Commentary Magazine


Oliver Wendell Holmes

To the Editor:

Having recently completed G. Edward White’s biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: Law and the Inner-self, I was drawn to Daniel J. Silver’s review in the March issue. I finished the review, however, wondering whether Mr. Silver and I had read the same book.

The review speaks of White’s “carping style,” driven by an intent “to debunk retrospective idealizations of Holmes as a liberal.” This is followed by a rhetorical assault intended to show the anti-Holmes bias of the biography. But every particular in Mr. Silver’s attack is refuted by White’s own words. Thus, the review complains that Holmes’s “intellectual daring” is twisted by White into an “arrogant solipsism, signaling contempt for a collegial profession,” whereas White writes that Holmes “was universally polite and good-tempered to his contemporaries, suppressing anger in confrontations.” Mr. Silver asserts that Holmes’s wit is “turned into a perverse self-indulgence,” whereas White writes admiringly of Holmes’s sense of humor and notes that he did “not indulge his wit or humor at the expense of others.” Holmes’s “sense of duty,” asserts Mr. Silver, is distorted into a “masquerade of self-deception,” whereas White, in a concluding assessment, writes that “duty [to Holmes] meant pursuing one’s profession with attention to ‘noble’ ends, such as creating lasting scholarship or contributing to the fabric of the law’s growth.” And, finally, how can the suggestion that White was “hostile to Holmes’s character” be reconciled with the references in the biography to “the enthusiasm, the love, with which [Holmes] approached life,” or to “the rich collection of correspondence, expressing so wide a variety of views on so many absorbing and important issues,” or to White’s assertion that “Holmes’s scholarship will never end, because his life and thought are nearly infinite in their variety”?

White has, in my view, written an extremely important and successful biography—one differing from others on the subject in that he has made a probing study of Holmes’s work, both as a scholar and as a judge, and has explored the connection between that work and the events in Holmes’s life. In the process, he has dwelled on inconsistencies in Holmes’s writings and decisions and on problematic qualities as, for example, a driving ambition that led him abruptly to quit the Harvard Law School faculty, without a decent interval, in order to assure a judicial appointment. But surely the mature mind can reconcile this image of a complex man, bounded by human dimensions, with Mr. Silver’s description of Holmes as our “leading jurist” and as a “Victorian gentleman, the likes of whom we may never see again”—a description that, I suspect, White would readily approve.

Frederic A. Nicholson
Norfolk, Virginia

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To the Editor:

Daniel J. Silver’s excellent review of the latest book on Oliver Wendell Holmes captures nicely the muscled, macho quality of Holmes’s thought. I was always taken by the aloof style best exemplified in Holmes’s famous quip about the Slaughterhouse Cases (whether Louisiana could constitutionally build slaughterhouses):

I’m so skeptical as to the knowledge of good and bad that I have no practical criterion except what the crowd wants. Long ago I decided I was not God. When a state came in here and wanted to build a slaughterhouse, I looked at the Constitution and if I could not find anything in there that a state could not build a slaughterhouse, I said to myself, if they want a slaughterhouse, God dammit, let them build it.

A brief conversation I had with the late Mark DeWolfe Howe, Holmes’s last law clerk and official biographer, illustrates his Olympian stance and ironic detachment, which did indeed accompany a deep-seated pessimism about the possibility of humans changing their lot through grand social schemes.

I remarked to Howe that Holmes often reminded me of Hemingway’s assertion that “What is moral is what I feel good after.”

Howe concurred, pointing out that Holmes and Hemingway were very similar types, tested in battle, champions of manly virtues, and coolly detached from the affairs of their fellows. Certainly each man set the pace for literature and law in the 20th century.

Harold Ticktin
Cleveland, Ohio

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Daniel J. Silver writes:

I would like to reassure Frederic A. Nicholson that it is most likely we were reading the same book. The problem is, as we say in the law, that I attribute different weight to the evidence. White does say that Holmes was unfailingly polite in person to his judicial colleagues (less so in correspondence about them). But White implies that Holmes’s rather chilly politeness was a mask for the contempt in which Holmes often held his colleagues’ ideas. White describes how it is odd that in a collegial profession, where judges are expected to exchange ideas, Holmes acted as if he did not need or desire his brethren’s advice. And, yes, White concedes that Holmes possessed wit; however, White goes on to say that Holmes was willfully obscure in his sometimes cryptic aphorisms, as if he did not care whether or not he were clearly understood by those without his intellectual command.

While noting Holmes’s enthusiasm for life, White goes on to imply that this enthusiasm was a bit unfathomable or even perverse because Holmes failed to share much of his life with other people. White explains the melancholy that overtook Holmes in retirement in characteristic fashion: “At the end of his life the self-preoccupation that had vitalized him for so long became evidence that after more than ninety years he was essentially alone.” For White, Holmes begins and ends in “self-preoccupation,” a quality White does not admire—though it is a harsh judgment that is not earned by the facts White adduces. In sum, the valuable aspects of White’s scholarship should not blind us to a consistent, insinuating strain of bias.

I am grateful to Harold Ticktin both for his kind comments and for his lonely words in homage to what used to be called without embarrassment “manly virtues,” virtues much knocked about of late. G. Edward White’s distaste for the anti-communitarian effects of “ironic detachment” notwithstanding, it is clear that the morally positive obverse of such detachment is intellectual independence—a quality richly found in Holmes. Along with the courage of his convictions—which he put to the test in both the field of battle and the war of ideas—Holmes’s independent temper made of him a genuine hero.

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