Mr. Justice Holmes Seeks His Friends

MARK DEWOLFE HOWE, who has been Professor of Law at Harvard since 1945, was Secretary to Justice Holmes during the year before the Justice’s death in 1935. He has edited two collections of Holmes’s letters the correspondence with Sir Frederick Pollock and that with Harold Laski. He is the “authorized" biographer of Holmes, and Justice Holmes: The Shaping Years, 181-1-.1870, the first volume of his projected three-volume biography, was published by the Harvard Universify Press last month. The following brief memoir opens up a glimose of one aspect of Holmes’s maturity.



ON MARCH 25, 1887, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., wrote the following note to Owen Wister, a young student, from Philadelphia then in his second year at the Harvard Law School: —

“If you would like to dine at the vile hour of 2 ½ at Parker’s pothouse tomorrow with the Saturday Club — which is supposed to consist of great swells, and is sometimes pleasant and not infrequently dull — meet me in the hostel at that hour sharp.”

This note may serve to carry the weight of a miniature —a slight sketch of the Justice against his Boston background. In Holmes’s invitation were reflected, I believe, two aspects of his taste, or, if you will, two facets of his prejudice. The invitation, in the first, place, was tendered to a young man, not to a contemporary. In the years of his full maturity the men with whom he was most intimate were not his contemporaries. The nourishment of his mind and spirit came from such younger men as Felix Frankfurter, Colonel Wigmore, Lewis Einstein, Walter Lippmann, Arthur D. Hill, Robert S. Barlow, Harold Laski, and John C. H. Wu. It would not be unfair, perhaps, to suggest that similarly his vanity found more salisfaction in the devotion of such younger women as Lady Scott, Mrs. Charles P. Curtis, and Lady Desborough than in the affection of ladies of his own generation.

The names which I have listed may suggest the character of that other basic taste or prejudice which I And reflected in the invitation to Owen Wister. Over the years Holmes seems, in his search for friendships, to have turned away from Boston, He did not, of course, reject entirely — perhaps he did not even consciously spurn the place of his birth, his education, and his first private and public careers. A few Boston contemporaries, a few Yankees of a later vintage than his own, were close and intimate friends until the end. Yet it is surely significant of some restlessness in his spirit that his closest intellectual companions included the Irish priest, Canon Sheehan, the Japanese statesman, Ken taro Kaneko, the English radical, Harold Laski, the Chinese intellectual, John C. H. Wu.

Writing to Harold Laski, Holmes once spoke of his admiration for “the men who have made life seem large and free.” Such men, he suggested, were neither recognized nor appreciated in Boston. In referring to Lord Bryce, Holmes mentioned with some scorn his capacity to take “pleasure ... in the society of admirable people like Charles Eliot.” Is it not probable that finding that same capacity among Bostonians (particularly, perhaps, at the dining table of the Saturday Club) Holmes felt that his contrasting taste for men who “open the romantic perspectives of life” was suspect in a Yankee? The suspicion, doubtless, was there, for we know that one Bostonian spoke for others w hen lie said that “the trouble with Wendell is that he likes to play with his mind.” Holmes himself admitted that his “male friendships . . . make a queer company,” adding that his friends have “included a fair share of cranks.” Doubtless he had in mind such intellectual playmates as Brooks Adams, who according to Holmes was happy to accept “the position of crank,” and an obscure publicist and professor, Franklin Ford, who seemed to Holmes to be “half crank” yet to “have ideas.” It was in the company of such men as these and amidst the unorthodox writing of such younger men as E. A. Ross, Richard T. Ely, and Herbert Croly that Holmes liked to allow his mind and curiosity to kick up their heels.

This weakness for the crank — this liking for the heretic if not for the heresy — may have set Holmes apart from certain of the traditions of Boston. It is well to remember, however, that heresies have been planted and have blossomed on Beacon Hill. Holmes’s renunciation of the stodginess around him was not, accordingly, the rejection of everything familiar. It was not, in particular, the total rejection of his father. In 1926, acknowledging that he did not think that Dr. Holmes “was a great poet or had a great deal of charm,”the Justice insisted, nevertheless, that his father “had more intellect than most of the crowd at the Saturday Club.” To couple these reflections with another aphorism of the Justice’s — “an ounce of charm is worth a pound of intellect”—is fairly to suggest, I think, a good deal about the Justice’s attitude not only to his father but to the city of his birth. The Doctor’s mind was lively, adventuresome, and original; the spirit of Boston had been the same. The man and the community, however, by the time Holmes had reached his middle years had allowed their overvaluation of propriety and learning to stifle, the romantic zest. “Knowledge,”Holmes once said, “is a dangerous diluent of thought.”Boston had allowed its regard for learning to breed distrust of creative thought, and its respect for character to produce hostility to cranks. These, I believe, were important elements in Holmes’s liking for the young, for the out landers, and for the surviving rebels within the walls of Boston.


