial "fantasy."23

We need to return to the most basic question about "The Human Wheel": why should Holmes demand that the prosthesis be invisible? The essay offers several explicit answers: America's highly developed aesthetic sense, the desire to demonstrate technical prowess, the stigma that the amputee must bear. But it is Holmes's stark maxim that "[a]ppearances are realities" that needs to be reexamined. The subtext of the maxim is that the visible prosthesis serves to remind us of the way in which prosthetic culture is enveloping all of society, not only the disabled and disfigured. Despite Holmes's huffing and puffing about the peg leg and the Old World, the visible prosthesis is as much an emblem of encroaching modernity as it is an emblem of the old order (like the human wheel, which stands for returning as well as for progress). If prostheses are invisible, then they do not exist; if we can convince ourselves that we are not living in a prosthetic culture, then we will not confront the political implications of the new order. Things will seem to be the way they have always been.24 Holmes writes glowingly of liberation and freedom, but through his essay the reader may glimpse a rather different future American society: a society where no workers will be slaves but where workers will be not unlike the "well-shaped, intelligent, docile limb, the half-reasoning willow of Mr. Palmer" (578). The political expediency of Holmes's regendering of the phallic prosthesis is now clear: Holmes identifies as feminine the qualities of docility, gracefulness, and half-reasoning intelligence. And these are the qualities that should characterize the worker, who, like the willow limb, is "stupid until practice has taught … just what is expected" of him: this is what Holmes means by half-reasoning intelligence. If it is understood that the Civil War has conflated the soldier and the prosthesis, then it becomes apparent that the disciplinary strategies that served to order the soldier might also serve to order the postbellum worker. Like the well-disciplined soldier, the worker should be intelligent enough to perform assigned tasks but not intelligent enough to question them; the worker should be "free" yet subordinate.


1 Benedicte Ingstad and Susan Reynolds Whyte, eds., Disability and Culture (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995), 270. Whyte, an anthropologist, suggests in her well-named essay "Disability between Discourse and Experience" that it is necessary to include both a historicizing discourse analysis and a thoughtful "appreciation of narratives and case studies" if one is to have a truly comprehensive disability studies (280). I concur with Whyte's integrationist view, and I would argue further that disability studies is not exclusively an inquiry into the construction of disability as it affects the disabled, but an inquiry into how the construction of disability affects and reflects an entire culture. To interrogate a culture's idea of disability is to interrogate that culture.

2 Ibid., 9.

3 Ibid., 270.

4 John Keegan, A History of Warfare (1993; reprint, New York: Vintage-Random House, 1994), 356. Over 400,000 Civil War deaths were the result of infection and disease contracted after battle, often after surgery (antiseptic measures did not become standard medical procedure in the United States until after the Civil War).

5 Stewart Brooks, Civil War Medicine (Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 1966), 74, 97.

6 Hillel Schwartz has discussed the importance of the American Civil War in the history of prosthetics and has argued for a distinctive period of prosthetic innovation beginning in 1865 (Reconstruction) and culminating in 1920 (the post-World War I period). Schwartz writes that after the Civil War, "the United States became a leading innovator in the production and fitting of artificial limbs. These would subsequently be adapted and improved by the English, French and Germans during World War I" ("Torque: The New Kinaesthetic of the Twentieth Century," in Incorporations, ed. Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter [New York: Zone Books, 1992], 102).

7 "Dahlgren's mowing-machine" refers to a devastating naval gun deployed by the Union Navy. Abraham Lincoln delighted "in the big splash eleven-inch shells made when fired into the Potomac by the great bottle-shaped Dahlgren guns" (Geoffrey Ward, The Civil War: An Illustrated History [New York: Alfred Knopf, 1990], 130).

8 Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., "'The Human Wheel, Its Spokes and Felloes,'" Atlantic Monthly, May 1863, 567-80. Hereafter referred to as "The Human Wheel"; subsequent quotations from this work will be noted parenthetically in the text. All emphases in quotations from "The Human Wheel," unless otherwise indicated, are Holmes's.

9 Timothy Sweet, Traces of War: Poetry, Photography, and the Crisis of the Union (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 114.

10 Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., "The Doings of the Sunbeam," Atlantic Monthly, July 1863, 1-15.

11 Mark Seltzer, Bodies and Machines (New York: Routledge, 1992), 3.

12 Ibid., 65.

13 Ibid., 152 (Seltzer's emphasis).

14 Herman Melville, "A Utilitarian View of the Monitor's Fight," in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866; reprint, Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1972), 62.

15 Henry Ford, My Life and Work (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, Page, 1923), 108-9.

16 The Ford Motor Company began building cars on the moving assembly line in 1913-14, at the same time as Europe was utilizing similar technological strategies to mobilize its armies (World War I is remembered as the first fully motorized war: the war that introduced the armed tank, submarine, and airplane). Holmes, writing in 1863, the year Henry Ford is born, anticipates the machine-driven (prosthetic) culture that would become so deeply associated with Ford in the twentieth century (the automobile, after all, is modern society's ultimate prosthesis).

