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Bloom, Poirier, Holmes: What’s the Link?

In American History, Arts & Letters, Creativity, Emerson, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Pragmatism, Western Philosophy on December 26, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence is of a piece with pragmatism as it is manifested in Richard Poirier’s account of poetic influence whereby a poet or writer struggles to overcome the powerful precedent of his or her forerunners.  Poirier goes to great lengths to demonstrate how Emerson’s “superfluity” has to do with Emerson’s anxiety about articulating the phenomenal world in ways that are new.  Like Emerson, Holmes distorts and recasts precedents.  Holmes uses the common law canon much as Emerson uses the literary canon, and vice versa.

Bloom and Poirier are Darwinians, as were most of the classical pragmatists, on the issue of revision and adaptation of forms to fit new social and cultural environments.  Bloom seems to suggest that there are perennial themes and tropes in the work of great poets over time, but that it is the new and creative ways in which these existing categories are expressed that make them great.  The anxiety is in finding new articulation for previously established content and methods.  The poet, then, is like the judge according Holmes: someone who must rely on precedent even as he carves out new spaces for critical inquiry.

Emerson is a milestone figure for Poirier because Emerson struggles with “linguistic skepticism.”  Emerson’s anxiety about expressing new ideas in old forms led him to embrace rhetorical superfluity as a means of compensating for the limitations of his own mind and historical moment.  Emerson was skeptical about the ability of the word or language to summon forth the meanings in his head or the sensations that he felt.  For Poirier, Emerson established what Joan Richardson calls an “aesthetic outpost” against which later writers like Robert Frost or Wallace Stevens wrote.  Emerson facilitated continuity with the past while generating his own tropes on which later American writers would themselves trope.  All of this revision and adaptation had to do with a distinctly American tradition of writing that attempted to break free of the confines of European traditions and express the attitudes and possibilities created by the New World.  Holmes himself turned away from European jurisprudence and embraced philosophical pragmatism, which led to such interpretive tendencies as judicial restraint, deference to state legislatures, rejection of abstractions, and analysis of actual experiences tested and tried in both the economic marketplace and the marketplace of ideas.

What links Bloom, Poirier, and Holmes is Emerson.


The Enduring Importance of Justice Holmes: A Brief Note

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Liberalism, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Politics, Pragmatism on December 19, 2012 at 9:00 am

Allen Mendenhall

There is an argument to be made that Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. matters more today than he did in his own lifetime, even if he is, with a few exceptions, less understood.  He continues to be the most cited Supreme Court justice in United States history, and his pithy phrases, hard-hitting prose, and axiomatic opinions and dissents continue to obtain as law; even when they do not obtain as law, they almost always remain valid candidates for becoming law.

Holmes wrote his ambitious tome The Common Law to outline the history of the development of Anglo-American jurisprudence as it played out in the complex interactions among people down through the centuries.  In so doing, he showed that law is a meliorative process of applying and organizing—with mixed purposes and results—general principles in different ages.  Holmes’s attention to precedent as both a corrective heuristic and a systematic hermeneutic grounded in case patterns and practices demonstrates how common law systems work.  In recent Supreme Court cases, justices on both the putative “left” and “right” wing of the court have cited Holmes to authorize certain viewpoints, and Holmes’s writings are recycled so often by judges that they appear to have been central to ensuring the validity and viability of the very organism—the common law—that they sought to improve and describe.

Holmes was, and is, known for his deference to local legislatures; he did not think that unelected judges should be able to impose their viewpoints upon distinct, regional cultures and communities.  He resisted sprawling interpretations of words and principles, even if his hermeneutics brought about consequences he did not like.  He was open about his willingness to decide cases against his own interests.  As he wrote to his cousin John T. Morse, “It has given me great pleasure to sustain the Constitutionality of laws that I believe to be as bad as possible, because I thereby helped to mark the difference between what I would forbid and what the Constitution permits.”

Louis Menand, in The Metaphysical Club, asserts that “one thing that can be said with certainty about Holmes as a judge is that he almost never cared, in the cases he decided, about outcomes,” because he was “utterly, sometimes fantastically, indifferent to the real-world effects of his decisions.”  In other words, Holmes did not reach his decisions because they would produce results that he could applaud; he reached them because he thought they were conclusions he had to arrive at in light of facts, circumstances, precedents, and rules.  A common mistake is to take Holmes’s deference to the mores and traditions of states and localities as evidence of his shared belief in those mores and traditions.  For instance, David Bernstein’s Rehabilitating Lochner (University of Chicago Press, 2011) tickets Holmes’s dissent in Lochner v. New York as a denunciation of business interests, but that was not the case.  Holmes did not have to agree with states and localities to say that federal judges and Supreme Court justices should not inject their worldview (economic or otherwise) into the life of a community with an opposing worldview.  As Frankfurter said of Holmes, “He has ever been keenly conscious of the delicacy involved in reviewing other men’s judgment not as to its wisdom but as to their right to entertain the reasonableness of its wisdom.”

