Cambridge Sketches
by Frank Preston Stearns

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Doctor Holmes

I have often been inside the old Holmes house in Cambridge. It served as a boarding-house during our college days, but afterwards Professor James B. Thayer rented it for a term of years, until it was finally swept away like chaff by President Eliot’s broom of reform. The popular notion that it was a quaint-looking old mansion of the eighteenth century, which seems to have been encouraged by Doctor Holmes himself, is a misconception. It was a two-and-a-half story, low-studied house, such as were built at the beginning of the last century, with a roof at an angle of forty-five degrees and a two-story ell on the right side of the front door. Doctor Holmes says:

  “Gambrel, gambrel; let me beg
  You will look at a horse’s hinder leg.
  First great angle above the hoof,—
  That is the gambrel; hence gambrel roof.”

Now, any one who looks carefully at the picture of the old Holmes house, in Morse’s biography of the Doctor, will perceive that this was not the style of roof which the house had,—at least, in its later years.

Doctor Holmes graduated at Harvard in 1829 at the age of twenty. His class has been a celebrated one in Boston, and there were certainly some good men in it,—especially Benjamin Pierce and James Freeman Clarke,— but I think it was Doctor Holmes’s class-poems that gave it its chief celebrity, which, after all, means that it was a good deal talked about. In one of these he said:

  “No wonder the tutor can’t sleep in his bed
  With two twenty-niners over his head.”

He was said to have composed twenty-nine poems for his class, and then declared that he had reached the proper limit,—that it would not be prudent to go beyond the magical number. It was not a dissipated class, but one with a good deal of life in it, much given to late hours and jokes, practical and unpractical. The Doctor himself is mysteriously silent concerning his college course, and so are his biographers; but we may surmise that it was not very different in general tenor from Lowell’s; although his Yankee shrewdness would seem to have preserved him from serious catastrophes.

In the “Autocrat of the Breakfast Table” Doctor Holmes mentions an early acquaintance with Margaret Fuller, which is not referred to by Mr. Morse, but must have arisen either at Mrs. Prentiss’s Boston school or at the Cambridgeport school which young Oliver afterwards attended. Even at that age he recognized Margaret’s intellectual gifts, and he was not a little emulous of her; for he fancied that he “had also drawn a small prize in the great literary lottery.” He looked into one of her compositions, which was lying on the teacher’s desk, and felt quite crest-fallen by discovering a word in it which he did not know the meaning of. This word was trite; and it may he suspected that a good many use it without being aware of its proper significance.

Margaret Fuller rose to celebrity with the spontaneity of true genius, and left her name high upon the natural bridge of American literature. Holmes did not come before the public until years after her death; and then perhaps it might not have happened but for James Russell Lowell and the Atlantic. He was a bright man, and possessed a peculiar mental quality of his own; but as we think of him now we can hardly call him a genius. He would evidently have liked in his youth to have made a profession of literature; but his verse lacked the charm and universality which made Longfellow popular so readily; nor did he possess the daring spirit of innovation with which Emerson startled and convinced his contemporaries. He first tried the law, and as that did not suit his taste he fell into medicine, but evidently without any natural bent or inclination for the profession. He was fond of the university, and when, after a temporary professorship at Dartmouth he was appointed lecturer on anatomy at the Harvard Medical-School, his friends realized that he had found his right position.

Lecturing on anatomy is a routine, but by no means a sinecure. It requires a clearness and accuracy of statement which might be compared to the work of an optician. Some idea of it can be derived from the fact that there may be eight or ten points to a human bone, each of which has a name of eight or ten syllables,—only to be acquired by the hardest study. Doctor Holmes’s lecturing manner was incisive and sometimes pungent, like his conversation, but always good-humored and well calculated to make an impression even on the most lymphatic temperaments. While it may be said that others might have done it as well, it is doubtful if he could have been excelled in his own specialty. His ready fund of wit often served to revive the drooping spirits of his audience, and many of his jests have become a kind of legendary lore at the Medical-School. Most of them, however, were of a too anatomical character to be reproduced in print.

