Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809–1894)
From American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, Volume One: Freneau to Whitman
At the age of forty-eight Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. was a highly regarded physician and medical researcher. Then, in 1857, he embarked on a literary career, writing a wildly popular monthly column called “The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table.”
A collateral effect of this unexpected midlife success was that the Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. entered Harvard as the son of a celebrated father, “rendered the more challenging [in the words of historian Susan-Mary Grant] because the Autocrat had a habit of discussing his son’s foibles, albeit obliquely and not unkindly, in his sketches.” For the remainder of the century the elder Holmes published poems, essays, and novels—one bestseller after another—and the 6’ 3" son lived in the shadow of his 5’ 3" father.
Biographers have made much—perhaps too much—of the tensions between the two Holmeses, yet the son later credited his father with steering him into law school, and he eventually became one of the most famous—and popular—justices ever to have served on the Supreme Court. For the last century it has been the son who usually comes to mind when the name Oliver Wendell Holmes is mentioned.
But here we celebrate the senior Holmes, born during this week (August 29) in 1809, by presenting “The Deacon’s Masterpiece,” a poem from “The Autocrat” that became famous in its own right and was published separately as a book illustrated by Howard Pyle.