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The Wisdom of the Wise–Oliver Wendell Holmes’ Elsie Venner

Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894)Recently, a good stir went through the news media regarding the efficacy of vitamin supplements for human health. When I encounter pronouncements of this sort, I remind myself of the way in which science works, moving provisionally from hypothesis to hypothesis. Then I find somebody speaking of “settled science” and recognize that scientists often vary from that scientific method that they espouse.

This sense of scientific overreach is, of course, nothing all that new. It certainly can be traced back to the medical practice and belief of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.–the poet and novelist, not the Supreme Court justice. In his 1861 novel Elsie Venner, Holmes tells a sprawling, meandering tale, one that could have been well told in perhaps a hundred pages were it not for its frequent, lengthy digressions into matters utterly unrelated to the book’s core–or even its characters. In fact, it is in some of those digressions that we find Holmes employing his pseudo-scientific sociology as he makes great pronouncements on classes of people. In the book’s opening chapter we are introduced to the idea of the Boston Brahmin and those who do not fit into this “caste.”

If you will look carefully at any class of students in one of our colleges, you will have no difficulty in selecting specimens of two different aspects of youthful manhood. Of course I shall choose extreme cases to illustrate the contrast between them. In the first, the figure is perhaps robust, but often otherwise,—inelegant, partly from careless attitudes, partly from ill-dressing,—the face is uncouth in feature, or at least common,—the mouth coarse and unformed,—the eye unsympathetic, even if bright,—the movements of the face are clumsy, like those of the limbs,—the voice is unmusical,—and the enunciation as if the words were coarse castings, instead of fine carvings. The youth of the other aspect is commonly slender, his face is smooth, and apt to be pallid,—his features are regular and of a certain delicacy,—his eye is bright and quick,—his lips play over the thought he utters as a pianist’s fingers dance over their music, and his whole air, though it may be timid, and even awkward, has nothing clownish. If you are a teacher, you know what to expect from each of these young men. With equal willingness, the first will be slow at learning; the second will take to his books as a pointer or a setter to his field-work.

Little imagination is required to see the turn of mind that would take this thinker from such a view to the notion, common among the “enlightened” minds of the 19th century, that Africans are an inferior race. As a good liberal New Englander, Holmes condemned slavery, but we should not take this to mean that he believed in the equality of the races. He was, after all, a man of science.

This brings us to the heart of Elsie Venner. It apparently took a man of science to recognize that if a pregnant woman is bitten by a poisonous snake, her child will take on some of the wild and dangerous nature of that creature. Such is the case with Elsie. An apologist for Holmes might protest that he was writing “A Romance of Destiny,” yet the semi-fantastical nature of a romance seems missing in these pages. Instead we find the scientist presenting lab findings. Holmes’ own description of the work undermines our ability to read this as we might “Rappaccini’s Daughter” to which it has been compared.

The real aim, of the story was to test the doctrine of “original sin” and human responsibility for the disordered volition coming under that technical denomination. Was Elsie Venner, poisoned by the venom of a crotalus before she was born, morally responsible for the “volitional” aberrations, which translated into acts become what is known as sin, and, it may be, what is punished as crime?

The physician-novelist here has stepped well beyond his area of expertise and drawn conclusions that reflect far more on his own predispositions than on what the evidence will support. One should expect more from a man of science, but experience suggests that such expectation will be often disappointed.


Posted in American Literature, Romanticism.

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