Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., a humorous fellow, but no fortune-teller

“A man’s learning dies with him; even his virtues fade out of remembrance; but the dividends on the stocks he bequeaths may serve to keep his memory green.”

–Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., from The Professor at the Breakfast Table, Boston, 1872

Here is the quote in context (the entire e-book is free) on Google Books.

While his words are good for a chuckle, clearly the fact that I’m blogging about professor Holmes more than thirteen decades later undermines his reputation as all-wise soothsayer—unless the time period being considered is geologic.

His son’s “learning” and “virtues” were arguably even more indelible. When the quote was published, his son, Oliver Wendel Holmes, Jr., was around 31-years-old. Thirty years later, Holmes, Jr., became a member of the Supreme Court, where he served for 30 years. I wonder whether the second Holmes, more famous to contemporary Americans, would agree with his father’s quote. My guess is that all those dividends from stocks probably weren’t as valuable to him as his father’s words, particularly after the “panic of 1893” and then, a few decades later, “black Thursday.”

I read the quote in The Wench is Dead, an Inspector Morse mystery novel by Sir Colin Dexter (Dexter’s early novels are filled with great quotations). More recently, I came across discussion of Holmes, Jr., in Last Call, Daniel Okrent’s excellent prohibition history, which contains yet another great Holmes quip, proving that humor probably ran in the family. Here’s the quote along with the context that Okrent sets:

The [Supreme] court’s senior member, Oliver Wendell Holmes, was known to appreciate his whiskey (in 1927 he registered his gratitude for an illegal gift bottle with a characteristically Holmesian aphorism: “I have not forgotten the prayer ‘Lead us into temptation.”

So, in short, Holmes was a humorous fellow, but he was no good at wisely predicting the future. Maybe that’s a reason why his son was even wiser, and appreciated a glass of whiskey now and then.