Humanities questions as inspired by Sherlock Holmes, Reading, and Undeath

Greetings from the Valley of the Sun and happy 2014! The Colloquium extends its warmish wishes to everyone, especially those who were (and are again) in the path of the Polar Vortex. We hope you are all doing okay in what sounds like very challenging weather. Our weather here is mild, in fact it is too mild, uncannily mild. So, while the West Coast might not be suffering the chill I’d be willing to bet this summer will be destructively hot and dry for us, especially the southwestern states, unfortunately.

Off the (depressing) topic of weather, I hope to bring some of the discussion the colloquium had this past week to you all. At our meeting we examined a few book chapters. Specifically, Chapter 13, “The Age of the Novel,” from The History of British Publishing by John Feather. And also the Interlude Chapter, “Necromanticism and Romantic Authorship,” from Necromanticism: Traveling to Meet the Dead by Paul Westover. And also we had a brief digression on Sherlock Holmes (as you do) which is where we will start.

“The Pipe Was Still Between His Lips.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly most of the colloquium is fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character, and the various current iterations such as Elementary and Sherlock. And some of us have seen the PBS documentary “How Sherlock Changed the World” []. This documentary, which is trying to channel some of the popular enthusiasm into historical knowledge, roughly claims that Doyle’s character impacted forensic science more than any actual forensic scientist. The argument demonstrates innovations from the stories and then discusses the way Sherlock Holmes inspired people to become forensic scientists in the latter half of the 20th century (and these people use knowledge they derived from or that was inspired by Holmes).

You all will have to watch the documentary yourself, but we were not especially impressed. Perhaps the error that was the gravest was that the documentary never talks to literary historians or any cultural historians.  Mainly they use current forensic scientists with a smattering of evidence from the stories. The one speaker that was related in some way to the literature was a writer of popular fiction who had also written a few novels using the Sherlock Holmes character. None of us thought that these people were ‘bad’ speakers per se, but were somewhat miffed that a documentary that focused on the influences of literary character on history did not talk with researchers who dedicate their time and energy to understanding that relationship. More than anything this method seemed to be merely a data point in the larger question of the role of the humanities in the public sphere. PBS, one would guess, is no doubt a largely sympathetic audience when it comes to the humanities. But, at least in this case, the humanities researchers were largely left out of a discussion on humanities; a troubling situation to say the least.

One of the other problems was the surprisingly graphic nature of the documentary, where they used actual crime scene photographs. The one that we found the most disturbing was of Marilyn Reese Sheppard. She was bludgeoned to death on July 4th of 1954. The documentary used a photo of her, uncensored with all the physical manifestations of violence, the gore, visible in stark black and white. But, the show did go to the effort of censoring her exposed nipple. (As an aside, someone else might have edited the photo before, then the show used it, but it still seems an odd choice). Whatever the case maybe, the use of these photos definitely raised questions of violence and bodies: what bodies can and cannot be displayed doing or being and how violence is received by the larger audience.

As you can see this innocuous documentary raised some perplexing conundrums for us: how we portray violence to bodies and whether the humanities needs to try and be more aggressive with its public face.

Three Volume Set of ‘Quentin Durward’

Eventually, though, we turned to the articles which dominated the majority of our meeting. We started with John Feather’s work, which provoked a question about research: how we (scholars) read and whether that should or should not be like the way the text was read (or at least as close as possible). According to Feather novels in the romantic period, especially post Waverly by Scott, were published in the popular ‘Triple-Decker’ format (Feather 144), for a variety of reasons, but mainly because it meant that the publisher got to sell the novel three times (Feather 147); arguably it also made it better for the lending libraries because three people could be reading the ‘same’ book at one time. But, especially as graduate students, we do not typically read works like Waverly in three volumes over a period of months; we have maybe a week (or two) to devour the book while also reading one or two other books (plus a variety of other work and research). This is not to say that the system needs to change, but we were wondering what it means for us as researchers and the arguments that we make that we do not read the novels in the same way that they were historically. This discrepancy increases in the Victorian period with serialization: many readers read chapters from magazines while presumably fewer read the novels as one unified whole (due to the cost of the unified novels). We were unsure whether this mattered at all: does reading one way or another dramatically influence one’s reception of a novel? Especially considering the periods people had time to discuss the developing plot with each other, after a household had finished the first volume of a work and how that might change their perception. Should we strive to read as the people did, so that our claims are more ‘accurate’ or is accuracy merely a facade because meaning does not change that much between varieties of reading?

