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Chapter 3: Holmes

It was a favorite theory of Oliver Wendell Holmes that every man's biography should be studied for several generations before his birth. In applying this doctrine to himself I can unfortunately go no farther back than the matrimonial engagement of his parents, which was thus announced in writing by my own mother, then a schoolgirl in Boston, addressing a lady in Hingham, whom my mother, being then an orphan, called “mama.”

“Now, mama, I am going to surprise you. Mr. Abiel Holmes of Cambridge, whom we so kindly chalked out for Miss N. W. [Nancy Williams, afterward Mrs. Loammi Baldwin] is going to be married, & of all folks in the world guess who to--Miss Sally Wendell! I am sure you will not believe it, however it is an absolute fact, for Harriot and M. Jackson told Miss P. Russell so, who told us; it has been kept secret for six [76] weeks, nobody knows for what, I could not believe it for some time & scarcely can now however it is a fact they say. Mama must pay the wedding visit.”

This piece of girlish logic was ultimately justified, and the gossip thus transmitted through a series of young ladies was confirmed. The impression produced by the letter on the most distinguished child of this union may be seen in the following note:--

164 Charles St., July 7, 1868.
My dear Mr. Higginson,
I thank you for the curious little scrap of information so nearly involving my dearest interests,--whether I should be myself or somebody else,--and such a train of vital facts as my household shews (sic) me.

How oddly our antenatal history comes out! A few months ago my classmate Devens told me he had recently seen an old woman who spoke of remembering me as a baby and that I was brought up on the bottle — which has made me feel as tenderly every time I visit my wine cellar as Romulus and Remus did when Faustula carried them to the menagerie and showed them the wolf in his cage.

Our life is half under ground--quantum vertice, etc.

Here are two rootlets of mine that accident has brought to light, not very important to the race, but having an odd sort of interest for one at least.

Very truly yours, O. W. Holmese.


In childhood I became intimate with the household circle in which Oliver Wendell Holmes was born and bred, the intimacy coming from the fact that my father's house stood next to it and that Dr. Holmes's nephew, Charles Parsons,--afterward Professor Parsons of Brown University,--was my especial playmate. The place was, like many country parsonages of that day, practically a farmhouse with its accompanying acres. It included the ground now covered by several college buildings in the neighborhood and it extended over the playgrounds now called Holmes's Field. There were cultivated fields and many outbuildings, sheltering horses and cattle; and one of the happiest spots to us was the corn-barn, raised on high posts, where we shelled corn on rainy days. In the house our favorite playing place was the garret described by Dr. Holmes in his “Professor at the breakfast table.” It was in reference to this garret that he wrote, “The worst of a modern stylish mansion is that it has no place for ghosts.” In this garret there was abundant room for them; it possessed locked closets for their express accommodation. [78] Looking in through the keyholes we could see old leather portmanteaux looking “like stranded porpoises,” as Holmes describes them, or andirons waiting to resume their places in the chimneys. In the large outer garret we could see names written with diamonds on the windowpanes — names of students who had taken their degrees before the Revolutionary War. Among them was the name of John Tracy, beneath which some one, possibly a rival in scholarship or love, had written stultus by way of brief verdict. We knew that in this house the battle of Bunker Hill was planned, and we knew that on yonder green the American soldiers had halted for prayers from the college president ere they marched to the field. Looking across the common, then unfenced, we saw the tree beneath which Washington had taken command of the Continental Army, and not far off was the old churchyard, and Dr. Holmes had made that plot of ground classic to us by poems which we knew by heart. We pondered over those long inscriptions where, as Holmes himself has said, “The dead presidents stretched their weary bones under epitaphs stretched out at as full [79] length as their subjects.” We chose out the very stone he describes in the poem, “The empty urn of pride” as he calls it — the tomb of the Vassall family bearing only “the goblet and the sun” (Vas-sol) until desecrated in these later years by the addition of name and date. Holmes had also found out that tombstone of the French exile near Christ Church and had written--

Lean o'er the slender western wall,
Ye ever-roaming girls;
The wind that bids the blossom fall
May lift your floating curls
To sweep the simple lines that tell
An exile's date and doom,
And sigh, for where his daughters dwell
They wreathe the stranger's tomb.

