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Good Talk and a Great Friendship

ISSUE:  Summer 1941

Holmes-Pollock Letters. The Correspondence of Mr. Justice Holmes and Sir Frederick Pollock, 1874-1932, Edited by Mark de Wolfe Howe. Harvard University Press. Two volumes. $7.50.

A remarkable correspondence, such as that be

tween Mr. Justice Holmes and Sir Frederick Pol-

lock, may of course be read on many levels, according to the wishes of the reader. Helped by an excellent index, he may use the volume of “Holmes-Pollock Letters” as a laboratory of criticism; or he may regard it as the “biography of an era,” a description suggested by John Gorham Palfrey in his graceful introduction; or he may wish to read it simply as a series of human documents, revealing, through the informal and intimate medium of the letter, the nature of the men who wrote them. On any level the correspondence is richly rewarding. “When you open Pepys,” wrote Holmes, “you get one leg on the fly paper at once and it is hard to get away.” Of these letters it may be said that you may not even try to get away.

For this happy state of affairs we have to thank not only the principal actors but also Mark de Wolfe Howe, who has managed one of the best editing jobs of the century. The letters are more than good talk: they are a symbol of a common tradition and a great friendship.

The good talk ranges over a vast field. There is much law, of course, but beyond law there is philosophy and the conduct of life, letters, authors, and statesmen; it extends from Horace to Hemingway, from the Cyrillic Alphabet to Hohfeld and from “The Republic” to “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” There is no pulling of punches and many of the epigrams (which, incidentally, never obtrude) are, together with many longer passages, already classic. “His reason made him skeptical,” writes Holmes of William James, “and his wishes led him to turn down the lights so as to give miracle a chance.” As for Hegel, he could never persuade Holmes “that a syllogism can wag its tail.” The letters are studded with similar thrusts, not all of which are the monopoly of Holmes, as witness Pollock’s comments on Shaw, Wells, Churchill, Bertrand Russell, and many others. Of Russell, for example, Pollock drily remarks that “his theodicy consisted in being angry with the gods for not existing, because if they did he would like to break their windows.” You can read many heavy tomes without finding the critical insight this one phrase packs.

Yet it is not as a critical laboratory or as the “biography of an era” that this correspondence is to be mainly prized. Its chief value rests in the light it throws on the central characters. They were great men, great in their capacities as scholars and jurists and great in their conduct and outlook. The susceptible reader soon senses that while Pollock was more deeply philosophic, Holmes was more independent and incisive. But their intellectual traits are overshadowed by their personalities. If he reads the correspondence carefully and chronologically the reader soon gets the feeling of intimacy which comes from sharing not only their thoughts but their experiences. And he cannot but be touched by them. He sees Holmes valiantly reading “against the Day of Judgment” and he begins to feel with Pollock an irritation at the sorry state of law reporting. He begins to respect Pollock for his scholarly restraint and to like Holmes for his vigorous and boyish zest: “My love to Lady Pollock. Tell her the old man swept round the last post to the home stretch going strong.” The total stream of letters thus has the quality of a warmly human novel with its parade of births, work, vacations, achievements, honors, friends, and, toward the close, the haunting sense of the approaching end: “I feel time quietly taking down the building little by little.”

Quite obviously a correspondence numbering some six hundred letters and extending over a half a century does not maintain a uniform standard of interest for the haphazard reader. Yet Mr. Howe was wise to include, along with the choice letters, the technical and the casual ones; for it is not the choice letter alone or the brilliant epigram that makes this correspondence a moving account of what can happen here.


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