Oliver Wendell Holmes.

A Mortal Antipathy: first opening of the new portfolio online

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Produced by David Widger


By Oliver Wendell Holmes



































"A MORTAL ANTIPATHY" was a truly hazardous experiment. A very wise and
very distinguished physician who is as much at home in literature as he
is in science and the practice of medicine, wrote to me in referring
to this story: "I should have been afraid of my subject." He did
not explain himself, but I can easily understand that he felt the
improbability of the physiological or pathological occurrence on which
the story is founded to be so great that the narrative could hardly be
rendered plausible. I felt the difficulty for myself as well as for my
readers, and it was only by recalling for our consideration a series of
extraordinary but well-authenticated facts of somewhat similar character
that I could hope to gain any serious attention to so strange a

I need not recur to these wonderful stories. There is, however, one, not
to be found on record elsewhere, to which I would especially call the
reader's attention. It is that of the middle-aged man, who assured
me that he could never pass a tall hall clock without an indefinable
terror. While an infant in arms the heavy weight of one of these tall
clocks had fallen with aloud crash and produced an impression on his
nervous system which he had never got over.

The lasting effect of a shock received by the sense of sight or that of
hearing is conceivable enough.

But there is another sense, the nerves of which are in close
relation with the higher organs of consciousness. The strength of the
associations connected with the function of the first pair of nerves,
the olfactory, is familiar to most persons in their own experience and
as related by others. Now we know that every human being, as well as
every other living organism, carries its own distinguishing atmosphere.
If a man's friend does not know it, his dog does, and can track him
anywhere by it. This personal peculiarity varies with the age and
conditions of the individual. It may be agreeable or otherwise, a source
of attraction or repulsion, but its influence is not less real, though
far less obvious and less dominant, than in the lower animals. It was
an atmospheric impression of this nature which associated itself with
a terrible shock experienced by the infant which became the subject of
this story. The impression could not be outgrown, but it might possibly
be broken up by some sudden change in the nervous system effected by a
cause as potent as the one which had produced the disordered condition.

This is the best key that I can furnish to a story which must have
puzzled some, repelled others, and failed to interest many who did not
suspect the true cause of the mysterious antipathy.

BEVERLY FARMS, MASS., August, 1891. O. W. H.




"And why the New Portfolio, I would ask?"

Pray, do you remember, when there was an accession to the nursery in
which you have a special interest, whether the new-comer was commonly
spoken of as a baby? Was it not, on the contrary, invariably, under all
conditions, in all companies, by the whole household, spoken of as the
baby? And was the small receptacle provided for it commonly spoken of
as a cradle; or was it not always called the cradle, as if there were no
other in existence?

Now this New Portfolio is the cradle in which I am to rock my new-born
thoughts, and from which I am to lift them carefully and show them to
callers, namely, to the whole family of readers belonging to my list of
intimates, and such other friends as may drop in by accident. And so
it shall have the definite article, and not be lost in the mob of its
fellows as a portfolio.

There are a few personal and incidental matters of which I wish to say
something before reaching the contents of the Portfolio, whatever these
may be. I have had other portfolios before this, - two, more especially,
and the first thing I beg leave to introduce relates to these.

Do not throw this volume down, or turn to another page, when I tell you
that the earliest of them, that of which I now am about to speak, was
opened more than fifty years ago. This is a very dangerous confession,
for fifty years make everything hopelessly old-fashioned, without giving
it the charm of real antiquity. If I could say a hundred years, now, my
readers would accept all I had to tell them with a curious interest; but
fifty years ago, - there are too many talkative old people who know all
about that time, and at best half a century is a half-baked bit of ware.
A coin-fancier would say that your fifty-year-old facts have just enough
of antiquity to spot them with rust, and not enough to give them - the
delicate and durable patina which is time's exquisite enamel.

