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´╗┐Title: Oliver Wendell Holmes (from Literary Friends and Acquaintance)
Author: Howells, William Dean, 1837-1920
Language: English
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by William Dean Howells


Elsewhere we literary folk are apt to be such a common lot, with
tendencies here and there to be a shabby lot; we arrive from all sorts of
unexpected holes and corners of the earth, remote, obscure; and at the
best we do so often come up out of the ground; but at Boston we were of
ascertained and noted origin, and good part of us dropped from the skies.
Instead of holding horses before the doors of theatres; or capping verses
at the plough-tail; or tramping over Europe with nothing but a flute in
the pocket; or walking up to the metropolis with no luggage but the MS.
of a tragedy; or sleeping in doorways or under the arches of bridges; or
serving as apothecaries' 'prentices--we were good society from the
beginning. I think this was none the worse for us, and it was vastly the
better for good society.

Literature in Boston, indeed, was so respectable, and often of so high a
lineage, that to be a poet was not only to be good society, but almost to
be good family. If one names over the men who gave Boston her supremacy
in literature during that Unitarian harvest-time of the old Puritanic
seed-time which was her Augustan age, one names the people who were and
who had been socially first in the city ever since the self-exile of the
Tories at the time of the Revolution. To say Prescott, Motley, Parkman,
Lowell, Norton, Higginson, Dana, Emerson, Channing, was to say patrician,
in the truest and often the best sense, if not the largest. Boston was
small, but these were of her first citizens, and their primacy, in its
way, was of the same quality as that, say, of the chief families of
Venice. But these names can never have the effect for the stranger that
they had for one to the manner born. I say had, for I doubt whether in
Boston they still mean all that they once meant, and that their
equivalents meant in science, in law, in politics. The most famous, if
not the greatest of all the literary men of Boston, I have not mentioned
with them, for Longfellow was not of the place, though by his sympathies
and relations he became of it; and I have not mentioned Oliver Wendell
Holmes, because I think his name would come first into the reader's
thought with the suggestion of social quality in the humanities.

Holmes was of the Brahminical caste which his humorous recognition
invited from its subjectivity in the New England consciousness into the
light where all could know it and own it, and like Longfellow he was
allied to the patriciate of Boston by the most intimate ties of life. For
a long time, for the whole first period of his work, he stood for that
alone, its tastes, its prejudices, its foibles even, and when he came to
stand in his 'second period, for vastly, for infinitely more, and to make
friends with the whole race, as few men have ever done, it was always, I
think, with a secret shiver of doubt, a backward look of longing, and an
eye askance. He was himself perfectly aware of this at times, and would
mark his several misgivings with a humorous sense of the situation. He
was essentially too kind to be of a narrow world, too human to be finally
of less than humanity, too gentle to be of the finest gentility. But
such limitations as he had were in the direction I have hinted, or
perhaps more than hinted; and I am by no means ready to make a mock of
them, as it would be so easy to do for some reasons that he has himself
suggested. To value aright the affection which the old Bostonian had for
Boston one must conceive of something like the patriotism of men in the
times when a man's city was a man's country, something Athenian,
something Florentine. The war that nationalized us liberated this love
to the whole country, but its first tenderness remained still for Boston,
and I suppose a Bostonian still thinks of himself first as a Bostonian
and then as an American, in a way that no New-Yorker could deal with
himself. The rich historical background dignifies and ennobles the
intense public spirit of the place, and gives it a kind of personality.


In literature Doctor Holmes survived all the Bostonians who had given the
city her primacy in letters, but when I first knew him there was no
apparent ground for questioning it. I do not mean now the time when I
visited New England, but when I came to live near Boston, and to begin
the many happy years which I spent in her fine, intellectual air. I found
time to run in upon him, while I was there arranging to take my place on
the Atlantic Monthly, and I remember that in this brief moment with him
he brought me to book about some vaunting paragraph in the 'Nation'
claiming the literary primacy for New York. He asked me if I knew who
wrote it, and I was obliged to own that I had written it myself, when
with the kindness he always showed me he protested against my position.
To tell the truth, I do not think now I had any very good reasons for it,
and I certainly could urge none that would stand against his. I could
only fall back upon the saving clause that this primacy was claimed
mainly if not wholly for New York in the future. He was willing to leave
me the connotations of prophecy, but I think he did even this out of
politeness rather than conviction, and I believe he had always a
sensitiveness where Boston was concerned, which could not seem ungenerous
to any generous mind. Whatever lingering doubt of me he may have had,
with reference to Boston, seemed to satisfy itself when several years
afterwards he happened to speak of a certain character in an early novel
of mine, who was not quite the kind of Bostonian one could wish to be.
The thing came up in talk with another person, who had referred to my
Bostonian, and the doctor had apparently made his acquaintance in the
book, and not liked him. "I understood, of course," he said, "that he
was a Bostonian, not the Bostonian," and I could truthfully answer that
this was by all means my own understanding too.

His fondness for his city, which no one could appreciate better than
myself, I hope, often found expression in a burlesque excess in his
writings, and in his talk perhaps oftener still. Hard upon my return
from Venice I had a half-hour with him in his old study on Charles
Street, where he still lived in 1865, and while I was there a young man
came in for the doctor's help as a physician, though he looked so very
well, and was so lively and cheerful, that I have since had my doubts
whether he had not made a pretext for a glimpse of him as the Autocrat.
The doctor took him upon his word, however, and said he had been so long
out of practice that he could not do anything for him, but he gave him
the address of another physician, somewhere near Washington Street. "And
if you don't know where Washington Street is," he said, with a gay burst
at a certain vagueness which had come into the young man's face, "you
don't know anything."

