Meet the Staff is a Q&A series on Cultural Compass that highlights the work, experience, and lives of staff at the Harry Ransom Center. Liz Gushee has been the digital collections librarian at the Ransom Center since January 2011. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in History from Earlham College and a Master of Library and Information Science from Catholic University of America. Gushee is responsible for launching and managing the platform for the Ransom Center’s digital collections, which includes more than 43,000 items and continues to grow as newly digitized materials are added on a regular basis.
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.
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.
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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To celebrate the 150th birthday anniversary of American writer William Sidney Porter—better known by his pen name of O. Henry—Cultural Compass has compiled a gallery of images from the O. Henry manuscript collection. The Ransom Center holds two boxes of materials that include letters and manuscripts.
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