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Posts Tagged ‘Mark DeWolfe Howe’

The Emersonian Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

In American History, Art, Arts & Letters, Emerson, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Poetry, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, The Supreme Court, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on October 26, 2011 at 9:16 am

Allen Mendenhall

Writers on Holmes have forgotten just how influential poetry and literature were to him, and how powerfully literary his Supreme Court dissents really are.  The son of the illustrious poet by the same name, young Holmes, or Wendell, fell in love with the heroic tales of Sir Walter Scott, and the “enthusiasm with which Holmes in boyhood lost himself in the world of Walter Scott did not diminish in maturity.”[1]  Wendell was able to marry his skepticism with his romanticism, and this marriage, however improbable, illuminated his appreciation for ideas past and present, old and new.  “His aesthetic judgment,” says Mark DeWolfe Howe, author of the most definitive biography of Holmes and one of Holmes’s former law clerks, “was responsive to older modes of expression and earlier moods of feeling than those which were dominant at the fin de siècle and later, yet his mind found its principle nourishment in the thought of his own times, and was generally impatient of those who believe that yesterday’s insight is adequate for the needs of today.”[2]  Holmes transformed and adapted the ideas of his predecessors while transforming and adapting—one might say troping—milestone antecedents of aestheticism, most notably the works of Emerson.  “[I]t is clear,” says Louis Menand, “that Holmes had adopted Emerson as his special inspiration.”[3]      

Classically educated at the best schools, Wendell was subject to his father’s elaborate discussions of aesthetics, which reinforced the “canons of taste with the heavier artillery of morals.”[4]  In addition to Scott, Wendell enjoyed reading Sylvanus Cobb, Charles Lamb’s Dramatic Poets, The Prometheus of Aeschylus,[5] and Plato’s Dialogues.[6]  Wendell expressed a lifelong interest in art, and his drawings as a young man exhibit a “considerable talent.”[7]  He declared in his Address to the Harvard Alumni Association Class of 1861 that life “is painting a picture, not doing a sum.”[8]  He would later use art to clarify his philosophy to a friend: “But all the use of life is in specific solutions—which cannot be reached through generalities any more than a picture can be painted by knowing some rules of method.  They are reached by insight, tact and specific knowledge.”[9]     

At Harvard College, Wendell began to apply his facility with language to oft-discussed publications in and around Cambridge.  In 1858, the same year that Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. gifted five volumes of Emerson to Wendell,[10] Wendell published an essay called “Books” in the Harvard undergraduate literary journal.[11]  Wendell celebrated Emerson in the piece, saying that Emerson had “set him on fire.”  Menand calls this essay “an Emersonian tribute to Emerson.”[12] 

Holmes had always admired Emerson.  Legend has it that, when still a boy, Holmes ran into Emerson on the street and said, in no uncertain terms, “If I do anything, I shall owe a great deal to you.”  Holmes was more right than he probably knew. 

Holmes, who never gave himself over to ontological (or deontological) ideas about law as an existent, material, absolute, or discoverable phenomenon, bloomed and blossomed out of Emersonian thought, which sought to “unsettle all things”[13] and which offered a poetics of transition that was “not a set of ideas or concepts but rather a general attitude toward ideas and concepts.”[14]  Transition is not the same thing as transformation.  Transition signifies a move between two clear states whereas transformation covers a broader and more fluent way of thinking about change.  Holmes, although transitional, was also transformational.  He revised American jurisprudence until it became something it previously was not.  Feeding Holmes’s appetite for change was “dissatisfaction with all definite, definitive formulations, be they concepts, metaphors, or larger formal structures.”[15]  This dissatisfaction would seem to entail a rejection of truth, but Emerson and Holmes, unlike Rorty and the neopragmatists much later, did not explode “truth” as a meaningful category of discourse.  Read the rest of this entry »

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