So the years rolled over Doctor Holmes’s head; living quietly, working steadily, and accumulating a store of proverbial wisdom by the way. In June, 1840, he married Amelia Lee Jackson, of Boston, an alliance which brought him into relationship with half the families on Beacon Street, and which may have exercised a determining influence on the future course of his life. Doctor Holmes was always liberally inclined, and ready to welcome such social and political improvements as time might bring; but he never joined any of the liberal or reformatory movements of his time. Certain old friends of Emerson affirmed, when Holmes published his biography of the Concord sage in 1885, that no one else was so much given to jesting as Emerson in his younger days. This may have been true; but it is also undeniable that Emerson himself had changed much during that time, and that the socialistic Emerson of 1840 was largely a different person from the author of “Society and Solitude.” Holmes had already composed one of the fairest tributes to Emerson’s intellectual quality that has yet been written.

  “He seems a winged Franklin, heavenly wise,
  Born to unlock the secrets of the skies.”

Emerson began his course in direct apposition to the conventional world; but he was the great magnet of the age, and the world could not help being attracted by him. It modified its course, and Emerson also modified his, so that the final reconciliation might take place. Meanwhile Doctor Holmes pursued the even tenor of his way. Concord does not appear to have been attractive to him. He had a brother, John Holmes, who was reputed by his friends to be as witty as the “Autocrat” himself, but who lived a quiet, inconspicuous life. John was an intimate friend of Hon. E. R. Hoar and often went to Concord to visit him; but I never heard of the Doctor being seen there, though it may have happened before my time. He does not speak over-much of Emerson in his letters, and does not mention Hawthorne, Thoreau or Alcott, so far as we know, at all. They do not appear to have attracted his attention.

We are indebted to Lowell for all that Doctor Holmes has given us. The Doctor was forty-eight when the Atlantic Monthly appeared before the public, and according to his own confession he had long since given up hope of a literary life. We hardly know another instance like it; but so much the better for him. He had no immature efforts of early life to regret; and when the cask once was tapped, the old wine came forth with a fine bouquet. When Phillips & Sampson consulted Lowell in regard to the editorship of the Atlantic, he said at once: “We must get something from Oliver Wendell Holmes.” He was Lowell’s great discovery and proved to be his best card,—a clear, shining light, and not an ignis fatuus.

When the “Autocrat of the Breakfast Table” first appeared few were in the secret of its authorship and everybody asked: “Who is this new luminary?" It was exactly what the more intelligent public wanted, and Holmes jumped at once into the position in literature which he has held ever since. Readers were delighted with his wit, surprised at his originality and impressed by his proverbial wisdom. It was the advent of a sound, healthy intelligence, not unlike that of President Lincoln, which could deal with common-place subjects in a significant and characteristic manner. The landlady’s daughter, the schoolmistress, little Boston, and the young man called John, are as real and tangible as the dramatis personae in one of Moliere’s plays. They seem more real to us than many of the distinguished men and women whom we read of in the newspapers.

Doctor Holmes is the American Sterne. He did not seek a vehicle for his wit in the oddities and mishaps of English middle-class domestic life, but in the contrasts and incongruities of a Boston boarding-house. He informs us at the outset that he much prefers a family with an ancestry— one that has had a judge or a governor in it, with old family portraits, old books and claw-footed furniture; but if Doctor Holmes had depended on such society for his material he would hardly have interested the public whom he addressed. One of Goethe’s critics complained that the class of persons he had introduced in “Wilhelm Meister” did not belong to good society; and to this the “aristocratic” poet replied: “I have often been in society called good, from which I have not been able to obtain an idea for the shortest poem.”

So it is always: the interesting person is the one who struggles. After the struggle is over, and prosperity commences, the moral ends,—young Corey and his bride go off to Mexico. The lives of families are represented by those of its prominent individuals. The ambitious son of an old and wealthy family makes a new departure from former precedents, thus creating a fresh struggle for himself, and becomes an orator, like Wendell Philips, or a scientist, like Darwin.

In the “Autocrat” we recognize the dingy wall-paper of the dining-room, the well-worn furniture, the cracked water-pitcher, and the slight aroma of previous repasts; but we soon forget this unattractive background, for the scene is full of genuine human life. The men and women who congregate there appear for what they really are. They wear no mental masks and other disguises like the people we meet at fashionable entertainments; and each acts himself or herself. Boarding-houses, sanitariums, and sea voyages are the places to study human nature. When a man is half seasick the old original Adam shows forth in him through all the wrappings of education, social restraint, imitation and attempts at self-improvement, with which he has covered it over for so many years. Once on a Cunard steamship I heard an architect from San Francisco tell the story of the hoop-snake, which takes its tail in its teeth and rolls over the prairies at a speed equal to any express train. He evidently believed the story himself, and as I looked round on the company I saw that they all believed it, too, excepting Captain Martyn, who gave me a sly look from the corner of his eye. “Rocked in the cradle of the deep,” they had become like children again, and were ready to credit anything that was told in a confident manner. But Doctor Holmes’s digressions are infectious.