There was one statement that generated a great deal of discussion. At the very end of the chapter, Feather claims that “there was a brief period in the middle of the nineteenth century when literary merit and popular success coincided” (Feather 152). Most of us agreed that this statement did not seem to fit well with the rest of the chapter and that the statement was worrisome. For example, the conversation drifted over to the idea of the Romantic Canon, i.e. the big six of Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, and Keats. For a long time those six (and sometimes only really five) have been the writers of ‘literary merit’ at the exclusion of other sexes, races, classes, forms, genres, and so on. Thus, we thought that the particular statement was obscuring a few other important discussions. But the idea of ‘literary merit’ also drew out another question: what are English Scholars? Are we art critics? Are we cultural historians? Are we theoreticians and philosophers? Are we all things or none? There were good arguments for all positions, well except ‘none’ no one argued for that, nevertheless we debated for a bit. I apologize for all the questions, and especially our lack of concrete answers, but we pondered that particular idea for a while with no particular conclusion.

“Wordsworth on Helvellyn” by Haydon

At that point it seemed wise to switch over to Paul Westover’s chapter before we lost our entire weekend to the previous question(s). Westover argues that even if an author is living, especially the Romantic authors, because of their literary success they become ‘dead’ (Westover 93). Somehow the author becomes both dead and alive, which is obvious in the various descriptions that Westover cites. For example, people would visit William Wordsworth but ultimately be surprised because the being they encountered did not match up with their vision thus they would exclude the material body from their vision and description,  and so as Westover states “Wordsworth had become an artifact and a ghost in his own house” (Westover 95). In part this un-dead-ness appears to result from the disconnect between the image of the author in the reader’s head and the material reality of the author. Perhaps most interesting to us was the focus on the author. Everyone is aware, of course, that the Author died a couple of decades ago and that we do not talk about them. But, Westover’s book is in part about authors and their existence.  Humor aside it certainly does not seem like a poor trend for literary scholars to also incorporate the author into their analysis but obviously the author cannot be overriding because texts live apart (as Westover and others show) from their creators.

That did lead to one concern: are we as scholars also victims idolizers of authors? And if so, might that impact our ability to be clear-eyed when making arguments? Or, phrased another way with a greater focus on undeath: if you could resurrect an author and speak with them would you / should you? While a few names were thrown out for ‘yes’ to resurrection (like Mary Shelley) and ‘no’ (like Edgar Allan Poe), we decided that the literary scholar’s enthusiasm for certain authors was probably a good feature because it allows us to keep going even when we encounter research dead-ends and conundrums.  Although, being on guard against over idolization of course is never a bad idea.

Anyway, these are a few of the items that we discussed. If there is anything you would like to add in the comments, please do! Otherwise, good luck with your work in 2014 and we look forward to many exciting discussions as inspired by this graduate caucus!

Kent Linthicum

4 thoughts on “Humanities questions as inspired by Sherlock Holmes, Reading, and Undeath”

  1. It sounds like you had a great, fun discussion! I think it’s so interesting to think about how Romantic and Victorian readers encountered texts. I remember a professor saying once that the multi-volume novels were sometimes read out of order, based on what was available at the lending libraries. It’s hard to imagine reading some of the more complicated, multi-narrative novels that way. It would definitely be a different reading experience and maybe even a different novel!

    1. Right! The ‘Mysteries of Udolpho’ would be a totally different book if one read the Volumes 2-3-1-4. It is questions like these, about how novels / poems / drama / non-narrative works are read, that makes me (Kent) wonder if there might not be some to be gained in trying to determine what cultural values can be derived from various historical modes of reading (even though, that data would not be complete because the readers would 21st century subjects, not 19th) because we might be able to gesture at different or similar meanings.

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