Yankee From Olympus: The Story of Justice Holmes
FOREWORD The story of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is the story of his country. The narrative cannot begin with the flat date of his birth—1841. This was a man whose presence carried tradition; over his shoulder one catches sight of his ancestors. His roots reached deep into American earth; it was the strength of these roots that permitted so splendid a flowering.
Wendells, Olivers, Jacksons, Holmeses: solid people, “sound” people — and adventurous people. They left Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a superb inheritance, one that balanced him as the nine-tenths of the iceberg we do not see balances that glittering pinnacle. To know Judge Holmes at eighty — courtly, witty, scholarly, kind — it is well to have acquaintance with his Calvinist grandfather, Abiel Holmes, with his handsome, worldly great-grandfather, Judge Wendell, with his mother from whom he inherited, he said, “a trace of melancholy.”
Above all. it is well to know his father, the sturdy Yankee who wrote bad verse and good books — professor of anatomy, talkative five-foot-three Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table who lived upon applause and said so with engaging frankness.
It is easy to know these people. They were articulate, given to writing down what they saw and thought. And they were passionately interested in their country. In the books they wrote, in their letters, their diaries, the welfare of the American Union plays a large part. Because of this, the opening page of our story falls naturally into place. Where could it begin except on the autumn day of 1800 when Abiel Holmes, gravely concerned over the approaching election of Jefferson, sat down in his parsonage on Haryard Square to commence the writing of his American Annals?
YANKEE FROM OLYMPUS
by CATHERINE DRINKER BOWEN
ON an autumn morning of the year 1800, the Reverend Abiel Holmes, aged thirty-six, handsome, widowed, and lonely, sat down in his study near Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to begin the writing of his new book. It was to be called American Annals, and the very contemplation of it caused its author’s blood to run faster.
Since that day when, a boy of fifteen, as poor as he was eager, he had traveled down from Woodstock to enter Yale College, there had run in the veins of Abiel Holmes this unremitting sense of adventure where things of the mind were concerned. So would it run, and so would this excitement mount in the veins of his son Oliver Wendell Holmes and his son’s son of that same name. Minister of the First Parish in Cambridge, Autocrat of the BreakfastTable, Justice of the Supreme Court — none made literature his calling. But all three lived hard and wrote what they lived, and for all three the utterance was as important as the living.
Abiel Holmes, lifting his eyes from the piles of scribbled, carefully documented notes on his desk, looked out the window across the parsonage yard to where bare maple branches swept low over a board fence, hiding the red bricks of the college beyond. In the middle of the yard the free end of the long pump arm slanted skyward. Old Liza had left it up again, Abiel noted. Why didn’t she wait and let him carry in the water as he had told her so often? Liza was getting too old to keep this big ramshackle house. Even Mary Holmes had hated it. The image of his young wife, dead five years, rose dimly before Abiel . . . Mary Stiles.
What this parsonage needed, Mary’s widower reflected now, was a wife. Frowning, Abiel turned back to his desk. This was no time to be thinking of wives. There was a task at hand. He would begin these Annals at the beginning, with Columbus, and he would keep on with them, God willing, until his hand was too palsied to hold a pen.
Abiel Holmes loved challenge and looked as if he loved it. Under the clerical gown and bib his shoulders were broad; his thick dark hair hung to his shoulders, curling crisply at the ends; his level, deep eyes sparkled with health, his color was high. He wore tine dark robe of Calvinism with an air and loved the religion it symbolized.
Abiel had a warm pride in his country — and a Calvinist conscience that translated pride quickly into a sense of debt. When you were proud of something, you got out and worked for it.
Abiel came honestly by his patriotism. His father, Captain David Holmes, had fought in two American wars and, worn out, had died at fiftyseven, leaving seven sons and a daughter to help build the country he had fought for. Abiel was fifteen when his father died; he remembered well those stories of the Canadian wilderness. Captain Holmes, fighting Indians in the Old French War of 1758, had walked single file through the forests with his men, dressed in a soldier’s hat and fringed leggings, carrying his flintlock on his hip.
Was it history, Abiel wondered now, sitting at his desk by a quiet Cambridge window — was that history which had happened to one’s own father? Was it history that his father’s friend, Major Putnam, was captured outside Fort Ann and tied to a tree by the Indians, fagots piled around him? Was it history how he escaped and how, seventeen years later, the Major and Captain Holmes, on hearing the first news of Lexington, joined the Continental Army and served four long years?
Surely, these things were at least the footnote to history! Surely, thought Abiel Holmes, his quill gone dry above his paper — surely a man could put these things into footnotes without being charged with immodesty? Well, he had his father’s Orderly Books, four large volumes written in the Captain’s own hand during the wilderness campaigns of’58; if he worked from them rather than from word of mouth, it should be as authoritative as any other source.
There was so much of history that Abiel knew by word of mouth! How could he pass it by? It was in his blood. His mother and his mother’s mother had told him stories. If the men of the family were adventurers and soldiers, the women had been remarkably articulate for their day, even learned.
Grandmother Hewet, for instance. Abiel remembered her, at eighty-five, pink and pretty, with gentle manners and a spicy way of talking. She had taught herself to read Latin back in the times when you might wake any black night to find a tomahawk quivering in your cabin door. “When I was a girl,” she had told Abiel, “I begged to go to school with the boys. But the elders were angry, and said Latin was not for women’s heads. ‘Go home, Tempy,’ they said, ‘and learn to spin and weave.’ So I taught myself to read Virgil. ’Forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit,’” said Grandmother Hewet softly, in her light old voice. “Abiel, I still find it beautiful.”