When the first Portfolio was opened the coin of the realm bore for its
legend, - or might have borne if the more devout hero-worshippers could
have had their way, - Andreas Jackson, Populi Gratia, Imp. Caesar. Aug.
Div., Max., etc., etc. I never happened to see any gold or silver with
that legend, but the truth is I was not very familiarly acquainted with
the precious metals at that period of my career, and, there might have
been a good deal of such coin in circulation without my handling it, or
knowing much about it.

Permit me to indulge in a few reminiscences of that far-off time.

In those days the Athenaeum Picture Gallery was a principal centre of
attraction to young Boston people and their visitors. Many of us got
our first ideas of art, to say nothing of our first lessons in the
comparatively innocent flirtations of our city's primitive period, in
that agreeable resort of amateurs and artists.

How the pictures on those walls in Pearl Street do keep their places in
the mind's gallery! Trumbull's Sortie of Gibraltar, with red enough in
it for one of our sunset after-glows; and Neagle's full-length portrait
of the blacksmith in his shirt-sleeves; and Copley's long-waistcoated
gentlemen and satin-clad ladies, - they looked like gentlemen and
ladies, too; and Stuart's florid merchants and high-waisted matrons; and
Allston's lovely Italian scenery and dreamy, unimpassioned women,
not forgetting Florimel in full flight on her interminable
rocking-horse, - you may still see her at the Art Museum; and the rival
landscapes of Doughty and Fisher, much talked of and largely praised in
those days; and the Murillo, - not from Marshal Soup's collection; and
the portrait of Annibale Caracci by himself, which cost the Athenaeum
a hundred dollars; and Cole's allegorical pictures, and his immense
and dreary canvas, in which the prostrate shepherds and the angel in
Joseph's coat of many colors look as if they must have been thrown in
for nothing; and West's brawny Lear tearing his clothes to pieces. But
why go on with the catalogue, when most of these pictures can be seen
either at the Athenaeum building in Beacon Street or at the Art Gallery,
and admired or criticised perhaps more justly, certainly not more
generously, than in those earlier years when we looked at them through
the japanned fish-horns?

If one happened to pass through Atkinson Street on his way to the
Athenaeum, he would notice a large, square, painted, brick house, in
which lived a leading representative of old-fashioned coleopterous
Calvinism, and from which emerged one of the liveliest of literary
butterflies. The father was editor of the "Boston Recorder," a very
respectable, but very far from amusing paper, most largely patronized by
that class of the community which spoke habitually of the first day of
the week as "the Sahbuth." The son was the editor of several different
periodicals in succession, none of them over severe or serious, and of
many pleasant books, filled with lively descriptions of society, which
he studied on the outside with a quick eye for form and color, and with
a certain amount of sentiment, not very deep, but real, though somewhat
frothed over by his worldly experiences.

Nathaniel Parker Willis was in full bloom when I opened my first
Portfolio. He had made himself known by his religious poetry, published
in his father's paper, I think, and signed "Roy." He had started the
"American Magazine," afterwards merged in the "New York Mirror." He had
then left off writing scripture pieces, and taken to lighter forms of
verse. He had just written

"I'm twenty-two, I'm twenty-two,
They idly give me joy,
As if I should be glad to know
That I was less a boy."

