Holmes, the Law, the Author and the Reader

For years, I’ve been curious about Oliver Wendell Holmes. His name seemed to show up in other people’s biographies, and I knew he was an important U.S. Supreme Court Justice, but I didn’t know much more. That’s why I was excited about reading a relatively new biography by Stephen Budiansky.

After early chapters about growing up wealthy and connected in Boston, the son of a famous father, the younger Holmes and his Harvard buddies sign up to lead a Civil War regiment and make a complete mess of it. “The officers [Massachusetts Governor Andrew] chose for the Twentieth [Regiment] read like a page from Boston’s social register…one-half of the regiment’s officers literally were Harvard graduates and at least two-thirds were drawn from the city’s social elite. None had military experience…”

What could possibly go wrong? They found out at Ball’s Bluff, “the first place they could face fear and death the courage they knew was expected of them…” However, “most performed with extraordinary bravery in the midst of the chaos and bungling leadership for which Ball’s Bluff is primarily remembered by military historians today. A military disaster…” Holmes was seriously injured and narrowly escaped death, but hundreds of others, including officers, were not so fortunate. It is a crackling good war story–the first of several, in fact, as we move from Antietam to Fredricksburg to Chancellorsville– and a most unlikely first act for a man mostly known for his work some forty years later as an independent-minded justice on the high court.

Unfortunately, the author attempts a fairly balanced look at Holmes’s whole life. In many biographies, that would be the best approach, but here, Holmes’s many friendships with rich women, in the U.S. and the U.K. fill so many pages, the distraction outdistances the narrative value. Granting the importance of context, even a tenth as much would have been sufficient.

Reading about the war experiences set my hopes high for the author’s discussion of Holmes’s life on the court. Sadly, more than half the book and two-third of his life are gone before Oliver Wendell Holmes becomes a Supreme Court justice. Certainly enough for a deep dive.

Seeking clarity on Holmes’s thinking, his approach to the law, his most important cases, I struggled. I do not believe this to be a failing of the book, but instead, my lackluster background in the law. Many of the cases seemed to turn on technical details and fine points, so the overview and thrust were difficult to grasp. I loved the relationship between young Felix Frankfurter, a good friend mentored by Holmes and deeply affected by his approach to judicial restraint. Frankfurter later became a Supreme Court justice as well. Stories about the warm relationship between Holmes and Louis Brandeis, who served alongside Holmes, and also became both an ally and a good friend. To see the Supreme Court justices as human beings, good friends who care so deeply about the underlying structures of democracy was thrilling.

Still, I kept coming back to the deliberations, the opinions, the cases that were so much a part of Holmes’s daily life, and the country’s decision-making processes, for three decades. (He served until 1932.) Consulting Wikipedia for a review of his most significant court cases, feeling as though I’d learned too little by reading an important book, I confirmed my self-assessment.

And that leaves me with a question. Is it the job of the reader to come to a well-written, well-researched biography of a significant U.S. Supreme Court Justice with an understanding of legal philosophies and cases from a century ago, or is the job of the author of such a book to hold the hand of an ill-informed student (me) to make certain that he or she comprehends the subject’s thinking and accomplishments, knowing full well that the reader (also me) is likely to read the book and then move on. Move on not to a book about Brandeis or Frankfurter or another Justice, but to Doris Kearn Goodwin’s Leadership in Turbulent Timesand then, probably, Robert Caro’s Working, with an Ian Stewart math/science book (perhaps Flatterland, or Visions of Infinity) or, more likely, conductor John Mauceri’s For the Love of Music: A Conductor’s Guide to the Art of Listening. With some poetry, some short stories, and probably a fiction book or two or three along the way? Did I fail because I didn’t take the time, or did Budiansky fail because he didn’t inspire me to read and learn more? I’ll take responsibility. And I will learn more about the Supreme Court, the Justices, and their thinking, but I may need another decade or two before I come around again.

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