Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (III)
Bill Long 10/22/05
Grateful for People
OW Holmes, Jr. doesn't suffer from the current academic malady of ignoring autobiography in "scholarly" writing and speaking. His most famous law review article ("The Path of the Law"), for example, is suffused with "personal illustrations" or interesting "stories" to drive home a point. And his occasional speeches are peppered with remarks that give us access to the workings of a great mind and heart. What is striking for me is that his memorial addresses show such a depth of appreciation of the one departed, a sense that the deceased gave to Holmes and posterity an irreplaceable gift that deserved mention. Indeed, I think that Holmes' handful of memorial addresses "render justice" as much as a similar number of his most famous legal opinions: they give the man his due when he can speak no longer. We should all be so fortunate to have someone do this for us.
This and the next essay will make mention of three memorial addresses he gave, at the death's of George Shattuck John Chipman Gray, and William Endicott--addresses that show his ability to turn phrases and express deep appreciation for what people have brought into his life.
John Chipman Gray (1839-1916)
Gray was two years Holmes' senior, a fellow Boston lawyer, a colleague of Holmes at HLS and then a professor at Harvard until his death. Thus, their lives were interwoven from earliest days. Gray was one of the "big four" at HLS in the late 1880s to whom Roscoe Pound makes mention in his 1963 oral history: Langdell, Ames, Gray and Keener. Indeed, the different ways that Holmes and Pound recollect Gray tell us as much about Gray as about Holmes and Pound. Pound recalled Gray as a sort of austere, distant and gruff teacher who nevertheless set him on the path towards signficant legal understanding. During Christmas Break 1888, Pound had to stay in Cambridge, since the four-day train trip to Lincoln (NE) precluded a return home. Pound being Pound, he decided to hole up in the reading room at HLS, beginning some research (at age 18) on Roman law. The librarian gave him a volume that was unsuited to his task: the history of Roman law in Scotland. While Pound was reading this book unprofitably, Gray came up to him, took the book out of his hands, asked him tersely if he read German (Pound, thanks to his mother and a live-in German maid, was fluent in German) and then gave him Sohm's book on the history of Roman legal institutions to read. Scales fell from Pound's eyes, and he gobbled up the material with ardent devotion.
Holmes tells of the Gray he knew, beginning his essay with a stylistic and personal touch that catches our eye 90 years later:
"The affectionate intimacy of a lifetime may not be the best preparation for an attempt to characterize a friend whom one has known and loved so long."
Gray was a scholar from a family steeped in scholarship. His type was rare--a man who not only was learned in law but kept reading the latest German works of jurisprudence, the Greek and Latin classics, mathematics and a "thousand bypaths" among books. Holmes cited by name two important books written by Gray: his treatise on Perpetuities and his "last little book" on The Nature and Sources of the Law. But Gray did something that the Germans, who seemed to think they "owned" the field of jurisprudence, could not do: he wrote with "the light touch and humor of a man of the world."
"For his knowledge not only was converted into the organic tissue of wisdom, but flowered with a quiet humor that sometimes emerged in his writing and that gave habitual delightfulness to his talk."
Holmes mentions Gray's wisdom and the fact that he was known and respected not only as a teacher but as a legal practitioner. Instead of having a sort of "loose fiber" or a "somewhat coarse grain" as people of great learning might possess (did Pound perceive this?), "Gray was delicate, accurate, and fine grained." He was a keenly observant person but he didn't belie this trait, "seeming to see from the sides of his eyes like a woman." And, last but not least, his conversation delighted both specialists and people of the world.
You get the sense not only that Holmes has lost a dear and long-term friend, but that he has truly appreciated the gifts that Gray offered to the world. Gray is now forgotten, while Holmes is remembered, but Holmes' tribute has made me want to find that "little book" on jurisprudence and see if I can find in the book not simply a description of the nature of jurisprudence but the throbbing heart of a man whom Holmes and others loved.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long