We had been talking of Venice, and what life was like there, and he made
me tell him in some detail. He was especially interested in what I had
to say of the minute subdivision and distribution of the necessaries, the
small coins, and the small values adapted to their purchase, the
intensely retail character, in fact, of household provisioning; and I
could see how he pleased himself in formulating the theory that the
higher a civilization the finer the apportionment of the demands and
supplies. The ideal, he said, was a civilization in which you could buy
two cents' worth of beef, and a divergence from this standard was towards

The secret of the man who is universally interesting is that he is
universally interested, and this was, above all, the secret of the charm
that Doctor Holmes had for every one. No doubt he knew it, for what that
most alert intelligence did not know of itself was scarcely worth
knowing. This knowledge was one of his chief pleasures, I fancy; he
rejoiced in the consciousness which is one of the highest attributes of
the highly organized man, and he did not care for the consequences in
your mind, if you were so stupid as not to take him aright. I remember
the delight Henry James, the father of the novelist, had in reporting to
me the frankness of the doctor, when he had said to him, "Holmes, you are
intellectually the most alive man I ever knew." "I am, I am," said the
doctor. "From the crown of my head to the sole of my foot, I'm alive,
I'm alive!" Any one who ever saw him will imagine the vivid relish he
had in recognizing the fact. He could not be with you a moment without
shedding upon you the light of his flashing wit, his radiant humor, and
he shone equally upon the rich and poor in mind. His gaiety of heart
could not withhold itself from any chance of response, but he did wish
always to be fully understood, and to be liked by those he liked. He
gave his liking cautiously, though, for the affluence of his sympathies
left him without the reserves of colder natures, and he had to make up
for these with careful circumspection. He wished to know the character
of the person who made overtures to his acquaintance, for he was aware
that his friendship lay close to it; he wanted to be sure that he was a
nice person, and though I think he preferred social quality in his
fellow-man, he did not refuse himself to those who had merely a sweet and
wholesome humanity. He did not like anything that tasted or smelt of
Bohemianism in the personnel of literature, but he did not mind the scent
of the new-ploughed earth, or even of the barn-yard. I recall his
telling me once that after two younger brothers-in-letters had called
upon him in the odor of an habitual beeriness and smokiness, he opened
the window; and the very last time I saw him he remembered at eighty-five
the offence he had found on his first visit to New York, when a
metropolitan poet had asked him to lunch in a basement restaurant.


He seemed not to mind, however, climbing to the little apartment we had
in Boston when we came there in 1866, and he made this call upon us in
due form, bringing Mrs. Holmes with him as if to accent the recognition
socially. We were then incredibly young, much younger than I find people
ever are nowadays, and in the consciousness of our youth we felt, to the
last exquisite value of the fact, what it was to have the Autocrat come
to see us; and I believe he was not displeased to perceive this; he liked
to know that you felt his quality in every way. That first winter,
however, I did not see him often, and in the spring we went to live in
Cambridge, and thereafter I met him chiefly at Longfellow's, or when I
came in to dine at the Fieldses', in Boston. It was at certain meetings
of the Dante Club, when Longfellow read aloud his translation for
criticism, and there was supper later, that one saw the doctor; and his
voice was heard at the supper rather than at the criticism, for he was no
Italianate. He always seemed to like a certain turn of the talk toward
the mystical, but with space for the feet on a firm ground of fact this
side of the shadows; when it came to going over among them, and laying
hold of them with the band of faith, as if they were substance, he was
not of the excursion. It is well known how fervent, I cannot say devout,
a spiritualist Longfellow's brother-in-law, Appleton, was; and when he
was at the table too, it took all the poet's delicate skill to keep him
and the Autocrat from involving themselves in a cataclysmal controversy
upon the matter of manifestations. With Doctor Holmes the inquiry was
inquiry, to the last, I believe, and the burden of proof was left to the
ghosts and their friends. His attitude was strictly scientific; he
denied nothing, but he expected the supernatural to be at least as
convincing as the natural.

There was a time in his history when the popular ignorance classed him
with those who were once rudely called infidels; but the world has since
gone so fast and so far that the mind he was of concerning religious
belief would now be thought religious by a good half of the religious
world. It is true that he had and always kept a grudge against the
ancestral Calvinism which afflicted his youth; and he was through all
rises and lapses of opinion essentially Unitarian; but of the honest
belief of any one, I am sure he never felt or spoke otherwise than most
tolerantly, most tenderly. As often as he spoke of religion, and his
talk tended to it very often, I never heard an irreligious word from him,
far less a scoff or sneer at religion; and I am certain that this was not
merely because he would have thought it bad taste, though undoubtedly he
would have thought it bad taste; I think it annoyed, it hurt him, to be
counted among the iconoclasts, and he would have been profoundly grieved
if he could have known how widely this false notion of him once
prevailed. It can do no harm at this late day to impart from the secrets
of the publishing house the fact that a supposed infidelity in the tone
of his story The Guardian Angel cost the Atlantic Monthly many
subscribers. Now the tone of that story would not be thought even mildly
agnostic, I fancy; and long before his death the author had outlived the
error concerning him.