Abiel was a passionate antiquarian and scholar. Some of his sermons had been printed, and he had published a biography of his late father-in-law. President Ezra Stiles of Yale College. He had read histories of states and histories of towns, clerical accounts and military accounts and the records of travelers who wrote in Spanish and French and Latin and English. As he read, it seemed extraordinary that no one had written of the country as a whole.
It was fortunate for the Annals that Abiel was also a traveled man. He had been twice to Georgia and back, traveling by stagecoach and saddle horse. Indeed, he had not only been to Georgia but he had lived there four years as a minister in the old New England colony. When, returning north, he settled in Cambridge as minister, Abiel brought with him a view of his country that went far beyond the First Parish. Almost immediately, he began writing to his friends in faraway places, begging historical facts. To friends in Georgia and in Virginia, in the Carolinas and westward in Tennessee. Military facts, economic facts, facts of American church history, jumbled together, set down any old way.
Abiel Holmes lived history day by day, writing it on the run, setting it down as it happened. And now the facts were gathered, they lay on Abiel’s desk, overflowing the shelves of his study, neat in their folders, ready to be “written.” Abiel dipped his quill: —
HISTORY OF AMERICA
he wrote on the title page.
FROM ITS DISCOVERY IN MCCCCXCII TO-
Abiel left a blank for the second date. How long would he survive? It was a clan of octogenarians.
BY ABIEL HOLMES, D.D. A.A.S. S.H.S.
MINISTER OF THE FIRST CHl’RCH IN CAMBRIDGE.
he continued, and paused.
SUUM QUAICQUE IN ANNUM REFERRE.
he wrote, and put his pen down and looked with satisfaction at the page. “Refer everything back to its own year.” The Latin looked well, under his name. Abiel put the sheet aside and took a fresh one. This was, now, the true beginning. Should he say a prayer, ask the guidance of Him without Whose inspiration no man could write a book about anything? But the first sentence was already formed; the words burned in their author’s mind. Abiel Holmes did not wait to pray. The blood came up in his face, and moved by the panorama of his country’s history, his prose that had been so dry, so correct, swung out with a bold cadence that was new to him: —
A NEW WORLD has been discovered, which has been receiving inhabitants from the old, more than three hundred years. A new empire has arisen, which has been a theatre of great actions and stupendous events. . . .
JUST after New Year’s day, 1801, a young Boston girl named Louisa Storrow wrote a chatty little note to an absent mother: —
Now, Mamma, I am going to surprise you. Mr. Abiel Holmes, of Cambridge, whom we so kindly chalked out for Miss N. W., is going to be married. and, of all folks in the world, guess who to. Miss Sally Wendell. I am sure you will not believe it; however, it is an absolute fact, for Harriot and M. Jackson told Miss P. Russell so, who told us; it had been kept secret for six weeks, nobody knows for what. I could not believe it for some time, and scarcely can now; however, it is a fact they say. And besides, didn’t the Reverend Dr. Mather himself have three wives before he was done, and fifteen children? People" — her voice quickened; there was a matter-of-factness in it that never failed to reach Abiel, cutting straight through the tortured labyrinth of his introspection — “people don’t have to be dreary to be good,”
Sally Wendell did not wait till June for her wedding. At our age, she told Abiel, there is no time to lose. We will be married at the end of March in your Meetinghouse, and we will invite everybody in Cambridge and Boston.
Abiel smiled. He did not like the practical details of life. How good it was to have, suddenly, this brisk tiny creature arranging everything! The Wendells knew everyone on both sides of the river. It seemed to Abiel they were related to everyone. Wendells, Jacksons, Olivers, Dudleys, Cabots, Eliots, Quincys, Bradstreels, Phillipses — these were Sally’s cousins and forebears. They had had their portraits painted by Copley and Stuart; they had gone to London and dined with titled cousins of the great world and had brought home silver plate and furniture by Chippendale.
It seemed to Abiel Holmes extraordinary, when he stopped to think of it, that he, the son of Captain David and Temperance Holmes, was marrying the granddaughter of Colonel Wendell who had lost forty buildings in the great. Boston fire of 1762. To lose forty buildings? It implied a kingdom! Abiel could live on £150 a year and bad done it (with “findings” from the parish).
But this fact of the buildings stuck in his imagination as it would stick also in the imagination of his son Oliver fifty years later. Abiel occupied, most certainly, a position of leadership in his community. But intellectual and spiritual leadership carries honors altogether different from the prestige that comes from being a Wendell, a Quincy, a Jackson, with silver plate by Lamerie and a table set with Sèvres porcelain.
In March, 1801, Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated third president of the United States, bringing with him a new era and a new philosophy. He strode through the Capitol, fiery-eyed, tense with purpose. And John Adams, staunch and stubborn, representative of a century that was past, rose to his feet and, turning his back on the White House and a world that had treated him unkindly, went home to his farm at Quincy, Massachusetts. In his barnyard he found a hundred loads of seaweed. A fine load of manure, said Mr. Adams, paraphrasing Horace, was fair exchange for the honors and virtues of the world.
And in that same month of March, in the First Parish Church of Cambridge, Sarah Wendell became Mrs. Abiel Holmes and, without benefit of wedding journey, walked down the Meetinghouse steps and across the road to take charge of the parsonage. Already the old house wore a different aspect. Its new mistress had had it swept and garnished and had brought roomfuls of handsome furniture— cabinets and tables and lowboys and highboys of dark satiny wood. Every cockroach had been banished and the long pump arm no more slanted crazily. It had been replaced with a newfangled thing one pumped up and down; even the cracked old bucket was gone,
Abiel Holmes found life suddenly extraordinarily pleasant. He was deeply in love with his wife. In his study, writing the Annals, preparing his sermons, he thought of Sally, listened for her high, clear voice down the steep stairway. It troubled him, this passionate connubialitv. Was it quite in keeping with God’s representative —and a man of nearly forty at that?
