Wednesday, May 28, 2014

`I Hope You Are an Admirer at His Shrine'

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. writes to Harold Laski on Feb. 17, 1922: 

“You and I are like Dr. Johnson’s clever and dull boys—while the latter is debating which of two books he shall read the former has read them both. I am at the hesitating point and as I said the other day may fall back on rereading Faust. Brandeis put into my hands Fraser [sic] (Golden Bough Fraser) on Pausanias, uncut. I cut and read it—with not much profit. Also I ran through [Tolstoy’s] Kreutzer Sonata which I had not read—a rotten book I think. Then I took the scum off my mind with [Roscoe] Pound’s Spirit of the Common Law—a stimulating book.” 

The two volumes of the Holmes-Laski Letters (Harvard University Press, 1953) are pleasingly laced with such bookish, unpretentious exchanges. The industriousness of both men, including their literary consumption, is humbling. The correspondence started in 1916 when Holmes was seventy-five and an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Laski, an English historian, was twenty-three and a lecturer at McGill University and Harvard. The exchange ends with Holmes’ death at age ninety-three in 1935. Though neither Holmes nor Laski was, formally speaking, a literary man, no other book so reminds me of The Littleton/Hart-Davis Letters. For both men, books are oxygen. In the passage above, Holmes seems to be alluding to an exchange in Boswell’s Life of Johnson dated July 26, 1763: 

“We talked of the education of children; and I asked him what he thought was the best to teach them first. JOHNSON: `Sir, it is no matter what you teach them first, any more than what leg you shall put into your breeches first. Sir, you may stand disputing which is best to put in first, but in the mean time your breech is bare. Sir, while you are considering which of two things you should teach your child first, another boy has learnt them both.’” 

Holmes had made the same allusion a year and a half earlier, on Aug. 30, 1920: “Now I am like Dr. Johnson’s dull boy hesitating between Dumas and Don Quixote while you would have read both.” Early in their correspondence, on Nov. 20, 1916, Laski writes: 

“I am so drowned in work that I have been seeking relaxation in what is the one book I can never tire of—Boswell. Really it is a glorious cross-section of humanity, the little man’s jealousy of Goldsmith, his sneaking belief that there may be good in Scotland despite the doctor, and Johnson’s big, loveable curiosity about life, even his healthy dogmatism. What a wonderful judgment of Burke, `his stream of mind is perpetual.’ I hope you are an admirer at his shrine.”

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