Book Review - OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES: A LIFE IN WAR, LAW, AND IDEAS By Stephen Budiansky

Published date01 December 2020
AuthorCHOO Han Teck LLB (Hons) (National University of Singapore), LLM (Cambridge); Judge of the Supreme Court of Singapore. The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.[2]
Citation(2020) 32 SAcLJ 324
Date01 December 2020

1 Oliver Wendell Holmes is indubitably one of the most prominent American jurists. His colourful life and career have been amply covered in several biographies; and it is hard to disentangle legend from the man. Some, like Justice McKenna, may be envious of him, but the description by G E White sums it best when he wrote:3

Holmes was also an enticing personality. He was exceptionally attractive, especially as he aged and his countenance, with its piercing eyes, shock of white hair, and prominent moustache, seemed to reflect the roles of soldier and jurist that had been so important in his life. He was by all accounts a memorable companion and conversationalist, and his letters, in contradistinction to those of his colleagues, rival those of the most celebrated correspondents in their stylistic facility and substantive interest.

2 Budiansky arranges this biography (“OWH”) in a structure that enables the reader to fully understand the man behind Holmes' famous “The life of the law [is not] logic” quotation. Holmes was no closeted academic although he clearly had an academic bent and was briefly the Weld Professor of Jurisprudence at Harvard University. He had been a man of physical as well as intellectual action. His stint in the Union Army brought him to the brink of death when he was shot through the chest and neck.

3 This book covers the entirety of Holmes' life — his childhood, his time in Boston, his participation in the American Civil War, his early career in legal practice, and his stint as an academic professor at Harvard University. Although it was during his years as a commercial and shipping

lawyer in Boston that Holmes produced The Common Law4 — “the single most important book in the history of American legal scholarship”5 — it was the time he served with the Twentieth Massachusetts Regiment, also known as “The Harvard Regiment”, that ingrained in him the deep lessons that only experience can impart. Budiansky covers briefly, but adequately, Holmes' childhood in Boston and the relationship he had with his famous doctor father, the senior Oliver Wendell Holmes, whose intellectual quotes were sometimes mistakenly attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

4 Holmes married Fanny Dixwell in 1872, a woman he had known for 20 years before they married each other. She was the daughter of Holmes' old schoolmaster. Most biographies have little to mention of Fanny, whom White described as the opposite of Holmes in many respects: “He liked socializing, exchanging ideas, and flirting with women. She was a relatively solitary person who grew more reclusive as she aged.”6 It is in OWH that we find the story of how William James, the philosopher (and brother of Henry James the novelist), who also had an infatuation for Fanny, tried to take advantage of Holmes' absence. William had written to his brother, complaining, “That villain Wendell Holmes has been keeping her all to himself out at Cambridge for the last 8 years; but I hope I may enjoy her acquaintance now.”7 Holmes' mother promptly wrote to him, warning him that William James was taking advantage of his absence, and suggested that he write to Fanny, which Holmes promptly did.

5 It was Holmes' friendship with other women that received much more attention, but that was because Holmes, an avid writer of letters, wrote more to his women friends than he did to Fanny. The most notable of his women companions was Clare Castletown, whose husband, Lord Castletown, Budiansky describes as one who “had all the air of the none-too-bright-British aristocrat”.8 Though they corresponded often, and Holmes addressed her affectionately as “My beloved Hibernia”,9 few of Clare's letters to Holmes survived. Budiansky was quick to surmise that the Holmes–Clare Castletown association was not a...

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