The force of this was not diminished to us by the fact that the little Cambridge maidens with whom we went to dancing school might frequently be seen wandering through the churchyard; and that curls were then so universally worn, it really seemed as if the damsels might have put them on with their straw hats. Perhaps more interesting to us [80] than any of these localities was the grave of our poet's sister, of whom Holmes wrote:--

If sinless angels love as we
     Who stood that bier beside,
Three seraph welcomes greeted thee,
     The daughter, sister, bride.

And we faithfully took the poet's word for it that the locust grove in the churchyard would “swing its orient flowers” long after the two church spires had crumbled, although now, alas! the grove has long since disappeared, and the steeples remain. All this had been a part of Dr. Holmes's boyhood, as of mine, and he like me had also “tumbled about in a library,” namely, his own father's, though fourteen years earlier. There was an inexhaustible set of volumes in it, placed near the floor as if for children to reach — the delightful quartos of “Rees' Cyclopaedia,” whose numerous plates of baboons and paroquets were to us of endless interest. If perchance their attraction waned, there was always the resource of building fortresses on the floor with the kindly quartos and playing the battle of Bunker Hill behind them, using for ammunition the store of winter apples then kept [81] in barrels within the closet of every faithful and studious clergyman. How dear this study was to Holmes himself may be seen in this letter, written after I had described, at a breakfast given him by his publishers,1 an occasion where his kindly old father had turned from his sermon or his “American Annals” to draw for us in frost on the window-pane a sketch of bristling bushes, with stars above and with the wholesome motto “Per aspera ad astra.

Boston, December 14, 1879.
My dear Higginson,
If I have already thanked you once it is no matter,--let me thank you again for that delightful reminiscence of my father and of the old study. I have a set of book shelves in my brain where every volume is in its place. I can see the frost on the windowthough I do not remember the particular season — and act over the whole little domestic scene in my imagination. Nothing for a long time has called up that picture of the study and my kind-hearted old father-not so old or so white-haired as I am now, at that time — so vividly as your story. ...

Once more — twice more, if I have already written, I thank you.

Faithfully yours, O. W. Holmes.


Dr. Holmes was born, it will be remembered, August 29, 1809, graduated at Harvard in 1829, studied law for a year and a half, then studied medicine in Europe for two years and a half, took his degree at the Harvard Medical School in 1836, became Professor at Dartmouth in 1838, and Professor at the Harvard Medical School in 1847. He was thus away from Cambridge during most of my boyhood, and my memory first depicts him vividly when he came back to give his Phi Beta Kappa poem in 1836. He was at this time a young physician of great promise, which was thought to be rather impaired by his amusing himself with poetry. So at least, he always thought; and he cautioned in later years a younger physician, Dr. Weir Mitchell, to avoid the fault which he had committed, advising him to be known exclusively as a physician until his reputation in that line should be made. The effect of levity conveyed by this poem — which was in the main a serious, not to say a ponderous, one--was due largely to certain passages which he described as “wanting in dignity” and only partly reprinted in an appendix. Especially criticised was one [83] passage in which he gallantly enumerated the probable names of the various young ladies in the gallery, mentioning, for instance,

A hundred Marys, and that only one
Whose smile awaits me when my song is done.

These statistics of admiration were not thought altogether suitable to an academic poem, and the claim itself in regard to the young lady may have proved a little premature, inasmuch as she subsequently married Holmes's friend Motley, the historian.

He had undoubtedly in his manners to young ladies of that period a tone of airy love-making, suitable to one lately returned from gay Paris; and his poem “To a lady,” boasting of the change in her manner since he first left America “a pallid boy,” may easily have had an actual foundation. It is to be remembered, however, that he had at this period a look of physical insignificance, which his middle years greatly amended by additional flesh; at Phi Beta Kappa dinners he used to stand up in a chair to sing his songs, and his juvenile look was even considered something of an obstacle to his early [84] success in medical practice. Dr. Walter Channing of Boston, grandfather of the present physician of that name, was fond of telling a story of his taking Dr. Holmes with him in consultation to visit an invalid lady in a suburb of Boston, who rose in her bed as they entered the room and said peevishly: “Dr. Channing, why do you bring that little boy in here? Take him away! This is no place for boys.” Upon which the young physician retired in wrath and refused to reenter the room when the patient was propitiated.