In this respect, Holmes is a pragmatic pluralist in the manner of William James, and his judicial outlook seems to enact a more political version of James’s religious masterpiece “Varieties of Religious Experience.”  Holmes’s jurisprudence might even be dubbed “Varieties of Political Experience.”  Holmes’s position on judging is analogous to James’s suggestion in “Varieties of Religious Experience” that a person is entitled to believe what he wants so long as the practice of his religious belief is verifiable in experience and does not infringe upon the opportunity of others to exercise their own legitimate religious practices.  James put forth the idea of a “pluralistic universe,” which he envisioned to be, in his words, “more like a federal republic than an empire or a kingdom.”  Holmes likewise contemplated the notion of a federal republic in his opinions and dissents, especially in his deference to the states and their legislatures.  Although countless biographers and historians have noted the relationship between Holmes and James, I have yet to see an article-length treatment of this federalist aspect of their commonalities.

Holmes is often harnessed in the service of some conservative or liberal position—the most polemical on this score is Albert W. Alschuler’s Law Without Values: The Life, Work, and Legacy of Justice Holmes (University of Chicago Press, 2001)—but it is a mistake to treat his writings as an endorsement of the politics they enabled.  The most recent article published on Holmes, “The House that Built Holmes” by Brad Snyder (Vol. 30 of the Law & History Review, 2012), argues that Holmes’s reputation is largely a product of the iconic status to which young progressives elevated him, even though, ironically, Holmes disagreed with their politics.  In fact, Holmes did not support many of the projects that his decisions made possible; nor did he consider his own views unconditionally right; he therefore refused to insert his ideas into places where a faraway, federal judge’s opinion did not belong.  Menand seems to suggest that Holmes’s experiences as a soldier in the 20th Massachusetts, during the Civil War, shaped Holmes’s views about law, particularly with regard to regional particularities and idiosyncrasies.  His entire life, Holmes would couch his catchy rhetoric in the vocabularies of war, and he insisted that certitude, such as it was, could lead only to violence.

Absolute, uncompromising certitude is precisely what Holmes had against natural law jurisprudence.  Holmes saw natural law as an excuse for those who thought their worldview was correct to impose their politics onto others with different ideas.  Holmes defined truth as the system of his own limitations and as whatever it was that he could not help but believe.  Truth, for him, was no grounds for policy; it was simply what one does with what one knows.

In “The Path of the Law,” Holmes put forth the bad man theory or prediction theory of law, which holds that we should not view the law as an abstract statement about morals, but as those consequences which a bad man predicts will obtain if he chooses one course of action instead of another.  The law is, accordingly, a prediction about what will happen if one performs certain acts.  Such informed, calculated guessing—a habit acquired and refined by experience—is the way most of us decide to do one thing or another.  Most of us do not, when we stop at a traffic light, for example, consider the morality of the action we are performing, but instead consider the ramifications of our potential act should we actually carry it out.

That Holmes continues to be such a hotly contested figure, that his writings continue to be cited by judges at all levels, state and federal, suggests that his legacy remains important and that his ideas, however misunderstood, continue to figure the direction of American law and government.

My Reading List for 2013

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creativity, Fiction, History, Humanities, Law, Literature, Novels, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on December 12, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

Editorial Note (April 15, 2013):  At this point in the year, I have already discovered flaws in this list. For instance, I gave myself two weeks to read Augustine’s Confessions and one week to read Aquinas’s Summa Theologica.  I should have done the reverse.  Summa Theologica may have required more than two weeks to read, since I found myself rushing through it, and it is not a book through which one should rush.  My schedule has forced me to speed read some texts in order to avoid taking shortcuts.  Some of the texts on this list will therefore appear on my list for next year, so that they get the treatment and consideration they deserve.

2013 will be a good year for reading.  I’ve made a list of the books I’m going to undertake, and I hope you’ll consider reading along with me.  As you can see, I’ll be enjoying many canonical works of Western Civilization.  Some I’ve read before; some I haven’t.  My goal is to reacquaint myself with the great works I fell in love with years ago and to read some of the great works that I’ve always wanted to read but haven’t.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that everybody ought to read these works, but I do think that by reading them, a person will gain a fundamental understanding of the essential questions and problems that have faced humans for generations.

