Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 689

In a note about her methods, Bowen calls her book “a picture and a translation, an attempt to bring Justice Holmes out of legal terms into human terms.” In other words, while it is clearly impossible to separate the man from the legal aspects of his career, Bowen was not interested in merely examining Holmes’s life as a background to understanding his decisions and writings. Instead, she has written a complete biography of Holmes, with attention focused on his life outside the legal profession as well as within it. This makes the book of general interest to readers, including young adults, who do not need a specialized legal background in order to understand the author’s discussions of Holmes’s writings, the development of his thought, and his judicial opinions. This is very much a book for nonspecialists.

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Another method used by Bowen, in addition to her emphasis on Holmes’s humanity, is her use of invented conversations and physical settings. There are numerous places throughout the book where individuals are quoted in private conversations, such as those between Holmes and his father or between one of the Holmeses and a personage outside the family. Such a technique appeals to the reader by conveying an intimacy with the book’s subjects through seeming to overhear their private discussions. The author also indicates at various points in the narrative what specific people were thinking as well as saying, thus moving from the realm of private conversations to private thoughts. Occasionally individuals are portrayed as leaning against trees or sitting in certain chairs looking out windows when events occur, thus creating a concrete mental picture of physical surroundings. The author comments on these techniques by explaining that all conversations are based on written records or interviews with people who knew the Holmes family. While she admits to embellishing statements attributed to people and to changing the order of sentences, she claims never to have altered the meaning of the original statements. In a popular biography such as this, the technique of invented dialogue is often used. Bowen uses it well, weaving her imaginary (but factually based) conversations into the narrative in a nonintrusive way.

This is not an intellectual biography in which ideas are foremost as subject matter. Nevertheless, Holmes’s legal ideas are discussed and some attention given to the most significant court decisions of his career, especially as a member of the U.S. Supreme Court. His first important case on the high court was the Northern Securities case, in which the U.S. government prosecuted a company for an illegal merger of several railroads, which went against laws prohibiting monopolies. While the majority of the court decided against the railroad company, Holmes disagreed, and he wrote a dissenting opinion. His feeling was that the threat of monopoly was not a real one in this case and that public opinion against big business had brought about the suit against the Northern Securities Company. “Great cases like hard cases make bad law,” he wrote, since such cases contained “some accident of immediate overwhelming interest which appeals to the feelings and distorts the judgment.” Holmes would subsequently write many minority opinions in which he clearly expressed his own legal philosophy; as a result, he was labeled “The Great Dissenter” by commentators who wrote about the court.

In spite of the Northern Securities case, in which Holmes took the position against reformers, including President Theodore Roosevelt, who sought to break up big businesses to protect the country’s general welfare, Holmes often attracted the admiration of reformers. In his next major dissent after Northern Securities, Holmes was definitely allied with progressive reformers. This was the Lochner case of 1905, in which the majority on the court ruled that a state did not have the right to pass laws limiting the number of hours working people could be required to work at their jobs. Holmes disagreed. While he never saw himself as a reformer, and Bowen does not characterize him as such, she explains Holmes’s position as that of an “intellectual who believes that freedom means, above all, the right to experiment.”

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Critical Context