A pamphlet from the 1960s provides tantalizing clues about the manuscript for Vincent Starrett's most famous book, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.
I have this recurring dream. Nightmare, really.
I am in a used bookshop. Shelf after shelf of beautiful, pristine volumes are lovingly displayed, and the prices are surprisingly reasonable. I go up to the clerk (who sometimes looks like Courteney Cox—this is assuredly NOT the nightmare part) and ask if she has any books by Vincent Starrett.
Courteney’s normally pixie-ish face takes on a sad and slightly embarrassed look. “I had a huge amount of Starrett’s stuff for years, right here,” she says pointing over her delicate shoulder to an empty shelf.
I look at the shelf. It contains only cobwebs. I turn back to Courteney, who has morphed into Margaret Hamilton in her guise as Miss Almira Gulch, the witchy neighbor from “The Wizard of Oz.”
Surprisingly, the transformation is also NOT the nightmare part.
“But I just sold it to a private collector a few hours ago. You’re too late! Pity you weren’t here yesterday, my pretty,” she says, and then adds completely out of context: “And your little dog too.”
As I crumble to the floor, Miss Gulch consoles me with a bony hand laid on my shoulder. “There, there. I’m sure he’ll put them up for sale — in another 40 or 50 years.”
That’s the nightmare part: knowing there are Vincent Starrett treasures out there somewhere, and knowing I’ll likely never have access to them.
The nightmare has its true life analogs. Like anyone who gathers up books, I’ve had similar experiences in real life bookshops (never with Courteney Cox, sadly) and have learned to come to grips with being too late.
But it is rare to have a similar feeling in my own home. Nevertheless, I experienced a similar reaction a few years back when I purchased a four-page catalogue that had been produced by Walter Klinefelter. (The catalogue had once belonged to Baker Street Irregular and voracious collector Jerry Margolin, who had Klinefelter inscribe it on the fourth page.)
A few words about Walter Klinefelter: A fellow Pennsylvanian, Klinefelter was born in 1899 and was one of the first to correctly complete the Sherlock Holmes crossword puzzle that Christopher Morley published in "The Saturday Review of Literature" in 1934. It’s unclear why he never traveled much, but Klinefelter was a great letter writer and became a corresponding Sherlockian friend for many of the early Irregulars, Starrett included. The two men not only shared a passion for Holmes and the works of Christopher Morley, but were both fans of James Branch Cabell, particularly his famous fantasy novel Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice, published in 1919. (Jurgen likely influenced Starrett’s major fantasy work, Seaports in the Moon, published in 1928.)
As I said, Klinefelter and Starrett corresponded for decades, and when Starrett hit one of his frequent economic declines, Klinefelter helped by quietly purchasing some unique items of Starrettiana.
And then, at some unknown point, Klinefelter put some of it up for sale. The exact date of the sale is not noted in the catalogue. Worldcat has "196?" in its listing, but observant BSI Peter Blau notes there is no postal code or ZIP code in Klinefelter's address, which could indicate a much earlier time frame. (Many thanks to Peter for his thoughts on this and his support for the blog overall!)
I’ve thumbed through many book catalogues over the years, but these four pages provide more envy-worthy words per page than anything I’ve ever seen before.
Just consider the Starrettian works alone:
A fine first edition, first printing copy of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, inscribed to “a fellow Sherlockian,” with multiple letters about the book included.
Turn to the second page.
The first time I looked at the second page, I felt a little dizzy.
Here's why: While editing the 75th anniversary edition of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes I had often wondered where the manuscript pages were. In some dusty file once maintained by Macmillan? Long lost to careless record keeping? Or in some forgotten library archive?
No, all of those speculations were wrong. At some point, they were sitting in Glen Rock, Pa., a mere 90-minute drive from where I’m sitting right now. (Historical perspective: Chances are these items went up for sale before I was born. Even so, I can hear Margaret Hamilton’s cackle, “You’re too late!”)
The envy grows worse glancing down the page. Look at the entry for the title essay, the third entry from the top. “Heavily corrected throughout.” What? What did he correct? What was in the original? And why the changes?
More importantly, did they impact the last paragraph of this chapter, the paragraph that presaged Starrett’s immortal sonnet, “221-B”?
But there can be no grave for Sherlock Holmes or Watson … Shall they not always live on Baker Street? Are they not there this instant, as one writes? … Outside, the hansoms rattle through the rain, and Moriarty plans his latest devilry. Within, the sea-coal flames upon the hearth, and Holmes and Watson take their well-won ease … So they still live for all that love them well: in a romantic chamber of the heart: in a nostalgic country of the mind: where it is always 1895.
Two entries down there is the original typewritten manuscript of the chapter “Ave Sherlock Morituri et Cetera,” and the note: “With numerous corrections and deletions.” Deletions? What was cut? And was it ever rescued to be used somewhere else? (Starrett was into recycling long before it became the word was coined.)
Next, take a glance up to the third page, where “on the verso of the last sheet Starrett has jotted down a tentative list of contents of The Private Life.” One’s pulse quickens at the thought. Is this the same list that Starrett sent to Gray Chancler Briggs on 17 March, 1933? (See page 13 of Dear Starrett—Dear Briggs—, published in New York by Fordham University Press in 1998.) Do the two lists differ in a way that would show how Starrett’s thoughts progressed while the book was in production?
The mind boggles.
And then, to add insult to it all, look at the prices. Pittances for such prizes! Trifles for such treasures! Yes, I know that if the catalogue was produced in the 40s or 50s, these pre-inflationary prices would have been, as my grandmother used to say when faced with an expensive object she wanted, "dear— too dear for something like that."
Still, my imagination goes wild. The manuscript chapters for the whole book, plus the autographed first edition, could be picked up for less than $100. Add to that the wonderful pamphlets by Edwin B. Hill (which now would cost at least a few hundred dollars each, if they were available for sale today), plus the invaluable piece by Frederic Dorr Steele and, and —
I had to get a drink.
It is really all too much. To know that these wonderful items were for sale and must, MUST be out there somewhere is too much.
I am going to lie down.
Perhaps tonight, when I dream of the treasures to be found in used bookshops, I won’t be too late this time.