Dr. Holmes did not remain long in the active practice of his profession, but for many years he was — as some boy by a fortunate blunder described him--“Professor of Monotony” in the Harvard Medical School; not that his teachings were ever monotonous, for they were always marked with vivacity and variety; but it is possible that the employment may have sometimes grown fatiguing. He varied it by much vivacious social life and by a good deal of lecturing before the popular lyceums then so much in vogue. He did not go to distant parts of the country, but was in New England one of the [85] most unfailingly popular among lecturers. He met, however, this obstacle in lecturing, as sometimes in literature, that he made very abrupt transitions from humor to pathos, so that his hearers did not always follow him; and sometimes, when the joke was over and he had suddenly passed into deep emotion, they would not recognize the change of key and would laugh harder than ever. He was at this time, as always, a perpetual fountain of original thought and illustration, but did not seem a man of strong convictions, and was essentially conservative in attitude. The accounts of slave insurrections and of the imaginary New York negro plot had left upon his mind, as he himself said, “impressions which it took Garrison years to root out” ; he was easily moved to wrath at phrenology, homoeopathy, and all the pseudosciences as he called them; but almost equally disapproved the prevailing taste for German literature, calling Jean Paul, in one poem, “a German-Silver Spoon.”

The later influence of Emerson, and in some degree of Lowell, tended to diminish some of these antagonisms, and certainly nothing could [86] be more felicitous than his delineation of Emerson as “an iconoclast who took down our idols so gently that it seemed like an act of worship.” The Civil War on the one side and some tilts against theological prejudices, on the other, had the effect of throwing him in later life toward the party of attack, and, as almost always happens in such cases, this seemed a source of fresh life and happiness to him. His course of development was thus somewhat opposite to that of Lowell, who took his radicalism first and in a tolerably undiluted form, becoming afterward more conservative; while the even nature of Longfellow, tempted into no extremes, remained in much the same attitude during his whole life.

In regard to Holmes's intellectual life, it is a rare thing for a man nearly fifty years old to strike out a wholly new career; and this doubtless happened to Holmes on the publication of the “Autocrat of the breakfast table.” This is all the more remarkable from the fact that he had begun a similar venture long before without attracting much attention. It is common to say that the success of the Autocrat chapters [87] was instantaneous and overwhelming. I am sure that this was not quite the case, for I remember well that Underwood, when I expressed delight at the first number, seemed very glad to have me say it, because there was, as he said, a minority of readers, who were disposed to pooh-pooh it, and maintained that Dr. Holmes was “a tiresome little man.” This was perhaps only the natural Nemesis encountered by a joker of many years' standing; at any rate all such malcontents soon passed into oblivion and were heard no more.

He disarmed criticism in the end by courageously persisting in the same method which had originally produced it, namely, by the most fearless intimacy with his audience, never keeping back any jest or any expression of confidence. He frankly says in one place that good talkers are very apt to be bores,--thus meeting criticism halfway. The discursiveness of his articles only matches the same quality of his mind; and there probably never was a man whose conversation and whose writing were so little unlike. I knew one celebrated talker in Rhode Island who astonished a dinner party [88] by reciting the birthdays of all the British queens. It seemed a deed impossible except for a Macaulay, until later in the day the butler brought to the host a little printed volume containing odds and ends of information, and including just this list of queen's birthdays. It had fallen from the pocket of this particular guest and was restored to him without comment. Such a misfortune would have been absolutely impossible to Dr. Holmes. He had no marked development of systematic memory, but his accumulation of odds and ends of knowledge was unsurpassed, and this is what a talker, or indeed a literary man as such, chiefly needs. His ready wit supplied the rest. It is to be noticed also that he had an arsenal of his own in a scientific direction from which he could draw weapons not accessible to others. He mercilessly talked down other talkers, yet not by a strategy, only through an irrepressible affluence which left them no room.

There was a legend that he once met in the street the late Tom Appleton, at that time the second best talker in Boston, who told him a capital story. It turned out that they were [89] going to the same dinner party, and Holmes said to himself, “That story will be Appleton's pitce de resistance; it will be good fun to circumvent him.” Accordingly, before they had begun upon their soup, Holmes burst out with the story. It won immense success, and Appleton sat glum and silent through the rest of the dinner. There was nothing really malicious about it; it was simply a joke, although, it must be confessed, a little cruel. If the tables had been turned, Holmes would have laughed it off, instead of growing morose upon it. Appleton was possibly, I have sometimes thought, a more brilliant talker than either Holmes or Lowell; while he was not their equal in thought, yet his knowledge of society was more varied, and perhaps I have never in my life been so heartily amused as once at a ttte-d-thte dinner with him in his bachelor house at Newport, when for two hours he mainly sustained the conversation and seemed at the end to have passed in review, in the most brilliant way, half the celebrities of Europe. He was perhaps more arrogant and self-imposing than either Holmes or Lowell, yet he knew better when to change the subject; [90] but one never felt quite sure that he was not studiously working up a point, which Holmes never did; the flow being too spontaneous for that. On the other hand neither of these three eminent talkers could be relied upon for tact, as was shown at the famous dinner to Dr.Stowe and Mrs. Stowe which I have elsewhere described, and at which Lowell discoursed to Mrs. Stowe at one end of the table on the superiority of “Tom Jones” to all other novels, while Holmes demonstrated to Dr. Stowe, at the other end, that profane swearing really originated in the pulpit.

