Elsie Venner

A Romance of Destiny. By OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES. 2 vols. Boston : Ticknor & Fields. 1861.
ENGLISH literature numbers among its more or less distinguished authors a goodly number of physicians. Sir Thomas Browne was, perhaps, the last of the great writers of English prose whose mind and style were impregnated with imagination. He wrote poetry without meaning it, as many of his brother doctors have meant to write poetry without doing it, in the classic style of
“Inoculation, heavenly maid, descend!”
Garth’s “ Dispensary ” was long ago as fairly buried as any of his patients; and Armstrong’s “Health” enjoys the dreary immortality of being preserved in the collections, like one of those queer things they show you in a glass jar at the anatomical museums. Arbuthnot, a truly genial humorist, has hardly had justice done him. People laugh over his fun in the “Memoirs of Seriblerus,” and are commonly satisfied to think it Pope’s. Smollett insured his literary life in “Humphrey Clinker ”; and we suppose his Continuation of Hume is still one of the pills which ingenuous youth is expected to gulp before it is strong enough to resist. Goldsmith’s fame has steadily gained; and so has that of Keats, whom we may also fairly reckon in our list, though he remained harmless, having never taken a degree. On the whole, the proportion of doctors who have positively succeeded in our literature is a large one, and we have now another very marked and beautiful case in Dr. Holmes. Since Arbuthnot, the profession has produced no such wit; since Goldsmith, no author so successful.
Five years ago it would have been only Dr. Holmes’s intimate friends that would have considered the remarkable success he has achieved not only possible, but probable. They knew, that, if the fitting opportunity should only come, he would soon show how much stuff he had in him, — sterner stuff, too, than the world had supposed,— stuff not merely to show off the iris of a brilliant reputation, but to block out into the foundations of an enduring fame. It seems an odd thing to say that Dr. Holmes had suffered by having given proof of too much wit; but it is undoubtedly true. People in general have a great respect for those who scare them or make them cry, but are apt to weigh lightly one who amuses them. They like to be tickled, but they would hardly take t he advice of their tickler on any question they thought serious. We have our doubts whether the majority of those who make up what is called “the world” are fond of wit. It rather puts them out, as Nature did Fuseli. They look on its crinkling play as men do at lightning ; and while they grant it is very fine, are teased with an uncomfortable wonder as to where it is going to strike next. They would rather, on the whole, it were farther off. They like well-established jokes, the fine old smokedherring sort, such as the clown offers them in the circus, warranted never to spoil, if only kept dry enough. Your fresh wit demands a little thought, perhaps, or at least a kind of negative wit, in the recipient. It is an active, meddlesome quality, forever putting things in unexpected and somewhat startling relations to each other; and such new relations are as unwelcome to the ordinary mind as poor relations to a nouveau riche. Who wants to be all the time painfully conceiving of the antipodes walking like flies on the ceiling ? Yet wit is related to some of the profoundest qualities of the intellect. It is the reasoning faculty acting per saltum, the sense of analogy brought to a focus; it is generalization in a flash, logic by the electric telegraph, the sense of likeness in unlikeness, that lies at the root of all discoveries ; it is the prose imagination, common-sense at fourth proof. All this is reason why the world should like it, however; and we fancy that the question, Ridentem dicere verum quid vetat ? was plaintively put in the primitive tongue by one of the world’s gray fathers to another without producing the slightest conviction. Of course, there must be some reason for this suspicion of wit, as there is for most of the world’s deep-rooted prejudices. There is a kind of surface-wit that is commonly the sign of a light and shallow nature. It becomes habitual persiflage, incapable of taking a deliberate and serious view of anything, or of conceiving the solemnities that environ life. This has made men distrustful of all laughers; and they are apt to confound in one sweeping condemnation with this that humor whose base is seriousness, and which is generally the rebound of the mind from over-sad contemplation. They do not see that the same qualities that make Shakspeare the greatest of tragic poets make him also the deepest of humorists.