He was young, therefore, and already famous. He came very near being
very handsome. He was tall; his hair, of light brown color, waved in
luxuriant abundance; his cheek was as rosy as if it had been painted to
show behind the footlights; he dressed with artistic elegance. He was
something between a remembrance of Count D'Orsay and an anticipation of
Oscar Wilde. There used to be in the gallery of the Luxembourg a picture
of Hippolytus and Phxdra, in which the beautiful young man, who had
kindled a passion in the heart of his wicked step-mother, always
reminded me of Willis, in spite of the shortcomings of the living face
as compared with the ideal. The painted youth is still blooming on the
canvas, but the fresh-cheeked, jaunty young author of the year 1830 has
long faded out of human sight. I took the leaves which lie before me
at this moment, as I write, from his coffin, as it lay just outside the
door of Saint Paul's Church, on a sad, overclouded winter's day, in the
year 1867. At that earlier time, Willis was by far the most prominent
young American author. Cooper, Irving, Bryant, Dana, Halleck, Drake, had
all done their best work. Longfellow was not yet conspicuous. Lowell was
a school-boy. Emerson was unheard of. Whittier was beginning to make his
way against the writers with better educational advantages whom he was
destined to outdo and to outlive. Not one of the great histories,
which have done honor to our literature, had appeared. Our school-books
depended, so far as American authors were concerned, on extracts
from the orations and speeches of Webster and Everett; on Bryant's
Thanatopsis, his lines To a Waterfowl, and the Death of the Flowers,
Halleck's Marco Bozzaris, Red Jacket, and Burns; on Drake's American
Flag, and Percival's Coral Grove, and his Genius Sleeping and Genius
Waking, - and not getting very wide awake, either. These could be
depended upon. A few other copies of verses might be found, but Dwight's
"Columbia, Columbia," and Pierpont's Airs of Palestine, were already
effaced, as many of the favorites of our own day and generation must
soon be, by the great wave which the near future will pour over the
sands in which they still are legible.

About this time, in the year 1832, came out a small volume entitled
"Truth, a Gift for Scribblers," which made some talk for a while, and
is now chiefly valuable as a kind of literary tombstone on which may be
read the names of many whose renown has been buried with their bones.
The "London Athenaeum" spoke of it as having been described as a
"tomahawk sort of satire." As the author had been a trapper in Missouri,
he was familiarly acquainted with that weapon and the warfare of its
owners. Born in Boston, in 1804, the son of an army officer, educated
at West Point, he came back to his native city about the year 1830. He
wrote an article on Bryant's Poems for the "North American Review," and
another on the famous Indian chief, Black Hawk. In this last-mentioned
article he tells this story as the great warrior told it himself. It was
an incident of a fight with the Osages.

"Standing by my father's side, I saw him kill his antagonist and
tear the scalp from his head. Fired with valor and ambition, I rushed
furiously upon another, smote him to the earth with my tomahawk, ran my
lance through his body, took off his scalp, and returned in triumph to
my father. He said nothing, but looked pleased."

This little red story describes very well Spelling's style of literary
warfare. His handling of his most conspicuous victim, Willis, was very
much like Black Hawk's way of dealing with the Osage. He tomahawked
him in heroics, ran him through in prose, and scalped him in barbarous
epigrams. Bryant and Halleck were abundantly praised; hardly any one
else escaped.

If the reader wishes to see the bubbles of reputation that were
floating, some of them gay with prismatic colors, half a century ago,
he will find in the pages of "Truth" a long catalogue of celebrities he
never heard of. I recognize only three names, of all which are mentioned
in the little book, as belonging to persons still living; but as I have
not read the obituaries of all the others, some of them may be still
flourishing in spite of Mr. Spelling's exterminating onslaught. Time
dealt as hardly with poor Spelling, who was not without talent and
instruction, as he had dealt with our authors. I think he found shelter
at last under a roof which held numerous inmates, some of whom had seen
better and many of whom had known worse days than those which they were
passing within its friendly and not exclusive precincts. Such, at least,
was the story I heard after he disappeared from general observation.

That was the day of Souvenirs, Tokens, Forget-me-nots, Bijous, and
all that class of showy annuals. Short stories, slender poems, steel
engravings, on a level with the common fashion-plates of advertising
establishments, gilt edges, resplendent binding, - to manifestations of
this sort our lighter literature had very largely run for some years.
The "Scarlet Letter" was an unhinted possibility. The "Voices of the
Night" had not stirred the brooding silence; the Concord seer was still
in the lonely desert; most of the contributors to those yearly volumes,
which took up such pretentious positions on the centre table, have
shrunk into entire oblivion, or, at best, hold their place in literature
by a scrap or two in some omnivorous collection.

