Saturday, September 13, 2014

I Believe in Sherlock Holmes

    “I believe in Sherlock Holmes.” These are the words uttered by a minimal character in the BBC series Sherlock.  It pretty much sums up why Sherlockians attend conferences and seminars concerning Sherlock Holmes.  This very spectre of the Great Detective has been responsible for vast numbers of societies dedicated to keeping green his memory.  Some may shudder to think that without Sherlock Holmes, no one would remember Arthur Conan Doyle, but it is a distinct possibility.  To be certain, Conan Doyle was a very good writer, but if it were not for the 60 narratives attributed to the pen of Dr. Watson, would any publisher have considered his other works?  Would they have been purchased if the author was an unknown?  These are the questions leading to our belief in Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle did not just write the Sherlock Holmes saga, but he gave it a life of its own.  He inspired others to write about his writing in such a way that the characters live on in the hearts and minds of the readers to this day.
    The essence of why I believe in Sherlock Holmes is that wherever one goes and broaches the subject of Sherlock Holmes, the oft posed question of “is he real” is invariably pursued.  The answer is quite simply, “Yes.”  He has impassioned our hearts, or as Vincent Starrett put it, “only those things the heart believes are true.”  However, although Starrett so beautifully defined our affliction, it all started with a young scholar priest in England whose passion for Sherlock Holmes was only superseded by his love of his religious studies.
    Ronald A. Knox was not the first to write a critique of the Sherlock Holmes canon.  However, some could easily argue that he made the “game” popular with his essay “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes.”  The accomplishment of Knox in the critiques of the existing Canon, was similar to the popularity of baseball after George Herman Ruth started to play for the Yankees.  Ruth did not invent baseball, he was not the first player to play the game, nor was he the first to hit a home run.  But he did make the game popular, creating a love for the game that exists to this day.  It is probable that even baseball historians do not know who was the first to hit a home run.  And although many batters have broken Ruth’s record 60 home runs, most have been forgotten, or relegated to the realm of the longer schedule, steroid enhanced sluggers, etc., etc., etc.  All remember Babe Ruth even though they were not born when he was king.  The same can be said of Sherlock Holmes and the remarkable 60 adventures.  Therefore, we can believe in Sherlock Holmes and we certainly believe in Babe Ruth.
    The beauty of Knox’s contribution to the game is that he inspired so many to refute his claims in writing about the writings.  Edgar W. Smith, the founder and first editor of The Baker Street Journal provided a platform for these views to be shared with the world.  “The JOURNAL is dedicated to the proposition that there is still infinitely much to be said about the scene in Baker Street, and that it is of the first importance to safeguard the meritorious offerings laid upon our common shrine from that swift oblivion to which, by a heedless and unheeding world, they might otherwise be condemned.  In that purpose and intent, which honors by its very terms the name and fame of Sherlock Holmes, the JOURNAL’S course of destiny will run.”  To Edgar Smith, and those who followed him in the office of editor, it was a work of love.
    Smith’s implicit love of Sherlock Holmes is evident in the second issue of the JOURNAL in 1944, where he writes: 
            We love the times in which he lived, of course: the half-remembered, half-forgotten times ‘of snug Victorian illusion, of gaslit comfort and contentment, of perfect dignity and grace. The world was poised precariously in balance, and rude Disturbances were coming with the years; but those who moved upon the scene were very sure that all was well: that nothing ever would be any worse nor ever could be any better. There was no threat to righteousness, and justice and the cause of peace on earth except from such as Moriarty and the lesser villains in his train. The cycle of events had come full turn, and the times were ripe for living-and for being lost. It is because their loss was suffered before they had been fully lived that they are times to which our hearts and longings cling.
            And we love the place in which the master moved and had his being: the England of those times, fat with the fruits of her achievements, but strong and daring still with the spirit of imperial adventure.  The seas were pounding, then as now, upon her coasts; the winds swept in across the moors, and fog came down on London.  It was a stout and pleasant land, full of the flavor of the age; and it is small wonder that we who claim it in our thoughts should look to Baker Street as its epitome. For there the cabs rolled up before a certain door, and hurried steps were heard upon the stair, and The Baker Street Journal England and her times had rendezvous within a hallowed room, at once familiar and mysterious. . . . 
            But there is more than time and space and the yearning for things gone by to account for what we feel toward Sherlock Holmes. Not only there and then, but here and now, he stands before us as a symbol-a symbol, if you please, of all that we are not, but ever would be. His figure is sufficiently remote to make our secret aspirations for transference seem unshameful, yet close enough to give them plausibility. We see him as the fine expression of our urge to trample evil and to set aright the wrongs with which the world is plagued. He is Galahad and Socrates, bringing high adventure to our dull existences and calm, judicial logic to our biased minds. He is the success of all our failures; the bold escape from our imprisonment.
