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Oliver Wendell Holmes
A Willing Servant to an Unknown God


Part of Cambridge Historical Studies in American Law and Society

  • Date Published: December 2020
  • availability: Available
  • format: Paperback
  • isbn: 9781108469302

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About the Authors
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes was one of the most influential figures in American law. As a Supreme Court Justice, he wrote foundational opinions about such important constitutional issues as freedom of speech and the limits of state regulatory power. As a scholar and Massachusetts High Court judge, he helped to reshape the common law for the modern industrial era. And yet, despite the many accounts of his career, Holmes himself remains an enigma. This book is the first to explore the nineteenth-century New England influences so crucial to the formation of his character. Inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson's transcendentalism, Holmes belonged to a group of men who formulated a philosophy known as American pragmatism that stood as an alternative to English empiricism and German rationalism. This innovative study places Holmes within the transcendentalist, pragmatist tradition and thereby unlocks his unique identity and contribution to American law. Wells' nuanced analysis will appeal to legal scholars, historians, philosophers, and general readers alike.

    • Written in clear, non-technical language
    • Examines Emersonian transcendentalism and its effect on Holmes
    • Discusses Holmes' constitutional theories as well as his relationship with the founders of American pragmatism
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    Reviews & endorsements

    'Catharine Pierce Wells has performed a great service with her account of Holmes' personal religion, portrayed for the first time, a pragmatic religion of duty, service, and selfless commitment to fairness in adjudication. Holmes' moral character seems inadequate to us today, Wells concedes, but his failings were limitations of the law in his time and place as much as they were personal defects.' Sheldon Novick, author of Honorable Justice: The Life of Oliver Wendell Holmes

    'Wells has courageously added to the immense literature on the life and work of Oliver Wendell Holmes. An expert on the philosophy of American pragmatism, Wells - without ignoring Holmes' legal positivism - successfully reimagines Holmes' life and work in the context of American philosophical pragmatism of his time.' Margaret Jane Radin, University of Toronto

    'Professor Wells has written a remarkably thoughtful and compelling book. Part biography and part intellectual history, it shows how Oliver Wendell Holmes was shaped by the social, philosophical, and religious currents of his time. Elegantly written and filled with sparkling insight, it sheds new light on the inner life of one of America's greatest judges.' Thomas Healy, Seton Hall University, New Jersey

    'Professor Wells skillfully and knowledgeably portrays Holmes, his life, and the influences upon him, in their complex entirety. She takes us through Civil War combat into science, religion, philosophy, and law. Weaving them together, Holmes is renewed as a compelling standard for the continuing challenge to our national intelligence and purpose.' Frederick Kellogg, George Washington University

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    Product details

    • Date Published: December 2020
    • format: Paperback
    • isbn: 9781108469302
    • length: 223 pages
    • dimensions: 230 x 150 x 13 mm
    • weight: 0.35kg
    • availability: Available
  • Table of Contents

    Part I. The Soldier's Faith: Prologue: Memorial Day, 1884
    1. Our comfortable routine
    2. War is horrible and dull
    3. The great chorus of life and joy begins again
    4. For the Puritan still lives in New England, Thank God!
    Part II. The Journey to the Pole: Commencement speech: Brown University, 1897
    5. A black and frozen night
    6. The loneliness of original work
    7. The master of himself
    Epilogue: the consummation.

  • Author

    Catharine Pierce Wells, Boston College, Massachusetts
    Catharine Pierce Wells is Professor of Law at the Law School of Boston College, Massachusetts. Wells has published more than thirty articles, with a focus in the fields of tort law and American jurisprudence.

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