In his diary Abiel recorded a story his mother had told him; it came very close to home, bothering Abiel with a little feeling of shame concerning himself. After his father died, his mother, a handsome woman, had offers of marriage which she rejected, apparently, with scorn. When Abiel was nearly twenty, a very respectable man had begun visiting her, with obvious intent. Mrs. Holmes desired to put a stop to this before it reached an open declaration. One evening, leading her suitor into the parlor, she prayed him to listen while she read some favorite lines from Young’s Night Thoughts.
The suitor was all smiles and ears. Was not poetry, after all, the prelude to love?
“Though gray our heads,”
read Temperance Holmes serenely, her face bland,
“our thoughts and aims are green. Like damaged clocks, whose hand and bell dissent, Folly sings six, while Nature points at twelve.”
Her success was complete; the disheartened suitor disappeared without further importuning.
That, said Abiel’s conscience, was the way to treat love in middle age. But the story bothered him. One night he told it to Sally on the way home from prayer meeting. It was summer and the maple leaves beside their door were heavy, the air sweet with honeysuckle. Abiel’s voice and laugh were elaborately casual. But Sally did not laugh at his story.
“Abiel,” she said, “why are you afraid to be happy? Surely the Lord loves a cheerful heart!
With Sally in the parsonage, Abiel Holmes found little time for introspection. The house seemed filled with people, coming and going. Sally knew the private troubles of everyone in the parish, worried over them, sympathized, shed tears. She was always buying presents for somebody’s baby or somebody’s grandmother. Within a year after they were married, Sally presented her husband with a daughter. Mary Jackson Holmes, they named her, after Sally’s mother.
Abiel was filled with a deep happiness. Around him life moved and flowed, quietly, but with a sense of accomplishment, fruition. In 1805 the American Annals appeared, two stout volumes which were received everywhere with acclaim. Edinburgh University gave Abiel an honorary degree in absentia, and in London the Quarterly Review gave praise most unusual for an American book.
THE favourable reception of this work in the United States, and its republication in London, encouraged me to extend my researches in order to render it more full and exact . . .”wrote Abiel in the Preface to the second edition of his work, twenty-three years later.
“To literary gentlemen and correspondents I have been indebted for answers to historical inquiries, and for the use of rare books. My particular acknowledgments are due to the late president JEFFERSON, who, approving the plan of the work, sent me from his own library several books, of which I have never seen any other copies.”
A second term. It was amazing. Judge Wendell said gloomily when Jefferson was inaugurated the second time, in March, 1805, that the country had weathered the past four Republican years as well as it had.
Abiel smiled. How vehement the Judge became
and his friends with him — when the name of Jefferson was mentioned! Abiel had heard the Judge actually follow the word “Jefferson” with the word “tyrant.”When their pockets were touched, men’s judgment became instantly distorted. The temper of Boston, Abiel thought sometimes, — and did not say it, - was changing. She cared less for outrages to the Rights of Man, and more for outrages to her brisk shipping interests. Touch a ‘Massachusetts man in his pocket and the thrust went through to the heart and was immediately defended in terms of great principles. Jefferson’s embargo was not spoken of as a nuisance. It was, said Boston, a threat to our Federation, a threat to freedom, to the principles of Washington and the Founding Fathers.
Thomas Jefferson, Judge Wendell said, would not only carry politics and trade to the dogs, but religion with it. Was he not an avowed atheist? Abiel Holmes was not afraid; he knew the old religion would stand. He was not even made apprehensive by the recent appointment, at Harvard, of a Unitarian as professor of theology, although the appointment had caused as much talk around town as the presidential election.
Henry Ware was a brilliant man, certainly, and a very dangerous influence to youth; several parents had already withdrawn their sons from the university because of him. This new doctrine of Unitarianism was insidious. Expose your son to it and before the month was out he was talking about “free will” and gibing openly at the notion — stamped plainly in the New England Primer that “In Adam’s fall. We sinned all.”
Deliberately, Abiel omitted Ware’s appointment from the Annals for 1805, although he saw fit to include the new professorship of natural history and the erection of a college rooming house. The best way to silence these new creeds was to ignore them; in the end the true faith survived.
Abiel Holmes had as yet no conception of the fires that smoldered beneath his very pulpit; nor that these embers, bursting at last into flame, would be a conflagration to drive him from his own Meetinghouse door. He thought of himself as a liberal-minded man. Was not one of his best friends a Unitarian? Young William Ellery Channing, who had come from Newport three years ago as proctor at the University, had promptly joined Abiel’s church. The next year, when Channing was ordained minister in the Federal Street Church, Abiel himself had delivered the introductory prayer.
It was too soon for Abiel Holmes to see that the real significance of the Unitarian movement was social, not theological; that it had far more to do with the Rights of Man than with the denial of the Trinity. A dissenter himself, Abiel had not as yet the dissenter’s fierce opposition to all who disagreed with him. He was forty-one; he was still growing. He looked forward, not back.