Some works are conspicuous in their absence; the list betrays my preferences.  Notably missing are the works of Shakespeare and the canonical texts that make up the Old and New Testament.  There’s a reason for that.  I’ve developed a morning habit of reading the scriptures as well as Shakespeare before I go to work.  If I’m reading these already, there’s no need to add them to the list, which is designed to establish a healthy routine.  What’s more, the list comes with tight deadlines, and I’m inclined to relish rather than rush through the Bible or Shakespeare.

Lists provide order and clarity; we make them to reduce options or enumerate measurable, targeted goals.  Lists rescue us from what has been called the “tyranny of choice.”  Benjamin Franklin made a list of the 13 virtues he wished to live by.  What motivated him is perhaps what’s motivating me: a sense of purpose and direction and edification.

At first I wanted to assign myself a book a week, but realizing that some works are longer or more challenging than others, that as a matter of obligation I will have other books to read and review, that I have a doctoral dissertation to write, that the legal profession is time consuming, and that unforeseen circumstances could arise, I decided that I might need more time than a week per book depending on the complexity of the particular selection or the busyness of the season.  Although I hope to stick to schedule, I own that I might have to permit myself flexibility.  We’ll see.

For variety—and respite—I have chosen to alternate between a pre-20th century text and a 20th century text.  In other words, one week I might read Milton, the next Heidegger.  For the pre-20th century texts, I will advance more or less chronologically; there is no method or sequence for the 20th century texts, which I listed as they came to mind (“oh, I’ve always wanted to read more Oakeshott—I should add him.  And isn’t my knowledge of Proust severely limited?—I’ll add him as well.”).  It’s too early to say what lasting and significant effects these latter texts will have, so I hesitate to number them among the demonstrably great pre-20th century texts, but a general consensus has, I think, established these 20th century texts as at least among the candidates for canonicity.

I have dated some of the texts in the list below.  Not all dates are known with certainty, by me or anyone else.  Some texts were revised multiple times after their initial publication; others were written in installments.  Therefore, I have noted the time span for those works produced over the course of many years.

One would be justified in wondering why I’ve selected these texts over others.  The answer, I suppose, pertains to something Harold Bloom once said: that there are many books but only one lifetime, so why not read the best and most enduring?  I paraphrase because I can’t remember precisely what he said or where he said it, but the point is clear enough: read the most important books before you run out of time.

Making this list, I learned that one can read only so many great works by picking them off one week at a time.  The initial disheartenment I felt at this realization quickly gave way to motivation: if I want to understand the human condition as the most talented and creative of our predecessors understood it, I will have to make a new list every year, and I will have to squeeze in time for additional texts whenever possible.  I am shocked at the number of books that I wanted to include in this list, but that didn’t make it in.  I ran out of weeks.  What a shame.

Here is my list.  I hope you enjoy. Read the rest of this entry »

Four Shows to See in Atlanta this 2012 Christmas Season

In Atlanta, Theatre on December 6, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall


1.  A Christmas Carol at Alliance Theatre

2.  A Christmas Carol at The New American Shakespeare Tavern

3.  Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker at the Fabulous Fox Theatre

4.  The Play of Herod at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church


In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Short Story, Writing on November 29, 2012 at 8:45 am

The following short story first appeared here in Full of Crow.

The man awoke to the chirping of a bird.  He lay listening in his bed for some time before rising, stretching, and gaining the window.  He looked outside.  The sun had risen; off-white clouds unrolled like scrolls across the horizon; wet grass and tall pines punctuated the land below.  Sometimes the man looked out and read the words of the world; sometimes he looked out and read nothing because the world seemed unwritten.  “Not for nothing,” he said to himself.  “Not for nothing.”

Sometimes he would see her standing in the yard, working in the garden, pretty as a sunflower.  Sometimes he forgot her.  She was never there in any case.

The woman was, in her youth, symmetric and vaguely beautiful, like a poem: full of marks and scribbles working in concert, taking on meaning.  In recent years she had become, despite herself, an aging monument to womanhood whose rough topography of face showed traces, however faint, of vigor.  She had been gone five years, but he thought about her, and about her cool, liquid eyes, on many mornings, especially on the cool mornings when the steady, westward breezes tussled his hair and smelled, to him, like memory; the pain of her leaving was stronger in the mornings than in the afternoons or nights.  The earth, the soil, the animals: all were alive, shamelessly, recklessly, gloriously alive then.  The stirring of birds and squirrels and the retreat of nighttime critters—raccoons, owls, opossums—inscribed the world with syllables and notes, sang the world to the world, perhaps even to the universe.  Something happened in the mornings, something tremendous: the soul, his soul, like leaking ink, bled into the world, stained the world, and he, the man, became an artist, and joined the growing chorus of life.

But the man was not happy.  He no longer understood happiness because he could not read it.

