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Sherlock Holmes’s Infinite Case-Book

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Many of the items discussed here are featured in the display “The Intertextual Sherlock Holmes,” which can be seen outside the Reading and Viewing Room on the second floor of the Ransom Center until April 21.

While fanfiction may seem like an Internet-dependent phenomenon, its origins stretch far back into the past, beyond even the age of print. Adapting others’ literary creations for new purposes is at least as old as the Aeneid, in which Virgil adopts a minor character from Homer’s Iliad, Aeneas, as the hero of his story. The scholar Henry Jenkins has argued for fanfiction as modern myth-making, “a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by the folk.” Just as ancient Greek storytellers could draw upon shared cultural knowledge to spin a tale featuring Theseus or Ariadne, their present-day counterparts seeking a similar resonance might instead turn to Harry Potter, Captain James T. Kirk—or Sherlock Holmes.

Holmes captured the imagination of other writers almost from his inception. In 1891, an anonymous author published “My Evening with Sherlock Holmes” in The Speaker, less than four years after the detective’s 1887 debut in A Study in Scarlet. One might argue that it was not long before other writers were more enamored of Holmes than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was himself, for Doyle attempted to kill off his obstreperous creation in 1893 in a thwarted effort to refocus attention on his historical fiction. Even Holmes’s apparent death at Reichenbach Falls did little to stem the rising tide of Sherlockian pastiches, parodies, and fanfictions, of which the Ransom Center holds a diverse selection.

Published in Punch in January 1894, the eighth and last part of “The Adventures of Picklock Holes” by “Cunnin Toil” features the derivative detective tussling on the brink of a waterfall with his archenemy—Sherlock Holmes himself.
Published in Punch in January 1894, the eighth and last part of “The Adventures of Picklock Holes” by “Cunnin Toil” features the derivative detective tussling on the brink of a waterfall with his archenemy—Sherlock Holmes himself.

Many of the early extra-canonical Holmes sightings crop up as brief, humorous episodes in newspapers or periodicals, often with absurd variations on the detective’s distinctive name. In 1892, The Idler featured the adventures of Sherlaw Kombs, while Punch followed in 1893 with tales of Picklock Holes. Even P. G. Wodehouse joined the fun, publishing “Dudley Jones, Bore-Hunter” in Punch in 1903. Andrew Lang, best known for editing the Blue Fairy Book and its sequels, took a more serious approach in his pastiche “At the Sign of the Ship” (Longman’s Magazine, 1905), in which Holmes applies his deductive powers to the unsolved mystery of Edwin Drood. Across the Atlantic, Arthur Chapman took time off from writing cowboy poetry to pen “The Unmasking of Sherlock Holmes” for The Critic (1905), in which Auguste Dupin derides Holmes as an attenuated derivative of himself. (The story ends with Holmes shamefacedly conceding his debt to Dupin.)

While Chapman leaves Holmes at home in London, other authors took Holmes on some distinctly American adventures. In A Double Barrelled Detective Story (1902), Mark Twain transplants the detective to a California mining camp, much to the chagrin of his murderous nephew, Fetlock Jones. In “The Sleuths” (1911), Austin’s own O. Henry re-imagines Holmes as New York private eye Shamrock Jolnes, whose “thin, intellectual face, piercing eyes, and rate per word are too well known to need description.” The Center holds unusual copies of both books: Twain’s is a signed first edition from the author’s own library, while Henry’s is a tiny volume originally distributed as a free prize in cigarette packets.

Alongside the proliferating Holmesian fictions, a tradition of tongue-in-cheek nonfiction also arose that treated Holmes and Watson as real people, with Doyle demoted to mere editor when he was acknowledged at all. In 1911, future mystery writer and Monsignor Ronald Knox regaled an Oxford audience with “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes,” couched in the stentorian style of Biblical exegesis. Knox’s disquisition not only presumed the actuality of Holmes himself, but also fabricated a bevy of rival Holmesian scholars, whose interpretations of the canon Knox demolished with great relish. Taken up by other enthusiasts, this practice of fan-nonfiction became known as the Higher Criticism or the Great Game. The Center’s collections include key entries in the genre by Vincent Starrett, H. W. Bell, S. C. Roberts, and Dorothy L. Sayers, among many others.

Fascination with Holmes soon expanded beyond his English-speaking audience. A German newspaper wrote in 1908, “It is certain that contemporary Europe is suffering from a disease called Sherlockismus […] a literary disease similar to Werther-mania and romantic Byronism.” The Bookman concurred, diagnosing Paris with “what may be described as a bad case of Sherlockitis,” and citing some alarming symptoms: “In connection with two recent sensational murders the Paris newspapers have been giving their versions of how these crimes were committed in the form of imaginary interviews with Sherlock Holmes.” Versions of Holmes also thrived on the Spanish stage, with several plays produced and published between 1908 and 1916. While some of these drew directly on the canon, many were original works that borrowed only the character (and sometimes no more than the name) of Holmes.

