Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Centennial Celebration (of Sherlock Holmes in 1987)

Presented to the Club by David T. Noyes in 1987

Allow me to transport you back in time 100 years to the year 1887. Grover Cleveland is President. The U.S. Congress establishes the Interstate Commerce Commission and first leases Pearl Harbor as a naval station. The Marine Biological Laboratory is founded at Wood’s Hole and Frank Sprague builds the first successful electric trolley line. Joseph Pulitzer is earning his reputation as editor of the New York World. The winning horse in the Kentucky Derby brings his owner $4,200, and betting at the track becomes legal in New York State. The fastest time for the one-mile run stands at 4:21.4. The Monday Evening Club is closing in on the end of its second decade.

On the world scene, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec are in their prime. Verdi opens his opera Otello in Milan. St Petersburg enjoys the premiers of Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky. Queen Victoria celebrates her Golden Jubilee.

It is also the year that a tall, trim athletic 26-year-old doctor gave the world its first consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes. Like many others, I first came to admire this character as a 12-year-old adolescent. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his creation, I would like to share with you tonight some of my thoughts about Sherlock Holmes and his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Conan Doyle began his practice in 1882 in the Southsea section of Portsmouth. For this beginning professional they were lean years. During his first year he earned £150, the second £250, and the third year stabilized at about £300 per year. A tax declaration form was returned to him by the inspector of taxes with the notation “most unsatisfactory” and Conan Doyle is said to have sent it back with the comment “I certainly agree.” In 1885, he passed the requisite exams and the University of Edinburgh made him a Doctor of Medicine. During those early years he wrote stories to supplement his income, achieving some success with the popular magazines of his day. His first real break came with an unsigned story published in the Cornhill Magazine. The Cornhill had been edited by Thackeray and carried contributions of Robert Louis Stevenson.

A Tangled Skein, the original title of the first Sherlock Holmes adventure, was written during three weeks of March 1886. In subsequent drafts it became A Study in Scarlet. The physician narrator was initially called Ormond Sacker. He was modeled after a thin, dark-complexioned friend of Conan Doyle’s — Dr. James Watson. Eventually the author retained the surname, changing the first name to John. Conan Doyle appears to have had difficulty deciding upon just the right name for his detective. His first notes use Sherringford Hope, recalling the Hope whaling ship on which Conan Conan Doyle served seven months as physician. Subsequently Hope became Holmes, after Oliver Wendell Holmes, who in 1886 made a much publicized trip to England. The first name later became Sherlock reflecting Conan Doyle’s Irish heritage. The inspiration for the character came from Dr. John Bell, a famous University of Edinburgh physician under whom Conan Doyle had studied. In an age where observation was crucial to the study of medicine, Dr. Bell excelled. To the amazement of his puzzled students, Bell would announce that a patient was a left-handed cobbler or a linoleum worker from Leith. Then he would explain his conclusions based upon the color of the clay on the patient’s boots, the dermatitis on the fingers or the worn areas of a pair of trousers.

The novel was rejected by the Cornhill as being too long for publication in one issue and too short for serialization. It was rejected on two more occasions before, late in 1886, the editors of Ward, Lock and Co. agreed to publish it. They told Conan Doyle, however, that the market was flooded with cheap fiction and it would be a year before it could be printed. They offered £25 for the copyright. Conan Doyle countered with a demand for royalties, which the editors flatly refused. The author relented, feeling that at least his name would be brought before the public. Thus the first Sherlock Holmes novel appeared in paperback in Beeton’s Christmas Annual as a “shilling shocker.” There is no known review of the novel following its original publication.

Two years later, the American editor of Lippincott’s Magazine encouraged Conan Doyle to write another Holmes novel. The Sign of the Four appeared in 1890. It too was not widely circulated or appreciated. But this was the year the Strand Magazine came into existence — a periodical designed for popular journalism: photos on every page, adventure stories, portraits of celebrity homes, and interviews of the famous. In its first year its circulation amounted to 300,000 copies per month. A year later the Strand enticed Conan Doyle to write six Sherlock Holmes stories for £35 each. Very quickly his popularity rose. Although the tradition of detective fiction was not established, public enthusiasm for the genre abounded, partly because many of Holmes’ cases had references to contemporary scandals. The editors increased their offer to £50 per story for another six adventures. The following year after a severe case of influenza Conan Doyle decided to forgo medicine and write full time. He earned £1600, five times his best income as a physician.

Although Conan Doyle could quickly compose these stories, he was tiring of the character. The Strand begged for more material. Conan Doyle set what he thought was an absurd figure of £1000 for another ten stories. With a circulation that had expanded to half a million, the Stand readily agreed.

