*Holmes, Oliver Wendell
Holmes, Oliver Wendell
“Montaigne and Bacon under one hat” was how the American poet John Greenleaf Whittier described Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Boston physician-poet who created a new form for the essay with his popular Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table essays. Holmes’ literary achievement is especially noteworthy in that literature was a sideline, a diversion from his full-time work as a Harvard University medical professor. Holmes defined the term Boston “Brahmin” and, in 1857, gave the name the Atlantic (now known as the Atlantic Monthly) to the new monthly American magazine which would showcase his work. His impressive body of essays—which includes groundbreaking, highly readable medical essays, Civil War essays, and tributes to his famous contemporaries, as well as the Breakfast-Table essays—coincides with and expresses the golden age of Boston and provides a window on 19th-century American thought. In addition, Holmes’ artful incorporation of poetry and narrative into the familiar essay marks him as an important figure in the development of literary nonfiction.
Holmes’ first fame as an essayist came through the medical essays written on his return from Paris, where he studied medicine from 1833 to 1835. There he had breakfasted regularly at the café once frequented by Voltaire, Rousseau, and Fontenelle. In 1836 and 1837, Holmes won three of the four 50-dollar Boylston Prizes for his essays “Facts and Traditions Respecting the Existence of Indigenous Intermittent Fever in New England,” “The Nature and Treatment of Neuralgia,” and “The Utility and Importance of Direct Exploration in Medical Practice.”
One hundred years after the publication of his controversial 1842 essay “The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever,” in which he presented overwhelming evidence that doctors often infected pregnant women with the fatal disease, an article in the Bulletin of the Medical Library Association called this essay “the most important contribution made in America to the advancement of medicine.” Such essays, as well as “Currents and Counter-Currents in Medical Science” (1860), the most popular and quoted of all Holmes’ medical writings, exhibit thorough research, lively language and thought, and even occasional humor.
Holmes devoted himself to medical rather than to political and social reform. One national issue which aroused him, however, was the secession of the Southern states, which he decried in such essays as “Bread and the Newspaper” (1861), “The Inevitable Trial” (1863), and “My Hunt After The Captain’” (1862), which described his search for his son and namesake, Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who was wounded three times during the Civil War.
Holmes knew all the leading men and women of his time. His “tributes” to Emerson (1882, 1885, 1889), Longfellow (1882), and Richard Henry Dana (1882) reveal his friendship and admiration. His “Remarks on the Death of Washington Irving” (1859) and Atlantic article on Nathaniel Hawthorne (1864) have greater interest as they recount Holmes’ medical observations of the last days of Irving and Hawthorne’s lives.
In 1857, the poet and essayist James Russell Lowell was invited to edit a new monthly literary magazine. He made a condition of his editorship that Holmes be the first contributor engaged—a surprising insistence given that the 48-yearold Holmes was known then only as a lyceum speaker and as the author of controversial medical essays and the popular poem “Old Ironsides” (1830). Holmes repaid Lowell’s confidence by naming the magazine the Atlantic and beginning The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table in its first number. The Autocrat was an immediate triumph. Indeed, in England its success surpassed any American work since Washington Irving’s Sketch Book (1819–20).
The popularity of his Breakfast-Table essays caused Holmes to begin a publishing pattern he would follow to the end of his days: publishing monthly installments of his work in the Atlantic, which were then collected and published as a book in November in time for Christmas sales. Succeeding the “Autocrat” in January 1859 was The Professor at the Breakfast-Table, to be followed by The Poet at the BreakfastTable in January 1872, and Over the Teacups in 1888. In the Breakfast-Table series Holmes created a form of the essay perfectly suited to his personality and vision. Holmes was a brilliant conversationalist, and the boarding house breakfasttable “setting” provided him a homey forum for his sharp observations and engaging “talk.” In a masterful stroke he embodied the three facets of his identity (professor, poet, and “autocrat”) as three separate characters in the essays. Thus in The Autocrat he could allow his “friend, the Professor” to express his most radical ideas, or could present the latest offerings of his “friend, the Poet.” “How briskly his writing moves along,” Virginia Woolf exclaimed in a 1909 centenary tribute to Holmes, and indeed Holmes employed his poetry (including his most famous poem, “The Chambered Nautilus”) for both emphasis and variety in his essays.
