Dr. Holmes

“His good-natured raillery undermined conventions rather than sapped faith, and his wit was an acid which had no mordant power on that which was genuine.”

It was thirty-seven years ago that Dr. Holmes published in the first number of this magazine the opening paper of a series which gave distinction at once to The Atlantic Monthly. Since that day scarcely a volume has appeared without a word from him, and many of the volumes contain a poem, paper, or chapter of a novel in every number. So identified had he become with the fortunes of the magazine that, the day after his death, I received a communication addressed to him as editor. It was very fortunate for all of us that he never was its editor, for he would have been so scrupulous that he would have expended his energies on other people’s work, and we should have missed some of his own.

The constancy with which he held to this medium of communication with the reading public hints at a notable characteristic of his nature which finds abundant expression in his writings. Dr. Holmes had the passion of local patriotism. No one need be told who has read his stirring lyrics, his Bread and the Newspaper, his oration on The Inevitable Trial, and his sketch of Motley’s life, how generous was his affection for the nation: but a great crisis brought these expressions to pass; his familiar habit of mind was cordially local. His affection fastened upon his college, and in his college on his class; he had a worthy pride in the race from which he had sprung, and the noble clannishness which is one of the safeguards of social morality; he loved the city of his life, not with the merely curious regard of the antiquary, but with the passion of the man who can be at home only in one place; and he held to New England as to a substantial entity, not a geographical section of some greater whole.

It would be a perversion of logic to say that all this was the result of conditions of life; that the hard-working medical professor must needs stay at home, especially when, for a large part of his academic career, his duties permitted no long vacation, so that, after the preliminary scamper over Europe which every young professional man was expected to make if he could, fifty years would elapse before the man, crowned with honors, should make a royal progress through England; that the lectures, again, before the medical school precluded those general lecturing tours which gave Emerson and others acquaintance with remoter parts of the country. Dr. Holmes had his little experience of the lyceum. A truer account would reverse cause and effect. He did not travel, because Boston and Nahant and Berkshire contented him. His laboratory was at hand; human nature was under his observation from the vantage-ground of home. With the instinct of a man of science, he took for analysis that which was most familiar to him, assured that in the bit of the world where he was born, and out of which he had got his nourishment, he had all he needed for the exercise of his wit.

He lived to see many changes in the large home to which he remained constant, and some of these changes were due to him. It may be doubted if any city so young as Boston ever acquired in its short life so distinct and self-centred a character. It is true that its founders brought with them a furnishing of customs, traditions, and ideas which gave the place at once a visionary ancestry of its own, and started it in life with a stock of notions; but the after life of the town down to the time when Holmes was a young man was singularly adapted to the creation of a personality such as is rare in modern times. With a very homogeneous population, a diversity of occupations, a commerce which gave its citizens the sense of being in the centre of the world, a lively interest in politics and speculative theology which forbade intellectual stagnation, Boston was the head of a province, and had its own standards. So late as 1841, Mrs. Child could publish Letters from New York without raising a smile.

But when Dr. Holmes began his Breakfast-Table series in The Atlantic, the great migration from Ireland had been going on for ten years, clippers had given way before ocean steamships, New York was draining the Connecticut valley and the lower tier of New England States, manufacturers were establishing new centres of industrial interest, and political discussions were changing the centre of gravity from party to moral principle. The great westward movement, also, had drawn Boston capital and Boston men into new relations, and the old days of provincial security and self-content were coming to an end.

It was then that Dr. Holmes with one hand held up to view the society whose integrity was about to disappear, and with the other helped to construct the new order that was to take its place. There is no more pathetic yet kindly figure in our literature than Little Boston. With poetic instinct, Dr. Holmes made him deformed, but not ugly. He put into him a fiery soul of local patriotism, and transfigured him thus. Under the guise of a bit of nature’s mockery he was enabled to give vent to a flood of feeling without arousing laughter or contempt. All Little Boston’s vehemence of civic pride is a memorial inscription, and whatever may be the fortune of the city, however august may be its presence, there lies imbedded in this figure of Little Boston a perpetual witness to an imperishable civic form.