It was not the best of his stories, by any means, and it would not be too
harsh to say that it was the poorest. His novels all belonged to an
order of romance which was as distinctly his own as the form of
dramatized essay which he invented in the Autocrat. If he did not think
poorly of them, he certainly did not think too proudly, and I heard him
quote with relish the phrase of a lady who had spoken of them to him as
his "medicated novels." That, indeed, was perhaps what they were; a
faint, faint odor of the pharmacopoeia clung to their pages; their magic
was scientific. He knew this better than any one else, of course, and if
any one had said it in his turn he would hardly have minded it. But what
he did mind was the persistent misinterpretation of his intention in
certain quarters where he thought he had the right to respectful
criticism in stead of the succession of sneers that greeted the
successive numbers of his story; and it was no secret that he felt the
persecution keenly. Perhaps he thought that he had already reached that
time in his literary life when he was a fact rather than a question, and
when reasons and not feelings must have to do with his acceptance or
rejection. But he had to live many years yet before he reached this
state. When he did reach it, happily a good while before his death, I do
not believe any man ever enjoyed the like condition more. He loved to
feel himself out of the fight, with much work before him still, but with
nothing that could provoke ill-will in his activities. He loved at all
times to take himself objectively, if I may so express my sense of a
mental attitude that misled many. As I have said before, he was
universally interested, and he studied the universe from himself. I do
not know how one is to study it otherwise; the impersonal has really no
existence; but with all his subtlety and depth he was of a make so
simple, of a spirit so naive, that he could not practise the feints some
use to conceal that interest in self which, after all, every one knows is
only concealed. He frankly and joyously made himself the starting-point
in all his inquest of the hearts and minds of other men, but so far from
singling himself out in this, and standing apart in it, there never was
any one who was more eagerly and gladly your fellow-being in the things
of the soul.


In the things of the world, he had fences, and looked at some people
through palings and even over the broken bottles on the tops of walls;
and I think he was the loser by this, as well as they. But then I think
all fences are bad, and that God has made enough differences between men;
we need not trouble ourselves to multiply them. Even behind his fences,
however, Holmes had a heart kind for the outsiders, and I do not believe
any one came into personal relations with him who did not experience this
kindness. In that long and delightful talk I had with him on my return
from Venice (I can praise the talk because it was mainly his), we spoke
of the status of domestics in the Old World, and how fraternal the
relation of high and low was in Italy, while in England, between master
and man, it seemed without acknowledgment of their common humanity.
"Yes," he said, "I always felt as if English servants expected to be
trampled on; but I can't do that. If they want to be trampled on, they
must get some one else." He thought that our American way was infinitely
better; and I believe that in spite of the fences there was always an
instinctive impulse with him to get upon common ground with his
fellow-man. I used to notice in the neighborhood cabman who served our
block on Beacon Street a sort of affectionate reverence for the Autocrat,
which could have come from nothing but the kindly terms between them; if
you went to him when he was engaged to Doctor Holmes, he told you so with
a sort of implication in his manner that the thought of anything else for
the time was profanation. The good fellow who took him his drives about
the Beverly and Manchester shores seemed to be quite in the joke of the
doctor's humor, and within the bounds of his personal modesty and his
functional dignity permitted himself a smile at the doctor's sallies,
when you stood talking with him, or listening to him at the

The civic and social circumstance that a man values himself on is
commonly no part of his value, and certainly no part of his greatness.
Rather, it is the very thing that limits him, and I think that Doctor
Holmes appeared in the full measure of his generous personality to those
who did not and could not appreciate his circumstance, and not to those
who formed it, and who from life-long association were so dear and
comfortable to him. Those who best knew how great a man he was were
those who came from far to pay him their duty, or to thank him for some
help they had got from his books, or to ask his counsel or seek his
sympathy. With all such he was most winningly tender, most intelligently
patient. I suppose no great author was ever more visited by letter and
in person than he, or kept a faithfuler conscience for his guests. With
those who appeared to him in the flesh he used a miraculous tact, and I
fancy in his treatment of all the physician native in him bore a
characteristic part. No one seemed to be denied access to him, but it
was after a moment of preparation that one was admitted, and any one who
was at all sensitive must have felt from the first moment in his presence
that there could be no trespassing in point of time. If now and then
some insensitive began to trespass, there was a sliding-scale of
dismissal that never failed of its work, and that really saved the author
from the effect of intrusion. He was not bored because he would not be.

I transfer at random the impressions of many years to my page, and I
shall not try to observe a chronological order in these memories. Vivid
among them is that of a visit which I paid him with Osgood the publisher,
then newly the owner of the Atlantic Monthly, when I had newly become the
sole editor. We wished to signalize our accession to the control of the
magazine by a stroke that should tell most in the public eye, and we
thought of asking Doctor Holmes to do something again in the manner of
the Autocrat and the Professor at the Breakfast Table. Some letters had
passed between him and the management concerning our wish, and then
Osgood thought that it would be right and fit for us to go to him in
person. He proposed the visit, and Doctor Holmes received us with a mind
in which he had evidently formulated all his thoughts upon the matter.
His main question was whether at his age of sixty years a man was
justified in seeking to recall a public of the past, or to create a new
public in the present. He seemed to have looked the ground over not only
with a personal interest in the question, but with a keen scientific zest
for it as something which it was delightful to consider in its generic
relations; and I fancy that the pleasure of this inquiry more than
consoled him for such pangs of misgiving as he must have had in the
personal question. As commonly happens in the solution of such problems,
it was not solved; he was very willing to take our minds upon it, and to
incur the risk, if we thought it well and were willing to share it.

