Saturday, July 24, 2010

Conan Doyle

So, recently I was reading THE QUEST FOR SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE: THIRTEEN BIOGRAPHERS IN SEARCH OF A LIFE, ed. by Jon L. Lellenberg [1987]. I had assumed, from its title, that this consisted of thirteen Doyle experts each writing about a part of the author's life, but instead it's thirteen chapters, each of which critiques a different Doyle biography. I was curious to read some of Richard Lancelyn Green's work (he contributes two chapters) as well as Lellenberg's ('The American' in David Grann's account). I'm pleased to discover that Green's work is first-rate, as is Lellenberg's. The only Doyle biography I've read being TELLER OF TALES by Daniel Stashower [1999], so I learned a lot here.

I still believe Doyle may have been the most gullible man who ever lived (Dr. John Dee being a distant second), and that his knighthood came from writing propaganda in defense of the indefensible, but I hadn't realized he was essentially a neocon, always ready to weigh in supporting any expansion of the Empire. The biographers try hard to argue that Doyle is Holmes, whereas a far better case can be made out for him being a Watson who thought he was a Holmes. They argue, with varying degrees of unsuccess, for the importance of Doyle's historical novels about the Hundred Years' War and other work, at one point raising the question of what would be "his place in literature" had he never written the Holmes stories. That, too, is easy for an outsider to answer: None. Without the Holmes series, he'd be about as well known today as W. W. Jacobs; it's his one enduring claim to fame. Finally, it was fascinating to see how the Doyle family --first his widow, then his son, and finally his daughter-- manipulated Doyle scholars for three-quarters of a century, dangling out the hope of access to 'the family archives' in return for biographers portraying A.C.D. the way his family wanted him portrayed (i.e., not as he was but as they imagined him to be).* This is the same archive the loss of access to seems to have driven Richard L. Green to suicide, his long-planned biography, decades in the researching, apparently still unwritten.

Quite aside from Doyle being an interesting fellow to read about, I was struck by some parallels to Tolkien studies.

First, like Doyle, Tolkien essentially created his own genre, reducing those who came before to precursors** and branding those who came after as successors.

Second, both Doyle and Tolkien enjoyed decades of popularity without academic support.

Third, each attracted the attention of a cadre of independent scholars, publishing in their own self-generated journals that only gradually, reluctantly, grudgingly over time began to gain some critical acceptance.

Still, I'm glad I'm a Tolkien scholar rather than a Doyle scholar. I'd rather defend "Goblin Feet" over THE COMING OF THE FAIRIES anyday.


*for example, none of the contributors to Lellenberg's book seem to be able to bring themselves to say that Houdini exposed Mrs. Doyle as a fraudulent medium -- a pretty big piece of evidence to suppress (one, and only one, does add a ftnt admitting that Houdini left an account of the incident that differs from Doyle's).

**one biographer's unflattering description of "The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes" (that is, the first generation of Doyle's imitators and successors) notes "To describe the stories as invariably clumsy would be to overgeneralize, but a brisk trot through them gives the impression of haste and disinterest, and sheer incompetence" -- which might stand as a fair description of several of the more famous 'in the tradition of Tolkien' fantasy series from the seventies and eighties and nineties.


Rodolfo Mongoose said...

Interesting, the point about Arthur Conan Doyle being a neocon. Doyle, the fiction writer who was at the same time a kind of political activist, seems very modern in this respect. It is hard to see, though, how he could be friends with people like E.D. Morel and Roger Casement. (Later, of course, their friendship suffered.)

Anubis (Lake Hermanstadt)

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi Lake
Yes, it is interesting how crusaders who join forces in one campaign (in this case, against the horrors the Belgians were inflicting on the Congolese) can find themselves at odds in another crisis (as in Doyle's defense of the British concentration camps in South Africa, which is how he got his knighthood).

The Casement case is interesting, since Doyle literally cdn't conceive of any Irishman opposing the British war effort and so concluded Casement had to be insane -- and that thus it was wrong to execute him, since he wasn't in his right mind. The discovery that Casement was gay simply confirmed this for Doyle: to be both gay and anti-Empire was for him doubly proof of mental incapacity! Ironic, since Doyle's father had been institutionalized as insane because he was (a) an alcoholic and (b) epileptic -- indeed, it's been suggested that Doyle himself was the one who forced his father to be involuntarily committed for life (he died in the asylum, firmly convinced of his own sanity). Those were the Bad Old Days in many, many ways.
I hadn't known of Morel's career, but a quick skim through his wikipedia entry shows much to admire; thanks for drawing him to my attention.
One of the contributors to the Lellenberg book argues persuasively that what Doyle really wanted most was the power of celebrity, so that he cd speak out on any issue he liked and gain a wide and respectful audience. Which does indeed seem v. modern.


Rodolfo Mongoose said...

Sorry for the late answer, last week we moved from Argentina back to Germany — I just wanted to recommend King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild, which is, among others, a fascinating account of Morel's and Casement's involvement in the Congo affair. As far as I remember, Conan Doyle isn't mentioned, but the book has some interesting stuff about other writers dealing with the Congo atrocities, like Joseph Conrad and George Washington Gordon.