The “Autocrat of the Breakfast Table” is an irregular panorama of human life without either a definite beginning or end,—unless the autocrat’s offering himself to the schoolmistress (an incident which only took place on paper) can be considered so; but it is by no means a patchwork. He talks of horse-racing, the Millerites, elm trees, Doctor Johnson, the composition of poetry and much else; but these subjects are introduced and treated with an adroitness that amounts to consummate art. He is always at the boarding-house, and if his remarks sometimes shoot over the heads of his auditors, this is only because he intends that they should. The first ten or fifteen pages of the “Autocrat” are written in such a cold, formal and pedantic manner that the wonder is that Lowell should have published it. After that the style suddenly changes and the Doctor becomes himself. It is like a convention call which ends in a sympathetic conversation.

Doctor Holmes’s humor permeates every sentence that he wrote. Even in his most serious moods we meet with it in a peculiar phrase, or the use of some exceptional word.

Now and then his wit is very brilliant, lighting up its surroundings like the sudden appearance of a meteor. The essence of humor consists in a contrast which places the object or person compared at a disadvantage. If the contrast is a dignified one we have high comedy; but if the reverse, low comedy. Some of Holmes’s comparisons make the reader laugh out aloud. He says that a tedious preacher or lecturer, with an alert listener in the audience, resembles a crow followed by a king-bird,—a spectacle which of itself is enough to make one smile; and as for an elevated comparison, what could be more so, unless we were to seek one in the moon. There is a threefold wit in it; but the full force of this can only be appreciated in the original text.

Nature commonly sets her own stamp on the face of a humorist. The long pointed nose of Cervantes is indicative of immeasurable fun, and there have been many similar noses on the faces of less distinguished wits. Doctor Holmes ridiculed phrenology as an attempt to estimate the money in a safe by the knobs on the outside, but he evidently was a believer in physiognomy, and he exemplified this in his own case. His face had a comical expression from boyhood; its profile reminded one of those prehistoric images which Di Cesnola brought from Cyprus. As if he were conscious of this he asserted his dignity in a more decided manner than a man usually does who is confident of the respect of those about him. Thus he acquired a style of his own, different from that of any other person in Boston. He was not a man to be treated with disrespect or undue familiarity.

A medical student named Holyoke once had occasion to call on him, and as soon as he had introduced himself Doctor Holmes said: “There, me friend, stand there and let me take an observation of you.” He then fetched an old book from his library which contained a portrait of Holyoke’s grandfather, who had also been a physician. He compared the two faces, saying: “Forehead much the same; nose not so full; mouth rather more feminine; chin not quite so strong; but on the whole a very good likeness, and I have no doubt you will make an excellent doctor.” After Holyoke had explained his business Doctor Holmes finally said: “I liked your grandfather, and shall always be glad to see you here.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was class poet of 1861, an honor which pleased his father very much. Immediately after graduating he went to the war, and came near losing his life at the battle of Antietam. A rifle- ball passed through both lungs, and narrowly missed his heart. Alexander Hamilton died of exactly such a wound in seven hours; and yet in three days Captain Holmes was able to write to his father. The Doctor started at once for the seat of war, and met with quite a series of small adventures which he afterwards described in a felicitous article in the Atlantic, called “My Hunt after the Captain.” His friend, Dr. Henry P. Bowditch, lost his son in the same battle, and when they met at the railway depot Holmes said: “I would give my house to have your fortune like mine.”

In a letter to Motley dated February 3, 1862, he says:

“I was at a dinner at Parker’s the other day where Governor Andrew and Emerson, and various unknown dingy-linened friends of progress met to hear Mr. Conway, the not unfamous Unitarian minister of Washington,— Virginia-born, with seventeen secesh cousins, fathers, and other relatives,—tell of his late experience at the seat of Government. He is an out-and-out immediate emancipationist,—believes that is the only way to break the strength of the South; that the black man is the life of the South; that they dread work above all things, and cling to the slave as the drudge that makes life tolerable to them. I do not know if his opinion is worth much.”