We came away rejoicing, and the new series began with the new year
following. It was by no means the popular success that we had hoped; not
because the author had not a thousand new things to say, or failed to say
them with the gust and freshness of his immortal youth, but because it
was not well to disturb a form associated in the public mind with an
achievement which had become classic. It is of the Autocrat of the
Breakfast Table that people think, when they think of the peculiar
species of dramatic essay which the author invented, and they think also
of the Professor at the Breakfast Table, because he followed so soon; but
the Poet at the Breakfast Table came so long after that his advent
alienated rather than conciliated liking. Very likely, if the Poet had
come first he would have had no second place in the affections of his
readers, for his talk was full of delightful matter; and at least one of
the poems which graced each instalment was one of the finest and greatest
that Doctor Holmes ever wrote. I mean "Homesick in Heaven," which seems
to me not only what I have said, but one of the most important, the most
profoundly pathetic in the language. Indeed, I do not know any other
that in the same direction goes so far with suggestion so penetrating.
The other poems were mainly of a cast which did not win; the metaphysics
in them were too much for the human interest, and again there rose a
foolish clamor of the creeds against him on account of them. The great
talent, the beautiful and graceful fancy, the eager imagination of the
Autocrat could not avail in this third attempt, and I suppose the Poet at
the Breakfast Table must be confessed as near a failure as Doctor Holmes
could come. It certainly was so in the magazine which the brilliant
success of the first had availed to establish in the high place the
periodical must always hold in the history of American literature. Lowell
was never tired of saying, when he recurred to the first days of his
editorship, that the magazine could never have gone at all without the
Autocrat papers. He was proud of having insisted upon Holmes's doing
something for the new venture, and he was fond of recalling the author's
misgivings concerning his contributions, which later repeated themselves
with too much reason, though not with the reason that was in his own


He lived twenty-five years after that self-question at sixty, and after
eighty he continued to prove that threescore was not the limit of a man's
intellectual activity or literary charm. During all that time the work
he did in mere quantity was the work that a man in the prime of life
might well have been vain of doing, and it was of a quality not less
surprising. If I asked him with any sort of fair notice I could rely
upon him always for something for the January number, and throughout the
year I could count upon him for those occasional pieces in which he so
easily excelled all former writers of occasional verse, and which he
liked to keep from the newspapers for the magazine. He had a pride in
his promptness with copy, and you could always trust his promise. The
printer's toe never galled the author's kibe in his case; he wished to
have an early proof, which he corrected fastidiously, but not overmuch,
and he did not keep it long. He had really done all his work in the
manuscript, which came print-perfect and beautifully clear from his pen,
in that flowing, graceful hand which to the last kept a suggestion of the
pleasure he must have had in it. Like all wise contributors, he was not
only patient, but very glad of all the queries and challenges that
proof-reader and editor could accumulate on the margin of his proofs, and
when they were both altogether wrong he was still grateful. In one of
his poems there was some Latin-Quarter French, which our collective
purism questioned, and I remember how tender of us he was in maintaining
that in his Parisian time, at least, some ladies beyond the Seine said
"Eh, b'en," instead of "Eh, bien." He knew that we must be always on the
lookout for such little matters, and he would not wound our ignorance. I
do not think any one enjoyed praise more than he. Of course he would not
provoke it, but if it came of itself, he would not deny himself the
pleasure, as long as a relish of it remained. He used humorously to
recognize his delight in it, and to say of the lecture audiences which in
earlier times hesitated applause, "Why don't they give me three times
three? I can stand it!" He himself gave in the generous fulness he
desired. He did not praise foolishly or dishonestly, though he would
spare an open dislike; but when a thing pleased him he knew how to say so
cordially and skilfully, so that it might help as well as delight. I
suppose no great author has tried more sincerely and faithfully to
befriend the beginner than he; and from time to time he would commend
something to me that he thought worth looking at, but never insistently.
In certain cases, where he had simply to ease a burden, from his own to
the editorial shoulders, he would ask that the aspirant might be
delicately treated. There might be personal reasons for this, but
usually his kindness of heart moved him. His tastes had their
geographical limit, but his sympathies were boundless, and the hopeless
creature for whom he interceded was oftener remote from Boston and New
England than otherwise.

It seems to me that he had a nature singularly affectionate, and that it
was this which was at fault if he gave somewhat too much of himself to
the celebration of the Class of '29, and all the multitude of Boston
occasions, large and little, embalmed in the clear amber of his verse,
somewhat to the disadvantage of the amber. If he were asked he could not
deny the many friendships and fellowships which united in the asking; the
immediate reclame from these things was sweet to him; but he loved to
comply as much as he loved to be praised. In the pleasure he got he
could feel himself a prophet in his own country, but the country which
owned him prophet began perhaps to feel rather too much as if it owned
him, and did not prize his vaticinations at all their worth. Some polite
Bostonians knew him chiefly on this side, and judged him to their own
detriment from it.


After we went to live in Cambridge, my life and the delight in it were so
wholly there that in ten years I had hardly been in as many Boston
houses. As I have said, I met Doctor Holmes at the Fieldses', and at
Longfellow's, when he came out to a Dante supper, which was not often,
and somewhat later at the Saturday Club dinners. One parlous time at the
publisher's I have already recalled, when Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe and
the Autocrat clashed upon homeopathy, and it required all the tact of the
host to lure them away from the dangerous theme. As it was, a battle
waged in the courteous forms of Fontenoy, went on pretty well through the
dinner, and it was only over the coffee that a truce was called. I need
not say which was heterodox, or that each had a deep and strenuous
conscience in the matter. I have always felt it a proof of his extreme
leniency to me, unworthy, that the doctor was able to tolerate my own
defection from the elder faith in medicine; and I could not feel his
kindness less caressing because I knew it a concession to an infirmity.
He said something like, After all a good physician was the great matter;
and I eagerly turned his clemency to praise of our family doctor.

