Oliver Wendell Holmes Holmes, Oliver Wendell

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(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Oliver Wendell Holmes 1809–1894

American essayist, poet, novelist, and biographer.

For additional information on Holmes's life and works, see NCLC, Volume 14.

Oliver Wendell Holmes is considered one of the most versatile American authors of the nineteenth-century. Although he wrote in a wide variety of genres, he is best known for his popular collection of essays, The Breakfast-Table Series. Critics believe that these fictional conversations provided Holmes with the ideal medium for expressing his views on humankind and its institutions and for acting, as he put it, as "his own Boswell." Holmes's novels, too, have attracted the interest of scholars. In these, most notably in Elsie Venner, Holmes incorporated his pioneering theories of psychology and clarified his arguments against Calvinism and the concept of original sin. In addition to his literary works, Holmes was respected for his controversial scientific essays and for his brilliant skill as a conversationalist. Holmes's reputation has diminished considerably in recent years. Perhaps the most famous and important figure in Boston intellectual circles during the second half of the nineteenth-century, he is remembered now chiefly for the sparkling wit of The Autocrat and for the spirit of free inquiry demonstrated by the wide range of his interests.

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...

(The entire section is 36,733 words.)