The old religion was safe, but there were other temptations that beset a man of God — the Devil walked always behind one. The fascination of compiling the Annals grew daily, hourly. Abiel told himself he must beware of neglecting his spiritual, pastoral duties in favor of history. The Sunday School had eighty members, the new library was receiving books too fast to house them. A man’s sermons could be used twice and thrice; Abiel exchanged pulpits with many churches in and around Boston; in particular his sermon on the death of George Washington was often asked for. Abiel kept the church records in his own hand, he would not have trusted them to another.
1809. June, July. Leaving his study with reluctance, Abiel walked downstairs and across the road to his Meetinghouse. And as always when he set foot in God’s house, his heart lifted instantly. Of the modest house of God that was his own particular care, Abiel loved every foot. The slim spire with its graceful belfry topped by the big gilt weathercock, the ancient burying ground beneath. The rows of square white pews, the tall windows that let in the morning sun.
Of course, there were things that could be improved. The pew seats, for instance, raised on hinges to give standing room during prayer. After the Long Prayer they were released, and came down with a bang that was not conducive to worship. Sally did not like the choir and the music. She wanted an organ. There was nothing sinful in a church organ, she said, and besides, the bass viol was always out of tune and the strings broke regularly on Sabbath evening as if by design of Satan. Bass viol and flute, Abiel had replied, were music enough in God’s house. But afterwards, he visited half the churches in Boston to examine the organs and inquire as to the cost of installation.
From the doorsill of his Meetinghouse, Abiel Holmes looked out on Cambridge Common where a seventeen-starred flag hung now from the staff and the Revolutionary cannon sat fat and cocky, not yet rusted through. It was good to see the Common green with summer, good to take one’s spade behind the house and dig in the vegetable garden. The months passed, and in his almanac Abiel made occasional notes of meetings and appointments, adding little that was personal.
But on August 29, 1809, Abiel broke his rule. Alongside the date and the printed prediction that the day would be “pleasant,” he added a little mark: —
= August 29 Pleasant
August 30 Commencement, Cambridge College.
= — son b.
Then he threw black sand on the ink to blot it. — son b.” Thus modestly was announced the advent of Oliver Wendell Holmes, doctor, professor, Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table — and poet laureate to Boston for half a century.
1815. A boy growing up in a quiet college town. Not even a town — a village of tree-lined lanes, of open fields where raspberries grew wild, of salt marshes where the tide rose and fell and where the heron built its nest. Mr. Madison’s War was over; Oliver Holmes, aged five, heard the bells peal for victory and ran all the way home from dame school, waving his hat with the other boys and shouting, “Hurrah for America!”
The hurricane came that September, blowing fiercely in from the sea, leaving salt crystals on Cambridge windows. Oliver’s grandfather, driving out from Boston next, day, said most of the beautiful English elms that Mr. Paddock had planted near the Common were lying in the street, blown down. The American elms stood up because they were more slender and yielding. It was like the willows and oaks in the fable.
Well, it was always good when something American stood up and something English fell down. Oliver’s father insisted the British were no longer our enemies and it was a Christian’s business to foster peace, not strife. But in the attic hung an old flintlock musket that had belonged to Oliver’s grandfather, Captain Holmes. Abiel told his son that when he was ten he could have it for his own. Against such hopes, against such testimonies of battle, the words of peace spoken by his father were to the boy entirely unconvincing.
Oliver spent a lot of time in church. On Sunday there were three services; the long one was held in the afternoon. Until Oliver was six. Harvard College held all its services, including morning chapel, in the Meetinghouse; the students sat upstairs in the east gallery. When University Hall was built the students stopped coming to the Meetinghouse except for Commencement exercises.
And Commencement, as every Cambridge boy knew, transformed the Meetinghouse and the whole town into a place of carnival and delight. The Common was covered with tents made, in thrifty Yankee fashion, of old sails. Candy booths, Punch and Judy shows, lined the sidewalks round the Square. On Monday morning the men began putting up the tents and kept at it all night; you could hear their hammers plainly from your bed. Every August, Oliver counted the tents, telling his brother triumphantly there were many more this year than last. When a man invented a cotton loom, a waterdriven spindle, let him dedicate it to the glory of God! Let him go down on his knees and thank the Father who had put this invention into the mind of His humble servant. Life was becoming easy, conditions of daily living much softer. And man, Abiel Holmes observed, no longer feared his Maker. His house warmed by stoves, man looked out at the raging blizzard and smiled, forgetting to propitiate his God. Abiel ceased exchanging pulpits with such men as William Ellery Charming. On Sundays the Meetinghouse saw no more Unitarians. It was good, thought Abiel, that he had long ago entered his son Oliver in Phillips Academy up at Andover; the Academy was a very bulwark of Orthodoxy. Perhaps Oliver would go to Andover Theological Seminary and be a minister.
And on Tuesday morning early, standing by the Meetinghouse, you heard first of all the Lighthorse coming with their trumpets. That was the Governor, arriving to take his seat in the Meetinghouse. By nine o’clock every pew was filled. The Harvard Washington Corps was gorgeous with cockaded hats, tall polished boots, and clanking swords. And how grand the Honorable George Cabot looked, descending from his carriage in black breeches and silk stockings, wig and buckled shoes!
The scholars themselves were almost eclipsed in all this festivity. About fifty were graduated each year; they dashed about among the crowd in the August sun, their gowns floating behind them, their tall beaver hats looking hot and magnificent. Oliver Holmes knew each of them by name. With every Cambridge boy it was a point of pride to know the list of every class alphabetically from Amory to Wentworth, and not only the names but the nicknames, their owners’ haunts and favorite games. Oliver looked forward to that day when he himself would thus be listed and could tell his brother John, grandly, that he and his cronies had been over to Gallagher’s last night, for beer and oysters.