He was very constant at the Saturday Club, as long as his strength
permitted, and few of its members missed fewer of its meetings. He
continued to sit at its table until the ghosts of Hawthorne, of Agassiz,
of Emerson, of Longfellow, of Lowell, out of others less famous, bore him
company there among the younger men in the flesh. It must have been very
melancholy, but nothing could deeply cloud his most cheerful spirit. His
strenuous interest in life kept him alive to all the things of it, after
so many of his friends were dead. The questions which he was wont to
deal with so fondly, so wisely, the great problems of the soul, were all
the more vital, perhaps, because the personal concern in them was
increased by the translation to some other being of the men who had so
often tried with him to fathom them here. The last time I was at that
table he sat alone there among those great memories; but he was as gay as
ever I saw him; his wit sparkled, his humor gleamed; the poetic touch was
deft and firm as of old; the serious curiosity, the instant sympathy
remained. To the witness he was pathetic, but to himself he could only
have been interesting, as the figure of a man surviving, in an alien but
not unfriendly present, the past which held so vast a part of all that
had constituted him. If he had thought of himself in this way, it would
have been without one emotion of self-pity, such as more maudlin souls
indulge, but with a love of knowledge and wisdom as keenly alert as in
his prime.

For three privileged years I lived all but next-door neighbor of Doctor
Holmes in that part of Beacon Street whither he removed after he left his
old home in Charles Street, and during these years I saw him rather
often. We were both on the water side, which means so much more than the
words say, and our library windows commanded the same general view of the
Charles rippling out into the Cambridge marshes and the sunsets, and
curving eastward under Long Bridge, through shipping that increased
onward to the sea. He said that you could count fourteen towns and
villages in the compass of that view, with the three conspicuous
monuments accenting the different attractions of it: the tower of
Memorial Hall at Harvard; the obelisk on Bunker Hill; and in the centre
of the picture that bulk of Tufts College which he said he expected to
greet his eyes the first thing when he opened them in the other world.
But the prospect, though generally the same, had certain precious
differences for each of us, which I have no doubt he valued himself as
much upon as I did. I have a notion that he fancied these were to be
enjoyed best in his library through two oval panes let into the bay there
apart from the windows, for he was apt to make you come and look out of
them if you got to talking of the view before you left. In this pleasant
study he lived among the books, which seemed to multiply from case to
case and shelf to shelf, and climb from floor to ceiling. Everything was
in exquisite order, and the desk where he wrote was as scrupulously neat
as if the sloven disarray of most authors' desks were impossible to him.
He had a number of ingenious little contrivances for helping his work,
which he liked to show you; for a time a revolving book-case at the
corner of his desk seemed to be his pet; and after that came his
fountain-pen, which he used with due observance of its fountain
principle, though he was tolerant of me when I said I always dipped mine
in the inkstand; it was a merit in his eyes to use a fountain pen in
anywise. After you had gone over these objects with him, and perhaps
taken a peep at something he was examining through his microscope, he sat
down at one corner of his hearth, and invited you to an easy chair at the
other. His talk was always considerate of your wish to be heard, but the
person who wished to talk when he could listen to Doctor Holmes was his
own victim, and always the loser. If you were well advised you kept
yourself to the question and response which manifested your interest in
what he was saying, and let him talk on, with his sweet smile, and that
husky laugh he broke softly into at times. Perhaps he was not very well
when you came in upon him; then he would name his trouble, with a
scientific zest and accuracy, and pass quickly to other matters. As I
have noted, he was interested in himself only on the universal side; and
he liked to find his peculiarity in you better than to keep it his own;
he suffered a visible disappointment if he could not make you think or
say you were so and so too. The querulous note was not in his most
cheerful register; he would not dwell upon a specialized grief; though
sometimes I have known him touch very lightly and currently upon a slight
annoyance, or disrelish for this or that. As he grew older, he must have
had, of course, an old man's disposition to speak of his infirmities; but
it was fine to see him catch himself up in this, when he became conscious
of it, and stop short with an abrupt turn to something else. With a real
interest, which he gave humorous excess, he would celebrate some little
ingenious thing that had fallen in his way, and I have heard him
expatiate with childlike delight upon the merits of a new razor he had
got: a sort of mower, which he could sweep recklessly over cheek and chin
without the least danger of cutting himself. The last time I saw him he
asked me if he had ever shown me that miraculous razor; and I doubt if he
quite liked my saying I had seen one of the same kind.

It seemed to me that he enjoyed sitting at his chimney-corner rather as
the type of a person having a good time than as such a person; he would
rather be up and about something, taking down a book, making a note,
going again to his little windows, and asking you if you had seen the
crows yet that sometimes alighted on the shoals left bare by the ebb-tide
behind the house. The reader will recall his lovely poem, "My Aviary,"
which deals with the winged life of that pleasant prospect. I shared
with him in the flock of wild-ducks which used to come into our neighbor
waters in spring, when the ice broke up, and stayed as long as the
smallest space of brine remained unfrozen in the fall. He was graciously
willing I should share in them, and in the cloud of gulls which drifted
about in the currents of the sea and sky there, almost the whole year
round. I did not pretend an original right to them, coming so late as I
did to the place, and I think my deference pleased him.


As I have said, he liked his fences, or at least liked you to respect
them, or to be sensible of them. As often as I went to see him I was
made to wait in the little reception-room below, and never shown at once
to his study. My name would be carried up, and I would hear him
verifying my presence from the maid through the opened door; then there
came a cheery cry of wellcome: "Is that you? Come up, come up!" and I
found him sometimes half-way down the stairs to meet me. He would make
an excuse for having kept me below a moment, and say something about the
rule he had to observe in all cases, as if he would not have me feel his
fence a personal thing. I was aware how thoroughly his gentle spirit
pervaded the whole house; the Irish maid who opened the door had the
effect of being a neighbor too, and of being in the joke of the little
formality; she apologized in her turn for the reception-room; there was
certainly nothing trampled upon in her manner, but affection and
reverence for him whose gate she guarded, with something like the
sentiment she would have cherished for a dignitary of the Church, but
nicely differenced and adjusted to the Autocrat's peculiar merits.

