Oliver Wendell Holmes Biography
HOLMES, Oliver Wendell (1809–94). An American man of letters, born at Cambridge, Mass., Aug. 29, 1809, son of the Rev. Abiel Holmes (q.v.), a minister of Calvinistic orthodoxy, who withstood the Unitarianism which was then gaining ground, and to which his son was later to give his adherence. Holmes was sent to Phillips Academy, Andover, Mass., for his preliminary education, and graduated from Harvard College in 1829. He at once entered the Law School of that institution, but, finding the law uncongenial, he gave it up for medicine. While a law student, he wrote and published in the Boston Advertiser, in 1830, his well-known and stirring verses, "Old Ironsides," which were an effective and popular protest against the proposed breaking up of the famous frigate Constitution. After three years in Harvard Medical School, Holmes in 1833 sailed for Europe, where he studied two years, chiefly in Paris, and on his return began the practice of medicine in Boston in 1836. The same year witnessed the publication of his first volume of poems. In 1838 he was appointed to the professorship of anatomy at Dartmouth College, a post which he held for two years. Thenceforth he passed his life almost wholly in Boston, with which city his name became very intimately associated. On June 15, 1840, he married Miss Amelia Lee Jackson, of Boston. His only important contribution to medical science was made in 1843, when he published his essay on the Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever, though he wrote numerous other scientific papers. From 1847 to 1882 he was Parkman professor of anatomy and physiology in Harvard Medical School. He was, however, not really eminent in his profession. His literary gift was marked, and he was less renowned in Boston as a practitioner than as a writer of very facile, witty verse, collections of which appeared from time to time until Before the Curfew, the last of them, was published in 1888.
Until 1857, however, his reputation was almost wholly local. The establishment in that year of the Atlantic Monthly, under the editorship of Lowell, brought him a national and almost world-wide vogue through the serial publication in that magazine of The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, which appeared in book form in 1858. These delightfully egotistical talks, full of brilliant wit and buoyant seriousness, essentially of New England and Boston, had had their origin in two forgotten essays by Holmes in the New England Magazine in 1833. The success of The Autocrat was remarkable, and Holmes has been likened to almost every famous essayist from Montaigne to Lamb. Among orthodox Calvinists of the day the sketches met with disfavor, since the ideas and the manner were those of an essential rationalist. They were followed in the next year by a series scarcely less delightful, The Professor at the Breakfast Table (pub. 1860 in book form), and after a lapse of more than a decade, in 1871–72, by the third and last volume of the series, The Poet at the Breakfast Table. The Autocrat, however, is the best, most original, and most popular of the works of Holmes, who is often called the "Autocrat."
In 1861 Holmes published his first novel, Elsie Venner. Though rather formless and un-even in quality and inartistic in method, it is interesting and full of power. More commonplace in idea than Elsie Venner, but equally interesting in its delineation, often rather contemptuous, of New England character, was The Guardian Angel (1867). In the interval between these two novels appeared Songs in Many Keys (1861) and Humorous Poems (1865) and a volume of prose, Soundings from the Atlantic (1863). His remaining literary work contained nothing very new or striking. The chief titles are: Mechanism in Thought and Morals (1871); Songs of Many Seasons (1874); John Lothrop Motley (1878), a memoir; The School-Boy (1878); The Iron Gate, and Other Poems (1880); Pages from an Old Volume of Life (1883); Medical Essays (1883); Ralph Waldo Emerson (1884), a life; A Mortal Antipathy (1885), his last novel, inferior to the two former; The New Portfolio (1885–86), in the Atlantic; Our Hundred Days in Europe (1887), an account of a voyage taken with his wife and daughter; Before the Curfew, and Other Poems (1888); and Over the Tea-Cups (1890), in the vein of The Autocrat. His death occurred in his eighty-sixth year, in Boston, Oct. 7, 1894.
Dr. Holmes was slight in stature and fastidious as to his personal appearance. In temper he was humane and kindly, particularly gracious to his numerous correspondents when confident of their sincerity, and genial in all his writing. His social accomplishments were unusual; he is said to have been the best talker in Boston. His style, at its best, is the style of spoken discourse—light, intimate, and winning, but not flippant. His verse, which is mainly of an occasional character, such as poems read at reunions of his college class or scattered throughout the pages of The Autocrat, is, like that prose work, sparkling with wit, or a graceful compound of gravity and humor. He is a prince among writers of vers de société. Among the best known of his poems are "Old Ironsides," "The Chambered Nautilus," "The Last Leaf," "Dorothy Q.," "The Voiceless," "The Deacon's Masterpiece; or, the Wonderful One-Hoss Shay."
The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol. XI (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 390.