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Feature: The Sherlock Holmes-Arthur Conan Doyle Colloquium

Throughout the country and the world there are people gathered together in secret. What they do is unknown to many and what they celebrate is never so cherished as by these few. These are the members Sherlockian societies, bound by their inimitable love of the great detective Sherlock Holmes. For their annual colloquium, the Newberry Library recently delved into the world of Sherlock Holmes and his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for "Re-Collections," a look at some of Doyle's original writings and published works.

Arthur Conan Doyle "For some of you, this may be a once in a lifetime chance to see these books," Daniel Posnansky intoned excitedly, referring to the Conan Doyle pieces from his personal collection, lent to the library for special display. "You may have heard of the well-known bookish writer, one Nicholas Basbanes's recent tome Among the Gently Mad. Should you take a moment to peruse it, you will find that Dan Posnansky, that's me, is just such one of these gently mad book collectors," he began, standing amidst the propped up posters of the honored Victorian author. A member of the Baker Street Irregulars, a group founded in 1934 by Christopher Morley with members including such famous names as Presidents Roosevelt and Truman and Sir Isaac Asimov as well as all the Newberry's colloquium speakers, Posnansky's talk focused on Doyle's views of the United States. Indeed, many of Holmes's adventures featured visitors from the United States – from the vengeful Jefferson Hope fleeing Utah in A Study in Scarlet to the New Jersey born Irene Adler in Adventures of Sherlock Holmes to the North Carolina murders in The Hound of the Baskervilles – and one can conclude that Doyle himself had a certain affection for the land. Posnansky confirmed this by reading from an original letter, penned by Doyle himself, expressing his belief in a powerful partnership between America and his English home.

Dr. C. Paul Martin explored another side of Arthur Conan Doyle – that of his life as a doctor. One of Martin's first slides was the contents page of the University of Minnesota Medical Bulletin where the first listed article was "Arthur Conan Doyle: Detective and Doctor." Martin went on to show an issue of the New England Journal of Medicine with an article on medical detectives that featured Doyle's work and the Medical Casebook of Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle, a special find from Martin's own collection. He described Doyle as something of a Renaissance man who could claim titles as diverse as military correspondent, law reformer and spiritualist in addition to doctor and writer. In fact, Sherlock Holmes's namesake remains as famous as his creator: a physician at Harvard, Oliver Wendell Holmes is best known for his poetry, but is also believed to have conducted the first forensic investigation in the United States.

Study in Scarlet Picking up where Posnansky left off, the colloquium's final speaker, Glen Miranker, may also be considered among the "gently mad." "What is it that makes a book a Book?" he asks, positing that, "Many books have a tale to tell beyond what is printed." Miranker followed three of the Holmes books as they made their way into the public. Doyle is quoted as saying that he "only meant to write one little book, A Study in Scarlet." That little book was first published in Beeton's Christmas Annual in 1897, and it was Doyle's response to detective fiction, in which its protagonists arrive magically at their conclusions with little logical or analytical thought. However, it was Doyle's second Holmes adventure, The Sign of Four, that fully immersed the character in the public consciousness. Although the pirated reprints of the book meant Doyle earned little profit, they did help turn Doyle into a public figure in the United States. These cheap reprints brought literature to the lower classes, and Miranker showed thirty-nine different pirated versions of the book he has incorporated into his own collection. It's easy to wonder if the world would be a different place without these pirated books and whether such items as an as yet unobtainable jacketed 1892 British first edition of Adventures of Sherlock Holmes would hold such wonder for Miranker or whether these tales would have created such inspiration in each of the day's speakers.

The Newberry Library currently has several items of Doyleana on public display, including that first edition of Beeton's Christmas Annual and pages inscribed with Doyle's own handwriting, items that indeed may be seen only once in a lifetime for even the most ardent Holmes fanatics. From medical articles citing Holmes's logical approach to clothing ads employing the image of the impeccable detective to long sought after rare editions of Doyle's work selling for thousands of dollars, no one would be able to deny the impact this character has had on general society, but perhaps the impact is greatest for those who devote their time to these secret Holmes societies. Moderator Donald J. Terras of Chicago's own Hounds of the Baskerville ended the colloquium with "Sonnet 221B," a poem that is accepted as a ritual goodbye for many Sherlockian societies. "Here, though the world explode, these two survive, and it is always eighteen ninety-five," the sonnet ends, a nearly perfect statement of Doyle's continuing influence. Even more perfect, though, is the answer to Dr. Martin's opening question: "Does everyone believe that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson existed?" The resounding "Yes!" that filled the room says everything.


Check out the Newberry Library’s website for more information about their collections, upcoming events and programs.

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