Thursday, June 26, 2014

Oliver Wendell Holmes--Elsie Venner (1861)

I have finally given up on trying to keep up a full record of all the books I read here. I had fallen more than five years behind, and of course had long forgotten what had happened in most of the books or what they were about. However I may periodically post something about whatever I happen to be reading off my 'A-List' at any given time (the B-list I write about at the Vacation blog). Currently this is the volume referenced in the title of this post, a 596 page Victorian novel, though as it is a very old [1887] edition, the number of words per page is actually not that great). I started it on June 5, and as of today (June 26) I have gotten to page 388. This is, for me, a pretty good pace.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, physician, poet, Harvard professor, coiner of the word "anesthesia", the term "Boston Brahmins", and all around best-selling author, along with his son, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr, the famed longtime Supreme Court Justice of the early 20th century (perhaps most famous nowadays for his "three generations of imbeciles is enough" statement in upholding a case of forced sterilization), were the most prominent members of one of the dominant American families of their age, and New England families of any age. Due to both father and son living long and active lives, their age lasted close to a century (Holmes, Jr, who died in 1935 at the age of 94, does not appear to have had any children. I am not sure whether the family lives on to this day or not). Holmes Senior's most famous book, The Autocratic of the Breakfast Table, was still prominent enough in the 1960s to make it onto my 'B' list. As I am reading those books in alphabetical order and am currently in the AGs, I should be getting to it within the next few years at least, and I cannot say that I am dreading it.



Elsie Venner is an odd book, not uninteresting, overwordy and padded in the  typical Victorian style. It has an old New England setting, in a New England old, or young, enough to still be suggestive of 'wildness', presumably in contrast with the more ancient civilizations of Europe, that is of interest to me, as a longtime resident of this part of the country. When Holmes gets around to presenting actual scenes, and has his characters speak for themselves, the book is not so bad. But the introductions and descriptive passages, while typical for their time, are more noticeably so in their extravagance than in those authors contemporary to Holmes whose fame has carried through to our own. The chapter I am in now, for instance, is titled, "The Widow Rowens Gives a Tea Party". I am anticipating that the scene of the actual tea party will be entertaining enough; but at seven pages into the chapter we are still being introduced to the Widow Rowens, her mode of dress, her attitude towards remarriage, speculation on her ancestry, and so on, following several pages devoted to a recap of her late husband's military career and how his eye for a worthy horse carried over into a similar sense for women. It is also worth noting that while Holmes seems to have been devoted to American democracy and a believer in political equality, he was also acutely conscious of his personal superiority, and that of his class, to the mass of the population. While he does not harp on this to the point of overkill, it is a pretty consistent theme running through the book, and it comes up enough that he gets off some pretty driving sentences about the differences between the energetic, achieving, ruling portion of society and that occupied by lackluster slavish types.

The most famous part--probably the only famous part--of this book is on the very first page, in the second paragraph, in which Holmes describes "The Brahmin caste of New England", a passage that one still sees quoted sometimes even now, especially the part about how this class "gives parties where the persons who call them by the above title are not invited, and have a provokingly easy way of dressing, walking, talking, and nodding to people, as if they felt entirely at home, and would not be embarrassed in the least, if they met the Governor, or even the President of the United States, face to face." In the early chapters of the book and intermittently thereafter there is a first person narrator who, like Holmes, is a professor at Harvard, though he does not play any part in the main action of the story other than writing a recommendation for one of his favorite scholars that enables him to get a teaching job in an academy for teen-aged girls. The professor is the author of an as yet unpublished book about Anglo-American Anthropology in which the physical characteristics of the various types of that race are no doubt rigorously investigated. His pet student is like himself, obviously a specimen of the highest type of their kind, and the professor/Holmes writes with regard to him that "I have great confidence in young men who believe in themselves, and are accustomed to rely on their own resources from an early period. When a resolute young fellow steps up to the great bully, the World, and takes him boldly by the beard, he is often surprised to find it come off in his hand, and that it was only tied on to scare away timid adventurers".


Holmes's house on Beacon Street.

With regard to the approach of this superior type of man to marriage:

"By the time he was thirty, he would have knocked the social pawns out of the way, and be ready to challenge a wife from the row of great pieces in the background...I would not have him marry until he knew his level...remember that a young man, using large endowments wisely and fortunately, may put himself on a level with the highest in the land in ten brilliant years of spirited, unflagging labor." I think something like this is the arc your life is supposed to take after you graduate from St John's, if you have properly absorbed the course of study during your time there.

"Silas Peckham was a thorough Yankee, born on a windy part of the coast, and reared chiefly on salt-fish". I just thought this was funny.

"You cannot get together a hundred girls, taking them as they come, from the comfortable and affluent classes, probably anywhere, certainly not in New England, without seeing a good deal of beauty." Wow. I agree, but I don't think I've ever seen anyone else actually express this sentiment with regard to New England.

