OW Holmes, Jr. (II)
Bill Long 10/12/05
White's Terminology and "Overreading" of Texts
In trying to enter the mind of the young Holmes (before he went off to the Civil War in Summer 1861), White focuses attention especially on Holmes' extracurricular interest in art history, prompted by John Ruskin, and his devouring of Waldo Emerson's article on Books in the January 1858 Atlantic Monthly. White introduces two terms--historicist and transcendentalist/ism-- to explain some of Holmes' indebtedness, but the closer you study these terms, at least the way White uses them, the more they crumble in your hands.
He begins in a promising-enough fashion. What Holmes learned from Ruskin's work was to realize that the "past' was necessarily different from the "present" (34). This is not as obvious an observation as it at first seems. Only a few generations previously, as White says, "the relationship between past, present, and future had been characterized in universalistic terms, either as part of predetermined cycles of birth, decay, death, and rebirth, or as the continuous demonstration of universal truths, such as the primacy of religious values and principles" (34). He uses the word "historicist" to describe a developmental approach to the past--the past is different from the present. Indeed, this "historicist" revolution comes about in the 18th century in Europe and Holmes apparently would have been in agreement with its basic principles. Fair enough.
Moving to Emerson
But then, it seems to me, White (and maybe Holmes) start to get tied up in knots of imprecision. He explains that Holmes was also mightily impressed by Emerson's 1858 article and especially by Emerson's contention that a reader ought to focus on "famed" books to read. Such books have qualities of universal appeal to successive generations. Then White says:
"The last argument [i.e., a book's "fame"] was characteristic of Emerson's attitude toward history, which was that it was primarily useful as a way of confirming truths in which representatives of the present already believed..." (35).
Oops. Starting to lose you, Ed. History confirms truths we already believe. So, is this a sort of Plutarchean view of history and biography? A sort of "history as moral example" approach to the past? A past that is a sort of "pre-historicist" history? Seems so. It would have been helpful if he tried to sort out these questions. This is especially true since he will argue that Holmes seemingly adopted Emerson's approach to "famed" books as well as Ruskin's approach to art. White goes on to cite Emerson's quotation of Herodotus, who uses "inestimable anecdotes" (35).
Bringing in Transcendentalism
So, White argues that Holmes, in his 1859 essay where he uses Emerson's ideas, basically restates Emerson's ideas (36). White says, "Holmes also followed Emerson in his view of history, to the point of using Herodotus as an example" (37). By using Herodotus as moral example, Emerson thus can't really be a historicist. Thus it appears that Holmes is now using history in two rather mutually exclusive ways, historicist and Emersonian, even though White doesn't say so.
But then White says, "In addition, the 'Books' essay reveals that Holmes' perspective on the relationship between present and past was a historicist one" (38). Huh? Well, White argues that the use of anecdotes shows a consciousness of the distance between the past and the present. Really? But the historicists, as most historians use the term, are those who want to get beyond the simplistic Herodotean view of history, to a more "Thucydidean" approach, an approach that allows for development rather than one that teaches neatly packaged moral lessons. Then, after confusing me considerably, White says:
"Great books were inspired and inspiring not because they were labeled as such by orthodox religion but because they revealed the capacities of the self as author and as reader (huh?). In adopting Emerson's assumption that the capacity to achieve or to recognize 'greatness' in literature was innate in authors and readers, Holmes was implicitly adopting the perspetive of what Emerson and others called transcendentalism" (38).
Oh-oh. We are in deep trouble now. Transcendentalism, which is worth more than a Mass, is not defined but is simply dropped in as if its contours are completely known to the reader. But, of course, they are not. Transcendentalism is a big concept and term, and needs to be carefully delineated, to the extent it is subject to that delineation, instead of being dropped in at the end of a sentence. It is sort of like a big guest dropping into a party and only being recognized by the host in passing when, in fact, that person ought to have been the central focus of the party. And then, to top it off, he concludes:
"In the remainder of Holmes' undergraduate essays, written on a variety of subjects, one can see continued reflection on the historicist and transcendentalist perspectives exhibited in 'Books' (39).
So now the little tiny essay of Emerson has both historicist and transcendentalist features. And the young Holmes, all of 18 at the time, is seemingly deftly moving back and forth between the two in his essays, even if White can't move so deftly in clarifying what he is talking about.
I have decided that it isn't worth my while to show the way that White "overrreads" texts--frequently letters that Holmes or others wrote--in order to try to illustrate Holmes' problems with intimacy or other subjects. It isn't interesting just to try to poke holes in an author. I want to move on to his constructive reading of Holmes in the next chapter. But I have to conclude this essay with the statement that for all of his precision in citing footnotes and in getting his dates right and in citing arresting texts, White just throws around big and heavily-laden terms without explaining them very well. It may be that he has the "lawyer's disease": blustering with terms and systems while the historical record is usually read more sympathetically if you give short shrift to "isms" and just try to hear the living voice that speaks.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long