Dr. holmes was already an author of more than a quarter of a century’s standing, and was looked on by most people us an amusing writer merely. He protested playfully and pointedly against this, once or twice; but, as he could not help being witty, whether he would or no, his audience laughed and took the protest as part of the joke. He felt that he was worth a great deal more than he was vulgarly rated at, and perhaps chafed a little; but his opportunity had not come. With the first number of the “Atlentic ” it came at last, and wonderfully he profited by it. The public were first delighted, and then astonished. So much wit, wisdom, pathos, and universal Catharine-wheeling of fun and fancy was unexampled. “ Why, good gracious,” cried Madam Grundy, “ we ‘ve got a genius among us at last! I always
knew what it would come to!” “ Got a fiddlestick ! ” says Mr. G.; “ it’s only rockets.” And there was no little watching and waiting for the sticks to come down. We are afraid that many a respectable skeptic has a crick in his neck by this time ; for we are of opinion that these are a new kind of rocket, that go without sticks, and stag up against all laws of gravity.
We expected a great deal from Dr. Holmes : we thought he had in him the makings of the best magazinist in the country ; but we honestly confess we were astonished. We remembered the proverb,
“ ’T is the pace that kills,” and could scarce believe that such a two-forty gait could be kept up through a twelvemonth. Such wind and bottom were unprecedented. But this was Eclipse himself; and he came in as fresh as a May morning, ready at a month’s end for another year’s run. And it was not merely the perennial vivacity, the fun shading down to seriousness, and the seriousness up to fun, in perpetual and charming vicissitude ;— here was the man of culture, of scientific training, the man who had thought as well as felt, and who had fixed purposes and sacred convictions. No, the Eclipse-comparison is too trifling. This was a stout ship under press of canvas ; and however the phosphorescent star-foam of wit and fancy, crowding up under her bows or gliding away in subdued flashes of sentiment in her wake, may draw the eye, yet she has an errand of duty; she carries a precious freight, she steers by the stars, and all her seemingly wanton zigzags bring her nearer to port.
When children have made up their minds to like some friend of the family, they commonly besiege him for a story. The same demand is made by the public of authors, and accordingly it was made of Dr. Holmes. The odds were heavy against him; but here again he triumphed. Like a good Bostonian, he took for his heroine a schoolma’am, the Puritan Pallas Athene of the American Athens, and made her so lovely that everybody was looking about for a schoolmistress to despair after. Generally, the best work in imaginative literature is done before forty; but Dr. Holmes should seem not to have found out what a Mariposa grant Nature had made him till after fifty.
There is no need of our analyzing “Elsie Venner,” for all our readers know it as well as we do. But we cannot help saving that Dr. Holmes has struck a new vein of NewEngland romance. The story is really a romance, and the character of the heroine has in it an element of mystery; yet the materials are gathered from every-day Ne-England life, and that weird borderland between science and speculation where psychology and physiology exercise mixed jurisdiction, and which rims New England as it does all other lands. The character of Elsie is exceptional, but not purely ideal, like Cristabel and Lamia. In Doctor Kittredge and his “hired man,” and in the Principal of the “ Apollinean Institoot,” Dr, Holmes has shown his ability to draw those typical characters that represent the higher and lower grades of average human nature; and in calling his work a Romance he quietly justifies himself for mingling other elements in the composition of Elsie and her cousin. Apart from the merit of the book as a story, it is full of wit, and of sound thought sometimes hiding behind a mask of humor. Admirably conceived are the two clergymen, gradually changing sides almost without knowing it, and having that persuasion of consistency which men always feel, because they must always bring their creed into some sort of agreement with their dispositions.
There is something melancholy in the fact, that, the moment Dr. Holmes showed that he felt a deep interest in the great questions which concern this world and the next, and proved not only that he believed in something, but thought his belief worth standing up for, the cry of Infidel should have been raised against him by people who believe in nothing but an authorized version of Truth, they themselves being the censors. For our own part, we do not like the smell of Smithfield, whether it be Catholic or Protestant that is burning there ; though, fortunately, one can afford to smile at the Inquisition, so long as its Acts of Faith are confined to the corners of sectarian newspapers. But Dr. Holmes can well afford to possess his soul in patience. The Unitarian John Milton has won and kept quite a respectable place in literature, though he was once forced to say, bitterly, that “ new Presbyter was only old Priest writ large.” One can say nowadays, E pur si muove, with more comfort than Galileo could; the world does move forward, and we see no great chance for any ingenious fellow-citizen to make his fortune by a “Yankee Heretic-Baker,” as there might have been two centuries ago.
Dr. Holmes has proved his title to be a wit in the earlier and higher sense of the word, when it meant a man of genius, a player upon thoughts rather than words. The variety, freshness, and strength which he has lent to our pages during the last three years seem to demand of us that we should add our expression of admiration to that which his countrymen have been so eager and unanimous in rendering.