17 Bill Brown has helpfully summarized the move by which labor is prostheticized: "Human labor is analytically and materially reduced to the operation of the body part, and the individual human functions only as a part, the 'conscious limb,' within the machine system" ("Science Fiction, the World's Fair, and the Prosthetics of Empire, 1910-1915," in Cultures of United States Imperialism, ed. Amy Kaplan and Donald E. Pease [Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993], 136).

18 Ford, as one might expect, is more concerned than is Holmes with the disabled veteran's capacity to hold a factory job. Inside the factory's secure walls (and Ford always valued security), remote from the ballroom that is uppermost in Holmes's mind, the amputee's appearance would not matter as it would "under the chandeliers." The bold new ideology of the body that Holmes argues is peculiarly American is somewhat belied by Holmes's Old World attitude toward the disabled and work. When Holmes notes that Palmer's artificial arm (invented after Palmer's success with his artificial leg) "cannot serve a pianist or violinist" but "is yet equal to holding the reins in driving, receiving fees for professional services, and similar easy labors," he affirms the old notion that the disabled are incapable of performing complex or strenuous tasks (578).

19 I have found no evidence that B. Frank Palmer was actually named for Erastus Dow Palmer. I believe Holmes is simply using the coincidence of the two having the same name to amplify his point that the inventor has both technological ingenuity and a "sense of beauty and fitness." The patent that Palmer received in 1846 for his artificial leg (Patent No. 4,834) was granted to "Benjamin F. Palmer," suggesting that "B. Frank Palmer" was a variant he adopted later (Joseph Nathan Kane, Famous First Facts [New York: H. W. Wilson, 1981], 321).

20 While the Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, asserts that the primary meaning for melanosis in the mid-nineteenth century was "a morbid deposit or abnormal development of a black pigment in some tissue" (or hyperpigmentation), it seems more likely that Holmes had the more sinister secondary meaning of the word in mind here: a "black cancer" ([Oxford: Oxford-Clarendon University Press, 1989], volume IX, 576). "Black cancer" probably referred to what today is called melanoma: the highly malignant, dark-colored skin tumor that is often deadly if untreated.

21 And note that like Leonardo da Vinci, B. Frank Palmer and Holmes himself combine the roles of artist and scientist.

22 Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, eds., The Reader's Companion to American History (Boston, MA: Houghton and Mifflin Co., 1991), 907.

23 Seltzer, 157. The Palmer prosthesis, although admittedly imperfect, clearly represents Holmes's ideal (an ideal that I am calling the "invisible prosthesis").

24 This is the human wheel as conservative emblem (the human wheel returning). From this perspective, the object of Palmer's innovative invention is conservative: to return the body to its stainless antebellum state (Holmes, as indicated, already reads antebellum America as corresponding to a prelapsarian age in the national mythos). Thus missing limbs and other traces of conflict will be erased. Bill Brown, writing about nineteenth-century science fiction, describes the postbellum idealized male body as "a body on which history is not written but erased, a body without memory, a national body with no nation" (Brown, "Science Fiction," 155).

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 240

Brenner, Rica, "Oliver Wendell Holmes." In her Twelve American Poets before 1900, pp. 169-98. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1933.

Assesses Holmes's literary career and claims that his works help to illuminate his life.

Fields, Annie. "Oliver Wendell Holmes: Personal Recollections and Unpublished Letters." In her Authors and Friends, pp. 107-55. 1897. Reprint. Grosse Pointe, Mich.: Scholarly Press, 1969.

A friend's memories of Holmes.

Grattan, C. Hartley. "Oliver Wendell Holmes." The American Mercury IV, No. 13 (January 1925): 37-41.

Proposes reducing Holmes's literary fame to a "footnote," contending that most of his poetry is 'dusty' and his prose work barren.

Hoyt, Edwin P. The Improper Bostonian: Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1979, 319 p.

A detailed, anecdotal, and fully illustrated biography of Holmes.

Kreymborg, Alfred. "Dr. Holmes and the New England Decline." In his Our Singing Strength: An Outline of American Poetry (1620-1930), pp. 134-50. New York: Coward-McCann, 1929.

Claims that Holmes's "wittiest warfare" was directed against Calvinism and adds that the author was an intellectual whose poetical style was reminiscent of the eighteenth century.

Morse, John T., Jr. Life and Letters of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1896, 293 p.

A detailed and illustrated biography of Holmes. Morse discusses Holmes's careers in medicine and literature and includes excerpts from the author's notes and correspondence.

Additional coverage of Holmes's life and career is contained in the following sources published by The Gale Group: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 1 and 189.

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