Oliver Wendell Holmes: A Life in War, Law, and Ideas

Norton. Jun. 2019. 560p. illus. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780393634723. $29.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393634730. BIOG
Budiansky’s books have included studies of codebreaking (Code Warriors), a biography of composer Charles Ives’s (Mad Music), books on warfare, spying, and animal intelligence. Here, he takes on the life and works of legal scholar and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (1841–1935) with insight and panache. Drawing on previously unpublished correspondence, Budiansky paints a nuanced picture of this exceptionally influential judge (30 years on the Court), whose writings and decisions shaped a new approach to law and legal realism: the law is not a set of formulae but a living thing; judges respond to changes in their times to keep the law alive. Taking Holmes’s personal life seriously—his experience in the Civil War, where he was injured three times, his relations with his wife and many friends—the author makes a dry life of the mind into a lively life of a man, and a very appealing one at that. Former Justice Antonin Scalia’s originalism still dominates the Supreme Court, but it’s refreshing to be reminded of Holmes’s ideas, which shaped American legal thinking for more than half a century.
VERDICT A winner from start to finish, this is a natural fit for anyone who enjoys history or biography.

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.


Get connected. Join our global community of more than 200,000 librarians and educators.

Get access to 8000+ annual reviews of books, ebooks, and more

As low as $13.50/month