On Sundays, Abiel Holmes often exchanged pulpits with ministers in and around Boston. As Oliver grew older, his father began inviting the boy to come along to Dorchester or Lexington to hear him preach. The two would jog off together in the twowheeled chaise behind a quiet horse, and the boy loved it. They would leave on Saturday and come home on Monday. Abiel, on these trips, talked religion to his son. Oliver listened vaguely. By the time he was ten the Westminster Catechism had lost its bite not only for Oliver Holmes but for most of New England. Oliver was still afraid of the Devil, but the doctrine of transmitted sin, justification, sanctification, meant no more to him than the mystic syllables by which his friends counted each other out in their games.
But to Abiel Holmes the old doctrines had become more important than ever. It seemed to him that New England was rushing toward Unitarianism like the Gadarene swine to destruction. Theologically, Unitarianism meant God as One rather than God as Three in One. As long as the movement had been confined to theology, Abiel had paid little heed. Any good historian knew such quarrels were forgotten in a generation and the true doctrine prevailed.
But Unitarianism had obviously gone far beyond doctrinal matters. The old morality was disappearing with the old religion. Abiel, who had cautioned his congregation against singing Watts hymns with levity, saw crowds go to church gayly, in their best bonnets, as if they were going to a show. Pipe organs and mummery took the place of solemnity and the Long Prayer; if men still loved God, they most certainly did not fear Him. And fear of the Lord, Abiel told himself passionately, was the beginning of wisdom.
The truth was that the Unitarian movement was a natural concomitant to events that were not churchly but sociological, not local but nation-wide. The Jeffersonian ideal of individualism, opportunity for all, refused to jibe with the notion that man was born wicked, doomed forever. Federal or Democratic-Republican — no matter what one’s politics, the ideas of Jefferson and of Rousseau before him had penetrated too far to be revoked. The Rights of Man — was this consistent with a doctrine of total depravity and everlasting damnation? If you could get ahead on earth, said Yankee common sense, you could get ahead in heaven.
And to this notion the new applied science was a potent ally. A man who had seen his mother die of the smallpox, and who now saw his son saved by vaccination, could no longer believe that prayer was the only salvation against present danger. Lavoisier had said that matter was indestructible; even smoke was but another form of the wood it rose from. John Dalton advanced his atomic theory. Down in Monticello, Thomas Jefferson was experimenting with the rotation of crops, using the calculus as well as common sense on his farm, and at the same time planning a university that was to embrace all creeds.
With every step that science took, Abiel was in keen accord, setting it down in the Annals whether it was a mere tally of the number of spindles in Baltimore’s cotton factories in 1813 or the incorporation, in 1811, of the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. But to the new spirit that went along with science—the new agnosticism, Unitarianism, whatever name men called it by — Abiel was deeply opposed.
OLIVER HOLMES did nothing of the kind. When he was fifteen he went for a winter to Phillips Academy, sailing pleasantly through the semesters without being marked even slightly by moral or religious suasion; the virus of Orthodoxy did not touch him. In October, 1825, lie Found himself a Harvard freshman—and very pleased with the fact. He was sixteen, quite sure he was a man, but he still lived at home in his old room facing west under the eaves.
Every morning he rose in the dark at the clanging of the college hell and ran across a brown, grassy field to chapel. John Kirkland was still president of Harvard, Josiah Quincy was mayor of Boston, John Quincy Adams was president of the United States. Missouri was a state, come in after Maine. One free state and one slave to match as usual— but Missouri lay north of the slavery line and Adams said that her inclusion marked the “titlepage of a greal, tragic volume.”
January, February, April. On the Charles River the ice was thawed. Time to get out the wherry and row round to Boston. Oliver Holmes stepped into his skiff, whistling the song the class of ‘29 had sung last night at the oyster supper. And three hundred miles to the westward, Clinton’s Big Ditch was finished. Along its banks the drivers walked, their lines slackening across narrow water; “ I got a mule and her name is Sal, fifteen miles on the Erie Canal.”
1825 The ceremony of breaking ground for the continuation of the great national road westward of the Ohio was performed at St. Clairsville on the 4th of July. — On the same day the ceremony of breaking ground for the great canal of the Ohio was performed on the Kicking Summit by governor Clinton, of New York, who had been invited for the special purpose.
Writing his Annals, Abiel Holmes recorded the nation moving westward and was careful, as always, to write “governor” with a small g “governor” Clinton, “professor” Everett. One must be watchful never to make titles that might lead men of the New World back to the vanities of the Old.
1825 . . . and Eli Whitney, at New Haven, aged 57 years.
“By his invention of the cotton gin,” Abiel wrote in a footnote, “he ‘was the means of changing the whole course of industry in the southern section of the Union.’ . . . Mr. Whitney, at the instance of the government of the United States, next directed his mechanical ingenuity to the manufacture of fire arms, in which he was eminently successful; . . . and his death . . . was regarded as a public Calamity.”
How the face of America was changing! thought Abiel Holmes. In Cambridge lanes the college boys teetered about on huge, high-wheeled velocipedes. There was gaslight on the streets of Boston. Abiel loved material progress so long as it did not interfere with things of the spirit. That same year he recorded proudly the opening of the New Faneuil Hall Market: “ ‘one of the boldest, most useful, and splendid public improvements, that have lately taken place in the eastern states.’” “The Quincy Rail road” was opened too, with appropriate ceremonies. Over its rails three wagons loaded with twenty-one tons of stone were moved with ease by a single horse, a distance of three miles.
