Oliver Wendell Holmes and the Saturday Club

Place: Boston, 1858.

Present: Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

EMERSON: I am sorry that the inclement weather seems to have deterred so many of our members today.

LONGFELLOW: I too. It means that Dr. Holmes and Mr. Lowell will both be sharing our table. Not much likelihood of you and me having an opportunity for conversation, Emerson.

HOLMES: If you are referring to last week's meeting, I will have to remind you that it was not I but our friend Lowell who insulted Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe by insisting to the entire assembly that Tom Jones was the best novel ever written in the English language. He might at least have acknowledged the popular success of her Uncle Tom's Cabin, even if he could not bring himself to acknowledge its merits.

LOWELL: (to the others) And it was our friend Holmes, not to be outdone, who argued at length with her husband, that most Calvinist of ministers -- Dr. Calvin Stowe -- to the effect that the profane swearing which we all lament among the lower classes actually originates in the pulpit.

LONGFELLOW: I must confess that we all enjoyed your wickedness. However, even you must admit that it was scarcely the way to treat invited guests.

LOWELL: Speaking of guests, I understood that you were going to bring your neighbor down from Concord today, Emerson. Henry Thoreau in Boston would have been a rare experience. I was looking forward to a good talk with him.

HOLMES: I thought you implied the other day that you considered him rather self-centered and boring.

LOWELL: Not at all. I merely mentioned in passing that in my opinion Henry Thoreau is a bit too fond of registering the state of his personal thermometer. It does not mean that I lack interest in the man and his writing. His eccentricities are well known. Even you have remarked upon them.

EMERSON: Yes, Holmes. Thoreau enjoyed your description of him as a man who likes to nibble his asparagus from the wrong end. I see him quite differently, of course, through the eyes of love as well as respect. I like to say, in reference to him, that he who sees the horizon may securely say what he pleases of any tree or twig between. He did consider coming, by the way, but is storm stayed at Walden.

LONGFELLOW: I have just realized something. This stormy weather has created an interesting situation. The four of us who managed to come in today happen to share a special bond, in addition to the literary interests that have drawn us into the Saturday Club.

HOLMES: Well, it certainly is not our position on Abolition. Lowell and I have had a longstanding gentleman's disagreement on that subject.

LOWELL: At times the disagreement has been far from gentlemanly, I'm afraid. I have always been ashamed of that righteously indignant letter I wrote to you more than ten years ago, Holmes, before I knew the kind of man you really were.

HOLMES: (to the others) Yes. He accused me in no uncertain terms of warmongering , because I had criticized some of the more militant of the Abolitionist tracts. I was fearful then, and even more so today, of the danger to the Union posed by all this uncompromising confrontation.

EMERSON: Although I support Abolition, I am somewhat sympathetic to your view. Today I fear that there are more warmongers than peacemakers on both sides of this cursed controversy.

LONGFELLOW: It may be that war is inevitable. I suspect that there is no peaceful way to tear the institution of slavery from our social and economic fibre.

HOLMES: You may be right. But how much bloodshed will be required? And even though the rivers of our nation were to run red with the blood of innocent youth until our social fiber is totally destroyed, would that ensure equality and justice for the Negro?

EMERSON: I fear not. It is the attitude of man to man that must be changed.

LOWELL: So long as slavery exists, white men have a licence to exploit and degrade the black. What is a more effective shaper and enforcer of inhuman attitudes than that pernicious institution?

HOLMES: Granted. However, slavery is not a problem in Boston. And yet ---. Do you recall what happened a few years ago when, as Dean of the Harvard Medical Faculty, I attempted to admit three high caliber Negro students?

LONGFELLOW: I do not recall the details. I believe that you were violently attacked by the popular press.

HOLMES: Not only by the press. An overwhelming majority of the students voted against allowing the black men to study with them, and the faculty supported them in their stand against me. I managed to find places for two of the students at Dartmouth, but the third, a Mr. Delany, insisted upon remaining in Boston, confident that the Abolitionists would rally around him.

LOWELL: What happened then?

HOLMES: Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not a word about the incident appeared in the Abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. Not even an acknowledgment of our struggle came from any of our fiery Abolitionist friends. It was obvious to me that it was "the cause" in the abstract that mattered to these people, and punishment of slaveholders -- not justice and equality for Negroes as people.