As Doyle’s frustration with Holmes’s popularity became more and more apparent, and new adventures appeared less and less frequently, fans turned to supplementing the canon with their own creations. After the publication of the final Holmes tales in 1927, a Wisconsin teenager named August Derleth started writing stories that both imitated and explicitly referenced Holmes, introducing his detective Solar Pons as “the Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street.” Derleth again translated his fan enthusiasm into action when he founded Arkham House to ensure the publication of H. P. Lovecraft’s works in formats more durable than pulp magazines. Arkham later published the Pons stories under the imprint Mycroft & Moran, with each volume featuring an introduction by a noted Sherlockian. Derleth eventually wrote more stories about Pons than Doyle did about Holmes.

From the first issue of The Baker Street Journal, 1946.
From the first issue of The Baker Street Journal, 1946.

The rise of organized fan societies created new venues for fans to communicate with other fans. In 1934, Christopher Morley founded the Baker Street Irregulars, which began publishing The Baker Street Journal in 1946. After a brief stint in the 1930s, The Sherlock Holmes Society of London re-formed in 1951, bringing out the first Sherlock Holmes Journal the following year. Both periodicals featured stories by fans alongside Sherlockian news, reviews, essays, and criticism. In addition to issues of both journals, the Center also holds the papers of Christopher Morley, including many documents from the early days of the Baker Street Irregulars. A limited edition pamphlet of the sonnet in which Vincent Starrett famously declared “It is always 1895,” a recreation of the portrait of Irene Adler that caused so much trouble in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” and a self-published book of original songs about characters from the stories illustrate the wide range of creative engagement that flowed through these channels for fan-centered community.

The mythology of Sherlock Holmes continues to expand across media. Recently published fictions by Michael Chabon, Neil Gaiman, and Laurie S. King re-envision the classic Holmes in new contexts. On television, BBC’s Sherlock and CBS’s Elementary each mix and match elements of the original adventures and characterizations to produce two very different modern takes on Holmes and Watson. Fanworks inspired by the original Holmes or his many reincarnations proliferate both online and in print. The Ransom Center’s collections illustrate that the current boom in re-imagining Doyle’s detective is only the most recent chapter in a long history of Sherlockian creative enthusiasm. The case-book of Sherlock Holmes is nowhere near closed.

In 2011, the Baker Street Irregulars published “Bohemian Souls,” a facsimile of the original manuscript of “A Scandal in Bohemia,” accompanied by annotations and commentary.  This was followed by their 2012 edition of “The Golden Pince-Nez.”  Both manuscripts are owned by the Ransom Center.

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The Adventure of the Immortal Detective: Discovering Sherlock Holmes in the Archives

The Adventure of the Immortal Detective: Discovering Sherlock Holmes in the Archives

The BBC’s modernized television adaptation Sherlock and the steampunk-inspired Hollywood blockbuster Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows are only two of the most recent incarnations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective. The Ransom Center holds an eclectic array both of Sherlockiana and of materials illustrating Doyle’s diverse pursuits.

Doyle introduced Sherlock Holmes in the novel A Study in Scarlet, which received several rejections before being published in the 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual (alongside the forgotten tales “Food for Powder” and “The Four-Leaved Shamrock,” as well as some truly terrifying Victorian advertisements—“Steiner’s Vermin Paste, It Never Fails!”). The Center holds one of the 11 complete copies known to exist, as part of the Ellery Queen book collection. The Queen collection also includes books from Doyle’s true crime library, many of which previously belonged to W. S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame).

The character of Irene Adler plays a significant role in both the mentioned recent adaptations, but she appears in only one Doyle short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia.” The Center’s Sir Arthur Conan Doyle papers include the handwritten manuscript for this story, as well as a manuscript page from the most famous Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles. The Doyle papers also contain some interesting oddities, such as Doyle’s laconic answers to an autobiographical questionnaire (His favorite food? “Anything when hungry—nothing when not”) and a fan letter Doyle wrote to Bram Stoker in praise of Dracula.

The popular image of Sherlock Holmes owes much to Sidney Paget, who illustrated the original publication of many of the stories in The Strand Magazine. It was he who put Holmes in the iconic deerstalker, never specifically mentioned by Doyle (Sherlockians will tell you that the “ear-flapped travelling cap” described in “Silver Blaze” is the closest reference). The Center’s Sir Arthur Conan Doyle art collection includes two original Paget drawings featuring Holmes and Dr. Watson—but no deerstalker.

