Dear Commons Community,
I have just finished reading Stephen Budiansky’s new biography on Oliver Wendell Holmes entitled Oliver Wendell Holmes, A Life in War, Law, and Ideas. It was an interesting read especially Holmes’ early years in Boston, his service on the Union side during the Civil War, and his longevity and time on the US Supreme Court. The lengthy descriptions of his judicial work can be slow at times but you have to admire the prodigious amount of work he contributed to the American justice system especially regarding social, economic, and labor issues.
I decided to read Holmes because he was one of those individuals whose name keeps coming up whenever I pick up something about the US Supreme Court in the 20th Century. Other than his nickname as The Great Dissenter, I knew very little about him. I would say that this biography filled in the gaps in my knowledge.
Here are several blurbs from reviews on the book which capture many of its qualities.
There are scads of fine bios of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841-1935), each with its particular blend of advantages and shortcomings. This most recent bio manifests a number of advantages that pushes it into the forefront of these books. To begin with, given that the book runs some 544 pages (both text and notes), the author did not feel it necessary to rush through Holmes’ pre-Supreme Court career, as authors often do. He does not even make it until page 257. This allows the author to carefully examine the many important dimensions of Holmes’ life which helps the reader get a grasp on his character and personality.
Moreover, the book touches upon areas of Holmes’ life prior to the Court which usually have not been sufficiently addressed in other bios. One great example of this is Holmes in the Civil War. For the first time, I fully began to understand not only what Holmes did during the war but also how influential the experience was on him. Just excellent chapters. Likewise, most other bios give scant attention to Holmes’ tenure (1882-1899) on the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, where he learned the ins and outs of appellate judging as well as conducting hundreds of trials. Here the author adds important insights without burying the reader in legalistic detail.
One way to describe the fascinating new biography by journalist-historian Stephen Budiansky is to say: In our turbulent era when “originalist” conservatives seem to be on the rise in American courts—especially at the Supreme Court—it’s the perfect time to remind ourselves of the great progressive Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
That single sentence could serve as an accurate review, recommending this new book to you. It’s certainly true that readers who have a liberal political agenda will find a host of quotable lines, given Holmes’ famous talents for striking metaphors in his legal opinions as well as his use of savage wit to punctuate his arguments. You’ll close this book having turned down the corners of dozens of pages, and perhaps jotted notes in the margins from start to finish.
This is a splendid biography, thorough, intelligent and insightful. Budiansky, while never losing sight of the individual, traces how Oliver Wendell Holmes’s background, upbringing and experience helped shape his world-view, his ideas and his writing. He then shows how in turn this humble Supreme Court justice has since shaped the world’s ideas. The book is rather an exception to Heine’s dictum that “The tree of humanity forgets the labor of the silent gardeners who sheltered it from the cold, watered it in time of drought, shielded it against wild animals, but preserves faithfully the names mercilessly cut into its bark.” I recommend it to anyone with an interest in the Civil War, civil liberty, critical thinking and 19th century Boston celebrities.
I recommend Budiansky’s work to anybody interest in Holmes, the Civil War, and the US Supreme Court in the early part of the 20th Century.