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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.

Related content:

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

Edward Gorey collection at the Ransom Center

Cover of 'Dracula: The sets and costumes of the Broadway production of the play designed by Edward Gorey'
Cover of 'Dracula: The sets and costumes of the Broadway production of the play designed by Edward Gorey'

Patricia C. Brückmann, Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Toronto, recently spent time working in the Edward Gorey collection at the Ransom Center for a book she is writing about his work. Gorey (1925–2000) was a writer, illustrator, and a designer of books, sets, and costumes. Born in Chicago, Gorey attended the Francis Parker School (which also claims Ransom Center playwright David Mamet as an alumnus). He spent a semester at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and later attended Harvard University, where he roomed with Frank O’Hara. He is well-known for animating the opening sequence of PBS’s Mystery! series, and he won a Tony award in 1978 for his costume design for the Broadway revival of the play Dracula.

The Ransom Center’s Gorey collection includes books, manuscripts, illustrations, correspondence, material related to Dracula

, and some material from Gorey’s college days.

Brückmann, whose research was funded with a fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, shares her ruminations on her work in the Gorey papers.

“So I cannot come to your musicale…..love, Mildred.” This cryptic note, from Edward Gorey to Frank O’Hara, typifies their exchanges in the late ’40s when they shared rooms at Harvard in Eliot House. Although O’Hara’s musical, artistic, and literary talents were already manifest, Gorey’s mother was suspicious about her gifted only child’s friend, writing “I know nothing about this boy except what you tell me.”

Mrs. Gorey also worried about his future. Rejected by The New Yorker (the drawings were strange, they wrote, and the ideas “not funny”), she proposed that he send earlier work, perhaps more to their taste. The editor did suggest that he drop in, but said that he need not rush. The collection contains only two letters from his father, scrawled on Chicago City Council paper, the salutation “dear Son,” the sign-off “Ed.”

I can’t imagine anyone addressing Gorey with “Hi, honey,” but the birthday card in the collection, from a Chicago neighbor, I think, is real.

These, with tests of scansion and rhyme, scribbled all over yellow sheets (and on bills from the Harvard Coop) are among the papers found in three manuscript boxes at the Center. They include Gorey’s undergraduate essays, from a particularly suggestive one on La Rochefoucauld to a dull study on ship-building in Bath, Maine, and reveal the C+ Gorey received on the essay. The lively voice of his mother’s sister, Isabel Garvey, who shared and may have inspired his interest in dance, theater, and old books, leaps out—most often on 3 x 5 cards.

There are also many limericks, some printed later, and a large box of photostats (similar to a photocopy) from drawings for Dracula, these from a later time, and another box of sketches. The clippings in the vertical file, sent from home, often relate the engagements and marriages of his classmates at the Francis Parker School. The art master there, a Chicago painter, gave him, his mother says, “practically a major in art.” So he did have training in addition to the semester at the Institute. The saddest query, in a letter about Harvard, reads “Who was that professor who jumped out of a window?” The professor was F. O. Matthiessen. Harvard was not just pastoral in the ’40s. It was also, as Lillian Hellman said, “Scoundrel time.”