Holmes's literary opinions belonged, as compared with Lowell's, to an earlier generation. Holmes was still influenced by the school of Pope, whom Lowell disliked, although his father had admired him. We notice this influence in Holmes's frequent recurrence to the tensyllable verse; in his unwillingness to substitute dactyls for spondees; and in his comments on Emerson's versification, which remind one of those of Johnson on Milton. He has a great aversion to what he calls “the crowding of a redundant syllable into a line.” He says, for [91] instance, “Can any ear reconcile itself to the last of these three lines of Emerson's:”

Oh, what is heaven but the fellowship
Of minds that each can stand against the world
By its own meek and incorruptible will?

He goes on to denounce “these lines that lift their back up in the middle, span-worm lines, we may call them,” of which he says that “they have invaded some of our recent poetry as the canker-worms gather on our elms in June.” It does not stand recorded how Holmes was affected by Coleridge's “Christabel,” which emancipated English poetry from the shadow of Pope; but it is pretty certain that he would not have approved of it. Lyrical and lilting measures did not ordinarily appeal to him, except in the case of Moore, whose lilt has a definite beat, and whose verses he used in later life to read to young people who had almost forgotten the Irish poet's name. It was perhaps partly a result of all this that Holmes was, according to the Quarterly Review, “at one time in disrepute with the more advanced of his countrymen. He was accused [92] of attaching excessive importance to conventionalities of dress, manners, and speech. He was charged with using his influence to starve and paralyze literary originality.”

I do not clearly know what was meant by the first of these charges, but it might, doubtless, be said that Dr. Holmes was always conventional, though never in any sense a fop or an exquisite — to revert to the phrase of that day. With an unconcealed preference for what is called the best society, he yet had, in his early medical practice, the advantage enjoyed by all of that profession, in alternating between the houses of rich and poor, and learning that they are composed mentally, as physically, of much the same material. He also had, as Mr. Morse his biographer admits, a tinge of the sporting man about him, liked to see a fast trot, and describes the taste for horse flesh of his own Major Rowens in “Elsie Venner” so vividly that the most confirmed pedestrian can hardly read the account without a thrill. He knew the records of the prize ring, and sometimes measured the muscles of fighting champions, perhaps without [93] ever seeing them fight. Like many small men he had a marked appreciation for large size, whether in trees or men, loving to measure the one or chat with the other.

For some years before the Civil War, when rowing was coming into vogue and wherries were built, he used to row on Charles River, and he describes his enjoyment of this in an early paper of the “Autocrat.” He told me that he gave this up during the war because of perpetual solicitude about his son and other favorite young men who were at the front; he said that he could not bear to be beyond call. He thus took his part in the marked rise of interest in physical training which occurred about that time, although his then puny look led many people to regard such tastes as being somewhat amateurish in him. He suffered greatly during his whole career from asthma, which many people outgrow with years, though he did not. When I lived in Newport he once came there to spend a week at the house of the late Mrs. John Jacob Astor--who was perhaps the last of the New York millionnaires to exhibit a positive [94] taste for the society of literary men — and that he had to leave, after a single night's stay, because of a severe attack of his chronic complaint. It is a curious fact about the climate of Newport that some people come there expressly to be cured of asthma, while others have to leave the town in order to shake it off.

