Holmes on Writing: “Plum Puddings” or Otherwise

A postcard from Holmes’s getaway in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts.

Since my first year of law school, I’ve been fascinated by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., thanks in no small part to Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club (2001) and the large portrait of Holmes that hangs in Harvard’s Hauser Hall.

Holmes, glaring at generation after generation of Harvard Law students.

And so it was a special treat to be invited by the Wall Street Journal to review Stephen Budiansky’s wonderful new biography: Oliver Wendell Holmes: A Life in War, Law, and Ideas. In the century-plus since his appointment to the Supreme Court, there has been no shortage of books about him, or books collecting his writings. When readers already have biographies like Menand’s Metaphysical Club and G. Edward White’s Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: Law and the Inner Self, it’s not unfair to wonder what a new book might add. But Budiansky’s book proves itself to be a clearly worthy addition to long list of Holmesiana. (Here’s the subscribers-only link to my review.)

It is hard to do justice to Holmes’s amazing life and thought in a single book, and exponentially harder to do so in a book review—even a review that my editors generously allowed me to double in length. I couldn’t touch on many of his friendships, or his flirtations, or his travels abroad. Here’s an astonishing bit of trivia, courtesy of Budiansky: when the twentysomething Holmes took a post-law-school trip to England, “John Stuart Mill [invited him] to meet at the House of Commons and accompany him to a dinner and discussion at the Political Economy Club.”

But one thing I was particularly sorry to leave on the cutting-room floor was a discussion of Holmes’s writing style, a theme that Budiansky returns to a few times. For example, Budiansky quotes Holmes on the justice’s efficient opinions (pp. 265–66):

Later (at p. 315), Budiansky describes how Holmes would read his draft opinions aloud, writing them for the ear no less than for the eye:

And as anyone who has ever worked on a group project can appreciate, Holmes hated when his colleagues wrecked his prose. Budiansky describes this in one of my favorite passages in the book (pp. 337–38):

Of course, some of Holmes’s colleagues were less impressed than Holmes with the quality of his own writing, as Budiansky explains (at p. 341):

Budiansky recounts (pp. 340–41) Holmes’s experience writing the majority opinion in The Pipe Line Cases (1914), as his colleagues persist in watering down the opinion and, in Holmes’s view, turning the opinion into nothing more than an exercise in question-begging:

When Holmes received his copy of the bound volume of opinions including that case, he annotated his copy with a handwritten note: “I regard this as inadequate reasoning, but was compelled to strike out what I thought the real argument, and assented to prevent the case going over the Term.”

Speaking of Holmes’s bookshelf: years ago, the Harvard Law School’s library published an online collection of photos from Holmes’s study, in his townhouse on I Street. I can’t find the original landing page for the photos, but Harvard’s database has a lot of the photos if you search for them.

The library in Holmes’s townhouse.
The library in Holmes’s townhouse.

The townhouse, by the way, gets extensive treatment in Budiansky’s book—an entire chapter, with photos. I won’t quote or summarize it here; you should by the book and see for yourself. It’s well worth your time and money.

For more on Harvard’s digital collection of Holmes-related documents and photographs, see this article or go straight to the library’s landing page. I also like this old blog post about Holmes’s hand-annotated copy of his own classic book, The Common Law.

“The life of the law has not been logic: it has been experience. The felt necessities of the time, the prevalent moral and political theories …”



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Adam J. White

I’m a resident scholar at AEI, and a law professor at George Mason University, directing the law school’s Gray Center for the Study of the Administrative State.