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Holmes, Oliver Wendell (1809–1894)

A renowned member of the New England literary caste, Oliver Wendell Holmes—physician, poet, novelist, and essayist—was ambivalent in his attitude toward Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass.

When Emerson wanted to bring Whitman to a Saturday Club gathering, Holmes claimed to have no interest in meeting the "Brooklyn poet" (Allen 238). And in 1877, when asked about Leaves of Grass by Edward Carpenter, Holmes alluded to the erotica of Whitman's verse, stating, "it won't do" (qtd. in Masters 229–230).

Ironically, many of the characters in Holmes's novels appear to be sexually stimulated, such as Euthymia in A Mortal Antipathy (1885). However, Holmes's erotic fiction is supposedly antiseptic, since characters exemplify patients' neuroses documented from case studies.

Holmes, like Whitman, celebrated the political freedom of the nineteenth-century American who challenged tradition. In "Mechanism in Thought and Morals" (1870), Holmes defines the "moral universe" as that which "includes nothing but the exercise of choice" (qtd. in Small 117).

In his later years, Holmes gained new insight into Leaves. In Over the Teacups (1891) he speaks with great integrity about the aged poet: "[N]o man has ever asserted the surpassing dignity and importance of the American Citizen so boldly and freely as Mr. Whitman" (234).


Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Baker, Liva. The Justice from Beacon Hill: The Life and Times of Oliver Wendell Holmes. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Holmes, Oliver Wendell. Over the Teacups. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1891.

Masters, Edgar Lee. Whitman. New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1968.

Small, Miriam Rossiter. Oliver Wendell Holmes. New York: Twayne, 1962.

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