He was tall, painfully thin, and – at least in photographs – rather severe in manner and expression; but when he was in motion a joyous combative energy infused his manner. He was a self-made man, but the figure on which he modeled himself was Sir Walter Raleigh – soldier, scholar, gentleman. When he flirted seductively with young men and women, there was something adorable in his talk: a stream of anecdotes and paradoxical reflections, highly polished and original, to which it was difficult to frame an immediate reply. Yet, alone with his thoughts and ambitions, there can hardly have been a more solitary and tormented man.
Holmes was born on March 8, 1841, in Boston, then a half-rural community of hilly, cobbled streets overlooking a busy harbor. He was the son of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes and Amelia Lee Jackson, and grew up in their modest, middle class household. The doctor taught anatomy at Harvard Medical School; his success and fame came late in life with the publication of The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, a collection of his poems and essays. Holmes more closely resembled his mother, and it was from her that he seems to have acquired a profound self-confidence and a deep sense of duty.
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