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Exploring a Great Legal Mind

By Colin F. Boyle

IT is not surprising that until now, there had never been a full biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Widely considered one of the greatest justices ever to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, Holmes wrote more than 2000 opinions for the court and lived until the ripe age of 93.

As much a literary figure as a legal one, Holmes' major work, The Common Law, is held as one of the classics of legal scholarship more than a century after its publication. Toss in Holmes' friendships with the major figures of the Northeastern aristocracy (Henry and William James and Henry Cabot Lodge, among others), not to mention the three separate battle wounds he suffered as an officer in the Civil War, and you have a life history that could intimidate even the hardiest of biographical explorers.

Honorable Justice: The Life of Oliver

Wendell Holmes

By Sheldon Novick

Little, Brown and Company

522 pp., $24.95

In fact, several biographical attempts--conducted by then-Harvard Law Professor Felix Frankfurter, Mark DeWolfe Howe, one of Holmes' legal secretaries, and Grant Gilmore, a professor of law at Yale--have been made since Holmes' death in 1935. But until Sheldon Novick's brilliant and illuminating examination of Holmes' life was released, no one had succeeded in mapping the life of the Olympian jurist.

Novick, who used his own research as well as the material gathered by the previous biographers, has produced an incredibly well-documented book, with 75 pages of endnotes. In his quest for detail, the author has even gone so far as to inquire of Dr. Peter F. Stevens, curator of Harvard's herbaria, the genus of a sprig of leaves that an admirer enclosed in a letter to Holmes. He also checked Harvard library records to determine exactly what day Holmes checked out a particularly important book on mysticism during his college days.

NOVICK, however, manages to keep the day-to-day details from dominating the text, helping the reader focus instead on the broader themes of Holmes' life. In particular, he emphasizes the path of Holmes' legal ideas: how they formed in his college and war days, grew during his early legal experience and blossomed into a fascinating ideology that has since been incorporated into our common law.

Despite the subject matter, the legalese is not too confusing, however. Novick, a professor of law at the University of Vermont, does his best to explain in human terms the theories behind the decisions and their significance. And the author's characterizations of the other justices and his descriptions of way the Court made its decisions will be enough to hold the interest of those who are still not consumed by legal theories per se.

It is clear to anyone who reads the excerpts of his brilliant opinions why Holmes is so widely admired by legal scholars. But Novick is not afraid to point out the views held by the justice which would be considered dangerous and cruel today, even if they were not considered so then. For example, Novick describes Holmes' failure to support the voting rights of Blacks in the South. And he spends some time analyzing Holmes' most controversial--and perhaps even Fascist--opinion, which gave states the right to sterilize poor women who were institutionalized.

IN addition to critically assessing Holmes' legal views, Novick is not afraid of exploring the peculiar quirks and flaws in the justice's personality. It is with some degree of harshness that Novick relates Holmes' frigid diary entry on the day he was married to his wife Fanny, around the time he was made the sole editor of the American Law Review: "Married. Sole editor of Law Rev."

Although he was considered aloof by many and remained devoted to his wife until she died in 1929, Holmes also is portrayed at times as a tremendous flirt, particularly with women he met on trips to Europe. These many flirtations apparently never developed into any physical affairs, but Holmes' warmth is revealed through the poetry he sends across the Atlantic in his romantic letters.

One relationship, with Clare Castletown, the wife of the British Lord Castletown, was of particular importance to Holmes. Although it never advanced very far, or even seemed to tempt him with adultery, his letters to her are filled with powerful emotion. Recognizing that the letters' beauty need no explanation, Novick is content to print several pages of excerpts at the end of one chapter:

And now do you think that you can meet time and distraction and still care for me as much? I believe you will. I firmly believe it will make no difference to me. Oh my dear, what a joy it is to feel the inner chambers of one's soul open for the other to walk in and out at will.

Through these unpublished letters and Holmes' other notes, Novick is able to expose Holmes the person, and that in turn lets him shed light on the ideas of Holmes the judge. By understanding the factors and experiences that shaped Holmes' thought processes, it is easier to understand his theories, many of which are now part of the laws of the land.

For that reason the biography is an excellent tool for all students of the law and of the Supreme Court. But Novick manages to do more with his research. By carefully exploring the changes in Holmes' opinions and ideas, he is able to chronicle, at last, the thought-processes of one of the greatest thinkers of recent centuries.

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