Bad Man from Olympus

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: Law and the Inner Self

by G. Edward White
Oxford University Press, 628 pp., $37.50

The Collected Works of Justice Holmes: Complete Public Writings and Selected Judicial Opinions of Oliver Wendell Holmes

edited by Sheldon M. Novick
University of Chicago Press, three volumes: 1398 pp., $175.00

The Essential Holmes: Selections from the Letters, Speeches, Judicial Opinions, and Other Writings of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

edited and with an introduction by Richard A. Posner
University of Chicago Press, 342 pp., $24.95

Oliver Holmes
Oliver Holmes; drawing by David Levine

As a child, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841-1935), heard his grandmother tell of seeing British troops leave Boston during the Revolution, and today men who were his law clerks are still alive. The son of one of the most famous American writers, he grew up reading Emerson’s essays right off the press and late in life commented on T.S. Eliot, Proust, and Hemingway. In his twenties he fought in the Civil War, in his thirties he wrote perhaps the most important American book on law, in his sixties he was chief justice of Massachusetts, and he served on the United States Supreme Court into the Great Depression.

Holmes was a particularly striking figure in old age, tall and erect, with a full head of white hair, huge moustaches, craggy features, and piercing blue eyes. His appearance and the historical fascination of his heritage and his long life, when added to his impressive accomplishments, made him legendary before he died. “The great overlord of the law and its philosophy,” said Benjamin Cardozo on Holmes’s ninetieth birthday, “the greatest of our age in the domain of jurisprudence and one of the greatest of the ages.” Walter Lippmann wrote that he “wore his wisdom like a gorgeous plume,” and Felix Frankfurter added that his writings belonged in “the slender volume of the literature of all time.” A journalist called him “a Yankee, strayed from Olympus,” and the phrase caught on.1 President Franklin Roosevelt called at his house for his ninety-second birthday, and stood in the rain by his graveside when he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

The Holmes legend was partly an accident, but his influence has endured, and the meaning and value of his life and work are still debated. G. Edward White’s is only the latest of four biographies published in the last six years.2 One of the most important contemporary American jurists, Judge Richard Posner, has edited a new anthology of his work, and introduced it with an essay that shows intimate knowledge of its subject. Now Sheldon Novick’s new scholarly edition of Holmes’s nonjudicial writings has arrived. We might call this a revival, except that fascination with Holmes has never waned.

One reason is that he is so revisable. Thus the late Grant Gilmore, for a time Holmes’s authorized biographer, attacked the “myth” that portrayed him as “the tolerant aristocrat, the great liberal, the eloquent defender of our liberties, the Yankee from Olympus.” The real Holmes, he said, was “savage, harsh, and cruel”—but as such “a greater man and a more profound thinker than the mythical Holmes ever was.”3

Gilmore’s wicked Holmes is to American law as Satan is to Paradise Lost, the most memorable character in the story. Yet just as Milton encouraged readers who would claim Satan as not only the starring villain but the secret hero of his epic, history leaves a…

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