Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. - Life and Career - Later Years and Death

Later Years and Death

Holmes's fame continued through his later years. The Poet at the Breakfast-Table was published in 1872. Written fifteen years after The Autocrat, this work's tone was more mellow and nostalgic than its predecessor; "As people grow older," Holmes wrote, "they come at length to live so much in memory that they often think with a kind of pleasure of losing their dearest possessions. Nothing can be so perfect while we possess it as it will seem when remembered". In 1876, at the age of seventy, Holmes published a biography of John Lothrop Motley, which was an extension of an earlier sketch he had written for the Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings. The following year he published a collection of his medical essays and Pages from an Old Volume of Life, a collection of various essays he had previously written for The Atlantic Monthly. He retired from Harvard Medical School in 1882 after thirty-five years as a professor. After he gave his final lecture on November 28, the university made him professor emeritus.

In 1884, Holmes published a book dedicated to the life and works of his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. Later biographers would use Holmes's book as an outline for their own studies, but particularly useful was the section dedicated to Emerson's poetry, into which Holmes had particular insight. Beginning in January 1885, Holmes's third and last novel, A Mortal Antipathy, was published serially in the Atlantic Monthly. Later that year, Holmes contributed $10 to Walt Whitman, though he did not approve of his poetry, and convinced friend John Greenleaf Whittier to do the same. A friend of Whitman, a lawyer named Thomas Donaldson, had requested monetary donations from several authors to purchase a horse and buggy for Whitman who, in his old age, was becoming a shut-in.

Suffering from exhaustion, and mourning the sudden death of his youngest son, Holmes began postponing his writing and social engagements. In late 1884, he embarked on a visit to Europe with his daughter Amelia. In Great Britain he met with writers such as Henry James, George du Maurier and Alfred Tennyson, and was awarded a doctor of letters degree (D.Litt.) from Cambridge University, a doctor of laws (LL.D.) from Edinburgh University, and a third honorary degree from Oxford. Holmes and Amelia then visited Paris, a place that had significantly influenced him in his earlier years. He met with chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur, whose previous studies in germ theory had helped reduce the mortality rate of women suffering from puerperal fever. Holmes considered the Frenchman to be "one of the truest benefactors of his race". Upon his return to the United States, Holmes published a travelogue entitled Our One Hundred Days in Europe.

In June 1886, Holmes received an honorary degree from Yale University Law School. His wife of more than forty years, who had struggled with an illness that had kept her an invalid for months, died on February 6, 1888. The younger Amelia died the following year after a brief malady. Despite his weakening eyesight and a fear that he was becoming antiquated, Holmes continued to find solace in writing. He published Over the Teacups, the last of his table-talk books, in 1891.

Towards the end of his life, Holmes noted that he had outlived most of his friends, including Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. As he said, "I feel like my own survivor... We were on deck together as we began the voyage of life... Then the craft which held us began going to pieces." His last public appearance was at a reception for the National Education Association in Boston on February 23, 1893, where he presented the poem "To the Teachers of America". A month later, Holmes wrote to Harvard president Charles William Eliot that the university should consider adopting the honorary doctor of letters degree and offer one to Samuel Francis Smith, though one was never issued.

Holmes died quietly after falling asleep in the afternoon of Sunday, October 7, 1894. As his son Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., wrote, "His death was as peaceful as one could wish for those one loves. He simply ceased to breathe." Holmes's memorial service was held at King's Chapel and overseen by Edward Everett Hale. Holmes was buried alongside his wife in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Read more about this topic:  Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Life and Career

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