Holmes's relation to science now appears, when seen from the literary point of view, to have been more that of the poet than of the man of science. “None but Holmes,” says Professor Dwight, his associate, “could have compared the microscopical coiled tube of a sweat-gland to a fairy's intestine.” He was also one of the early microscopists, and these are themselves the poets of science. He suggested in 1872, before Percival Lowell did, the snows on Mars; and described a plant, considered as a companion for a sick room, in the true Darwinian spirit as “an innocent, delightfully idiotic being that is not troubled with any of our poor human weaknesses and irritabilities.” Dr. Cheever says of him that “he was too sympathetic to practise medicine, [95] and when he thought it necessary to use a freshly killed rabbit for demonstration he always left his assistant to chloroform it and besought him not to let it squeak.” He believed in the elevating influence of the medical profession, and said that “Goldsmith and even Smollett, both having studied and practised medicine, could not, by any possibility, have outraged all the natural feelings in delicacy and decency, as Swift and Zola have outraged them.” Yet Holmes gave away his medical books in middle life to the Boston Medical Library; and after this he prized science as the poet loves it for the images and analogies it affords, even as Coleridge went to Sir Humphry Davy's lectures in order to acquire a stock of new metaphors.

In speaking of Holmes's relation to the reforms going on about him, it is pleasant to recall an occasion where both his generosity and his wit were called into play, when there was some agitation among his students in regard to the practice of medicine by women. At the opening of the new building of the Harvard Medical School, after speaking, in his [96] address, on woman as a nurse, he said, “I have always felt that this was rather the vocation of woman than general medical, and especially surgical, practice.” This was received with loud applause from the conservative side, then prevailing. He quietly went on, “Yet I myself followed the course of lectures given by the young Madame Lachapelle in Paris; and if here and there an intrepid woman insists on taking by storm the fortress of medical education, I would have the gate flung open to her, as if it were that of the citadel of Orleans and she Joan of Arc returning from the field of victory.” Professor Dwight, who was present, adds: “The enthusiasm which this sentiment called forth was so overwhelming, that those of us who had led the first applause felt, perhaps looked, rather foolish. I have since suspected that Dr. Holmes, who always knew his audience, had kept back the real climax to lure us to our destruction.” 2

His theological heresies, as they were once considered, were really the outcome of the scientific habit of his mind; and perhaps partly [97] of that impulse which makes the most conservative temperament yearn to identify itself, at least for once in its life, with the party of revolt. It will seem incredible in future years that young people were sometimes forbidden to read the “Autocrat of the breakfast table,” as being a work of irreligious tendency; yet its author's criticisms on the then established faith of New England were from the point of view of human sympathy and not of technical theology. He did not wish, in his own words, to suggest perplexities in order to “bother Bridget, the wild Irish girl, or Joyce Heth, the centenarian, or any other intellectual non-combatant” ; but he simply wished to base religion upon justice and common humanity. The sentence which seemed most profane, “If a created being has no rights which his Creator is bound to respect, there is an end to all moral relations between them,” would now alarm few thinking persons. The “crippled souls” of the world were those who roused all his sympathy most promptly. As for the external side, he was all his life a regular church-goer on the ground, as he said, that there was “in the corner of his [98] heart a plant called Reverence, which needed to be watered about once a week.”

It was on yet deeper questions that his three novels, well characterized by an elderly lady as his “medicated novels,” all turned in different degrees. The first of these, “Elsie Venner,” achieved a permanent fame both as a picture of New England life and as a scientific study. How widely either has achieved that popular recognition which is so poor a test of literary work cannot now be told. It is known that in one country town of New England, the local bookseller, on being asked if he had any of Dr. Holmes's novels, replied that he had never heard of him or them, but that Mrs. Mary Jane Holmes had written lovely books and that he had some of those. He himself would have enjoyed this joke, for he says with his accustomed cheerfulness, “The highways of literature are spread over with shells of dead novels, each of which the age has swallowed up at a mouthful and done with.”

He certainly cannot be charged with neglecting among these abstract speculations the essential qualities of conscience or even of religious [99] faith. Few persons have stated this last more finely than where he says, after pointing out that there are two sides to every one, as with a piece of money, “I've seen an old woman who wouldn't fetch five cents if you put her up at auction, and yet, come to read the other side of her, she had a trust in God Almighty that was like the bow anchor of a three-decker.”

Side by side with this fine recognition must be placed that admirable letter to Mr. James William Kimball, in which Dr. Holmes states his creed as definitely and clearly as one who passes for a heretic can be expected to present it.

