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”?
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