The New Republic

Honorable Justice: the Life of Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Honorable Justice: The Life of Oliver Wendell Holmes

Why did America's greatest jurist have to wait more than a half century after his death for a complete life? Sheldon M. Novick's answer is the readiest one, that the men who successively had access to his letters and papers proved too busy (Felix Frankfurter) or died midway in the task (Mark De Wolfe Howe) or were discouraged and gave up (Grant Gilmore). Consider an added answer: that the biographer who grapples with so far-reaching and influential a life must himself emerge from the afterlife of his subject's reputation.

Oliver Wendell Holmes resigned from the Supreme Court in 1932 and died in 1935. From the forties well into the seventies, the climate of the law schools that guard the remembrance of jurists past grew steadily more hostile to Holmes; and only in the late seventies and early eighties did new influences emerge in the legal culture that affected a change of attitude. Novick's Honorable Justice, homage without irony up front in the title, is the first result. Several other lives, long in preparation, are on their way. The "Grand Panjandrum," as one of his law clerks called him, had a confident notion of his destiny.

The two-volume unfinished biography by Mark Howe, which Novick has put to good use, stopped short of his judicial career, at forty-one. For the remaining fifty-three years, the harvest of the early sowing, Novick was on his own, with no Holmes canon to guide his scale, selection, interpretation. Where Howe was fascinated by the development of Holme's mind, tracing his reading and thinking in their first creative phase, Novick's is the first full biography, keeping the personal Holmes in view, forgoing any intellectual excursions that might lose him. The book's strength lies in its fast-paced vividness of narrative and its steadiness of belief in the wholeness and stature of Holmes as a man.

The Holmes we come to know from Novick is an unreconstructed aristocrat, a conservative in politics and economics, a gentleman of the old school in persona and lifestyle (though not without a racy, even sensual streak) who lived out his dream on a grand scale and transformed legal and constitutional thought. By birth, breeding, and brilliance a member of New England's intellectual aristocracy, Holmes early mapped out a trajectory for himself. William James chose medicine and (later) psychology, his brother Henry chose literature, Henry and Brooks Adams chose history, and Holmes chose the law. In time he turned law into history, psychology, and literature as well. They formed a close elite that attended the same schools, discussed the same new doctrines from Europe, and "walked out" with the same young women. There was no lonely alien among them to intrude his upwardly-mobile dreams and drives into their universe.

There was an element of Puritan ice in that blue blood of a democratic caste. …

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