August 3, 2010

Holmes: The dogma of inherited guilt

A true Renaissance man, Oliver Wendell Holmes had a long, storied life. He was a poet, a scholar/academic, a doctor,  medical reformer, coiner of new terms, inventor, and more. His first novel, Elsie Venner: A Romance of Destiny, was originally serialized for the Atlantic Monthly, before appearing in book form in 1861.

It had a long, successful run. After several republications, Holmes offered a new preface for the final edition he oversaw in his lifetime. Dated August 3, 1891, Holmes notes that the book "was not written for popularity, but with a very serious purpose." In fact, he was writing about the traditional belief in original sin."The only use of the story," the preface states, "is to bring the dogma of inherited guilt and its consequences into a clearer point of view."

The novel is one of the most interesting produced in the 19th century. It follows a young schoolmaster named Bernard Langdon to a small New England town, where he is immediately arrested by the strange yet alluring beauty of 17-year old Elsie Venner. Elsie is a unique, somewhat tortured character, who does not fit in with the striated social structures around her. Instead, she spends the night on the local mountain, a place where no others dare to go. She picks exotic flowers, rarely speaks, and saved Langdon's life from a striking cobra. Langdon, who sought Elsie's hiding place in the mountain, was exploring a cave when it happened:

His look was met by the glitter of two diamond eyes, small, sharp, cold, shining out of the darkness, but gliding with a smooth, steady motion towards the light, and himself... The two sparks of light came forward until they grew to circles of flame, and all at once lifted themselves up as if in angry surprise. Then for the first time thrilled in Mr. Bernard's ears the dreadful sound ... — the long, loud, stinging whirr, as the huge, thickbodied reptile shook his many-jointed rattle and adjusted his loops for the fatal stroke... He waited as in a trance, — waited as one that longs to have the blow fall, and all over, as the man who shall be in two pieces in a second waits for the axe to drop. But while he looked straight into the flaming eyes, it seemed to him that they were losing their light and terror, that they were growing tame and dull; the charm was dissolving, the numbness was passing away, he could move once more. He heard a light breathing close to his ear, and, half turning, saw the face of Elsie Venner, looking motionless into the reptile's eyes, which had shrunk and faded under the stronger enchantment of her own.

Elsie Venner is, after all, half snake.

Her lisp, her own poison-like nature, and her isolation from "normal" society bring to mind the nature of evil: can she overpower her own genetics which predisposes her to evil? What will be her fate if she does? I can't recommend this novel enough; if you enjoy Nathaniel Hawthorne's short stories, you simply must read Elsie Venner.

*Further recommended reading: Oliver Wendell Holmes: Physician and Man of Letters, a collection of essays (mostly on Holmes's medical career), edited by Scott Podolsky and Charles S. Bryan. I am thanked on the acknowledgments page. The book includes an essay by Peter Gibian, author of Oliver Wendell Holmes and the Culture of Conversation, probably the most complete book on the career of Holmes ever written.


  1. After researching and writing about Romanticism for the last few hours, I can't help but be overwhelmed by the themes seen in this one, short passage and your description. And, like many Americans, I didn't realize Holmes was such an accomplished writer. I knew he wrote, but was more aware of his judicial career. Thanks for the enlightenment (once again)! I hope I do the Romantics justice today on my blog.

    Romanticism today at SouthernCityMysteries

  2. The world of Holmes scholarship is very small - but, within that circle, the biggest pet peeve is confusing Holmes Senior (the doctor/writer) with his son Holmes Junior (the jurist)! Actually, I strongly recommend the writing of the good doctor, both poetry and prose. He's become one of my favorites.

  3. This kind of thing happens a lot. I was doing some research recently, for one of my library science classes, and came across a similar situation; the question being posed was as follows: "Where could I find proof of Abraham Lincoln as pallbearer in John Q Adams funeral?"

    The answer: there isn't any, because he wasn't. Abraham Lincoln was on the Committee of Arrangements for J.Q. Adams' funeral, and according to the now-defunct newspaper, The National Intelligencer, he walked in FRONT (immediately ahead of) the pallbearers during the public street procession.

    The real confusion comes in when one looks at the materials relating to the funeral of Adams' father (John Adams): one of the pallbearers listed was "Gov. Lincoln," but this was a reference to Governor Enoch Lincoln of Maine, not Abraham Lincoln.

    Having said that, it's very rewarding to come across something confusing like that, and being able to resolve it. That's what I love most about the scholarly endeavor.