The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XXIII. Writers of Familiar Verse

§ 1. Ancestry

ONE of the best known passages in Elsie Venner is that in which Holmes asserted the existence of an aristocracy in New England, or at least a caste, which “by the repetition of the same influences, generation after generation,” has “acquired a distinct organization and physiognomy.” This caste is composed of those whose ancestors have had the advantage of college training and have practised one or another of the three learned professions. The young man born in this selected group is commonly slender, with a smooth face and with features regular and of a certain delicacy. “His eye is bright and quick,—his lips play over the thought much as a pianist’s fingers dance over their music,—and his whole air, though it may be timid, and even awkward, has nothing clownish.” Teachers discover that he “will take to his books as a pointer or setter to his field work.” He may be intended for the bar while his father was a minister and his grandfather a physician; and by the very fact of this heredity he “belongs to the Brahmin caste of New England.”

The man who thus described this caste was himself a Brahmin of the strictest sect, endowed with its best qualities, and devoid of its less estimable characteristics,—the tendency to anæmia and to the semi-hysterical outlook of the dyspeptic reformer. He was energetic, wholesome to the core, sound and sane, unfailingly alert, fundamentally open-minded, never tempted to crankiness or freakishness. He was born in an illustrious year, 1809, which saw the birth of Darwin and Lincoln, of Tennyson and Gladstone, of Chopin, Mendelssohn, and Edgar Allan Poe. It was toward the end of August that the Rev. Abiel Holmes, author of the Annals of America, made a brief entry at the foot of a page in his almanac, “—29. son b.” The son was named Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Wendell being the maiden name of his mother, descended from an Evert Jansen Wendell who had been one of the early settlers of Albany; and thus her son could claim a remote relationship with the Dutch poet Vondel:

  • And Vondel was a Wendell who spelt it with a V.
  • Through his father, the Calvinist minister, and his grandfather, a physician who had served in the Revolution with the Continental troops, Holmes was descended from Anne, daughter of Thomas Dudley, governor of Massachusetts Bay, and wife of Simon Bradstreet, twice governor of the province. The author of the Autocrat shared with R. H. Dana, author of Two Years before the Mast, the honour of descent from this literary ancestress. Holmes was born in Cambridge, in an old gambrel-roofed house that had served as General Ward’s headquarters at the outbreak of the Revolution: “The plan for fortifying Bunker’s Hill was laid, as commonly believed, in the southeast room, the floor of which was covered with dents, made, it is alleged, by the butts of the soldiers’ muskets.” Holmes’s mother, it may be recorded here, to account in a measure for the veracity and the vigour of his Grandmother’s Story of Bunker-Hill Battle, was only a little girl of six when she was hurried off from Boston, then taken by the British, who were preceded by rumours that “the redcoats were coming, killing and murdering everybody as they went along.”