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A Bad Man’s View of the Law

Law professors rarely write books.  When they write at all, they typically produce incomprehensible and heavily footnoted articles (usually unread) for obscure law reviews.  It is even rarer to find a law professor who can write with flair about something of more than ephemeral interest.  And it is rarest of all to find a law professor who can address a topic important to the readers of Chronicles and reach a conclusion that makes good sense.  That has happened, however, in the case of University of Chicago Law Professor Albert Alschuler’s pungent little jurisprudential biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.—one of the best works on Holmes, legal theory, and legal education to appear in the last 30 years.

With the possible exception of Chief Justice John Marshall, no figure in American legal history is more venerated in law schools than Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841-1935).  No one gives a major address to a law-school audience without taking care to quote Holmes at least once, while among the milder encomiums distinguished law professors have lavished on him are that he was “the great oracle of American legal thought,” “America’s most distinguished citizen,” “the only great American legal thinker,” and “the most illustrious figure in the history of American law.”  As Alschuler demonstrates with almost savage grace, Holmes’...

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