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Chapter 23: writers of familiar verse

I. Holmes

One of the best known passages in Elsie Venner is that in which Holmes asserted the existence of an aristocracy in New England, or at least a caste, which ‘by the repetition of the same influences, generation after generation,’ has ‘acquired a distinct organization and physiognomy.’ This caste is composed of those whose ancestors have had the advantage of college training and have practised one or another of the three learned professions. The young man born in this selected group is commonly slender, with a smooth face and with features regular and of a certain delicacy. ‘His eye is bright and quick,—his lips play over the thought much as a pianist's fingers dance over their music,—and his whole air, though it may be timid, and even awkward, has nothing clownish.’ Teachers discover that he ‘will take to his books as a pointer or setter to his field work.’ He may be intended for the bar while his father was a minister and his grandfather a physician; and by the very fact of this heredity he ‘belongs to the Brahmin caste of New England.’

The man who thus described this caste was himself a Brahmin of the strictest sect, endowed with its best qualities, and devoid of its less estimable characteristics,—the tendency to anemia and to the semi-hysterical outlook of the dyspeptic reformer. He was energetic, wholesome to the core, sound and sane, unfailingly alert, fundamentally open-minded, never tempted to crankiness or freakishness. He was born in an illustrious year, 1809, which saw the birth of Darwin and Lincoln, of Tennyson and Gladstone, of Chopin, Mendelssohn,

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