LONGFELLOW: Wasn't there a woman involved in that situation also?

HOLMES: Yes, indeed. A Miss Harriet Hunt -- like the Negro candidates, an excellent student -- had applied several times to the Harvard Medical Faculty and been refused. No female has ever been considered for admission to a medical faculty in this country. As Dean, I had been working quietly for some time on ways to sneak her in. When the crisis erupted over the Negro candidates, Miss Hunt was also discouraged and condemned by my learned colleagues. A small portion of the student body did come to the support of the Negro candidates but, interestingly, not one person rallied to the defence of Miss Hunt's right to a medical education.

LOWELL: So much for equality for women! Somehow, that cause does not seem to have much appeal for reformers.

EMERSON: My good friend, Thoreau, in his piece on Reform and the Reformers, had something to say that seems relevant. He asked that all reformers make sure that their own personal lives demonstrate the substance of their reforms.

LONGFELLOW: You mean that the pacifist should demonstrate peacefulness and compromise and justice in all his relationships, as the Quakers do?

LOWELL: And the man preaching Temperance should make us feel the value of comradeship without the use of spirits, rather than fomenting against the evils of strong drink.

EMERSON: Likewise, the vegetarian should exemplify the enjoyment of plant food by exhibiting a healthy and hearty mein.

HOLMES: Enough. You reformers have lost me, I'm afraid. Temperance speeches simply make me thirsty, while sermons promoting vegetarianism leave me panting and snarling for red meat.

EMERSON: It seems that we have wandered far afield from Longfellow's question. He asked what it is that we four have in common. We've established that, indeed, it is not our position on any of the popular reform movements of the day.

HOLMES: I cannot think of any conviction on which Lowell and I would agree for more than the few minutes it would take to define our positions.

LONGFELLOW: What I had in mind was our attitude toward religion: our shared Unitarianism. Are we not all adherents of the Unitarian Church?

EMERSON: We call ourselves Unitarians, but that does not mean that we share all of the same assumptions about religion. For example, Holmes has often indicated to me his abhorrence of my transcendentalist views.

HOLMES: True. I happen to think that the idea that an individual can know intuitively what is good and true is a dangerous one. The doctors in this country who continue to spread childbed fever from patient to patient -- murdering countless mothers -- in spite of my compelling evidence of their culpability, all "know" intuitively that they should wash their hands after attending a woman in childbirth, but not before. And their intuition tells them, as well, that childbed fever is not contagious.

LONGFELLOW: But our general attitude toward religion is similar, is it not? If I am not mistaken, this is revealed to some extent in our poetry.

HOLMES: Not if you include in "general attitude" Emerson's notion of a universal mind, to the presence of which we must all pay homage.

EMERSON: Forget transcendentalism for the moment. Could we at least agree on the advantages of pantheism?

LOWELL: I seem to remember a critic remarking that -- true to your transcendentalism -- you are a pantheist by intuition rather than by argument, Emerson. As such, it is not too surprising that you have not been completely successful in convincing the rest of us of the value of your position.

EMERSON: Rather than rise to your bait I will retreat even further in an attempt to find common ground. Could we all agree that all religions consist of the ethics of one or another holy person?

LOWELL: Or of a person deemed in his time to be holy -- or at least a great teacher.

LONGFELLOW: That seems to be an assumption shared by many American Unitarians today. It is one that brings us closer to the central message of Parker's "South Boston Sermon" than to Channing's "Baltimore Sermon", although the latter seemed radical in its time, heralding as it did the departure of Unitarianism from the Calvinist theology of Congregationalism.

HOLMES: Not surprising. The world has changed since Channing's time, as has the content and extent of our knowledge. We are living now in Theodore Parker's world, and we tend to share his spectacles. But I sense that we are at this moment in history at the threshold of a great advance in human knowledge. If we Unitarians are true to our heritage, our religious beliefs will have to undergo even greater changes in the next century, as the expansion of scientific knowledge demands revolutionary adjustments to our ways of viewing the world and the place of humanity within it.

EMERSON: Then so be it. On this, at least, we are in agreement, as we must also agree that it is time to end another Saturday discussion.

A "playlet" excerpted from Pat Duffy Hutcheon, On the Shoulders of Giants: Senior-level R.E. Curriculum for Unitarian Universalist Churches, 1987.