Book Review – Honorable Justice: The Life of Oliver Wendell Holmes by Sheldon Novick

Review of Honorable Justice: The Life of Oliver Wendell Holmes, by Sheldon Novick by Eric Yap, Alameda County Law Library

Holmes - Book Jacket
Photo by Eric. Yap

We have all heard that the First Amendment’s freedom of speech clause does not protect a person from “falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”   And though we may not be happy about the amount government takes out of our paychecks, “taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.”  These and other sayings that originate with Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. have seeped into the daily discourse of lawyers and non-lawyers alike.   Who was Holmes and why has his influence persisted to this day?

Holmes was born into a Boston Brahmin family in 1841, and he was a son of the physician and author Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.  Originally, he made his mark as a scholar, publishing his writings into a celebrated volume “The Common Law” while a faculty member at Harvard.  Next he moved on to Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, serving as a Justice and later Chief Justice on that court.  However, Holmes is best known for serving on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1902 to 1932.  His long tenure on the high court cemented his reputation as an intellectual giant:  Holmes’ judicial opinions and scholarly writings influenced generations that followed.

ACLL recently acquired a copy of Honorable Justice: The Life of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sheldon Novick’s biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.  Novick’s detailed account portrays Holmes’ life in a straightforward manner without providing a grand psychological narrative as commonly seen in other biographies.  Holmes’ life would have been ripe for such psycho-analysis given the stature of his father and their lifelong tension.  Moreover, his early years coincided with the Civil War; Holmes was wounded on the battlefield on three separate occasions, the most severe being at Antietam where he was shot in the neck.  Novick suggests that Holmes felt he was sent by his parents to be sacrificed in the war effort, and that this shaped his outlook on life.  While this seems a bit speculative on Novick’s part, echoes of the theme of sacrifice can be heard in the infamous Virginia forced-sterilization case, Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927).  Holmes, writing for the majority to uphold the law, states that “the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives” before chillingly concluding that “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Holmes - with Hiss
Holmes with legal secretary Alger Hiss at Beverly Farms in the summer of 1930 Image from the book, Honorable Justice. E. Yap

For the most part, Novick’s approach serves his subject well.  In the later sections of the book, after Holmes has reached the U.S. Supreme Court, the man is allowed to speak for himself through his judicial opinions.   His reputation for being a model of judicial restraint is well documented in Honorable Justice.   Holmes was known for writing pithy, quotable opinions, especially in dissent and Novick is happy to provide ample examples.  The earlier sections are more uneven, and it is interesting to see what the author chooses to emphasize.  Novick alludes to an intimate relationship between Henry James and Holmes, a topic he would later expound on in his biography of James.  The reader also learns a lot about Lady Castleton, an Irish aristocrat the married Holmes openly courted on his visits to Europe, but little about Holmes’ two decades on the highest court of Massachusetts.

In Honorable Justice, we are provided many minute details of Holmes’ life but connecting the dots is left up to the reader.   Still, one could do worse than to give this book a read.  After all, as a wise judge once wrote, a page of history is worth a volume of logic.

The ACLL call number for Honorable Justice: The Life of Oliver Wendell Holmes, by Sheldon Novick is KF/8745/.H6/N69.  It is currently housed on the New Titles cart at the Oakland location.

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