This morning was different.  He wondered whether it was the music, the tune, the tone.   Standing before the window, he closed his eyes and listened to the world and turned his head toward the source of the sounds and then opened his eyes.

There it was.

A redbird.

He stared at the redbird, a stranger to him.  He knew the daily visitors to his feeders and birdbaths, knew them as one knows the contours of his hand: mostly bluebirds and robins, but occasionally finches and sparrows.  The redbird, though, was new; its music moved him, drew him out of himself.

The redbird perched on a limb on the old maple tree and turned its beak to the sky, its crimson crest and round black mask both brilliant and threatening.  Its little button-eyes were barely visible beneath the mask, but the man thought he saw the redbird looking back at him.  He smiled and waved.  The redbird bobbed in acknowledgment and then flew off.

The man grew sad.

He gazed as far as he could into the distance: at the brooks and streams meandering down the mountain and terminating into the various fishponds that dimpled the Okmulgee valley.  He could just make out the images of trees covering the foothills; yet when he had stood here as a boy, he could see everything, even the neighboring village, south of the mountain.  How strange, he thought, that the body grows old.

The man placed his hand before his face and wiggled his wrinkled fingers.  He smiled knowing that he controlled these appendages even if they weren’t strong or nimble, even if they wouldn’t touch the woman again.  Then he frowned because the fingers, crusty and bent, seemed separate from him—as if they belonged to a force even greater: God maybe.

It was Monday.  The boy would come today.

He was kind, this boy: a hard worker.  He showed up on time every Monday and Wednesday to till the land, chop the wood, feed the cows, water the plants.  He had been at this routine for two years.

When the boy came, the man was happy. Read the rest of this entry »

Of Bees and Boys

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Essays, Writing on November 14, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following essay appeared here in Front Porch Republic.

My brother Brett and I were polite but rambunctious children who made a game of killing bees and dumping their carcasses into buckets of rainwater.  Having heard that bees, like bulls, stirred at the sight of red, we brandished red plastic shovels, sported red t-shirts, and scribbled our faces in red marker.  They were small, these shovels, not longer than arm’s length.  And light, too.  So light, in fact, that we wielded them with ease: as John Henry wielded a hammer or Paul Bunyan an axe.

The bees had a nest somewhere within the rotting wood of our swing set.  Monkey bars made of metal triangles, much like hand percussion instruments, dangled from the wooden frame above; when struck or rattled with a stick, these replied in sharp, loud tones, infuriating the bees, a feisty frontline of which launched from unseen dugouts.

These deployments, though annoying, were easily outmaneuvered: Brett and I swatted them to the ground with our shovelheads.  Mortally wounded, they twitched and convulsed, moving frantically but going nowhere; all except one bee, valiant as he was pathetic, wriggling toward his nearest companion, his maimed posterior dragging in the dirt.  Not much for voyeurism, I relieved him of his misery.  Then Brett and I whacked the littered lot into tiny bee pancakes.

Meanwhile, the defeated community, convening somewhere in the wood, commissioned its combat medics: fat, steady-flying drones that hovered airborne over the dead and then descended, slow and sinking, like flying saucers.  The medics would, when we let them, carry off their dead to an undisclosed location.  I couldn’t watch this disturbingly human ritual, so instead I annihilated the medics, too.  They were easy targets, defenseless.  And they kept coming in battalions of ten or eleven.  As soon as I’d destroy one battalion, another materialized to attend to the new dead.  Unlike the frontliners, the medics didn’t try to sting.  They just came to collect.  But I wouldn’t let them.  Neither would Brett.  Eventually, they quit coming.  That, or we killed them all.

Bees are funny creatures.  Unlike birds, they have two sets of wings.  Most female bees, unlike most female humans Iknow, grow their leg hairs long and their bellies plump—this in order to carry nectar or pollen.  Bee pollination accounts for one-third of the human food supply.  Without bees, then, we might not have our Big Macs or Whoppers—nor, for that matter, honey or flowers.

When I lived in Japan, I had a friend who fancied himself an entomologist.  When he and I tired of talking politics, books, or women, we spoke of insects: I told him weird insect stories, and he explained away the weirdness.  He informed me, for instance, that the bees living in my swing set were probably solitary bees: a gregarious species that stung only in self-defense.  This, you might imagine, was sobering news for an insect murderer.

I asked about the medics that carried away the dead.  Honey bees, he said, discarded their dead for hygienic reasons—to prevent the spread of infection—and they coated their dead in antibacterial waxes.  As for the behavior of my bees, however, he wasn’t sure: maybe they, like honey bees, discarded remains where germs wouldn’t spread.  Or maybe—and he said this facetiously—they conducted funerals.