What dreadful work Spelling made among those slight reputations,
floating in swollen tenuity on the surface of the stream, and mirroring
each other in reciprocal reflections! Violent, abusive as he was, unjust
to any against whom he happened to have a prejudice, his castigation of
the small litterateurs of that day was not harmful, but rather of use.
His attack on Willis very probably did him good; he needed a little
discipline, and though he got it too unsparingly, some cautions came
with it which were worth the stripes he had to smart under. One noble
writer Spelling treated with rudeness, probably from some accidental
pique, or equally insignificant reason. I myself, one of the three
survivors before referred to, escaped with a love-pat, as the youngest
son of the Muse. Longfellow gets a brief nod of acknowledgment. Bailey,
an American writer, "who made long since a happy snatch at fame," which
must have been snatched away from him by envious time, for I cannot
identify him; Thatcher, who died early, leaving one poem, The Last
Request, not wholly unremembered; Miss Hannah F. Gould, a very bright
and agreeable writer of light verse, - all these are commended to the
keeping of that venerable public carrier, who finds his scythe and
hour-glass such a load that he generally drops the burdens committed to
his charge, after making a show of paying every possible attention to
them so long as he is kept in sight.

It was a good time to open a portfolio. But my old one had boyhood
written on every page. A single passionate outcry when the old warship
I had read about in the broadsides that were a part of our kitchen
literature, and in the "Naval Monument," was threatened with demolition;
a few verses suggested by the sight of old Major Melville in his cocked
hat and breeches, were the best scraps that came out of that first
Portfolio, which was soon closed that it should not interfere with the
duties of a profession authorized to claim all the time and thought
which would have been otherwise expended in filling it.

During a quarter of a century the first Portfolio remained closed for
the greater part of the time. Only now and then it would be taken up
and opened, and something drawn from it for a special occasion, more
particularly for the annual reunions of a certain class of which I was a

In the year 1857, towards its close, the "Atlantic Monthly," which I had
the honor of naming, was started by the enterprising firm of Phillips
& Sampson, under the editorship of Mr. James Russell Lowell. He thought
that I might bring something out of my old Portfolio which would be not
unacceptable in the new magazine. I looked at the poor old receptacle,
which, partly from use and partly from neglect, had lost its freshness,
and seemed hardly presentable to the new company expected to welcome
the new-comer in the literary world of Boston, the least provincial of
American centres of learning and letters. The gilded covering where
the emblems of hope and aspiration had looked so bright had faded; not
wholly, perhaps, but how was the gold become dim! - -how was the most
fine gold changed! Long devotion to other pursuits had left little time
for literature, and the waifs and strays gathered from the old Portfolio
had done little more than keep alive the memory that such a source of
supply was still in existence. I looked at the old Portfolio, and said
to myself, "Too late! too late. This tarnished gold will never brighten,
these battered covers will stand no more wear and tear; close them, and
leave them to the spider and the book-worm."

In the mean time the nebula of the first quarter of the century had
condensed into the constellation of the middle of the same period.
When, a little while after the establishment of the new magazine, the
"Saturday Club" gathered about the long table at "Parker's," such a
representation of all that was best in American literature had never
been collected within so small a compass. Most of the Americans whom
educated foreigners cared to see-leaving out of consideration
official dignitaries, whose temporary importance makes them objects of
curiosity - were seated at that board. But the club did not yet exist,
and the "Atlantic Monthly" was an experiment. There had already been
several monthly periodicals, more or less successful and permanent,
among which "Putnam's Magazine" was conspicuous, owing its success
largely to the contributions of that very accomplished and delightful
writer, Mr. George William Curtis. That magazine, after a somewhat
prolonged and very honorable existence, had gone where all periodicals
go when they die, into the archives of the deaf, dumb, and blind
recording angel whose name is Oblivion. It had so well deserved to live
that its death was a surprise and a source of regret. Could another
monthly take its place and keep it when that, with all its attractions
and excellences, had died out, and left a blank in our periodical
literature which it would be very hard to fill as well as that had
filled it?