This was a meeting of the Bird Club which Doctor Holmes attended and the dingy-linened friends of progress were such men as Dr. Samuel G. Howe, Governor Washburn, Governor Claflin, Dr. Estes Howe, and Frank B. Sanborn. It has always been a trick of fashionable society, a trick as old as the age of Pericles, to disparage liberalism by accusing it of vulgarity; but we regret to find Doctor Holmes falling into line in this particular. He always speaks of Sumner in his letters with something like a slur—not to Motley, for Motley was Sumner’s friend, but to others who might be more sympathetic. This did not, however, prevent him from going to Sumner in 1868 to ask a favor for his second son, who wanted to be private secretary to the Senator and learn something of foreign affairs. Sumner granted the request, although he must have been aware that the Doctor was not over-friendly to him; but it proved an unfortunate circumstance for Edward J. Holmes, who contracted malaria in Washington, and this finally resulted in an early death.

Why is it that members of the medical profession should take an exceptional interest in poisonous reptiles? Professor Reichert and Dr. S. Weir Mitchell spent a large portion of their leisure hours for several years in experimenting with the virus of rattlesnakes, and of the Gila monster, without, however, quite exhausting the subject. Doctor Holmes kept a rattlesnake in a cage for a pet, and was accustomed to stir it up with an ox-goad. A New York doctor lost his life by fooling with a poisonous snake, and another in Liverpool frightened a whole congregation of scientists with two torpid rattlesnakes which suddenly came to life on the president’s table. Does it arise from their custom of dealing with deadly poisons, or is it because they officiate as the high priests of mortality?

Doctor Holmes’s “Elsie Venner” was one of the offshoots of this peculiar medical interest, and when we think of it in that light the story seems natural enough. The idea of a snaky woman is as old as the fable of Medusa. I read the novel when I was fifteen, and it made as decided an impression on me as “Ivanhoe” or “Pickwick.” I remember especially a proverbial saying of the old doctor who serves as the presiding genius of the plot: he knew “the kind of people who are never sick but what they are going to die, and the other kind who never know they are sick until they are dead.” If Doctor Holmes had taken this as his text, and written a novel on those lines, he might have created a work of far-reaching importance. He appears to have known very little concerning poisonous reptiles; had never heard of the terrible fer-de-lance, which infests the cane-swamps of Brazil—a snake ten feet in length which strikes without warning and straight as a fencer’s thrust. But “Elsie Venner” and Holmes’s second novel, “The Guardian Angel,” are, to use Lowell’s expression on a different subject:

  “As full of wit, gumption and good Yankee sense,
  As there are mosses on an old stone fence.”

In the autumn of 1865 some Harvard students, radically inclined, obtained possession of a religious society in the college called the Christian Union, revolutionized it and changed its name to the Liberal Fraternity. They then invited Emerson, Henry James, Sr., Doctor Holmes, and Colonel Higginson to deliver lectures in Cambridge under their auspices. This was a pretty bold stroke, but Holmes evidently liked it. He said to the committee that waited upon him: “What is your rank and file? How deep do you go down into the class?” He also promised to lecture, and that he did not was more the fault of the students than his own. He was by no means a radical in religious matters, but he hated small sectarian differences— the substitution of dogma for true religious feeling. In his poem at the grand Harvard celebration in 1886 he made a special point of this principle:

  “For nothing burns with such amazing speed
  As the dry sticks of a religious creed.”

Creeds are necessary, however, and an enlightened education teaches us not to value them above their true worth.

In 1867 Doctor Holmes published a volume of poetry which was generally well received, but was criticised in the Nation with needless and unmerciful severity. Rev. Edward Everett Hale and other friends of his had already been attacked in the same periodical, and the Doctor thought he knew the man who did it; but whether he was right in his conjecture cannot be affirmed. There can be no doubt that these diatribes were written by a Harvard professor who owned a large interest in the Nation, and who was obliged to go to Europe the following year in order to escape the odium of an imprudent speech at a public dinner. In this critique Holmes’s poetry was summed up under the heading of “versified misfortunes"; and Holmes himself wrote to Mrs. Stowe that the object of the writer was evidently “to injure at any rate, and to wound if possible.”

It was certainly contemptible to treat a man like Doctor Holmes in this manner,—one so universally kind to others, and whose work was always, at least, above mediocrity. He behaved in a dignified manner in regard to it, and he made no attempt at self-justification, although the wound was evidently long in healing. What recourse has a man who places himself before the public against the envenomed shafts of an invisible adversary? Of this at least we may be satisfied, that whatever is extravagant and overwrought always brings its own reaction in due course; and Doctor Holmes’s reputation does not appear to have suffered permanently from this attack. The general public, especially the republic of womankind, forms its own opinion, and pays slight attention to literary criticisms of that description.

