Holmes believed that it was no longer possible to think the way he had as a young man before the war, that the world was more resistant than he imagined. But he did not forget what it felt like to be a young man before the war. "Through our great good fortune," he said in the speech in which he memorialized Abbott's advance into Fredericksburg, "in our youth our hearts were touched with fire." — a sentence that both ennobles the antislavery cause and removes it to an irretrievable past. . . .–Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club
In 1932, after he had retired from the Court and was nearing the end, Holmes tried to read aloud to Marion Frankfurter, Felix Frankfurter's wife, a poem he liked about the Civil War, but he broke down in tears before he could finish it. They were not tears for the war. They were tears for what the war had destroyed. Holmes had grown up in a highly cultured, homogeneous world, a world of which he was, in many ways, the consummate product: idealistic, artistic, and socially committed. And then he had watched that world bleed to death at Fredericksburg and Antietam, in a war that learning and brilliance had been powerless to prevent. When he returned, Boston had changed, and so had American life. Holmes had changed too, but he never forgot what he had lost. "He told me," Einstein reported, "that after the Civil War the world never seemed quite right again."
Thursday, July 20, 2017
What Died in the War
Before the Civil War, Oliver Wendell Holmes had been a passionate abolitionist, an idealist, a follower of Emerson, a believer in the pursuit of earthly perfection. After serving for nearly three years in the war, being wounded three times, and seeing the two best friends of his youth killed, he went on to be one of the founders of Pragmatism. Pragmatism is a complicated phenomenon but at its root is a deep suspicion of passionate belief, and a conviction that the wise should devote their efforts to smoothing over conflicts between different factions.