To Conan Doyle’s mind, the only way to rid himself of the detective was to finish him off. We learn from among 1,500 letters he wrote to his mother that it was only her love for the character that prevented Conan Doyle from acting sooner. In 1893, "The Final Problem" appeared. Twenty thousand subscriptions were canceled immediately. In London, men wore black armbands and women appeared in mourning. It would be ten years before Conan Doyle repented and agreed to write 13 additional adventures. He received $5,000 per story for the American rights alone, believed to be the highest price paid up that time.

But from where does Sherlock Holmes derive his long-standing appeal? Well, perhaps we don’t all enjoy him. George Bernard Shaw called Holmes a drug addict without a single amiable trait. Clearly Holmes has his vices — cigars, chewing tobacco, peppering his apartment wall with bullets, and a cocaine habit. He suffers from conflicting moods of exuberance and depression. He is vain, arrogant and impatient. He treats women with disdain as intellectual inferiors. Although he plays the violin, he is clearly not a Renaissance man. He remains purposely ignorant of astronomy and other subjects because they have no relevance to the art of detection. He is an agnostic, who sees life as a force of nature linking all events in an inevitable chain.

To his credit, however, he is a man of unswerving integrity. He is not impressed with rank or wealth. Our fascination with Holmes lies in his intellectual mastery of inductive reasoning. Time after time he determines brilliant inference from minute detail. His stated philosophy: “It is one of the elementary principles of practical reasoning that when the impossible has been eliminated, the residuum, however improbable, must contain the truth.”

Perhaps the appeal of this character lies in his clairvoyant grasp of events. He makes up his mind about cases assuming the role of both judge and jury. He will then frequently act as an accomplice to the crime in order to prove his solution. We should remember that Holmes’ debut came at a time when all London feared Jack the Ripper. Newspapers cried out for just the kind of inductive reasoning genius that Holmes, in fiction, embodied. The continued failure of the police to solve the murders increased the need for a Holmesian hero. He was the bold Victorian knight helping the terrified ladies or nervous young men in distress. Similarly, for us today, he embodies our urge to correct injustice.

The appeal of Sherlock Holmes reaches across the boundaries of time, class, age and nationality. In 1958, the Conan Doyle estate reported receiving royalties in 72 currencies and almost anyone recognizes the name. Even more noteworthy are the large number of imitations and parodies that have been written, some by such noted authors as Bret Harte, Mark Twain and O. Henry.

There have been some 120 movies, 18 plays, and several thousand radio and television broadcasts of Sherlock Holmes stories. The list of participants reads like the Who’s Who of theater: Charles Chaplin, Orson Wells, Sir John Gielgud, Nigel Williamson, Robert Duval, Roger Moore, Patrick Macnee, Peter O’Toole, and John Barrymore.

Basil Rathbone’s portrayal popularized the cliché, “Elementary, my dear Watson,” making these the most famous words Holmes never said. Interestingly, the stereotypical Inverness cape and deerstalker cap are anachronisms, since the cap was worn only in the country and the cape was expressly used for long distance traveling as protection from the railway soot. The first actor to play Sherlock, William Gillette, chose a curved Meerschaum pipe, primarily because he felt it was more flattering to his profile, and the symbol has been part of the image ever since.

Columnists, editors, advertisers and politicians will conjure up the image of Sherlock Holmes to illustrate their causes. Art Buchwald recently implored him to help solve Iranscam [the Iran-Contra Affair]. Consider John Anderson’s comments in 1974 [about 18-minute gap in the Watergate tapes]: “Not only was the tape doctored deliberately, but it probably occurred in the machine that Miss [Rose Mary] Woods used. Certainly a limited number of people in the White House would have access to that machine. Sherlock Holmes has solved a lot tougher cases than that.”

Finally, perhaps the lure of these tales lies in the enjoyment of harkening back to a leisurely Victorian era: fog bound streets, gas lamps, telegrams rather than telephone. It was an age where people genuinely believed themselves in control of their environment, where they were as yet untouched by the long-term consequences of technology, such as nuclear proliferation, ecology and shrinking natural resources. There was popular acceptance of scientific principles at a time when science was still in a stage that allowed a reasonable grasp of the whole. One could understand the working of the steam engine or take apart a pocket watch. Today a computer chip has no moving parts. We can’t take off the back of a computer to watch it work. We take these advances on faith.

So then, several factors have contributed to Sherlock Holmes reaching his 100th year with so much popularity. His personality, intellectual capabilities, ability to solve crimes that seem beyond solution, caricatures, or perhaps the Victorian period itself — each have their advocates. But maybe it’s just simply that these adventures are good entertainment. This sentiment is perhaps best expressed by Conan Doyle himself in his 1929 preface to the Complete Sherlock Holmes: “I trust that the younger public may find these romances of interest and that here and there, one of the older generation may recapture an ancient thrill.”

Illustration: Portrait of Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget, 1904

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