It wasn’t long before Jared, the boy next door, got in on our bee brutality.  Pregnant with mischief—more so than me or Brett—he decided one day to show us something; shepherding us through the woods, lifting a disarming smile as if to say, “Trust me,” he paused at last, indicated a hole in the ground, and declared, “Thisis it!”

A steady stream of yellow jackets purred in and out of the hole.  He waved his hand to signify the totality of our surroundings and said, “Ours.  All ours.  None for the bees.”

Or something to that effect.

Brett and I nodded in agreement, awaiting instruction.  If we were confused by Jared’s deranged sense of prerogative, we didn’t show it.  Brett found a heavy rock, which I helped him to carry.  We dropped it at Jared’s feet.

Jared summoned forth a mouthful of mucus and hacked it into the hole.  Unfazed, the yellow jackets buzzed in acknowledgment but otherwise ignored the assault.  “These guys are in for hell,” Jared said of the bees, offended at the ineffectuality of his first strike.  He anchored his feet and bent over the rock, which he heaved to his chest and, leaning backwards, rested on his belly; then he staggered a few steps, stopped, and—his face registering another thought—dropped the rock to the ground.

“Spit on it!” he ordered.

Brett and I, obedient friends that we were, doctored the rock in spit.

Then Jared undertook to finish the job he’d begun:  he bent down, lifted the rock, waddled to the hole, straddled the hole, and dropped the rock.  The ground thumped.  A small swirl of dust spiraled into miniature tornadoes that eventually outgrew themselves and became one with the general order of things.

“That’ll do it,” Jared said, clapping his hands together to dry the spit.  The colony, its passage blocked, was trapped both inside and out.  Those un-entombed bees, rather than attack, simply disappeared.

We rejoiced in our victory.  Jared pantomimed conquest, pretending to hold an immense, invisible world Atlas-like over his shoulders.  Brett danced.  I was so busy watching Jared and Brett that I can’t remember what I did.

We didn’t know that yellow jackets engineered nests, tunneled hidden passages and backup exits; nor did we appreciate what the tiny zealots were capable of.

It started with trifling harassment: a slight, circling buzz—reconnaissance probably.  Then I felt the first sting; looking down, I saw a yellow jacket, curled like a question-mark, bearing into my leg.  I spanked it dead.  It looked angry—something in the way it moved.

I heard Brett scream.  Then Jared.  Then saw the ubiquitous cloud of yellow jackets rising in the air, moving as one unit, enveloping us with fatalistic purpose.  My ears filled with the steady drone of thrumming wings.

Then, as happens in moments like this, moments of panic, moments when one feels he’s lost control, feels some other faculty taking over, I submitted to a greater power, which stiffened the muscles of my neck and arms, sent contractions through my calves and thighs, like spasms moving me forward, making me to run, the house, my house, once far away, a small square, growing larger and larger until at last it became a complete, reachable form, the door, my safety, announcing its presence, telling me to hurry, hurry.  Ahead was a fence.  I’d have to jump it.  I measured my strides for the leap, which, miraculously, I achieved with the slight assistance of my palms upon the fence-top.  I found the doorknob, dove into the kitchen, flung off my clothes.  The drone wouldn’t go away.

But where was Brett?  Not here.  Where was he?  Just then came a voice—“Allen!  What in God’s name?!”—and then mom was beside me, horrified, her eyes growing three-times their normal size; and then she was gone again; somehow I was back at the door, looking outside, at the yard, at mom battling the fleet of yellow jackets, at Brett stuck on the fence top, screaming, his face flushed red—red!—his arms leaking blood.  Was that blood?  Or a sore?  I couldn’t tell.

Mom deposited Brett in the kitchen, stripped him naked, called the doctor.  Tweezers.  I remember tweezers.  Yellow jackets were in his ears and mouth.  They were everywhere.  Outside, they continued ramming their bodies into the window.  I looked out.  One hovered there.  It looked at me.  I looked at it.  Insect and Man.  Sizing each other up.

In light of these memories, I can’t help but sense that, no, on account of their characteristics and functions, bees are not the affirmative, happy creatures of some Wordsworthian lyric; that they are too much like us for armistice or reconciliation; that, in fact, we will never see the last of them, as they will never see the last of us.  They will live on, as will we.

Let the boys at them, and they at the boys.  That’s how it ought to be.  So alike are the two that it’s hard to tell who has the advantage of intelligence.  I learned, those many years ago, before the profundity of it all struck me,that wounds can teach the tragic lessons of ignored similarities.  There’s something to be said for that.

If nothing else, I have come to admire bees for their tenacity and courage in the face of insurmountable power.  Theirs is a world of flux,disorder, and death.  Their body is a weapon, one that, once used, terminates everything.