Speaking of New England beauty, the title character Elsie Venner finally appears on page 73, as a notable student at the girls' school. After which she promptly disappears again for another thirty or forty pages.


Holmes's children.

"...nothing but a gentleman is endurable in full dress." I know I would be considered one of the unendurables, but it is fun for me to imagine being able to laugh at people like myself in the absolute security of a superiority acknowledged on all sides.

Holmes refers to New Hampshire as a "queer sort of state", "in more than one sense the Switzerland of New England", and "naturally enough deficient in pudding-stone", which I take to refer to a lack of settlements large enough to have paved roads and sidewalks in comparison with Massachusetts.

Elsie Venner by the way is a ferocious and untamed girl whose condition is believed to be the result of her mother's having been bitten by a rattlesnake while pregnant. She dances wild Moorish fandangoes and sprawls on a tiger skin rug in her bedroom. This would be exciting stuff if it were going on in most New England villages now, but maybe it was not so unusual in 1860.

"The absolute tyranny of the human will over a noble and powerful beast develops the instinct of personal prevalence and dominion; so that horse-subduer and hero were almost synonymous in simpler times, and are closely related still." I do like this aspect of these old writers, that there was no mincing about on matters related to manhood and the necessity of mastery and domination over one's environment to attain a sense of fullness. This is what the education of boys should be directed to, and maybe still is at the highest reaches, if you can break through to those, it still is (and must be, because the naturally strongest will insist upon it).

I liked the comparison Holmes makes of a house to a seed-pod, its front door opening and projecting its young outwards in all directions. My house will probably take on something of this personality when the children grow up.

Elsie Venner has a wild cousin who grew up in Argentina (and who is also infatuated with her). Though he enjoys hanging out and riding on the Pampas with the native population there, at a certain point he yearns for New England and refers to his Argentinian companions as "degenerate mongrels" (it is humorous when it happens in the book).

"The clergyman, the physician, the teacher, must be paid; but each of them, if his duty be performed in the true spirit, can hardly help a shiver of disgust when money is counted out to him for administering the consolations of religion, for saving some precious life, for sowing the seeds of Christian civilization in young ingenuous souls." I laughed at this too, and wrote, 'where does this come from?', but I think there is something of sincerity in the sentiment, even though ordinarily Holmes was one of the greatest champions of'getting on in the world of his time. There is nonetheless a vulgarity in getting paid for doing truly noble things that I believe most noble men feel, and this is why aristocrats and certain deeply cultured people were so long loth to accept money in exchange for services. But it is hard to reconcile democratic society, the American version anyway, with the damnation of money.

"Elsie was naturally what they call a man-hater..." This sounds like a term people at the time would have used for people exhibiting lesbian tendencies. It is not really indicated that Elsie Venner is a lesbian so much that her sexuality and intelligence are of a more masculine quality, to the point that she is way too much woman for almost all of the ordinary mortal men with whom she comes into contact.

"Always handle any positively electrical body, whether it is charged with passion or power, with some non-conductor between you and it, not with your naked hands."

Referring to one of the harried teachers at the school: "Why does not somebody come and carry off this noble woman, waiting here all ready to make a man happy?" I have had similar thoughts about certain people, and the reminiscence of them made me happy. Not many people, mind you, but every few years you will run across someone fitting the description.


Helen is the woman who ought to be carried off to make some man happy.

"So it is that in all the quiet bays which indent the shores of the great ocean of thought, at every sinking wharf, we see moored the hulks and the razees of enslaved or half-enslaved intelligences." Now we getting back to what people like Holmes do very well, exposing the cold reality of the mental lives of the likes of me. Such as this:

"The magnificent constituency of mediocrities of which the world is made up,--the people without biographies, whose lives have made a clear solution in the fluid menstruum of time, instead of being precipitated in the opaque sediment of history--" What separates Holmes from other writers in this vein is that there is no sense with him of having been especially fortunate, or thoughts that the uninspired, servile life could ever have been his lot. No, the idea of himself existing in such a state, not being at the forefront of things, having dull thoughts and no ability to hold intelligent conversation, is unfathomable.

I have not finished the book yet, so I don't know how certain medical conditions are going to resolve themselves. While Holmes, the physician, admonishes amateur medical scholars, who were doubtless abundant in that age, and does it pretty well, it is curious that the main theme of his book seems to rest on a rather fantastic and dubious condition both of body and soul.

"He had entered that period which marks the decline of men who have ceased growing in knowledge and strength: from forty to fifty a man must move upward, or the natural falling off in the vigor of life will carry him rapidly downward." There is no letting up with Holmes.



"It takes too long to describe these scenes where a good deal of life is concentrated into a few silent seconds."

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