THE IMPROPER BOSTONIAN: Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes by Edwin P. Hoyt

THE IMPROPER BOSTONIAN: Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes

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Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes is less well-known than his son, the Justice, for he never had his son's important public office or philosophical intelligence. Still, the Doctor's life was rich in abilities, accomplishments, and historic associations, unfolding as it did during the formative years of American literary culture and at the center of that culture: Boston. Hoyt recounts Holmes' story lightly and readably, with no attempt at critical interpretation or comprehensiveness (for this one must still turn to Eleanor Tilton's Amiable Autocrat). The narrative plays upon the incidents, circumstances, and labors that occupied Holmes and earned him recognition and lasting interest. There is his recurrent dabbling in poetry, which brought him early fame; but more important was his gift for prose, which made him an influential teacher, public lecturer, and polemicist in medical and political causes (e.g., he opposed the self-righteous Abolitionists), and which won him a prominent place in Boston's famous Saturday Club and in the pages of America's first influential literary magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, which he helped found. Yet Holmes' central occupation was not literature but medicine, and here his tough, practical intellect enabled him to advance American medical teaching and practice--notably in the conquest of puerperal fever through improved hygiene. Holmes' story thus encapsulates several themes of 19th-century American culture, including the rise of American literature and the reign of Boston as its home; and the professionalization of medicine. If Hoyt's slight narrative does no justice to these themes, it at least tips its hat to them in demonstrating Holmes' wit, intelligence, and broad appeal.

Pub Date: March 29th, 1979
Publisher: Morrow