This was the experiment which the enterprising publishers ventured upon,
and I, who felt myself outside of the charmed circle drawn around the
scholars and poets of Cambridge and Concord, having given myself to
other studies and duties, wondered somewhat when Mr. Lowell insisted
upon my becoming a contributor. And so, yielding to a pressure which I
could not understand, and yet found myself unable to resist, I promised
to take a part in the new venture, as an occasional writer in the
columns of the new magazine.

That was the way in which the second Portfolio found its way to my
table, and was there opened in the autumn of the year 1857. I was
already at least

'Nel mezzo del cammin di mia, vita,'

when I risked myself, with many misgivings, in little-tried paths of
what looked at first like a wilderness, a selva oscura, where, if I did
not meet the lion or the wolf, I should be sure to find the critic, the
most dangerous of the carnivores, waiting to welcome me after his own

The second Portfolio is closed and laid away. Perhaps it was hardly
worth while to provide and open a new one; but here it lies before me,
and I hope I may find something between its covers which will justify me
in coming once more before my old friends. But before I open it I want
to claim a little further indulgence.

There is a subject of profound interest to almost every writer, I
might say to almost every human being. No matter what his culture or
ignorance, no matter what his pursuit, no matter what his character, the
subject I refer to is one of which he rarely ceases to think, and, if
opportunity is offered, to talk. On this he is eloquent, if on nothing
else. The slow of speech becomes fluent; the torpid listener becomes
electric with vivacity, and alive all over with interest.

The sagacious reader knows well what is coming after this prelude. He
is accustomed to the phrases with which the plausible visitor, who has a
subscription book in his pocket, prepares his victim for the depressing
disclosure of his real errand. He is not unacquainted with the
conversational amenities of the cordial and interesting stranger, who,
having had the misfortune of leaving his carpet-bag in the cars, or of
having his pocket picked at the station, finds himself without the means
of reaching that distant home where affluence waits for him with its
luxurious welcome, but to whom for the moment the loan of some five and
twenty dollars would be a convenience and a favor for which his heart
would ache with gratitude during the brief interval between the loan and
its repayment.

I wish to say a few words in my own person relating to some passages in
my own history, and more especially to some of the recent experiences
through which I have been passing.

What can justify one in addressing himself to the general public as if
it were his private correspondent? There are at least three sufficient
reasons: first, if he has a story to tell that everybody wants to
hear, - if he has been shipwrecked, or has been in a battle, or has
witnessed any interesting event, and can tell anything new about it;
secondly, if he can put in fitting words any common experiences not
already well told, so that readers will say, "Why, yes! I have had
that sensation, thought, emotion, a hundred times, but I never heard
it spoken of before, and I never saw any mention of it in print;" and
thirdly, anything one likes, provided he can so tell it as to make it

I have no story to tell in this Introduction which can of itself claim
any general attention. My first pages relate the effect of a certain
literary experience upon myself, - a series of partial metempsychoses
of which I have been the subject. Next follows a brief tribute to the
memory of a very dear and renowned friend from whom I have recently been
parted. The rest of the Introduction will be consecrated to the memory
of my birthplace.

I have just finished a Memoir, which will appear soon after this page is
written, and will have been the subject of criticism long before it is
in the reader's hands. The experience of thinking another man's thoughts
continuously for a long time; of living one's self into another man's
life for a month, or a year, or more, is a very curious one. No matter
how much superior to the biographer his subject may be, the man who
writes the life feels himself, in a certain sense, on the level of the
person whose life he is writing. One cannot fight over the battles of

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Online LibraryOliver Wendell HolmesA Mortal Antipathy: first opening of the new portfolio → online text (page 1 of 21)