1826 The first volume of Commentaries on American haw, by James Kent, was published at New York.
1826 On the 4th of July, John Adams died at Quincy, in the 91st year of his age; and Thomas Jefferson, at Monticello, in Virginia, in his 88d year. . . .”
It was the last entry; except for a concluding paragraph, the Annals were finished. Their author had accomplished his design; he had recorded the events of three centuries since the discovery of the New World, one hundred and seventy years of Colonial history and fifty years of the history of the United States. For twenty-six years he had been writing this book; it had been his constant companion. He would write his last paragraph on the same desk, looking out on almost the same Cambridge landscape he had looked out on a quarter century ago when the Annals were begun. Preparing to compose his peroration, Abiel turned back to the old edition of 1805: —
A NEW WORLD has been discovered, which has been receiving inhabitants from the old, more than three hundred years. A new empire has arisen. . . .
Once more Abiel Holmes felt a stirring of his blood. When he wrote those words, America embraced sixteen states, five million people. Now it had twenty-four states, ten million inhabitants. Searching his original Preface, searching also his first pages of actual history, Abiel was startled to find no mention of God, no credit given duly to the Heavenly Father of all these Americans, the Good Shepherd without whose help no flock could cross the western mountains, no ship arrive in harbors west or east. He was young when he wrote those pages. He had forgotten, in his country, his God.
He would revise for this second edition, which would have a new title, The Annals of America, the peroration of the first. There, at least, he had not excluded the counsels of heaven. He read again the sentence by General Washington which he quoted then and would quote now — a sentence he had often used in sermons: —
“No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the affairs of men, more than the people of the United States. Every step, by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.”
Then, with a rolling phrase, a succession of capital letters, Abiel wrote the last words of his book: —
Following his own valedictory counsel, and favoured with the benediction of Heaven, may the Republic be preserved through all the revolving years of future Time.
BIEL missed the Annals greatly. Throughout the years they had been more than an interest and a hobby: they had been a solace, a refuge from very present trouble. And as the months passed, Abiel needed a refuge and a solace. In 1827 the First Parish became involved in a very serious controversy. It concerned Abiel’s refusal to accept the new Unitarian doctrines which in the last years had become so popular. The more popular they became, the more Abiel turned away his face. On exchange Sundays his congregation was greeted by no more Channings in the pulpit, but only with the strictest Congregationalists, men with the old-fashioned hell fire in their sermons.
And the congregation did not like it. They said so, and when Abiel would not listen they held meetings, made impassioned speeches, and finally, after months of wrangling, dispatched a letter to Abiel, signed by many — but not all — the leading men of the parish. The letter was long and polite, oiled with the very unction of piety. But it said in effect that if the pastor refused to comply with the wishes of his flock, his fiock desired another shepherd.
Abiel read the letter and did not yield an inch. Thirty-five years ago he had come to this parish to teach certain doctrines. The doctrines had not changed. Abiel saw no authority in this parish to change them. Sally Holmes stood staunchly by her husband. Liberal-minded herself, reared in liberal surroundings, she had never, during all the years of her marriage, been able to espouse the old religion. She was both too practical and too cheerful to accept a doctrine that sent her children to hell before they had learned to speak. She had never said so; there had been no occasion to say so. Her husband was the kindest of men; never once had she seen him strike fear to his children’s hearts by any doctrine whatever.
But as he grew older, Sally had watched him sadly. Whether right or wrong, Abiel, plainly, was going to lose his church. How easy it would be for him to escape this bitter cup! A little tact, a little twisting of words, and they could go on happily as before, with the whole parish sustaining them.
But Abiel would not twist his words. The battle, he said, was not his but the Lord’s. Yet his voice, when he rebuked his flock, was neither bitter nor denunciatory. It was firm, but as always it was gentle. Leaning a little forward, his long, fine hands resting on the arms of the pulpit, he spoke quietly, his face serene, benign. Strife was not fitting in God’s house.
The congregation, glancing at each other, stirred restlessly. Their pastor was out of line with the times. Did he not understand what was going on around him? The older church members supported him staunchly, but to the younger, Abiel’s gentleness irritated more than if he had screamed back.
“If I seem to disregard the wishes or the taste of my hearers,” he wrote to some of his parishioners, “it is because I am more desirous to save than to please them.”
The congregation, angry, desired to be saved in its own way. More meetings were held and on June 18, 1829, it was voted that “the Rev. Dr. Abiel Holmes be, and he hereby is, dismissed from his office of minister of the gospel and teacher of piety, religion and morality in said parish, and that all connexion between said Holmes, as such minister or teacher, and said parish, do and shall henceforth cease.”
On Sabbath evening, Abiel heard that another preacher would be there before him. It was the end; Abiel left the First Church. He did not go out alone. Sixty of the members went with him; it was the parish at large, the noncommunicants, who had opposed him. Abiel and his flock held service in the old Courthouse on the Square. They had hopes some day of building a new Meetinghouse. But no new church, Sally Holmes knew, could take the place in her husband’s heart of the old wooden Meetinghouse where he had worshiped for so long.
OLIVER HOLMES, a senior now at Harvard, was sorry for his father. But he was young and extremely occupied with his own affairs. He was Class Poet, he was vaguely in love with a different girl each week; graduation was only two months away and he had not the slightest idea what he was going to do after he had received his diploma. Everyone else in the class of ‘29, it seemed to him, had settled upon a career. Sam Smith was going to Andover Theological Seminary; Ben Peirce was going to teach mathematics, Curtis and Bigelow were going to the Law School under Judge Story.