Holmes’s poetry rarely rises to eloquence, but neither does it descend to sentimentality. It resembles the man’s own life, in which there were no bold endeavors, great feats, or desperate struggles; but it was a life so judicious, healthful and highly intellectual that we cannot help admiring it. “Dorothy Q.” is perhaps the best of his short poems, as it is the most widely known. The name itself is slightly humorous, but it is a perfect work of art, and the line,

  “Soft and low is a maiden’s ’Yes,’”

has the beautiful hush of a sanctuary in it. A finer verse could not be written. Also for a comic piece nothing equal to “The Wonderful One-hoss Shay” has appeared since Burns’s “Tam O’Shanter.” It is based on a logical illusion which brings it down to recent times, and the gravity with which the story is narrated makes its impossibility all the more amusing. The building of the chaise is described with a practical accuracy of detail, and yet with a poetical turn to every verse:

  “The hubs of logs from the ’Settler’s ellum’,—
  Last of its timber,—they couldn’t sell ’em;
  Never an axe had seen their chips,
  And the wedges flew from between their lips,
  Their blunt ends frizzled like celery-tips";

I believe that even cultivated readers have found more real satisfaction in the “One-Hoss Shay” than in many a more celebrated lyric.

Doctor Holmes lived amid a comparatively narrow circle of friends and acquaintances. He attended the Saturday Club, but Lowell appears to have been the only member of it with whom he was on confidential terms. He was rarely seen or heard of in Longfellow’s house. In the winter of 1878 he met Mrs. L. Maria Child for the first time at the Chestnut Street Club. It appears that she did not catch his name when he was introduced to her, and stranger still did not recognize his face. When the Doctor inquired concerning her literary occupation she replied that she considered herself too old to drive a quill any longer, and then fortunately added: “Now, there is Doctor Holmes, I think he shows his customary good judgment in retiring from the literary field in proper season.” What the Doctor thought of this is unknown, but he still continued to write.

At the age of seventy his alma mater conferred on Doctor Holmes an LL.D., and this was followed soon afterwards by Oxford and Cambridge, in England; but why was it not given ten or fifteen years earlier, when Holmes was in his prime? Then it might have been a service and a satisfaction to him; but when a man is seventy such tributes have small value for him. There had been an Atlantic breakfast for Doctor Holmes in Boston, and a Holmes breakfast in New York. He was in the public eye, and by honoring him the University honored itself. So Harvard conferred an LL.D. on General Winfield Scott just before the fatal battle of Bull Run,—instead of after his brilliant Mexican campaign. If the degree was not conferred on Holmes for his literary work, what reason could be assigned for it; and if he deserved it on that account, Emerson and Hawthorne certainly deserved it much more. Let us be thankful that no such mischief was contemplated. If honorary degrees are to be given in order to attract attention to a university, or worse still, for the purpose of obtaining legacies, they had better be abolished altogether.

During his last visit to England Doctor Holmes was the guest of F. Max Muller at Oxford, and years afterwards Professor Muller wrote to an American correspondent concerning him and others:

“Froude was a dear friend of mine, related to my wife; so was Kingsley— dear soul. Renan used to fetch books for me when we first met at the Bibliothique Royale. Emerson stayed at my house on his last visit here. But the best of all my American friends was Wendell Holmes. When he left us he said, ’I have talked to thousands of people—you are the only one with whom I have had a conversation.’ We had talked about [Greek: ta megisthta]—the world as the logos, as the thought of God. What a pure soul his was—a real Serene Highness.”

This is trancendentalism from the fountainhead; and here Doctor Holmes may fairly be said to have avenged himself on the Nation’s excoriating critic.


Preface  •  The Close of the War  •  Francis J. Child  •  Longfellow  •  Lowell  •  Cranch  •  T. G. Appleton  •  The Whip of the Sky  •  Pompeii  •  Doctor Holmes  •  Frank W. Bird, and the Bird Club  •  Sumner  •  Chevalier Howe  •  The War Governor  •  The Colored Regiments  •  Emerson’s Tribute to George L. Stearns  •  Elizur Wright  •  Dr. W. T. G. Morton  •  William T. G. Morton  •  Leaves From a Roman Diary  •  My Last Visit to the Longfellows  •  Centennial Contributions  •  The Emerson Centennial  •  The Hawthorne Centennial  •  Hawthorne and Hamlet

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