The last time I was in that place, a visitant who had lately knocked at
my own door was about to enter. I met the master of the house on the
landing of the stairs outside his study, and he led me in for the few
moments we could spend together. He spoke of the shadow so near, and
said he supposed there could be no hope, but he did not refuse the cheer
I offered him from my ignorance against his knowledge, and at something
that was thought or said he smiled, with even a breath of laughter, so
potent is the wont of a lifetime, though his eyes were full of tears, and
his voice broke with his words. Those who have sorrowed deepest will
understand this best.

It was during the few years of our Beacon Street neighborhood that he
spent those hundred days abroad in his last visit to England and France.
He was full of their delight when he came back, and my propinquity gave
me the advantage of hearing him speak of them at first hand. He
whimsically pleased himself most with his Derby-day experiences, and
enjoyed contrasting the crowd and occasion with that of forty or fifty
years earlier, when he had seen some famous race of the Derby won;
nothing else in England seemed to have moved him so much, though all that
royalties, dignities, and celebrities could well do for him had been
done. Of certain things that happened to him, characteristic of the
English, and interesting to him in their relation to himself through his
character of universally interested man, he spoke freely; but he has said
what he chose to the public about them, and I have no right to say more.
The thing that most vexed him during his sojourn apparently was to have
been described in one of the London papers as quite deaf; and I could
truly say to him that I had never imagined him at all deaf, or heard him
accused of it before. "Oh, yes," he said, "I am a little hard of hearing
on one side. But it isn't deafness."

He had, indeed, few or none of the infirmities of age that make
themselves painfully or inconveniently evident. He carried his slight
figure erect, and until his latest years his step was quick and sure.
Once he spoke of the lessened height of old people, apropos of something
that was said, and "They will shrink, you know," he added, as if he were
not at all concerned in the fact himself. If you met him in the street,
you encountered a spare, carefully dressed old gentleman, with a
clean-shaven face and a friendly smile, qualified by the involuntary
frown of his thick, senile brows; well coated, lustrously shod, well
gloved, in a silk hat, latterly wound with a mourning-weed. Sometimes he
did not know you when he knew you quite well, and at such times I think
it was kind to spare his years the fatigue of recalling your identity; at
any rate, I am glad of the times when I did so. In society he had the
same vagueness, the same dimness; but after the moment he needed to make
sure of you, he was as vivid as ever in his life. He made me think of a
bed of embers on which the ashes have thinly gathered, and which, when
these are breathed away, sparkles and tinkles keenly up with all the
freshness of a newly kindled fire. He did not mind talking about his
age, and I fancied rather enjoyed doing so. Its approaches interested
him; if he was going, he liked to know just how and when he was going.
Once he spoke of his lasting strength in terms of imaginative humor: he
was still so intensely interested in nature, the universe, that it seemed
to him he was not like an old man so much as a lusty infant which
struggles against having the breast snatched from it. He laughed at the
notion of this, with that impersonal relish which seemed to me singularly
characteristic of the self-consciousness so marked in him. I never heard
one lugubrious word from him in regard to his years. He liked your
sympathy on all grounds where he could have it self-respectfully, but he
was a most manly spirit, and he would not have had it even as a type of
the universal decay. Possibly he would have been interested to have you
share in that analysis of himself which he was always making, if such a
thing could have been.

He had not much patience with the unmanly craving for sympathy in others,
and chiefly in our literary craft, which is somewhat ignobly given to it,
though he was patient, after all. He used to say, and I believe he has
said it in print,--[Holmes said it in print many times, in his three
novels and scattered through the "Breakfast Table" series. D.W.]--that
unless a man could show a good reason for writing verse, it was rather
against him, and a proof of weakness. I suppose this severe conclusion
was something he had reached after dealing with innumerable small poets
who sought the light in him with verses that no editor would admit to
print. Yet of morbidness he was often very tender; he knew it to be
disease, something that must be scientifically rather than ethically
treated. He was in the same degree kind to any sensitiveness, for he was
himself as sensitive as he was manly, and he was most delicately
sensitive to any rightful social claim upon him. I was once at a dinner
with him, where he was in some sort my host, in a company of people whom
he had not seen me with before, and he made a point of acquainting me
with each of them. It did not matter that I knew most of them already;
the proof of his thoughtfulness was precious, and I was sorry when I had
to disappoint it by confessing a previous knowledge.


I had three memorable meetings with him not very long before he died: one
a year before, and the other two within a few months of the end. The
first of these was at luncheon in the summer-house of a friend whose
hospitality made it summer the year round, and we all went out to meet
him, when he drove up in his open carriage, with the little sunshade in
his hand, which he took with him for protection against the heat, and
also, a little, I think, for the whim of it. He sat a moment after he
arrived, as if to orient himself in respect to each of us. Beside the
gifted hostess, there was the most charming of all the American
essayists, and the Autocrat seemed at once to find himself singularly at
home with the people who greeted him. There was no interval needed for
fanning away the ashes; he tinkled up before he entered the house, and at
the table he was as vivid and scintillant as I ever saw him, if indeed I
ever saw him as much so. The talk began at once, and we had made him
believe that there was nothing egotistic in his taking the word, or
turning it in illustration from himself upon universal matters. I spoke
among other things of some humble ruins on the road to Gloucester, which
gave the way-side a very aged look; the tumbled foundation-stones of poor
bits of houses, and "Ah," he said, "the cellar and the well?" He added,
to the company generally, "Do you know what I think are the two lines of
mine that go as deep as any others, in a certain direction?" and he began
to repeat stragglingly certain verses from one of his earlier poems,
until he came to the closing couplet. But I will give them in full,
because in going to look them up I have found them so lovely, and because
I can hear his voice again in every fondly accented syllable:

