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Oliver Wendell Holmes

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894), who was the last survivor of the famous galaxy of Cambridge poets, was the cheerful embodiment of the spirit of Unitarian New Englandism. He was the son of Rev. Abiel Holmes, a Harvard pastor, who wrote "The Annals of America." Having graduated from Harvard in 1829, he studied law and medicine, and spent three years in Europe. He was but twenty-one years old when he made his famous pro-test, "Old Ironsides," which saved the frigate Constitution from destruction, and not much older when in "The Last Leaf" he combined humor with the deepest pathos. Holmes was professor of medicine at Dartmouth College for a year, but settled in Boston in 184o, and seven years later was made professor at Harvard. Besides lecturing there and on the lyceum platform, he wrote patriotic and entertaining poems for occasions and became the laureate of his Alma Mater, inditing forty poems in her honor. One of these, "The Boys," is the jolliest class poem ever written. Holmes was also the bard of Boston, whose State House he pronounced to be "the hub of our solar system." But his lasting fame was due to the founding of the "Atlantic Monthly" in 1857. Lowell took the editorship only when assured that Holmes would be a regular contributor. The contribution came in a form of a serial, "The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table." When but twenty years of age, Holmes had written for a college magazine two short papers of a similar kind, and at forty-eight he began the new version with the words "As I was saying when interrupted." Then followed a long monologue addressed to some typical New England characters assembled at the table of a boarding house. It consisted of philosophical reflections on things great and small; with occasional "asides" and parenthetical stage directions. Nearly every number contained a poem, graceful, brilliant, or humorous, as suited the Autocrat's whim. Altogether The series was a quaint and happy mingling of wit and good sense, humor and pathos, worldly shrewdness and heavenly aspirations. Among the poems were the comical logical story of "The Deacon's Masterpiece, or the Wonderful One-Hoss Shay," which ran a hundred years to a day, and the mathematical story of "Parson Turell's Legacy," the story of the Harvard President's arm-chair. But the loftiest utterance among the lay sermons of the Autocrat was his own favorite, "The Chambered Nautilus."

At last the ever-grateful monthly series was brought to an end when the Autocrat invited the quiet, sensible school-mistress to take the long path with him. Yet it was renewed, though not with the full vivacity, in "The Professor" (1859) and "The Poet at the Breakfast Table" (1873). Between these came some novels, in which he developed certain physiological theories to account for morbid characters. Thus in "Elsie Venner" the heroine has certain qualities of a snake, the origin of which the story serves to explain. In "The Guardian Angel," the eccentricities of a young lady are similarly explained by heredity. In later years Dr. Holmes wrote pleasant biographies of his friends Motley and Emerson. In 1884 he published "Our Hundred Days in Europe," telling of his observations there fifty years after his first visit. Then in his eightieth year the veteran renewed his conversational contributions to the "Atlantic" in a series called "Over the Tea-Cups," full of the same shrewd sense and tender sentiment as "The Autocrat." He lived to be a "Last Leaf," yet without losing his geniality and optimism, preserving to the last the fresh spirit of youth.

Holmes was small in person, but quick and lively in speech and movement. He belonged to what he called "the Brahmin caste of New England." He was a physician, and his medical studies afforded him both illustrations and theories which appeared in his literary works. Curtis has said : "The rollicking laugh of Knickerbocker was a solitary sound in the American ear till the blithe carol of Holmes returned a kindred echo." Holmes loved the approbation of his fellow-men, and spoke not unkindly of the Boston group as a Mutual Admiration Society. Yet his sturdy independence was shown both in literature and science. His epigrams were often keen thrusts at swollen pretensions; but his best sayings were pithy expressions of general facts of human nature, readily accepted when stated. He penetrated deeply into the character and motives of men, and expressed the result of his research so vividly that all acknowledged its truth. It was his desire, if his name was to live, to have it live in people's hearts rather than in their brains, and his wish has been amply gratified. His wit was never irreverent His strong religious feeling is shown in many hymns.

The first American writer to devote himself chiefly to literary criticism was Edwin Percy Whipple (1819-1886). Born at Gloucester, Massachusetts, he lived chiefly in Boston, where for over twenty years he was superintendent of the reading room of the Merchants' Exchange. His ability as a critic was first displayed in an able article on Macaulay in 1843. He lectured as well as wrote on his favorite topics. Among his best books are "Literature and Life" (1849), "Character and Characteristic Men" (1866), "Literature of the Age of Elizabeth" (1869), "Success and Its Conditions" (1871), and the posthumous "American Literature" (1887). He was equally familiar with European literature, and exhibited careful judgment in weighing the merits of modern writ-ers and public men not less than the accepted classics. He discussed political and historical questions as well as literature. His penetrating insight was well matched by his humor and eloquence.

Connecticut produced some poets of merit, but of less power than the Massachusetts group. John Pierpont (1785-1866), who graduated at Yale in 1804, after being a teacher, lawyer, merchant, and became a Unitarian preacher in Boston, Troy, and Medford. At the age of seventy-six he was made chaplain of a Massachusetts regi-ment, but soon exchanged the position for a clerkship in the Treasury at Washington. His "Airs of Palestine and Other Poems" (1816) was intended to show the power of music, combined with local scenery and national character in Palestine and other countries. Most of his other poems were written for special occasions. James Gates Percival (1795-1856), who graduated at Yale in 1815, was an army surgeon, geologist and able linguist. He edited several learned works, assisted in revising "Webster's Dictionary," and made geological surveys of Connecticut and Wisconsin. Throughout his career he published poems, which were finally collected in 1859. His poetry is scholarly and meditative, rather than popular.

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