Dr. Erik Tonning is Research Director of the “Modernism and Christianity” project at the University of Bergen, Norway. He visited the Ransom Center in June 2011 to view a range of its modernism holdings and to gather information on behalf of his research team from several of the Ransom Center’s rich collections.
Tonning writes about his research and his findings, including manuscripts that highlight George Bernard Shaw and D. H. Lawrence’s approaches to a new theology, as well as a letter from T. S. Eliot, one of the most famous modernist converts to Christianity.
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!”
Hugh Kenner, considered America’s foremost commentator on literary modernism, was unlike any other literary critic before or since. His scholarship ranged from Ezra Pound to geodisic math to animator Chuck Jones, and he personally knew the modernists about whom he wrote. Los Angeles Times critic Richard Eder once wrote: “Kenner doesn’t write about literature; he jumps in, armed and thrashing. He crashes it, like a party-goer who refuses to hover near the door but goes right up to the guest of honor, plumps himself down, sniffs at the guest’s dinner, eats some and begins a one-to-one discussion.”
Kenner’s archive resides at the Ransom Center. Cultural Compass spoke with Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley about Kenner’s legacy, approach, correspondence with modernist writers, and their friendship.
The Ransom Center doesn’t usually collect critics’ archives. Why was it important for you to acquire Kenner’s papers?
Hugh Kenner was clearly an exception for us. He was one of the most important critics of the most important literary movement of the last century: modernism. His stature as a critic, his influence on literary criticism generally, and his close study of such modernist writers as James Joyce, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and Samuel Beckett make his archive a tremendous resource for scholars and students.
The archive holds all of the letters that Eliot, Pound, Wallace Stevens, Guy Davenport—one after another of major critics and writers—wrote to Kenner. These letters are extremely valuable and revealing. To have figures of their stature writing to a literary critic was rare.
Kenner’s archive offers an opportunity for graduate students, young scholars, and anyone else for that matter, to study the working life of a major literary critic. Kenner brought life not only to these modernist writers but also to the period itself.
As a modernist scholar, how has Kenner influenced you?
The most obvious influence on me is his work on Joyce. The early work he did in Dublin’s Joyce perfected a kind of critical dialog with the author. Certainly he influenced me in the attention he gave to the text. It was more than simply the explication of the text, more than simply close reading. Kenner went beyond that. He brought these writers to a kind of living presence. It’s a very rare critic who can do that.
I was intrigued by Kenner’s writing style. It was arcane yet simple, direct, and humorous. He used words that were outside the usual vocabulary of literary critics. His mind was so fertile. He could talk about the newspaper in the same way he could talk about Ulysses or Finnegans Wake.
What distinguished Kenner’s approach?
He had a mathematical mind, and he could follow things in physics and calculus that most people wouldn’t understand. Science and mechanics, bodies of knowledge that were outside the usual literary focus, blended into his sense of understanding of the world. For example, he’d say: Dublin is on this latitude, and on that day there was a full moon. And of course with Joyce, it always worked.
He was an enormously learned man, but he wasn’t pedantic. He had a lively and engaging style. It wasn’t deadly, as the style was of many of the critics of that period. He’d come at things at an angle so different that the angle itself was worth noting. He was just so startling. You never knew what he was going to come up with.
What was your relationship with Kenner?
We were friends. We both taught at the Institute of Modern Letters, which was an eight-week program in the summer. I edited the James Joyce Quarterly, and he helped me on that. We had a very good relationship. We’d meet at these various conferences and do gigs together, as they say. So I knew him well.
He used to come have dinner with our family when our kids were very little. They’d imitate him and say with an odd voice: “Oh wow! Oh wow! Oh wow!” They just loved him. He told them a story about Buckminster Fuller. “Bucky,” he said, “would tell you that nature would give this tree life and light. Then if you put it in the fireplace, this tree would give that light that it took from nature back to you.” Kids can understand that. He was always interesting.
What are some highlights of Kenner’s papers?
The letters between Kenner, Eliot, and Pound are of great value. They reveal the questions that Kenner would ask Eliot, for example. You see his mind as he grapples with, as he says, “Tom’s work.” To watch his mind work and to watch his engagement with these great modernists is a tremendous opportunity for students and scholars to see what great literary criticism was like in those days.
He really got to know these writers. Kenner once said to me that when he was a graduate student a professor had told him: “If you want to be a student of modernism, you should go and meet the great modernists and talk with them.” He visited Beckett a lot, he visited Pound at St. Elizabeth’s, and he knew Eliot and discussed his work with him. With Kenner, you always realized that these writers were human beings first.
What is Kenner’s legacy to literary criticism?
It isn’t that he made a great discovery of this or that. It’s that he was able to see these modernist tropes clearly. He was the great elucidator, the one who really understood the writers and brought their works out. He understood the way in which modernists trapped by the century’s culture and age worked their way out of it. Whether it be Virginia Woolf or Joyce, Kenner understood what their dispositions were toward the culture, their reactions to the culture, and how their work was so important to them.
He had a great understanding of and sympathy for Eliot. He understood Eliot’s attempts to remove the personal from the work of art. That’s why Kenner titled his book about Eliot The Invisible Poet.
His work on Pound was seminal. Probably no one wrote better about Pound than Kenner. His book The Pound Era is really the history of modernism and what modernism was.
There’s no Kenner school. He always went out on his own, explored things on his own. He was unique, and he remains unique. There’s no one quite like him. I think that is part of his charm and his great contribution to our culture.