The Center’s collections also document fans’ longstanding obsession with Sherlock Holmes. Christopher Morley, whose papers the Center holds, founded the first American Holmes fan society, the Baker Street Irregulars, in 1934. Elsewhere in the collections, one may find a manuscript of Dorothy L. Sayers’s learned disquisition on the conflicting dates given in “The Red-Headed League,” a handwritten essay celebrating the centenary of Holmes’s purported birth by A. A. Milne, and T. S. Eliot’s perceptive review of the collected stories in a 1928 issue of the Criterion.

In later life, Doyle developed a strong interest in spiritualism and the supernatural. The Center holds a large collection of Doyle’s spirit photographs, in which ghostly apparitions hover over the living, as well as his copies of the Cottingley fairy photographs. Doyle used the photographs to illustrate an article he wrote for The Strand Magazine about fairies and interpreted the images as clear evidence of their existence. The Center’s personal effects collection includes Doyle’s Ouija board. (Also present: two pairs of his socks.)

Sherlock Holmes himself has had an afterlife to rival any of Doyle’s spirits. The Center holds some early examples of what today would be called fan fiction: Maurice Leblanc pits his gentleman thief against a Holmes substitute in Arsène Lupin versus Herlock Sholmes (1908); in the same year, the first in a series of Spanish plays paired Holmes with A. J. Raffles (himself a Sherlock-inspired figure from the pen of Doyle’s brother-in-law, E. W. Hornung). Holmes even went to Broadway in Baker Street: A Musical Adventure of Sherlock Holmes (1965). As a bumper sticker from the Baker Street Irregulars proclaims, “Sherlock Holmes is alive and well!”

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In the Galleries: An illustrated envelope from Frank Shay's Bookshop

An envelope sent from the bookshop to Christopher Morley in 1921.
An envelope sent from the bookshop to Christopher Morley in 1921.

Frank Shay’s shop at 4 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village was a bookstore, a community gathering place, a circulating library, and a tiny publishing house all at once. Shay published a newspaper, a magazine, and more than a dozen books from the shop during his time there: small, handcrafted editions with a simple, charming aesthetic that may also reflect the tastes of Shay’s wife, the artist and designer Fern Forrester Shay. In 1924 Frank Shay sold the bookshop and moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he had already been spending summers with his traveling bookshop. The 4 Christopher Street location closed down just a year later. We know that the shop was being managed at the time by a woman named Juliette Koenig, but little further evidence of its final year is found in the Ransom Center’s collections.

Shown here is an envelope for a letter from Frank Shay to Christopher Morley, dated August 1, 1921. The designer of the shop’s stationery was the multitalented Hendrik Willem Van Loon, who won the first Newbery Medal for Children’s Literature for his illustrated Story of Mankind (1922). The envelope may or may not render the shop’s exterior accurately; without surviving photographs, we do not know.

This envelope can be seen in the exhibition The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920–1925, on display through January 22. Van Loon’s cartoons of the shop and its customers have been rendered in various locations throughout the exhibition.

Help identify unknown signatures from the Greenwich Village bookshop door

This previously unknown signature was identified as the English publisher Jonathan Cape by University of Texas at Austin English Professor Michael Winship.
This previously unknown signature was identified as the English publisher Jonathan Cape by University of Texas at Austin English Professor Michael Winship.

Yesterday, the Ransom Center launched the web exhibition The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920–1925. The exhibition uses a door from a bookshop owned by Frank Shay in Greenwich Village in the early 1920s as an entryway into the lives, careers, and relationships of New York bohemians of that era. The door is signed on both sides by more than 240 artists, writers, publishers, and other notable 1920s Village habitués, and the web exhibition uses the signatures to reconstruct the intersecting communities that made Greenwich Village famous as an epicenter of Modernism.

Although about 190 of the signatures on the door have been identified, more than 50 signatures are still unknown, and visitors are encouraged to submit information about any signatures they might recognize.

Curator Molly Schwartzburg shares that she received the first confirmed identification yesterday with the launch of the website. The signature was identified as the English publisher Jonathan Cape by The University of Texas at Austin’s own Michael Winship, the Iris Howard Regents Professor of English Literature. Cape’s distinctive signature includes a slash at the end of his last name, which worked as a red herring on the minds of the project’s curators until Dr. Winship made his suggestion. The identification was confirmed swiftly with a trip to the stacks and reviewing an inscription by Cape in a book.

Six more submissions have come in since, most from New York City. Staff will be investigating these leads in the next week, and the web exhibition will be updated accordingly.

Curator Molly Schwartzburg confirmed the signature identification by comparing the signature to this inscription by Jonathan Cape inside the cover of Christopher Morley's copy of "After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie" by Jean Rhys.
Curator Molly Schwartzburg confirmed the signature identification by comparing the signature to this inscription by Jonathan Cape inside the cover of Christopher Morley's copy of "After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie" by Jean Rhys.