He created other breakfasttable companions as foils for his pronouncements: the Divinity School Student for discussions of dogma, the “young man named John” as the voice of dissent, the School Mistress for expressions of sentiment.
Holmes recognized that his readers liked stories as well as poems and wise and witty observations; he therefore also wove narrative threads into the essays. The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table ends with the marriage of the Autocrat and School Mistress; The Professor at the Breakfast-Table with the illness and death of Little Boston, the isolated cripple. At the close of The Poet at the Breakfast-Table the Landlady gives up the boarding house, bringing the breakfast-table meetings to an end.
The Breakfast-Table essays display Holmes’ gifts as an essayist. He writes in The Autocrat of “the infinite ocean of similitudes and analogies that rolls through the universe,” and readers even today find Holmes’ similes and metaphors engaging. His famous assertion that human beings possess one-, two-, or three-story intellects still stimulates thought. His lifelong faith in science and contempt for Calvinism’s stress on human depravity is revealed in this characteristically vivid simile: “If for the Fall of man science comes to substitute the RISE of man, sir, it means the utter disintegration of all the spiritual pessimisms which have been like a spasm in the heart and a cramp in the intellect of men for so many centuries” (The Poet at the Breakfast-Table).
Holmes drew his figures from every imaginable source—the natural, social, commercial, historical, anatomical, nautical, pugilistical, and even “newspaporial” worlds. His use of simple, concrete figures helped him wed the classical universality and 18th-century rationalism of his idol Samuel Johnson with 19th-century Romantic subjectivity. Since Holmes believed his own subjective thoughts and feelings (as a wellbalanced, rational individual) were shared by all people, the more subjective he was, the more universal he became. “And so I am not afraid to talk very freely with you, my precious reader or listener. You too, Beloved, were born somewhere … Your hand is upon mine, then, as I guide my pen. Your heart frames the responses to the litany of my remembrance” (The Poet at the Breakfast-Table).
Dr. Johnson ranked highest in Holmes’ pantheon, but he admired and saw his own strengths in fellow physician-writer Sir Thomas Browne (“With a Prelude on Nightcaps, and Comments on an Old Writer,” 1883). Of his own countrymen, Holmes admired Washington Irving; certainly kinship can be found between Holmes’ Autocrat and Irving’s earlier Diedrich Knickerbocker and Geoffrey Crayon. Irving’s essays may have shown Holmes that the public warmed to a personal tone, a winning persona, genial humor, and a rich but easy prose style.
In turn, Holmes influenced essayists who followed him, most notably Lewis Thomas, the Holmes of the 20th century. Thomas paid regular tribute to Holmes in his popular medical essays. Like Holmes, he created a genial persona who expressed optimistic humanism in his essays—and even many of Holmes’ specific views.
Holmes was not without his limitations, however. Focused as he was on science and believing in evolutionary progress, he was not a champion of abolition, Brook Farm, transcendentalism, or other political, social, and philosophical movements of his time.
More surprising, he failed to note the profound ethnic and religious changes that were transforming his own Boston during his lifetime. Holmes was concerned instead with the simple, universal emotions related to home and family affections, romantic love, friendship, aging, and the expansion of the human mind. He is unsurpassed at expressing ordinary ideas in ways that stimulate thought. Wherever the conversational essayist is evoked, Holmes’ name must be mentioned, and he demonstrates that the essay can be highly congenial to poetry and fiction.
Born 29 August 1809 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Studied at Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts, 1824–25; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, B.A., 1829; Dane Law School, Cambridge, 1829–30; studied medicine at Tremont Medical School, Boston, 1830–33, in Paris, 1833–35, and at Harvard Medical School, M.D., 1836. Practiced medicine in Boston, from 1838. Professor of anatomy, Darmouth Medical College, Hanover, New Hampshire, 1838–40. Married Amelia Lee Jackson (died, 1888), 1840: two sons (one the judge Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.) and one daughter. Lyceum lecturer, 1841–57; Parkman Professor of Anatomy, Harvard Medical School, 1847–82, then emeritus. Contributor of the “Breakfast-Table” essay series, the Atlantic, from 1857.
Awards: Boylston Prize, for medical essays, 1836, 1837; honorary degrees from three universities. Died in Boston, 7 October 1894.
