Form and Content

Yankee from Olympus: Justice Holmes and His Family provides an excellent introduction to a lengthy period of American history, from the years preceding the Civil War to the Great Depression and New Deal of the 1930’s. Author Catherine Drinker Bowen extends her study even beyond Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s long life span, however, since she explains that his roots in New England played an important role in the development of his character. Thus she devotes part 1 (of six parts) of the book to Holmes’s father and grandfather. By doing so, she establishes the world into which Holmes was born—the Cambridge and Boston of the nineteenth century, where family ties, religious beliefs, and intellectual development were emphasized. There is much discussion of Holmes’s father in later chapters as well, since he lived until 1894, when his son was fifty-three years old.

The book focuses on Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., beginning in part 2, a discussion of the young Holmes, his schooling at Harvard University, and his reaction to the onset of the Civil War. In part 3, readers meet Holmes as a soldier. He enlisted for three years at the beginning of the Civil War; by the time he left the army in 1864, he had been wounded three times, shot in the chest, neck, and leg. It is little wonder that he chose studies at Harvard Law School over reenlistment.

As a lawyer, Holmes was more interested in writing and theorizing about legal philosophy than...

(The entire section is 459 words.)