     "Who sees unmoved, a ruin at his feet,
     The lowliest home where human hearts have beat?
     Its hearth-stone, shaded with the bistre stain,
     A century's showery torrents wash in vain;
     Its starving orchard where the thistle blows,
     And mossy trunks still mark the broken rows;
     Its chimney-loving poplar, oftenest seen
     Next an old roof, or where a roof has been;
     Its knot-grass, plantain,--all the social weeds,
     Man's mute companions following where he leads;
     Its dwarfed pale flowers, that show their straggling heads,
     Sown by the wind from grass-choked garden-beds;
     Its woodbine creeping where it used to climb;
     Its roses breathing of the olden time;
     All the poor shows the curious idler sees,
     As life's thin shadows waste by slow degrees,
     Till naught remains, the saddening tale to tell,
     Save home's last wrecks--the CELLAR AND THE WELL!"

The poet's chanting voice rose with a triumphant swell in the climax, and
"There," he said, "isn't it so? The cellar and the well--they can't be
thrown down or burnt up; they are the human monuments that last longest
and defy decay." He rejoiced openly in the sympathy that recognized with
him the divination of a most pathetic, most signal fact, and he repeated
the last couplet again at our entreaty, glad to be entreated for it. I do
not know whether all will agree with him concerning the relative
importance of the lines, but I think all must feel the exquisite beauty
of the picture to which they give the final touch.

He said a thousand witty and brilliant things that day, but his pleasure
in this gave me the most pleasure, and I recall the passage distinctly
out of the dimness that covers the rest. He chose to figure us younger
men, in touching upon the literary circumstance of the past and present,
as representative of modern feeling and thinking, and himself as no
longer contemporary. We knew he did this to be contradicted, and we
protested, affectionately, fervently, with all our hearts and minds; and
indeed there were none of his generation who had lived more widely into
ours. He was not a prophet like Emerson, nor ever a voice crying in the
wilderness like Whittier or Lowell. His note was heard rather amid the
sweet security of streets, but it was always for a finer and gentler
civility. He imagined no new rule of life, and no philosophy or theory
of life will be known by his name. He was not constructive; he was
essentially observant, and in this he showed the scientific nature. He
made his reader known to himself, first in the little, and then in the
larger things. From first to last he was a censor, but a most winning
and delightful censor, who could make us feel that our faults were other
people's, and who was not wont

     "To bait his homilies with his brother worms."

At one period he sat in the seat of the scorner, as far as Reform was
concerned, or perhaps reformers, who are so often tedious and ridiculous;
but he seemed to get a new heart with the new mind which came to him when
he began to write the Autocrat papers, and the light mocker of former
days became the serious and compassionate thinker, to whom most truly
nothing that was human was alien. His readers trusted and loved him; few
men have ever written so intimately with so much dignity, and perhaps
none has so endeared himself by saying just the thing for his reader that
his reader could not say for himself. He sought the universal through
himself in others, and he found to his delight and theirs that the most
universal thing was often, if not always, the most personal thing.

In my later meetings with him I was struck more and more by his
gentleness. I believe that men are apt to grow gentler as they grow
older, unless they are of the curmudgeon type, which rusts and crusts
with age, but with Doctor Holmes the gentleness was peculiarly marked. He
seemed to shrink from all things that could provoke controversy, or even
difference; he waived what might be a matter of dispute, and rather
sought the things that he could agree with you upon. In the last talk I
had with him he appeared to have no grudge left, except for the puritanic
orthodoxy in which he had been bred as a child. This he was not able to
forgive, though its tradition was interwoven with what was tenderest and
dearest in his recollections of childhood. We spoke of puritanism, and I
said I sometimes wondered what could be the mind of a man towards life
who had not been reared in its awful shadow, say an English Churchman, or
a Continental Catholic; and he said he could not imagine, and that he did
not believe such a man could at all enter into our feelings; puritanism,
he seemed to think, made an essential and ineradicable difference. I do
not believe he had any of that false sentiment which attributes virtue of
character to severity of creed, while it owns the creed to be wrong.

He differed from Longfellow in often speaking of his contemporaries. He
spoke of them frankly, but with an appreciative rather than a censorious
criticism. Of Longfellow himself he said that day, when I told him I had
been writing about him, and he seemed to me a man without error, that he
could think of but one error in him, and that was an error of taste, of
almost merely literary taste. It was at an earlier time that he talked
of Lowell, after his death, and told me that Lowell once in the fever of
his anti-slavery apostolate had written him, urging him strongly, as a
matter of duty, to come out for the cause he had himself so much at
heart. Afterwards Lowell wrote again, owning himself wrong in his
appeal, which he had come to recognize as invasive. "He was ten years
younger than I," said the doctor.