Boys war with bees.  Bees war with boys.  Just another kind of outdoor game, one on a side, except no one can say “Elves.”  Not in this game.

In this game, there is only one ending.  Even in victory, the bees lose.  It takes a man to understand; it might just take bees, or something like them, to make a man.

Selected Bibliography for Scholarship on Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Historicism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Pragmatism on November 8, 2012 at 8:20 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following bibliography is far from exhaustive; it consists of the works that I’ve found most helpful in my own research.  This list was created in November 0f 2012.


Aichele, Gary J.  Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.: Soldier, Scholar, Judge (Boston: Twayne, 1989).

Alschuler, Albert W. Law Without Values: The Life, Work, and Legacy of Justice Holmes (Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

Baker, Liva.  The Justice from Beacon Hill: The Life and Times of Oliver Wendell Holmes (New York: HarperCollins, 1991).

Bent, Silas.  Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (New York: Vanguard Press, 1932).

Biddle, Francis.  Mr. Justice Holmes (New York: Scribner, 1942).

Bowen, Catherine Drinker.  Yankee from Olympus: Justice Holmes and His Family (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1944).

Burton, David H.  Taft, Holmes, and the 1920s Court: An Appraisal (Madison, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1998).

______________.  Political Ideas of Justice Holmes.  Madison, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1992). 

______________.  Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980).

Cohen, Jeremy.  Congress Shall Make No Law: Oliver Wendell Holmes, the First Amendment, and Judicial Decision Making (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1989).

Collins, Ronald K. L. and David M. Skover.  On Dissent: Its Meaning in America (New York: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2013).

Gibian, Peter.  Oliver Wendell Holmes and the Culture of Conversation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001).  [This book focuses on Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. but reveals much about the environment in which Holmes Jr. grew up.  It also uses Harold Bloom to make sense of Emersonian communication and rhetoric.]

Hoffheimer, Michael H.  Justice Holmes and the Natural Law (New York: Taylor & Francis, 1992).

Howe, Mark DeWolfe.  Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Vol. One: The Shaping Years, 1841-1870 (Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1957).

______________.  Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Vol. Two: The Proving Years, 1870-1882 (Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1963). 

Kellogg, Frederic R. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.: Legal Theory and Judicial Restraint (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

Menand, Louis.  The Metaphysical Club (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001).  [This book situates Holmes alongside other classical pragmatists such as C.S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey.]

Novick, Sheldon M.  Honorable Justice: The Life of Oliver Wendell Holmes (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 1989).

Pohlman, H. L.  Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and Utilitarian Jurisprudence (Harvard University Press, 1984).

______________.  Free Speech and the Living Constitution (New York: New York University Press, 1991).

Rosenberg, David.  The Hidden Holmes: His Theory of Torts in History (Harvard University Press, 1995).

White, G. Edward.  Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: Law & the Inner Self (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

Editions of Holmes’s Writings and Letters:

Burton, David H., Editor.  Progressive Masks: Letters of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Franklin Ford (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1982).

______________.  Holmes-Sheehan Correspondence (New York: Fordham University Press, 1993).

Gordon, Robert W., Editor.  The Legacy of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (Stanford University Press, 1992).

Howe, Mark Dewolfe, Editor.  Holmes-Pollock Letters: The Correspondence of Mr. Justice Holmes and Sir Frederick Pollock, 1874-1932, Vol. 1 and 2 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1941).

______________.  Holmes-Laski Letters: The Correspondence of Mr. Justice Holmes and Harold J. Laski, 1916-1935 (Harvard University Press, 1953).

Lerner, Max, Editor.  The Mind and Faith of Justice Holmes: His Speeches, Essays, Letters & Judicial Opinions (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1943).

Mennel, Robert M. and Christine L. Compston, Editors.  Holmes & Frankfurter: Their Correspondence, 1912-1934 (Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1996).

Peabody, James Bishop, Editor.  The Holmes-Einstein Letters: Correspondence of Mr. Justice Holmes and Lewis Einstein, 1903-1935 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1964).

Posner, Richard.  The Essential Holmes: Selections from the Letters, Speeches, Judicial Opinions, and Other Writings (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).


Alschuler, Albert W.  “The Descending Trail: Holmes’ Path of the Law One Hundred Years Later.”  Florida Law Review, Vol. 49 (1997).

Bernstein, Irving.  “The Conservative Mr. Justice Holmes.”  New England Quarterly, Vol. 23 (1950).

Blasi, Vincent.  “Reading Holmes Through the Lens of Schauer: The Abrams Dissent.”  Notre Dame Law Review, Vol. 72 (1997).

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Review of John Shelton Reed’s Dixie Bohemia

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Southern History, Southern Literary Review, The South, Writing on October 31, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following review first appeared here in Southern Literary Review.

