OW Holmes, Jr (IV)
Bill Long 10/15/05
Getting Started in Boston, 1864-1882
After returning from the War, Holmes enrolled in Harvard Law School, graduated in the customary two years, and then engaged in law practice for several years with George Shattuck, leaving him to join with his brother in legal practice and then, in 1881, being named a professor at Harvard Law School. Within a year, however, he had been elevated to the Supreme Judicial Court of MA. The period between 1864-1882, then, provides a natural way of seeing the development of a first-class legal mind in the context of a web of relationships with friends, his future wife and family in Boston. Several themes cry out for mention; my focus here will be on Holmes' intellectual style and evolution; comments on his personality; and his solitary style during his marriage to Fanny Dixwell, daughter of a former Holmes teacher.
Getting a Start in Life--Intellectual Style
With the screaming images of the Civil War behind him or, more accurately, seeping into the interstices of the soul, Holmes turned to the subject he said was his interest in the 1861 autobiographical statement: law. Harvard Law School was not even a shadow of what it would become under CC Langdell, beginning in 1870. In 1865 a student didn't even have to sustain exams in order to get a degree. Holmes then entered the field of law, wroking at first as a junior colleague of 36 year-old George Shattuck in Boston. What impressed him about the law, however, was its extremely inchoate state:
"When I began, law presented itself as a ragbag of details...The only philosophy within reach was Austin's Jurisprudence...." (87).
He reiterated this notion in an 1897 address:
"My way has been by the ocean of the Law...There were few of the charts and lights for which one longed when I began. One found oneself plunged in a thick fog of details--in a black and frozen night, in which were no floers, no spring, no easy joys" (90).
I think it is hard for us in 2005 to understand the feeling of being "at sea" that these quotations reflect. Granted, any 25 year-old just beginning in law is going to feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume and complexity of law, but there is something different here. There is here the feeling that the profession had not yet defined itself clearly, and that law itself was in chaos. Blackstone felt the same thing a century earlier as he penned his four volume Commentaries on the Laws of England. Yet Holmes no doubt felt that Blackstone's efforts were minimal indeed. Thus, the first thing we must realize about the young Holmes is that he saw the need to organize knowledge in a new way. Fragments lay around him; nothing was "pinned down." He devoted himself so relentlessly to the study of the common law over the next 18 years because he felt that law was in disarray, and he needed to understand and explain it. As you no doubt know, this was before the "age of statutes," but I wonder if Holmes might not say the same thing if he were alive today.
Holmes' incredibly deep focus on law was only something that gradually developed. For most of the 1860s he maintained friendships with William James and others, and they would speak of things metaphysical and literary, but as the 1870s dawned there was the sense that he needed to devote nearly all his time to law. Total immersion in the common law would be his task. He was aided in this process by the assignment of editing the 12th Edition of James Kent's Commentaries on the Laws of America, which he completed in the early 1870s.
But what is interesting here are stray comments made by others about how Holmes' ambition and activities struck them. William James, later the great psychologist of religion at Harvard, said of Holmes in the 1870s that he was "a powerful battery, formed like a planing machine to gouge a deep self-beneficial groove through life" (89). We get the notion here of a person totally dedicated to his task, deeply slicing through the fundamental principles of a field with enormous energy, with the aim of understanding what he was doing and leaving a mark on the field.
A homey story of Holmes' complete dedication to his work comes from a comment by Mrs. James, who frequently invited OW to dinner. Holmes was working on his project on Kent and would take it wherever he went. She says that his
"whole life, soul and body is utterly absorbed in his last work upon his Kent. He carries about the manuscript in his green bag and never loses sight of it for a moment. He started to go to Will's room (i.e, William James) and wash his hands, but came back for his bag, and when we went to dinner, Will said, 'Don't you want to take your bag with you?' he said, 'Yes, I always do so at home.' His pallid face, and this fearful grip on his work, make him a melancholy sight" (89-90).
But this dedication came with a price--Holmes seemingly was always thinking about himself and what he was going to accomplish in the world. James would write: "The more I live in the world the more the cold-blooded, conscious egotism and conceit of people afflict me...All the noble qualitites of Wendell Holmes, for example, are poisoned by them."
The Solitary Life
Though he married a childhood friend, Fanny Dixwell, in 1872, they never had children. Fanny was, possibly due to a rheumatic fever episode a month after their marriage, inclined to be reclusive, and her solitary nature enabled Holmes to dive even more deeply into the solitary spaces of his mind as he did his work. White gives us one or two priceless quotations about Holmes' awareness of the nature of solitude (though White, surprisingly, doesn't comment much on it). From an 1897 address at Brown University:
"But if he [a person on a professional journey] is a man of high ambitions he must leave even his fellow adventurers and go forth into a deeper solitude and greater trials. He must start for the pole. In plain words he must face the loneliness of original work. No noe can cut out new paths in company. He does that alone" (90).
"Ony when you have worked alone--when you have felt around you a black gulf of solitude more isolating than that which surrounds the dying man, and in hope and in despair you have trusted to your own unshaken will--then only will you have achieved. Thus only can you gain the secret isolated joy of the thinker" (90).
There is just you and your material, and nothing else. If your mind gives way, if your energy flags, if your attention is distracted, if 1000 other things come in to draw you from your world of solitude, you will not achieve. You must feel the enormous isolation of life, to hear only the heart beating and feel the mind searching, searching, searching to know the "isolated joy" of the thinker. Holmes found it. And it is worth pondering.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long