The last thing Oliver desired was to be a minister, and the next last thing, a mathematician. There was not, in truth, much choice of careers. He had written successfully for the college papers; he would like to be an author — but how could a man keep alive on a few poems and stories? In the end he settled on the law, enrolled under Judge Story in the newly established law courses at Dane Hall, and spent a hideous winter brooding over Blackstone and Kent. By January he was in despair. “I am sick at heart of this place,” he wrote a school friend of Andover days. “I know not what the temple of the law may be to those who have entered it, but to me it seems very cold and cheerless about the threshold.”
Spring came, and instead of writing law Oliver sat by the window looking out on a green world, and wrote poetry. How easily the verses came, pouring out upon the paper, quips and puns, conceits and figures! “I spend my time,” he wrote his friend, “writing poetry like a madman, and talking sentiment like a turtle dove.”
Cambridge had the most delightful girls, and lately Oliver had made excursions into Boston too. There was one girl in particular who seemed quite perfect, Miss Amelia Jackson of Bedford Place. She was almost as small as he — a prerequisite for any man under five feet four — and she said she loved to listen to him talk. Her father was Judge Jackson and her uncle was Dr. James Jackson, who taught physics at the Medical School — the most fascinating man, Oliver was sure, that he had ever met.
Miss Jackson liked poetry, Oliver soon discovered, especially the poetry of 0. W. Holmes. Oliver wrote more verses than ever, covering the backs of his old law papers with lines evenly matched. In September of 1830 he conceived a poem that had nothing to do with love, purple shadows, or Miss Amelia Jackson. It had to do with an old, worn-out ship, but it came from the heart all the same and was written furiously, in anger and indignation.
The frigate Constitution, — Old Ironsides,— whose victorious return to harbor Boston had once greeted with such wild joy, lay now rotting at the wharf. The government announced suddenly, tersely, that the vessel was taking up too much room and must be scrapped. Boston protested, the whole country protested, but with no result. Abiel Holmes was almost ill over it; Oliver, bursting into the door one afternoon late, found him sitting moodily at his desk, trying to compose a letter to the Boston Daily Advertiser. Now that the second edition of the Annals was in print, what weapon, said Abiel Holmes, had he against such outrage?
Oliver went upstairs and, sitting down by the western window, got out pen and paper. The lines poured from him, swept from him in a tide. It was as though he were writing someone else’s poem, dictated carefully by its author and transcribed by Oliver Holmes; —
Long has it waved on high,
And many a heart has danced to see
That banner in the sky;
Should sink beneath the wave;
Her thunders shook the mighty deep
And there should be her grave;
Nail to the mast her holy flag,
Set every threadbare sail.
And give her to the God of storms —
The lightning and the gale!”
There were three stanzas. Oliver copied them, finding very little to change. It was late when he took the poem downstairs. His father was still at his desk; Saurin’s Sermons lay open before him. Silently, Oliver laid his poem on the desk and left the room.
A moment later his father called him. When Oliver came in, Abiel Holmes was standing by the desk, the poem in his hand. He began to speak, and his voice choked. With enormous surprise and a great lift of the heart, Oliver, looking up, saw tears in his father’s eyes, saw that the hand holding his verses was trembling.
The poem, published next day in the Advertiser, swept Boston like wildfire, then reached beyond Boston all over the country. Printed in broadsides, the verses were sold on the streets of Washington. The government, overwhelmed, gave orders t hat the frigate Constitution be preserved.
In Boston a shout of triumph went up. And in Boston, Cambridge, and far beyond the river Charles, Oliver Wendell Holmes, son of the Reverend Dr. Abiel Holmes of Holmes Place, was famous.
SUDDEN fame did not determine Oliver Holmes, at twenty-one, to be a poet by profession. The conditions of being the first American gentleman of letters were as baffling as ever; “Old Ironsides” brought fame but not money. Moreover the whole episode, it seemed to Oliver, was fantastic. On Wednesday nobody had heard of him; on Thursday night he was celebrated. By Friday week, Oliver told himself, he would be forgotten. For all his frivolity there was a practical Yankee streak in this young man.
What success did for Oliver Holmes was to give him courage to abandon the law. There had been no doubt in his mind that he hated the law, from Blackstone to Kent. But with no alternative in mind it would have been impossible to go to his father and announce he was dropping the law because the law was disagreeable. His talks with Dr. Jackson, Oliver found increasingly fascinating; lately he had been looking into medical books and seeking out his brother-in-law, Dr. Parsons, to answer his questions. Here, in medicine, was a profession that concerned MAN. Here was a way to earn money and study mankind at the same time. To Oliver, Dr. Jackson was the wisest man he knew. He would ask Dr. Jackson now tomorrow — if he could attend his lectures in Boston, and if Dr. Jackson said yes, he would go to his father that night and be done with the law forever.
To Abiel Holmes, his son’s decision did not come as a great surprise; Abiel was aware the boy had been wasting his time at the law. If Oliver wished to study medicine, then let him begin immediately, and let him apply himself with more diligence than heretofore. “You are twenty-one,” Abiel told his son gravely. “You have had many advantages of education and background. At your age I had my own parish in Georgia.”
There was more of the same. Oliver, standing on one foot, and then the other, listened automatically. How often during his lifetime he had heard about these “advantages.” But this time his father was justified and Oliver knew it: he had thrown away a whole year at the law.