Essays and Related Prose
Boylston Prize Dissertations for 1836 and 1837, 1838
Homoeopathy and Its Kindred Delusions (lectures), 1842
The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, 1858
The Professor at the Breakfast-Table, 1860
Currents and Counter-Currents in Medical Science, with Other Addresses and Essays, 1861
Soundings from the Atlantic, 1864
The Poet at the Breakfast-Table, 1872
Medical Essays 1842–1882, 1883
Pages from an Old Volume of Life: A Collection of Essays, 1857–1881, 1883
Our Hundred Days in Europe, 1887
Over the Teacups, 1890
Oliver Wendell Holmes (selection), edited by S.I.Hayakawa and Howard Mumford Jones, 1939
The Autocrat’s Miscellanies, edited by Albert Mordell, 1959
Other writings: three novels (Elsie Venner, 1861; The Guardian Angel, 1867; A Moral Antipathy, 1885), five volumes of poetry, and biographies of John Lothrop Motley (1879) and Ralph Waldo Emerson (1885).
Collected works edition: Works (Standard Library Edition), 15 vols., 1891–96.
Currier, Thomas Franklin, and Eleanor M.Tilton, A Bibliography of Oliver Wendell Holmes, New York: New York University Press, 1953
Menikoff, Barry, “Oliver Wendell Holmes,” in Fifteen American Authors Before 1900:
Bibliographical Essays on Research and Criticism, edited by Earl N.Harbert and Robert A.Rees, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984
Tilton, Eleanor M., and Sidney Ives, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Oliver Wendell Holmes Collection, Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1993
“Centenary Study of Holmes,” Edinburgh Review 211 (April 1910): 414–34
The Critic issue on Holmes, 30 August 1884
Crothers, Samuel McChord, Oliver Wendell Holmes: The Autocrat and His Fellow- Boarders, Folcroft, Pennsylvania: Folcroft, 1973 (original edition, 1909)
Cullingworth, C.J., “Oliver Wendell Holmes and the Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever,”
British Medical Journal 2 (1905):1161–67
Eccles, F.R., “Oliver Wendell Holmes, Physician and Man of Letters,” Canadian Lancet 37 (1906):1002–11
Ferguson, J.DeLancey, “The Unfamiliar Autocrat,” Colophon 1 (February 1936):388–96
Gougeon, Len, “Holmes’s Emerson and the Conservative Critique of Realism,” South Atlantic Review 59 (January 1994):107–15
Green, R.F., “Oliver Wendell Holmes: His Writings and Philosophy,” Proceedings of the Literary and Philosophical Society 35 (1880–81):215–47
Grenander, M.E., “Doctors and Humanists: Transactional Analysis and Two Views of Man,” Journal of American Culture 3 (Fall 1980):470–79
Howe, M.A. De Wolfe, Holmes of the Breakfast-Table, London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1939
Hughes, J.L., “Oliver Wendell Holmes,” Canadian Magazine 60 (February 1913):334–40
Jennings, W.B., “Oliver Wendell Holmes: A Centenary Memoir of the Physician,”
Medical Review of Reviews 15 (1909):107–14
Linn, H.W., “Holmes as Humorist,” University of Chicago Magazine 2 (November 1909):16–13
Merrill, W.S., “The Centenary of the Autocrat,” Catholic World 134 (February 1932):581–86
Morse, John Torrey, Jr., Life and Letters of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, and London: Sampson Low, 2 vols., 1896
Pritchard, J.P., “The Autocrat and Horace,” Classical Weekly, 16 May 1932:217–23
Selbie, R.H., “Holmes,” Manchester Quarterly 20 (1901):232–58 Small, Miriam Rossiter, Oliver Wendell Holtnes, New York: Twayne, 1962
Stephen, Leslie, Studies of a Biographer, vol. 2, London: Duckworth, 1931; New York: B.Franklin, 1973 (original edition, 1901)
Tilton, Eleanor M., Amiable Autocrat: A Biography of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, New York: Henry Schuman, 1947
Woolf, Virginia, “Oliver Wendell Holmes,” in her Granite and Rainbow, London: Hogarth Press, and New York: Harcourt Brace, 1958:232–40
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