March 18, 1860.
... I reciprocate all your kindly feelings most cordially, and I have no doubt that if all the “evangelicals” I have known had had hearts and tempers like yours, I should have looked less critically at some of their beliefs. Let me repeat it,--I have no wish to change your belief in anything, so far as it is adapted to your spiritual nature and necessities. Much of it I share with you: a supreme and absolute faith in one great Father; a revelation of Himself, “at sundry times and in divers manners,” --infallibly in creation, more or less fallibly in all that has been committed to human tradition, preeminently in the [100] life of one of the “sons of God” known on earth as the Anointed, of whom we have some imperfect records. That religion consists in holy affections, the evidence of which is in righteous life. If you believe that man is born under a curse derived from Adam, I do not. If you believe that a finite being is allowed to ruin himself forever, I do not. At any rate I am sure you hope not. If you accept the whole collection of tracts called “the Bible” --the canon of which represents a majority vote, nothing more or less --as infallible, I think your ground is demonstrably untenable.3

If it is to be admitted, as it generally is, that “The Chambered Nautilus” is the highwater mark of Holmes's poetry,--and this not merely from the perfect beauty of its structure, but from the elevation of its theme, -it is worth while to notice that remarkable bit of prose statement left behind by him in a letter written impromptu to Mr. John Lindley on the subject of personal immortality. It is justly designated by Mr. J. T. Morse, who edits it, as “very striking” and he adds, “It stands by itself solitary, so far as I know, amid all that he has publicly or privately written.” An exquisitely truthful and delicate statement of [101] the highest point of conviction yet attained on that subject by many highly trained minds, it also seems to me a wonderfully condensed and vigorous piece of writing, and it is to be read in connection with that remarkable passage in “Elsie Venner,” where the author speculates in respect to the attempted murder of his young schoolmaster.

Boston, December 28, 1867.
Dear sir,
I should prefer to say that I trust there will be a righting of this world's evils for each and all of us in a future state, than say that I share the unquestioning certainty of many of those about me.

The natural argument seems to me against the supposition. In the year 1800 I was not, to the best of my knowledge. Since that time my consciousness has been evoked and my experiences have been accumulated. I do not see that I have any natural ground for claiming the future any more than the past,--other than my conviction that it is or ought to be so,--a conviction which is sometimes strong and at other times weak, as in the experience of many others.

I have seen many human consciousnesses put together, like my own. They were at one time represented by the unconscious life of ova. By and by they got sense, intellect, will, conscience, experience.

But I have seen many consciousnesses taken to pieces also; they lost the senses to a great extent; the intellect and of course the conscience with the will were enfeebled, [102] almost lost, and the experiences of life so erased that the wife forgot her husband, the mother her children.

The natural conclusion would be that this gradual decay ends in extinction. The question might well be asked, whether the individuality, so nearly lost in this world, is likely to be restored by the destruction of the organism. I hope and trust that my feelings are right, which tell me that this world demands a complement.

If the evidence of the New Testament is a proof (and not merely a probability of a certain value, variously estimated by different honest persons), there is no need of asking the question.

One thing seems to me clear,--that if the future life is to be for the bulk of mankind what the larger part of our pulpits teach, namely, a condition of hopeless woe, there is no reason why we should wish to have proof of another life.

The more I consider the doctrine of eternal punishment, the more it seems to me a heathen invention, which has found its way into Christianity, and entirely inconsistent with the paternal character attributed to the Deity. (We must carry to any future sphere the characters we form here; and these must influence, if they do not determine, our condition. Yet it seems in accordance with the paternal principle that any punishment should be reformatory and not vindictive.)

One thing is certain: it is impossible to disprove the reality of a future life, and we have all a right to cherish the hope that we may live again under more favorable circumstances, and be able to account for these preliminary arrangements, which, as a finality, are certainly unsatisfactory.4


