Songs in Many Keys, 1862
Songs of Many Seasons, 1875
The Iron Gate, and Other Poems, 1880
Before the Curfew, and Other Poems, 1888
Elsie Venner, 1861
The Guardian Angel, 1867
A Mortal Antipathy, 1885
The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, 1858
The Professor at the Breakfast-Table, 1860
The Poet at the Breakfast-Table, 1872
John Lothrop Motley, 1879
Medical Essays, 1842-1882, 1883
Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1885
Our Hundred Days in Europe, 1887
Over the Teacups, 1891
Oliver Wendell Holmes (hohmz), the last of the great literary Brahmins of the nineteenth century, was in every way a true member of that class that he described in his novel Elsie Venner as “this . . . harmless, inoffensive untitled aristocracy” whose qualities of intellectual leadership “are congenital and hereditary.” He could list among his ancestors on his mother’s side the Phillipses, the Wendells, the Quincys, the Hancocks, and even Anne Bradstreet; his father, the Reverend Abiel Holmes, was descended from a long line of Calvinistic Connecticut divines. His son, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was for thirty years associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Oliver Wendell Holmes
If versatility can be considered a Brahmin trait, Holmes possessed that, too. He came to be best remembered as the humorous essayist who wrote The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table and as the author of such light verse as “The Deacon’s Masterpiece: Or, The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay” and of philosophical lyrics such as “The Chambered Nautilus.” His versatility was not limited to his writing but can also be seen in his life. He was, at various times, a practicing physician, a professor of anatomy at Dartmouth and at Harvard Universities, dean of the Harvard Medical School, and a lecturer of note on subjects of science and literature.
He was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his father was minister of the First Congregational Church. He was educated at Harvard and graduated in the class of 1829. He next attended law school, the only result of which was twenty poems, including the much-quoted “Old Ironsides.” Medicine seemed more congenial to him than law, and he changed his studies accordingly and completed his degree in 1833. After a Grand Tour of Europe and a year’s medical training in Paris, he began his professional practice in Boston.
Because he was more the theorist than the practitioner, and because the personality that made him the great humorist was not one that inspired the confidence of patients, it was perhaps natural that he should turn to the academic side of his profession. He accepted the professorship of anatomy and physiology at Dartmouth, and in 1840 he returned to Boston to marry Amelia Lee Jackson and to take over a similar post at Harvard Medical School.
Once settled in Boston, he began, with his lectures and his contributions to the famous Saturday Club, to establish a reputation as a poet and a wit. The reputation was local at first, but by 1857, when James Russell Lowell became editor of The Atlantic Monthly, Holmes won national fame as the author of the series of essays The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, which ran in the magazine for two years. These were followed by The Professor at the Breakfast-Table and by The Poet at the Breakfast-Table in 1872. Finally, as an octogenarian, Holmes contributed yet another series, Over the Teacups, which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1891, just three years before his death.
It was in these pieces that he demonstrated his greatest literary talent: the ability to write prose in a sprightly, conversational style that set a pattern for later magazine and newspaper humorist-columnists. The sharp and penetrating form of Holmes’s essays lacks the sentimentality of his own period and harkens back to the satire of Augustan England. It was in these pieces, too, that much of his liveliest verse appears. “The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay” and the cleverly altered “Come! fill a fresh bumper” are both from The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table.
His writings were not confined to The Atlantic Monthly, nor was his wit confined to his writings. Besides his work as a humorist, he wrote novels–though these were comparatively unsuccessful–clever but ephemeral occasional verse, biographies, and a number of respected scientific discourses. Besides the humor of his printed works is the legendary humor of his many lectures, in public and in the university classroom. Except for a trip abroad in 1886 (from which came his book Our Hundred Days in Europe), he remained in Boston until his death there on October 7, 1894.