Oliver went into Boston and found a boardinghouse— it was at 2 Central Court—and flung himself into medicine, certain that it would prove delightful from start to finish. Dr. Jackson’s lectures fulfilled his every hope and expectation. But when the young student went down to the hospital and saw the white faces of the sick, row upon row in the long corridors, he was horrified. That night gray faces, wasted limbs, pursued his dreams. It was worse a few days later when he walked into the operating theater for the first time, notebook in hand. Dr. Bigelow stood there, a saw in his hand. His old black suit was splashed with the blood of a score of operations; beneath him on the table a man, made mercifully half-drunk with whiskey, screamed while Oliver’s friends of the medical class held him down.
Even the skeleton that hung over the table in the students’ room made Oliver wince. All day and for many days when he should have been memorizing the names of bones, he found himself moralizing upon the mortality of man.
At home he was quiet, disposed to seek out his father and start conversations on the brevity of life and the dangers that, beset us. Abiel was astonished. He did not know that his son had witnessed, that morning at the lying-in ward, a young mother die in the agonies of childbed fever. “I knew Oliver was clever,” Abiel told his wife that night in their room. “I knew he was talented, too. But he never gave evidence, before, that he could think on spiritual subjects.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes to his old schoolmate, Phineas Barnes
I must announce to you the startling position that I have been a medical student for more than six months, and am sitting with Wistar’s Anatomy beneath my quiescent arm, with a stethoscope on my desk, and the blood-stained implements of my ungracious profession around me. I do not know what you will say, — but I cannot help it. ... I know I might have made an indifferent lawyer, — I think I may make a tolerable physician, — I did not like the one, and I do like the other. And so you must know that for the last several months I have been quietly occupying a room in Boston, attending medical lectures, going to the Massachusetts Hospital, and slicing and slivering the carcasses of better men and women than I ever was myself or am like to be.
It is a sin for a puny little fellow like me to mutilate one of your six-foot men as if he was a sheep, — but vive la science! I must write a piece and call it records of the dissecting-room, so let me save all my pretty things, as plums for my pudding. It you would die fagged to death like a crow with the king birds after him, — be a school-master; if you would wax thin and savage, like a half-fed spider, — be a lawyer; if you would go off like an opium-eater in love with your starving delusion, — be a doctor.
“I must write a piece ... let me save all my pretty things, as plums for my pudding.”
Oliver Holmes was finding himself. Action was important; one’s blood called for action, whether it was the slicing of carcasses or the shove that sent a wherry from boat-slip to river. But what really mattered was to remember the slicing, remember the glint on the river beyond the bridge’s shadow. Not to remember dimly, as a vague, completed pleasure. The act of memory must be one with the experience itself. While the thing was happening, Oliver experienced it with a joyful, painful vividness, phrase by phrase as it were, dimly conscious that later, when pen in hand he called upon these phrases, they would come back.
It was a kind of double living, the success of which could be proved only by Oliver’s readers. Strangers, reading what he wrote, must feel as Oliver had felt. If they did not so feel, then Oliver knew that he had failed, and his own experience turned to ashes within him. There was in this no shred of altruism; Oliver Holmes had no desire to give boat trips to the poor of Boston or to the rich. He was an artist and acted from the artist’s necessity to record and thus to fix forever — shake off forever — the impressions that crowded so mercilessly, demanding release.
Around the supper table at 2 Central Court, Oliver observed his fellow boarders with acutest interest, trying to place them, each in his proper niche. He ended by putting them all into an essay and calling it The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table. (This was not the real Autocrat that we know today; it would be twenty-six years before Oliver wrote for the Atlantic Monthly the series that made him famous. This was only the germ, the first beginning of the Autocrat.) Signing the essay with his initials, Oliver sent it to the New England Magazine. It was published in November. Nobody noticed it. Oliver followed it with one more paper on the same subject and then turned again to medicine.
In January, 1833, Oliver completed his studies under Dr. Jackson. The next step was a foregone conclusion: he must, go abroad and become familiar with the great European hospitals. When Dr. Jackson had been young the place to go was London; Jackson himself had worked as a “dresser” at St. Thomas’s. Now he recommended Paris. The best physicians in the world, he said, were to be found at La Pitié and at the Hôtel Dieu.
Oliver sailed for France. For two years he sat at the feet of the great in medicine — and for every one of them he had a description. Andral the eloquent, Broussais the old volcano, Ricord whom Oliver called the Voltaire of pelvic literature. Oliver’s hero was Dr. Louis who told his students: —
“Formez toujours les idées nettes.
Fuyez les à peu près.”
In November of 1835, Oliver sailed for home. The Parisian medical world, he said, had taught him three principles of the profession. He listed them: “Not to take authority when I can have facts; not to guess when I can know; not to think a man must take physic because he is sick.” Before he left Paris, Oliver had been able to procure one of Chevalier’s microscopes. Dr. Jackson would be enthralled; Jackson kept up with the times. In his stateroom Oliver unwrapped the instrument, fingering it lovingly. If he could manage to slant the pipe a trifle, the eye would not water looking down. When he got home he would rig up an arrangement by which a candle could be fastened to the platform, throwing light onto the slide.
The trip from Le Havre to New York took fortythree days; it was December when Oliver reached Cambridge. Snow had fallen. How white and deep it was, and how quiet the lanes of Cambridge after the noisy cobblestones of Paris! His mother looked well and as brisk as ever, but when he saw his father, Oliver was shocked. Why, his father was an old man, white-haired, frail. His hickory cane stood always by the door; walking down the icy path to the gate, he leaned heavily on it. Oliver, watching, saw him stop to speak to a child, reach a mittened hand in the pocket of his greatcoat, and give the child something. Since Oliver could remember, his father had carried candy to give to children. But this time it was an old man’s gesture. Tears scalded Oliver’s eyes.
(To be continued)
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