It must be remembered that Holmes was constitutionally conservative, and the element of whim came in to make him even more so in appearance than he actually was. His favorite character, Little Boston, was a fanciful exaggeration of his own innocent cockneyism. In his day Beacon Street was still precisely what he called it, “The sunny street that holds the sifted few,” and young men and maidens in good society carried on their courtships while walking round the Common or down the long path or on the mill-dam. “Whom does Arabella walk with now?” was a question occasionally heard in careful circles of maiden aunts. Holmes did not really desire any larger social arena, and moreover got all the rural life he wanted through his summer visits in Pittsfield. He was conservative on the slavery question until the Civil War, hated quacks and fanatics with honest and unflinching hostility, and it was only the revolt of his kindly nature against Calvinism which threw him finally on the side of progress. The Saturday Club with all its attractions did not lead him in that direction. It brought together an agreeable set of cultivated men, but none of [104] the more strenuous reformers of its day, however brilliant, except Emerson and occasionally Sumner and Howe. Edmund Quincy and James Freeman Clarke were not admitted until 1875, after the abolition of slavery. Garrison, Parker, Phillips, Alcott, Wasson, Weiss, and William Henry Channing were never members of the Saturday Club and probably never could have been elected to it; but they were to be looked for every month at the Radical Club,afterward called the Chestnut Street Club,which certainly rivalled the Saturday in brilliancy in those days, while it certainly could not be said of it, as Dr. Holmes said of the Saturday, “We do nothing but tell our old stories; we never discuss anything.” Possibly all such gatherings tend to be somewhat more conspicuous in retrospect as time goes on; men recall the bright sayings and forget the occasional gaps of triviality or dulness. I remember when Fields, on once inviting me to dine with him at the Saturday Club, during a visit to Boston, cautioned me not to expect too much; “We are sometimes stupid,” he said. I know that in thinking of the Atlantic [105] Club I still recall with fatigue the propensity which Lowell shared with Holmes for discussing theology. After all, the Five Points of Calvinism have this in common with measles or the whooping-cough: they are interesting to those who are liable to them or have got over them; but to those who have never gone through them they are rather tiresome subjects. As to the Radical Club, Holmes in later years made an address there himself on one of his speculative themes.

Perhaps, indeed, Holmes's talk was not to be seen at best advantage in his pet clubs where he sat as undisputed autocrat, while in the more familiar intercourse of common life his conversational fertility can hardly be exaggerated, and was, perhaps, never surpassed even by Sydney Smith. There was certainly no one in his day with whom it was so impossible to spend five minutes without bringing away something worth recalling. This has descended, it is said, to his son Judge Holmes, of whom a young law student once said to me that, being allowed a seat in the Judge's office, he chose the seat next to him in order [106] to get the cream of the thoughts which had invariably come to his chief during his morning walk across Boston Common. With the father it was the same, his mental activities being wholly impulsive and yet ever ready to take hold of every point offered by another. If nothing offered, the jest ripened in his own head, and blossomed by itself. I remember that one morning, during a brief call at Fields's office, Holmes came in on an errand, having a book done up in paper under his arm, and as he was going out suddenly turned and said: “I have here a most wonderful book. It is worth in money value any other book in Boston. In fact it is worth a whole library. If it could be properly edited and illustrated, as I would do it, it would be worth the whole public library put together.” Nodding to us authoritatively, he shut the door, leaving us looking at one another, too bewildered for conjecture. Presently the door opened again quietly, and Dr. Holmes put in his head, his face bubbling over with amusement, and said: “Oh, I forgot to tell you what book this is. It is Nat Thayer's check-book.” Then he shut the door. The [107] gentleman thus designated was understood at that time to be the richest man in Boston. With a mind in which unexpected bubbles of fun were thus liable to come to the surface at any moment, there was naturally combined a temperament which not only took delight in them but in all the cheerful side of human existence. Comparing the temperaments of these eminent friends, Holmes might be designated as sunny, Longfellow as equable, and Lowell as variable and given to extremes. Holmes had, moreover, fewer domestic sorrows than his two friends, but on the other hand had by reason of his greater longevity the hardest trial of old age, in the sense of finding himself alone through the departures of his contemporaries. He did not lament over this, but there is abundant evidence that he felt it deeply. Few men have had in their later years such an intoxicating ovation as was awarded to him in England at the age of seventy-seven; but he wrote five years after to Whittier: “We are lonely, very lonely, in these last years. . . . We were on deck together as we began the voyage of life two [108] generations ago. A whole generation passed, and the succeeding one found us in the cabin with a goodly number of coevals. Then the craft which held us began going to pieces, until a few of us were left on the raft pieced together of its fragments. And now the raft has at last parted, and you and I are left clinging to the solitary spar, which is all that still remains afloat of the sunken vessel.” 5

He died on October 7th, 1894. [109] [110]

1 Atlantic Monthly, XLV., supplement.

2 Holmes's “Life and letters,” I. p. 186.

3 Holmes's “Life and letters,” II. p. 147.

4 Holmes's “Life and letters,” I. p. 288.

5 Holmes's “Life and letters,” II. p. 315.

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