If Dr. Holmes concealed himself behind the mask of Little Boston, he was more frankly in evidence under the humorous conceit of the Autocrat, and the service which he rendered in this character was an important one. He knew a society in which theological discussion was still largely concerned with abstractions, and warfare was carried on under a set of rules which both parties recognized. Dr. Holmes used his wit not on one side or the other of prevailing controversies, though the conservative party undoubtedly regarded him as an assailant, but with the design of bringing to bear on fundamental questions that scientific spirit which was bred in him by his profession and penetrated by his genius. It was not so much the logic as the ingenuity, the wit, of science which he used to test a good many problems in spiritual life. He angered many at the time, but now that the heat of that day of discussions has gone down, it should be evident that Dr. Holmes had much more of the constructive temper than was then accredited to him, and that he was a poet dealing with fundamental things of the spirit, not a theologian. His good-natured raillery undermined conventions rather than sapped faith, and his wit was an acid which had no mordant power on that which was genuine. There were a good many shocks from his battery, but, after all, those who received the shocks were stung into a new vitality; and, taking his work by and large, it may be said to have had a tonic effect upon the society closest to it; a fresher breeze blew through the minds of men, and intellectual life was freer, more animated, and more on the alert.

This concentration of his power and his affection has had its effect on Dr. Holmes’s literary fame. He is another witness, if one were needed, to the truth that identification with a locality is a surer passport to immortality than cosmopolitanism. Time local is a good starting-point from which to essay the universal. Thoreau perhaps affected a scorn of the world outside of Concord, but he helped make the little village a temple, and his statue is in one of the niches. Holmes, staying in Boston, has brought the world to his door, and a society which is already historic will preserve him in its amber. It is the power to transmute the near and tangible into something of value the world over which is the mark of genius, and Holmes had this philosopher’s stone.

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The death of Holmes removes the last of those American writers who form the great group. This wit and poet lingered long enough to bid each in turn farewell. No doubt a longer perspective will enable us ultimately to adjust more perfectly their relations to one another and to the time, but it is not likely that there will be any serious revision of judgment by posterity as to their place in the canon. When Lowell went, Whittier and Holmes remained, and we kept on, in the spirit of Wordsworth’s maiden, counting over the dead and the living in one in separate company. Now they are all in the past tense, and all in the present; for death has a way of liberating personality, setting it free from accidents, and giving it permanent relations. There is thus a possession by the American people which, in a paradox, could not be theirs till they had lost it; they have lost out of sight the last member of the great group, and they have gained thereby in a clearer field of vision the whole group.

The significance of this will doubtless be more measurable a generation hence than it is now, but an intimation of it is given in a parallel from the political world. We are enough removed from the great group of American statesmen who had to do with the foundation and fortification of our political order to recognize the very great interest which the American people take in their lives and their contribution to our polity. As they recede from the field of personal acquaintance they become more heroic, and stand for the great deeds and thoughts of an historic past. Research may increase the particularity of our acquaintance with their actions, but their characters are substantially fixed, and their images are formed in the minds of each successive generation; growing a little less actual, it may be, but charged constantly with greater power of transmitting the ideals for which they stood.

It is of inestimable value that the political thought of the early days of the republic should have its exponent in this noble group, and though that thought may be run into newer moulds, the characters that gave weight to the thought can never cease to have interest. But after all, general as is the political consciousness of the people, it is not so comprehensive nor so constant as is the consciousness which deals more directly with conduct, and with the whole realm of the spirit; and the existence oi a great group of men of letters, appearing as it were after the political foundations had been laid, may be regarded as an event of immeasurable importance. The men whom we have been considering have made their works the entrance way to the world of beauty for a whole people, and if we take into account the probability that in a few years the great body of literature read in the public schools of the nation will be the writings of Longfellow, Whittier, Hawthorne, Lowell, Emerson, Holmes, Bryant, and Irving, we may well reckon it of inestimable moment that these writings are charged with high ideals, free thought, purity, a noble love of nature and humanity, a passion of patriotism. Nor is it of scarcely less moment that when the boys and girls who have read these writings turn to the records of the lives of the writers, they will find simplicity of living, devotion to art, and high-minded service.

A common language is essential to anything like common life in the nation. The perils which beset us now in the industrial world are largely enhanced by the lack of a common intelligence of speech. But a common literature is essential to any true community of ideals; and in the work of producing a homogeneous nation out of the varied material which different races, different political orders, and different religious faiths have contributed since the war for the Union, — a work which is largely committed to the public schools, — there is no force comparable to a great, harmonious literature. Therefore, for a generation to come, the spiritual host which Holmes has just joined will be the mightiest force that can be reckoned with for the nationalization of the American people.