To GIVE this emphasis to Holmes’s rejection of certain aspects of Boston’s tradition would be most misleading if conflicting loyalties were not identified. Though it seems lo me that these loyalties contributed to his disappointment in his father, they were a part of his Yankee inheritance and, as such, were characteristic of the Bostonian. What I have in mind is the Justice’s strong feeling that Dr. Holmes’s failure was not a shortcoming of his mind, but a failure in his morals. The Doctor had not, to the Justice’s way of thinking, taken life and its responsibilities with sufficient seriousness, He had allowed a considerable genius to dissipate ilself in t rivial talents.

It seems to me quite clear that this Puritanical conviction that each man is responsible to make the most of his endowment — to fulfill his responsibilities to the universe — was strengthened by the bad example of Dr. Holmes’s frivolity. “If he had had the patience,”the son observed, “to concentrate all his energy on a single subject . . . he would have been less popular, but he might have produced a great work. . . . But ... it is the last live percent that makes the difference between the great and the clever. One of Holiness duel objectives in life, I suggest, was to make that difference the dividing line between himself and his lather.

If the structure of temperamental loyalties were fixed by principles of logic alone, Holiness disapproval of his father’s frivolity might have been expected to lead him to admire the sober virtues of the “squaretoed . . . anglicized Yankees” with whom he had grown up. Yet, as I have suggested, he seems to have turned eagerly from their company to that of younger, more romantic spirits. Holmes’s departure from what might appear to be the logical consequence of Puritanism will always interest the students of his character. I have discovered no easy formula by which it may be explained, but I should like to suggest that it was not wholly irrational. Intellectually he was the child of nineteenth-century positivism —a child who believed, perhaps somewhat naively, that science would ultimately solve the mysteries of the universe. If that solution were ever to be achieved, men must shake themselves free from the shackles of their inherited superstitions and timidities. A society that translated ils standards of propriety into principles of morality, that was fearful of boldness and originality, would not be concerned with the extension of the boundaries of science. It would not, accordingly, excite the devotion and loyalty of a child of positivism. He would find his satisfaction in the companionship of the crank, of the young, and of the outlander whose horizons, if not necessarily wider than those of a Bostonian, were at least different from those of Beacon Hill.

These intellectual commitments of Holmes’s surely do much to explain his reject ion of the ruling elders of his father’s generation. They also help us to understand his irritation that his father, trained and qualified as a scientist, had allowed his great and adventuresome capacities to lie neglected while he made bright talk and wrote light, verse. In the eyes of his son, Dr. Holmes w as a worse sinner than most of his contemporaries, for his mind was by nature and training suited to the fulfillment of his responsibility. Though the son did not find himself pursuing in medicine or philosophy the vocation of a scientist, he had come to believe that the law could be dealt with in the scientific spirit. He saw it as his responsibility to bring that spirit to the subject matter of his profession, and to make his profession the center of his life.

When Holmes was appointed to the Supreme Court of the Lnited States in 1902 he was a man of sixty-one. In the Civil War lie had proved his capacity for action. In his career at the bar he had achieved notable distinction as a scholar. As Associate Justice and as Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts he had made his learning and his philosophy something more than an influence on his contemporaries: he had made them an element in ihe structure of the society around him. In such circumstances the new appointment might be seen as nothing more significant than a concluding and decorative honor to a notable career. Holmes, perhaps, saw it in this light when he wondered, as evidently he did, whether he should accept the appointment, Within a month after his arrival in Washington, however, he wrote to Mrs. John C. Gray in Boston saying that he profoundly rejoiced that he had taken the chance which Roosevelt had offered him. The office, he wrote, “is so solemn and august and last that I feel that had I declined I should have been refusing pusillanimously an opportunity that destiny does not repeat. It calls on all one’s energies and has so much that is new that in a way it is beginning over again.” What evidently impressed him most was that Ins responsibilities were now imperial and no longer parochial. “All my interest and energy,” he told Mrs. Curtis, “have been taken up in the mighty panorama of cases from every part, of a great empire involving great interests, raising questions I have never heard of, argued by the Strongest men the country can show. . .

That Holmes accepted the new challenge thus thrust upon him is surely not surprising. The old longing for the larger scene and the wider horizons combined with the Puritan’s desire for another test of capacity to make Holmes’s acceptance of the new responsibility almost inevitable. The miracle was that thirty years were given him to prove anew his strength. In those extraordinary years his curiosity did not diminish. He turned in Washington, as he had in Boston, toward younger men, seeking their guidance in his new ad venture.

It may, perhaps, be some consolation to those Bostonians who, admiring his zest, are none the less unable to emulate it, to see indications that, transferred to another city than that of his birth, Holmes had more affection for Boston than he had known when he was an inhabitant . The grass of New England looked as green from Washington as had the fields beyond Beacon Hill when Holmes lived and worked upon its slopes. The heart of an old man, perhaps, found charms in Boston which had not been revealed to the young man’s mind. Though his choice of the Arlington cemetery as his final resting place symbolized his commitment to the Nation, he died, as he had lived, a questing and restless son of New England.