Friday, September 29, 2017

`Something Beautiful in the Old Man, of Course'

“If I get into bed 10 or 15 minutes before 12 I allow myself to read until midnight and in that way have reread Mrs. Piozzi’s Anecdotes of Johnson, which again I found well worth reading. I flatter myself that our times wouldn’t stand his boorish bullying, however great it might think him -- and so often wrong – in our view. There was something beautiful in the old man, of course.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was eighty-nine years old and had been serving on the Supreme Court of the United States for almost twenty-eight years when he described his nocturnal reading habits in a letter to Harold Laski on July 27, 1930. Virtually every entry in the 1,600 pages of the Holmes-Laski correspondence contains references to books being read, sought or remembered. Laski was prone to exaggeration and self-puffery, and some of his bibliophilic accomplishments are dubious, but Holmes was an old-fashioned bookman, with stamina, curiosity and broad interests. His observations sometimes sound remarkably prescient. In the letter to Laski quoted above, in which he describes in detail his recent reading, Holmes says his secretary has recently read aloud to him Mencken’s Treatise on the Gods. He goes on:

“I have also listened to what seems to be a really great novel, My Ántonia – by Willa Cather – turning the life of early settlers on the prairie (in our time) so hard, so squalid, into a noble poem. I do like an author who doesn’t have to go to London or Paris or Vienna to find his genius – but realizes that any part of the universe can be seen poetically and takes what he finds at hand and makes it blossom.”

Cather’s novel is coming into focus as one of the last century’s best. And Holmes’ remarks on literary “regionalism” are ahead of their time and still pertinent in an age when some associate the “writing life” exclusively with Brooklyn. Holmes suggests a new understanding of “provinciality,” that it may have little to do with geography, with living in and writing about the “provinces.”

Holmes has recently read Roosevelt: The Story of a Friendship 1880-1919 (1930) by the former president’s friend Owen Wister, and now contemplates rereading Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe (usually known as Goethe’s Conversations with Eckermann). The closing lines of Holmes' letter are touchingly self-deprecating:

“It is time for me to descend to solitaire. Habits are not unpleasant things for the old if not tyrannical. The day is apt to tire me a little and I like the change – if I have a few minutes before 11 – too short for a game I pull a book from the shelf on my right – often the life of Miss Austen. I like to read about her even if I don’t adore.”

[All quotations are drawn from the two-volume Holmes-Laski Letters, edited by Mark DeWolfe Howe and published by Harvard University Press in 1953.]

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