            Or, if this be too complex a psychological basis to account for our devotion, let it be said, more simply, that he is the personification of something in us that we have lost, or never had. For it is not Sherlock Holmes who sits in Baker Street, comfortable, competent and self-assured; it is we ourselves who are there, full of a tremendous capacity for wisdom, complacent in the presence of our humble Watson, conscious of a warm well-being and a timeless, imperishable content. The easy chair in the room is drawn up to the hearthstone of our very hearts-it is our tobacco in the Persian slipper, and our violin lying so carelessly across the knee-it is we who hear the pounding on the stairs and the knock upon the door.  The swirling fog without and the acrid smoke within bite deep indeed, for we taste them even now. And the time and place and all the great events are near and dear to us not because our memories call them forth in pure nostalgia, but because they are a part of us today.
        That is the Sherlock Holmes we love-the Holmes implicit and eternal in ourselves.1
If you were able to find that his words echo in your heart of hearts, then it is evident that you too believe in Sherlock Holmes.
    Mr. Smith was not alone in this endeavor, as was made very clear in the first issue of the “new Series” of The Baker Street Journal in 1951.  Chicago book dealer, Ben Abramson, was the publisher of the first thirteen issues of what became known as the “old series” of the BSJ from 1946 to 1949.  Edgar W. Smith recorded what occurred in the first issue of what is now known as the “new series.”
        “Five years ago, an earnest and courageous follower of Sherlock Holmes undertook, wholly on his own financial responsibility, to give The Baker Street Irregulars a medium for their common expression and a meeting ground for their enjoyment. In launching the Irregular Quarterly as he did, Ben Abramson ventured nobly — but he ventured, it proved at mundane last, in vain.  For never, as Christopher Morley put it, was so much written by so many for so few. The JOURNAL, costly in its dress and voluminous in its content, achieved an immediate success d’estime, but it languished painfully, through all the years, in revenue and circulation. Thirteen issues appeared in all — a total of 16814 pages about nothing in the world but Sherlock Holmes at a cost of much grinding labor to the volunteer editor into whose charge it was given, but at a cost of many thousands of dollars to the man who brought it into being and who kept it alive so long.  For this unselfish devotion, against hopeless financial odds, the Irregulars can hold no feeling toward Ben Abramson but that of sympathy and gratitude.”2
There can be little doubt that Ben Abramson believed in Sherlock Holmes with such verve, because he was willing to invest heavily from his personal finances to bring The Baker Street Journal into reality.  None will ever surpass Smith and Abromson’s devotion to the master, as it was clear that the editor and publisher believed that everyone would also exhibit the selfsame devotion to Sherlock Holmes that they felt. 
    How quickly we forget in a world where one can self publish on a computer, or print books as each order comes through, that a few years ago, the cost of a typeset manuscript could only be recouped if numerous copies were produced, and then succeeded in selling them all.  Ben Abramson believed in Sherlock Holmes.
        These self same feelings were in the hearts of all who play the game.  John Bennett Shaw was one of the world’s finest collectors of things Sherlockian.  However, he was much more than that.  He was an encourager of anyone who expressed interest in Sherlock Holmes.  All one need do is write a quick note to him, and in no time at all the answer was at hand.  Shaw was fond of remarking that he had his own Zip code, because the volume of mail was so immense.  He created a list of The Basic Holmesian Library consisting of 100 books that one should have in their library.  There were some newer books on the list, but Shaw wanted everyone to know of their Sherlockian roots — those who believed in Sherlock Holmes one hundred years ago.  Shaw too believed in Sherlock Holmes, and his passion was evident.
    Michael Harrison originally trained to be an architect, worked as a code breaker during the war with a young man named Ian Fleming, and at Fleming's suggestion, he became a writer.  Michael took on the task of writing many wonderful books on beer cookery, mysteries, on strumpets and kings, witchcraft, Frankenstein and his bride, and other subjects too numerous to mention.  However, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, when he was asked to write a biography of what he believed to be a “fictional character,” his popularity increased substantially.  Although following in the footsteps of Ronald Knox, he completed his biography, injecting life into the characters once again.  Through the years, Michael too learned to believe in Sherlock Holmes.
    And so we return to the original premise — why do we believe in Sherlock Holmes?  Although we may follow in the footsteps of those rare individuals mentioned above, and countless thousands we do not know about, we are here because of our hearts.  There can be no doubt about the motive for those who start a scion society; those who join a scion; those who write a paper, whether in anticipation of publication, or for the enjoyment of a few; or, those who just attend meetings and seminars, and like Watson inspire others to shine.  Let’s not forget those whose love extends to quizzes, to dressing as the characters in the Canon, who attempt to bust Sherlockian myths, and so many other numerous activities.  Unfortunately, too many get caught up in the trend, and do not have the necessary ingredient to sustain their interest.  Like Icarus, they fly too high, burn out and disappear from the scene.  Those who remain, those who spend years of participation, do so because they believe in Sherlock Holmes.  If you are reading this blog, I thank you for your attention; but most importantly, I thank you for believing in Sherlock Holmes – for why else would you be here? 
    If you were a bit hesitant to believe in Sherlock Holmes, perhaps these words will encourage you to investigate the writings of John H. Watson.  You will not be disappointed.   
End Notes
1.    Smith, Edgar W.  “The Editor’s Gas Lamp,” The Baker Street Journal, Vol. 1 number 2, (1944), pp. 111-112.
2.    Smith, Edgar W.  “The Editor’s Gas Lamp,” The Baker Street Journal, Vol. 1 number 1, (new series),  (January 1951), p. 1.
Keeping the Holmes fires burning,
William R. Cochran, BSI

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