I found him that day I speak of in his house at Beverly Farms, where he
had a pleasant study in a corner by the porch, and he met me with all the
cheeriness of old. But he confessed that he had been greatly broken up
by the labor of preparing something that might be read at some
commemorative meeting, and had suffered from finding first that he could
not write something specially for it. Even the copying and adapting an
old poem had overtaxed him, and in this he showed the failing powers of
age. But otherwise he was still young, intellectually; that is, there
was no failure of interest in intellectual things, especially literary
things. Some new book lay on the table at his elbow, and he asked me if
I had seen it, and made some joke about his having had the good luck to
read it, and have it lying by him a few days before when the author
called. I do not know whether he schooled himself against an old man's
tendency to revert to the past or not, but I know that he seldom did so.
That morning, however, he made several excursions into it, and told me
that his youthful satire of the 'Spectre Pig' had been provoked by a poem
of the elder Dana's, where a phantom horse had been seriously employed,
with an effect of anticlimax which he had found irresistible. Another
foray was to recall the oppression and depression of his early religious
associations, and to speak with moving tenderness of his father, whose
hard doctrine as a minister was without effect upon his own kindly

In a letter written to me a few weeks after this time, upon an occasion
when he divined that some word from him would be more than commonly dear,
he recurred to the feeling he then expressed: "Fifty-six years ago--more
than half a century--I lost my own father, his age being seventy-three
years. As I have reached that period of life, passed it, and now left it
far behind, my recollections seem to brighten and bring back my boyhood
and early manhood in a clearer and fairer light than it came to me in my
middle decades. I have often wished of late years that I could tell him
how I cherished his memory; perhaps I may have the happiness of saying
all I long to tell him on the other side of that thin partition which I
love to think is all that divides us."

Men are never long together without speaking of women, and I said how
inevitably men's lives ended where they began, in the keeping of women,
and their strength failed at last and surrendered itself to their care. I
had not finished before I was made to feel that I was poaching, and
"Yes," said the owner of the preserve, "I have spoken of that," and he
went on to tell me just where. He was not going to have me suppose I had
invented those notions, and I could not do less than own that I must have
found them in his book, and forgotten it.

He spoke of his pleasant summer life in the air, at once soft and fresh,
of that lovely coast, and of his drives up and down the country roads.
Sometimes this lady and sometimes that came for him, and one or two
habitually, but he always had his own carriage ordered, if they failed,
that he might not fail of his drive in any fair weather. His cottage was
not immediately on the sea, but in full sight of it, and there was a
sense of the sea about it, as there is in all that incomparable region,
and I do not think he could have been at home anywhere beyond the reach
of its salt breath.

I was anxious not to outstay his strength, and I kept my eye on the clock
in frequent glances. I saw that he followed me in one of these, and I
said that I knew what his hours were, and I was watching so that I might
go away in time, and then he sweetly protested. Did I like that chair I
was sitting in? It was a gift to him, and he said who gave it, with a
pleasure in the fact that was very charming, as if he liked the
association of the thing with his friend. He was disposed to excuse the
formal look of his bookcases, which were filled with sets, and presented
some phalanxes of fiction in rather severe array.

When I rose to go, he was concerned about my being able to find my way
readily to the station, and he told me how to go, and what turns to take,
as if he liked realizing the way to himself. I believe he did not walk
much of late years, and I fancy he found much the same pleasure in
letting his imagination make this excursion to the station with me that
he would have found in actually going.

I saw him once more, but only once, when a day or two later he drove up
by our hotel in Magnolia toward the cottage where his secretary was
lodging. He saw us from his carriage, and called us gayly to him, to
make us rejoice with him at having finally got that commemorative poem
off his mind. He made a jest of the trouble it had cost him, even some
sleeplessness, and said he felt now like a convalescent. He was all
brightness, and friendliness, and eagerness to make us feel his mood,
through what was common to us all; and I am glad that this last
impression of him is so one with the first I ever had, and with that
which every reader receives from his work.

That is bright, and friendly and eager too, for it is throughout the very
expression of himself. I think it is a pity if an author disappoints
even the unreasonable expectation of the reader, whom his art has invited
to love him; but I do not believe that Doctor Holmes could inflict this
disappointment. Certainly he could disappoint no reasonable expectation,
no intelligent expectation. What he wrote, that he was, and every one
felt this who met him. He has therefore not died, as some men die, the
remote impersonal sort, but he is yet thrillingly alive in every page of
his books. The quantity of his literature is not great, but the quality
is very surprising, and surprising first of all as equality. From the
beginning to the end he wrote one man, of course in his successive
consciousnesses. Perhaps every one does this, but his work gives the
impression of an uncommon continuity, in spite of its being the effect of
a later and an earlier impulse so very marked as to have made the later
an astonishing revelation to those who thought they knew him.


It is not for me in such a paper as this to attempt any judgment of his
work. I have loved it, as I loved him, with a sense of its limitations
which is by no means a censure of its excellences. He was not a man who
cared to transcend; he liked bounds, he liked horizons, the constancy of
shores. If he put to sea, he kept in sight of land, like the ancient
navigators. He did not discover new continents; and I will own that I,
for my part, should not have liked to sail with Columbus. I think one
can safely affirm that as great and as useful men stayed behind, and
found an America of the mind without stirring from their thresholds.


   Appeal, which he had come to recognize as invasive
   Appeared to have no grudge left
   Could make us feel that our faults were other people's
   Hard of hearing on one side. But it isn't deafness
   Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Autocrat clashed upon homeopathy
   He was not bored because he would not be
   He was not constructive; he was essentially observant
   His readers trusted and loved him
   Men's lives ended where they began, in the keeping of women
   Not a man who cared to transcend; he liked bounds
   Not much patience with the unmanly craving for sympathy
   Old man's disposition to speak of his infirmities
   Old man's tendency to revert to the past
   Person who wished to talk when he could listen
   Reformers, who are so often tedious and ridiculous
   Secret of the man who is universally interesting
   Sought the things that he could agree with you upon
   Spare his years the fatigue of recalling your identity
   Study in a corner by the porch
   Those who have sorrowed deepest will understand this best
   Times when a man's city was a man's country
   Turn of the talk toward the mystical
   Work gives the impression of an uncommon continuity

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