Thursday, August 1, 2013
August 1, 2013: American Families: The Holmes
[As we head into a month of AmericanStudier birthdays—my own, my Dad’s, my sister’s—a series on interesting, multi-generational American families. Add your family histories and stories, public and personal, please!]
On two very different models for impressive American lives—and what they share.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., was the quintessential 19th century American Renaissance Man. The scion of a prominent New England family that traced its ancestry back to Anne Bradstreet, Holmes was trained in the burgeoning new field of medicine, studying both in Paris and at Harvard Medical School; he went on a long and productive career as a physician, medical school educator, and medical reformer. Yet throughout those same decades Holmes was establishing a well-deserved reputation as one of America’s foremost poets and essayists, as well as a preeminent supporter of the arts in a young nation that still needed such vocal advocacy. As a leading figure in two such seemingly separate and even opposed fields, Holmes Sr. proved that neither identity nor inspiration can be pigeon-holed.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in contrast, devoted nearly his entire adult life to a single profession, the law. After a defining early experience as a Union officer during the Civil War, Holmes returned to Massachusetts, finished his Harvard education and passed the bar, and settled into that lifelong legal career, including extended stints as a lawyer, an editor and author, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, and, finally and most famously, three decades on the U.S. Supreme Court. And Holmes’ legal career was defined not simply by longevity, but by influence: his theories of legal realism and of the law as an experiential, evolving organism profoundly impacted American society and culture. As one of America’s most prominent legal minds, Holmes Jr. proved that dedicating a life to one profession can produce an unparalleled legacy both within and beyond that sphere.
Despite these very different trajectories, however, I would argue that father and son share more than just a name, and would emphasize one particularly significant shared trait. Throughout their lives, each man turned again and again to writing—not only as a literary pursuit (as was the case with Sr.’s poetry), but as a crucial vehicle through which to advance their professional goals and ideas. Holmes Jr.’s Collected Works, published in the 1990s by the University of Chicago Press, span three volumes and nearly 1500 pages; Holmes Sr. published, in addition to his many volumes of poetry, five collections of essays, three novels, three biographies, and countless journalistic pieces and medical studies. Which proves that however we achieve American greatness, writing is likely to be found at the core of it.
Next family tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Family histories or stories you’d highlight, American or yours?