The world was in turmoil in 1942. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor broke the resistance of those in the United States who wanted to avoid a commitment to military action. America's entrance into the conflict made it a true World War.
Back in his Chicago home, sitting among his books and listening to the radio, Vincent Starrett was overwhelmed by the reports of the war. Here's how he described his emotions in 221B: Studies in Sherlock Holmes in 1940:
Recently we have passed through some of the most dramatic months, I suppose, of contemporary history. Stirred by a confusion of emotions, too tangled to untease, we hung above the radio waiting each fresh installment of the fantastic serial, and found it difficult to believe that this indeed was actuality.
Looking for solace in that spring of '42, Starrett naturally turned to Sherlock Holmes. The result would be the sonnet "221B", one of the most remarkable tributes ever written about the enduring nature of the Baker Street sleuth. Largely ignored at the time of publication, "221B" has become a favorite of Sherlockians around the globe, as familiar as any interlude from the original 60 stories.
But there was a second work that Starrett wrote that spring, one that is every bit as much a product of the time, but is largely forgotten today. Three Great Documents on Human Liberties was little booklet which shows Starrett in an unfamiliar role: a cheerleader for patriotism.
Sorting out Starrett's political views is not easy. There are hints that he dabbled with Socialism in the 1920s, and if he did, he would have been no different than many writers of the era. Whether he was a liberal or conservative is difficult to sort out. He was a bookman, a reader, a poet, a dreamer. What is clear is that as war swept Europe and its impact was felt in Chicago, Starrett agreed to write a few essays for a little book that would remind its readers that freedom came with a high cost.
The book was commissioned by Foster G. McGaw, a Chicago businessman who was amassing a small medical empire. McGaw was born on March 7, 1897 (one year after Starrett) and attended the Northwestern University School of Commerce. A Marine in World War I, he returned to Chicago after the war and started a hospital supply company that became known for quality and reliability. Founder of the American Hospital Supply Corporation, he soon became one of Chicago's leading philanthropists and in later years made major gifts to Northwestern and other universities to promote medical education and research. McGaw lived until 1986, outliving Starrett by a dozen years.
In that pivotal year of '42, McGaw commissioned a book that would bring together three seminal works in the development of Western rights and liberties: the Magna Charta, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. He also picked Starrett, then one of the best-known writers in Chicago, to be the voice of the booklet.
In May 1942, the same month that he penned "221B", Starrett wrote the volume's main introduction and brief pieces introducing each of the three major documents. Here's how he framed the success of America's great experiment in democracy.
"These rights and privileges did not come about suddenly or by accident. Our system rests upon principles of government worked out over many centuries, in many lands. It is the outcome of the longest and hardest battle in world history, the battle for human freedom, which has been going on since the beginning of time. Much blood has been spilled, at one time and another, to bring it about, as to-day much blood is being spilled to preserve it. And into the foundations of our liberties has gone the most enlightened thinking the world has known since man first became a social animal."
The cost of freedom, a theme that unites "221B" and Starrett's essays in Three Great Documents, is more profound in the booklet. Unleashed from the demands of a sonnet, Starrett is allowed to speak both more freely, and more frankly.
"The great struggle continues in the world, as by this time we all know too well; but in America we are still free. We shall continue to be free as long as we believe in and practice the principles and ideals that have builded the great structure of liberal institutions that has made us a free nation."
For a man who normally kept his head in his books, this was a rousing cry to defend the nation and its freedoms, because "In America, if anywhere, the world-old dream of liberty has come true."
So far as I know, this is the only time Starrett took on such an openly patriotic work. While he was supportive of the efforts of those who fought in the war, his work during this period showed the impact of changing tastes, rather than changing attitudes on the author's part. For a decade before the war, Starrett had a made a nice living writing detective novels. Now, with the growing popularity of the hard boiled detectives, Starrett's cerebral mysteries were getting harder to sell and, like Conan Doyle, the need to come up with new plots was tiresome. I suspect that writing the essays for this project was another way of getting some spare cash as he continued to collect — and write about — books.
Three Great Documents remains an odd volume in Starrett's library, of work, but it fits well with the period. Like so many patriotic works from that era — from books to films to radio shows — the goal here was not so much as to teach history, but to inspire a nation into backing the effort that would be necessary if the war for freedom was to be won. One assumes McGaw gave these books to friends as a way of encouraging them to support the war effort.
If time permits, I would love to go through the files of McGaw's American Hospital Supply Corporation. I suspect there will be information on the book's history in those files. But that, as they say, will be a story for another day.