John Shelton Reed’s Dixie Bohemia is difficult to classify. It’s easier to say what it isn’t than to say what it is.

It isn’t biography.  It isn’t documentary.  It isn’t quite history, although it does organize and present information about a distinct class of past individuals interacting and sometimes living together in a unique, definable space.

It isn’t quite sociology either, although Reed is, by training and profession, a sociologist, and sociology does, every now and then, sneak its way into the pages.

Maybe it’s best to suggest that the book is a bit of all of these, but it’s also an annotated edition of Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles: A Gallery of Contemporary New Orleans.

Written and compiled by William Spratling and William Faulkner, whom Reed affectionately dubs the “Two Bills,” Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles, first published in 1926,was something of a joke: its oft-rambunctious subjects weren’t really creoles, but simply friends of the authors, and most weren’t, by most measurable standards, famous.

Reed’s stated goal, one of them at least, is to provide an “introduction to a Bohemian crowd of artists, writers, journalists, musicians, poseurs, and hangers-on found in the French Quarter in the mid-1920s.”  This eclectic and creative crowd comprises what Reed calls a social circle, or, in more academic parlance, a “loose network of relationships linked by friends in common,” “by association with the same institutions,” and “by common interests.”

Reed explains that social circles, by nature, “have no formal leaders, but they may have their notables,” and they have their cores, too.  The leader of the so-called “famous Creoles” is Sherwood Anderson, and the core, as you might have guessed, is the French Quarter.

Tulane University, with all of its energy, entertainers, and eccentrics, enabled and sustained the circle that produced the local arts, literature, and culture.  The area and its residents gained a national, indeed international, reputation.  As Meigs Frost, a reporter who made the cut as a famous creole, put it, “So many of us here are internationally famous locally.”

Reed’s subtly sociological introductory chapters place his subjects, which were also the two Bills’ subjects, into their historical context—and what a wild, exotic, and at times erotic context it is.  His comprehensive research is delivered with such wit and enthusiasm that one can forget this work is scholarship written by a former professor and published by a university press.

His occasional use of the first person and confessional, qualifying asides—“as far as I know,” “Some may find it easier than I do,” “to my mind artists should not be judged on what prejudiced observers see in their work,” “It is difficult to discuss this,” “I have mentioned,” “I know of someone,” “it’s fair to say,” “It’s hard to imagine”—will let you know, or let you guess at, where he stands on an issue or acknowledges an assumption on his part.  Such delicate humility—or is it just honest colloquialism?—is rare for a person who made his career in the university, and it would be a shame if readers neglected to notice it.

Peopled with absinthe-drinking, music-loving debauchers, 1920s New Orleans was a place where madams and brothels were as common as jambalaya and gumbo; where music poured into the streets, which smelled of spices, sex, and booze; where bootleggers (this was the Prohibition Era, remember) set up shop next to cops (who were customers of the brothels and the bootleggers); where the only limit on free love, it seemed, was the stultifying effect of alcohol; where parties—especially costume balls—were considered failures if nobody got naked; and where vivacious theater, daily newspapers, and edgy literary periodicals flourished.

If this milieu seemed excessive, radical, intemperate, even libertine, it was also in a way conservative: there was among its dwellers a ubiquitous impulse to preserve and maintain.  History, both that being made and that made already, was important to the artists and writers.  The districts, the streets, the homes, the buildings, the sidewalks—all of them required and received care and protection, and all of them underwent systematic revitalization.  The literati, as conservationists, were afraid that the world they had inherited, and to some extent made, was endangered.

Fans of Reed have come to expect certain things: the informal idioms and plain speech he uses while dissecting, with surgeon-like precision, complex people and institutions; the surprising clarity he brings to understudied topics; and the delightful, conversational prose with which he arrests your attention, transports you into another world, and then releases you back into your own world.

In this, his latest, he does not disappoint.  As always, he delivers—and in so doing provides telling insights into a minor renaissance in American literary history.  His discussions of race and sexuality will inspire (or provoke) future study, but more importantly he has addressed some of the least known phases of some of the most known American litterateurs.

Reed doesn’t need my endorsement.  But he’s got it.

Book Note: Twentieth-Century English Literature, edited by Laura Marcus and Peter Nicholls (Cambridge University Press, 2004)

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Britain, British Literature, Fiction, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Modernism, The Novel, Western Civilization, Writing on October 24, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following excerpt first appeared as part of the Routledge Annotated Bibliography of English Studies series.

This history of twentieth-century English literature addresses a wide variety of texts produced in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.  Made up of 44 critical essays, this book is divided into four parts: 1) Writing Modernity, 2) The Emerging Avant-Garde, 3) Modernism and its Aftermath, 1918-1945, and 4) Post-War Cultures, 1945-1970.  This division is meant to read like a history and not like a companion, anthology, or compilation of essays. 

