Symposium Studies Doyle's Contributions to Literature
As part of a recent Houghton Library symposium on Sir Arthur
May 11, 2009 - For more than a century, Sherlock Holmes, the most famous creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has captivated mystery fans, literary scholars and researchers of virtually every stripe. But as dozens of Doyle scholars and Sherlockians showed during a recent three-day symposium at Harvard, the Holmes stories represent only a small part of Doyle's fuller contribution to literature.
To mark the 150th anniversary of Doyle's birth, dozens of scholars from across the country and overseas gathered at Houghton Library May 7 - 9 for the symposium, entitled "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: A Sesquicentennial Assessment," which featured speakers, including Andrew Lycett, Dan Posnansky, Leslie Klinger and Giles Constable, and a series of evenings, including the screening of several Sherlock Holmes films, presented by the Harvard Film Archive.
The three day event was complemented by an exhibition of Doyle material, "Ever Westward": Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and American Culture, which includes rare books, manuscripts and ephemera from Houghton's collections, including the H.W. Bell/Speckled Band of Boston Collection and the Baker Street Irregulars archive, which was recently given to the library, and private collections. The exhibition will be on display in the Edison and Newman Room in Houghton Library through August 8.
"Many people have tried to answer the question as to why Sherlock Holmes has endured," said Dan Posnansky, member of the Baker Street Irregulars and co-curator of the Houghton exhibit with Glen Miranker and Houghton Library Coordinator of Programs Peter Accardo. "I think it's a matter of Holmes, the man, the humanity, and most of all the time he lived in, Victorian England. Someone asked the question, ‘What will happen to Holmes 1,000 years from now?' Of course, no one knows what will happen to our civilization, but if civilization resembles, even remotely, what we have today, Holmes will be there."
Though most widely known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, symposium participants rendered a portrait of an author whose contributions ran far beyond detective fiction, but who shared at least some of the traits of his most famous character. As depicted by symposium participants, Doyle was voraciously curious, a meticulous researcher who often spent months studying history before putting pen to paper, an innovator genres such as science fiction and fantasy, and an author quick to heap praise on the writers he felt inspired his greatest creations.
"Doyle never missed an opportunity to praise Edgar Allen Poe," said Daniel Stashower, a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, a prominent Sherlockian society, author of "Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle," and five mystery novels. "Doyle referred to him as the ‘supreme short story writer of our time.'"
Michael Homer and Nancy Browning examine Houghton Library's exhibition, "Ever Westward": Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and American Culture, during a reception for symposium participants. The exhibition, on display in the Edison and Newman Room in Houghton Library, includes Doyle manuscripts, rare books and ephmera, and will be on display through August 8.
Doyle's high praise, Stashower suggested, clearly illustrates the degree to which Doyle believed Poe's writing inspired his own. With his "Dupin" stories, such as "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," Poe created an early template for the detective story which Doyle would later build on, including the model of the brilliant detective, the story as narrated by a close friend of the detective and the mystery's solution being presented in a leap of deductive reasoning. Stashower also suggested Doyle may also have drawn inspiration from Poe's essay, "Maelzel's Chess Player," which employed many of the analytic methods used by Holmes to debunk an automaton chess player known as The Turk, which had become famous throughout Europe and the United States.
"Maelzel's Chess Player offers a clear template for the deductive thinking Poe would later employ in the Dupin stories," Stashower said. "I do think it's fair to say that without that image in Doyle's mind, Sherlock Holmes - if he existed at all - would have taken a very different form. It's a very short walk from the Rue Morgue to Baker Street."
While Doyle may have drawn inspiration from Poe in his creation of Holmes, in the century since the detective's first appearance, many more - including many prominent scholars - have turned to the Holmes for inspiration. A medieval history professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study and author of more than 20 books, Giles Constable told attendees echoes of Holmesian deduction can be traced through virtually every academic pursuit, including history, game theory and even psychology and art history.
"Holmes attention to detail was not his only contribution to the art of historians," Constable said. "The facts, once known, must be interpreted. I would not suggest to a young historian that they take Holmes' principles as their primary guide when they conduct their research, but they could do much worse than to keep them in mind."
But while Holmes is certainly Doyle's most popular creation, the four Sherlock Holmes novels and 56 short stories represent barely more than 10 percent of Doyle's total writings, said Thomas J. Francis, a Baker Street Irregulars member who discussed his other writings.
Though they made him rich and famous, the Holmes stories were not among Doyle's favorites. Instead, he reserved his affection for his historical novels, "The White Company," which he referred to his "better things." Considered by Doyle to be his greatest novel, "The White Company" remains in print today, and was so popular during World War II that, despite a paper shortage, the British government set aside paper to ensure a sufficient supply for the book's printing, Francis said.
Doyle also wrote extensively on sport, including several well-received novels on boxing, as well as novels and short stories on French history. Though not as popular with modern readers, Doyle also wrote eight books on spiritualism, and several volumes of poetry.
But perhaps Doyle's greatest influence, aside from detective fiction, Francis suggested, came in the genre of science fiction. Following extensive research on fossils and science, Doyle authored "The Lost World," a novel detailing an expedition to a plateau in Venezuela where dinosaurs and other extinct creatures still survive.
"The science fiction and fantasy work of Conan Doyle has had a profound impact on the genre, right up until today," Francis said, citing the very first film adaptation of the book, in 1925, which introduced the stop-motion animation technique, and modern films, like Jurassic Park. "Do yourself a favor, and read something beyond the Sherlock Holmes canon."
Andrew Lycett, author of "Conan Doyle: The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes," addressed Doyle's biographers and described a handful of sources he used in researching his acclaimed biography, including Doyle's personal notebooks.
"Conan Doyle always tried to bring a measure of scientific inquiry to whatever he was interested in, whether it was the nature of tuberculosis or paranormal phenomena," Lycett said. "But like his main creation - Sherlock Holmes - Conan Doyle remains a fascinating enigma, that's why we find him such a fascinating character, so eminently worthy of discussion 150 years after his birth."
While it's clear Doyle and Holmes have had a rich history, many symposium participants were also eager to learn what the future may hold - a new Sherlock Holmes film, starring Robert Downey Jr., is slated for release later this year, and the shades of Holmes can be found throughout modern popular culture.
"I think it will be a great reawakening of public interest, I think it will be the beginning of another wave of interest, just as we saw in the 70s with "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution," said Leslie Klinger, editor of "The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes." "I think this will bring the books back into focus."