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Jacques Barzun

March 2024
1min read


Former president of the National Institute of Arts and Letters; retired dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Most overrated:

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. I have in mind his conventional status as a thinker and stylist. My impression from reading The Common
Law
and other writings is that he wrote rather undistinguished legal prose, studded with occasional happy turns of phrase. As for his “philosophy,” it was a very ordinary skepticism based on the usual science-inspired materialism.

Most underrated:

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table was a remarkable writer of prose who also wrote two great poems: “The Chambered Nautilus” and “The One Hoss Shay.” His five volumes of table talk are full of deep psychological characterization, first-rate humor, and astute cultural judgments. The novels are not successful as novels, but they are pioneering works in the delineation of women and the influence of sexuality and its pathology on human behavior. In addition, it was Dr. Holmes who led the fight to establish the cause of puerperal fever, this in the teeth of ridicule and obloquy from his colleagues.

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