The book attempts to avoid treating “Englishness” or “English literature” as fixed or essentialized categories and, instead, to use those loaded terms as illustrative of multiple and differing conceptions of place and identity.  As with any historical account of modernism, this book explores the tensions between continuity and change, but unlike many historical accounts of modernism, this book focuses largely upon transnationalism, diaspora, postcolonialism, and dispersal. 

In an effort to complicate simplistic characterizations of time and place, this book acknowledges overlapping chronologies even as it maps out a quasi-linear study of English literature in the twentieth-century.  As an example of the editors’ resistance against oversimplified periodization, the book begins not with a set date (say, 1900) but with a section of essays exploring the lives and works of authors both before and after the close of the nineteenth-century. 

This first section of the book (“Writing Modernism”) incorporates works about major themes in literature and the role those themes play in the gradual replacement and displacement of the literature of the so-called older generation.  The second section of the book also addresses the fledgling stages of modernism, considering as it does the divide between Edwardian and Georgian writers and literature.  This section closes with an account about how the Great War influenced literary production in Britain. 

Part three is, unlike the earlier sections, rooted in a particular time frame (1918-45), and it focuses on how authors such as Joyce, Woolf, Ford, Conrad, Lawrence, and Lewis experiment with forms while investigating their and their countries’ recent (and in some cases not-so-recent) past.  This section closes with World War Two and the literary productions emanating from that event. 

The fourth section, dealing chiefly with issues of continuity and change, also deals with issues of class, education, nationalism, and internationalism, and the fifth and final section, “Towards the Millennium,” examines literature and literary culture from the last 30 years.  This final section focuses on new opportunities for writing, publication, genre, performance, and experimentation.  It undertakes to explore the vexed “postmodern” signifier while refusing reductive conclusions about that term.   

In general, the book pays particular attention to genre and the construction and representation of literary culture during eras of new technology and shifting social circumstances.  When addressing more recent phenomena of literature and literary criticism, such as anxiety over the term “postmodern,” the book’s closing essays are careful not to “take sides,” so to speak, but to register the complexity of issues and insist that all claims about the contemporary or near-contemporary are provisional and not summative, speculative and not conclusive. 

This ambitious project leaves certain loose ends, as any project of this magnitude must, but it is nevertheless an impressive and meticulous contribution to ongoing and unsettled conversations about twentieth-century British literature.  The sheer number and variety of authors contributing to and represented by this text are so bold and interesting that definitive or comprehensive statements about them are difficult to make.  Suffice it to say that the complexity of this book, and of all of the authors and essays appearing in this book, is in keeping with the complexity of a subject as expansive as twentieth-century British literature.             


Article Note: “Conrad in the Computer,” by Michael Stubbs

In Arts & Letters, Essays, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Writing on October 12, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

This article uses quantitative methods of text and corpus analysis to interpret stylistic elements of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  The author carries out such method and analysis by way of computers—hence the title of the article.

A major goal of this piece is to challenge the linguistic community that is mostly skeptical of “stylistics.”  Put another way, the piece calls into question the prevailing idea that statistics is not a proper hermeneutic for interpreting literary style.

The value of computer-generated quantitative datum is its ability to clarify what is normal and predictable in texts.  The value, moreover, is to contextualize a vast amount of information by reducing it to simplified summaries.  For instance, this piece reduces Heart of Darkness to seven narrative frames within which are themes of vague impressions and unreliable knowledge (conveyed through words such as “blurred” and its variations, “dark” and its variations, “shadow” and its variations, and so forth).

The author concedes that his approach depends upon selection: which features to study and which to ignore.  But he believes his approach is valuable precisely because computers can identify features of texts that are not at first obvious to the naked eye or the pensive mind.  Humans carry with them various associative registers and preconceived notions, whereas software is a naïve reader.

One reason the author applies his quantitative method to Heart of Darkness is that this novel has not undergone rigorous explication in light of stylistics.  This method quickly provides the analyst with a concordance, and this method enables the analyst to index keywords (“Kurtz,” “seemed,” “river,” “station,” and so on) and then divide those keywords into numbers and declensions (how many nouns or adjectives, what variety of verb tenses, etc.).  This method is beneficial, furthermore, because the computer can catch allusions that the limited human mind cannot catch.  In support of this theory, the author cites to several allusions and possible allusions from the novel.

The article draws several conclusions about the novel—for one, that the novel’s phrasal patterns suggest that the narrative is tactically repetitive—but the overarching point seems to be to validate the methodology and not explicate the book.  That the author of this article has chosen Heart of Darkness (as opposed to some other novel) seems incidental.

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