Authors: Oliver Wendell Holmes

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet and essayist

Author Works


Poems, 1836

Songs in Many Keys, 1862

Songs of Many Seasons, 1875

The Iron Gate, and Other Poems, 1880

Before the Curfew, and Other Poems, 1888

Long Fiction:

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.{$I[AN]9810000554}{$I[A]Holmes, Oliver Wendell}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Holmes, Oliver Wendell}{$I[tim]1809;Holmes, Oliver Wendell}

Oliver Wendell Holmes

(Library of Congress)

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.

BibliographyBroaddus, Dorothy C. Genteel Rhetoric: Writing High Culture in Nineteenth-Century Boston. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999. A historical survey of rhetoric in nineteenth century Boston: how it was taught and its use in the promotion of culture and intellectual argument. The rhetorical technique of Oliver Wendell Holmes is discussed along with those of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, James Russell Lowell, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Includes bibliographical references and index.Carter, Everett. “The Typicality of Oliver Wendell Holmes.” In Themes and Directions in American Literature: Essays in Honor of Leon Howard, edited by Ray B. Browne and Donald Pizer. Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Studies, 1969. Carter’s premise is that Holmes’s work should be examined not in a search for literary originality and uniqueness but using an approach that recognizes his literary virtues as typicality and representativeness of his culture. Holmes’s work, though currently unfashionable, Carter says, embodies the conventional beliefs of his times and was given form by these beliefs. Includes notes and bibliographic references.Howe, M. A. De Wolfe. Holmes of the Breakfast Table. 1939. Reprint. Mamaroneck, N.Y.: P. P. Appel, 1972. Illustrated biographical study divides Holmes’s life into four periods. Each chapter uses his poetry in part to help describe his endeavors and illuminate his life. Contains an index.Hoyt, Edwin Palmer. The Improper Bostonian: Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. New York: William Morrow, 1979. This definitive biography is thorough and well researched, with generous notes on each chapter. Chapters are short, well focused, and readable. Holmes as a literary figure is studied primarily in chapters 16 to 20, which quote a number of poems. Includes illustrations and a good index.Small, Miriam Rossiter. Oliver Wendell Holmes. New York: Twayne, 1962. Examines Holmes’s work in three groups: the Breakfast-Table series, the novels, and the poems for Harvard occasions. Biocritical study follows a chronology established by the autobiographical echoes in his prose and poetry. In addition to six chapters, the book includes a chronology, references and notes, select bibliography, and index.Sullivan, Wilson. New England Men of Letters. New York: Macmillan, 1972. By showing how their lives resulted in their work, Sullivan hopes to bring his ten subjects alive for a contemporary audience. The problems that they explored in their work–social, philosophical, moral, religious–are explored for their relevance to current readers. The short chapter on Holmes uses his poetry to enliven an overview of his life and accomplishments.White, G. Edward. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: The Law and the Inner Self. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
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