Holmes, Jr.

G. Edward White
Dumb me. I had confused Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. for Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Or perhaps conjoined them: I thought of Oliver Wendell Holmes, and I thought "Judge of the Supreme Court." "concise, witty, humanistic decisions," and "funny book" (see The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table) and "funny poem" --- one of my favorites, which begins:

    Have you heard of the wonderful one-hoss shay,
    That was built in such a logical way
    It ran a hundred years to a day,
    And then of a sudden it --- ah, but stay,
    I'll tell you what happened without delay,
    Scaring the parson into fits,
    Frightening people out of their wits, ---
    Have you ever heard of that, I say?

As I say, I thought of the two Holmeses as one. Fortunately, or unfortunately, Edward White has set me straight, even claims that Junior tried diligently to outdistance --- in fame --- his famous father.

The old man a Transcendentalist and a wit --- a man who lived damn near forever. His son lived damn near forever, too, but he didn't write any funny books unless you consider The Common Law or The Collected Legal Papers as knee-slappers disguised as tomes on jurisprudence.

In truth, as a judge --- and as a man --- Junior was a bit of a prig, which reminds me of Samuel Johnson's famous dialogue on prigs with Mrs. Knowles, as reported in The Life of Johnson.

    Johnson: Mason's a Whig.

    Mrs. Knowles: (not hearing him distinctly): What! a Prig, Sir?

    Johnson: Worse, Madam; a Whig! But he is both.

Junior was probably a bit of both, too. We think of him as the progressive jurist, but this book tells of some opinions that belie this.

Such as Buck v. Bell, a Virginia law that allowed for the sterilization of residents of state mental facilities (Holmes voted to uphold the law). Or Northern Securities Co. v. United States, which sought to dissolve a oligopolistic, predatory holding company (Holmes voted against the suit).

He also voted to uphold the conviction of Eugene V. Debs who, in a public speech, railed against the WWI draft. Debs was jailed under the Espionage Act of 1917, and O. W. Holmes, Jr., that scamp, found nothing wrong with sticking perorating peaceniks in the pokey.

Late in life, Holmes may have come out in support of other forms of freedom of speech, but, at the same time, he confided to a friend: "I regarded my view as simply upholding the right of a donkey to drool."

He may have been a prig, and a Whig, but no one could accuse him of being a pig: his clothes impeccable (if 19th Century) and his mustache was always perfectly trimmed (See Figs. 1 & 2). Still, compared to his lively father, he was a stick-in-the-mud. As for author White, he, too, is a bit of a stick-in-the-mud, at least stylistically. He comes across as your typical jurist (he's a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law) with a dry and disinterested style. Junior, like White, because of their profession, is much given to subordinate clauses, stilted phraseology, and no end of priggish Whiggery. But, alas, alas, no whigmaleerie whatsoever.

--- Pamela Wylie
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