How an obscure magazine article sparked the Sherlock Holmes movement in the U.S.
A little while back I was ruminating on the works by Vincent Starrett that I would never be able to afford and those that I’ve not been able to find. Quoting myself:
“There’s one other item I would like to run down. It’s an obscure publication called Reedy’s Mirror, and the copy I want is from Feb. 22, 1918.
“While it is little known today, Reedy’s Mirror was a very popular publication in the mid-West at the turn of the previous century and through the second world war. The reason I want this issue is that it contains Starrett’s first sustained bit of Sherlockian discourse: “In Praise of Sherlock Holmes.” Anyone familiar with his 1933 book, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, will recognize this as an early version of one of that book’s chapters.
I have news: I found it. And here it is.
For the story of Starrett and Sherlock Holmes, this is the Book of Genesis, the first great stirrings of a mind that would help spark the Sherlock Holmes movement in the United States and plant the seeds we continue to see sprouting up today.
First, a little background.
The Reedy in Reedy’s Mirror was William Marion Reedy. Here’s what Starrett had to say about him in his “Books Alive” column for June 17, 1951:
“Russell E. Smith of the editorial department of the San Diego Union, San Diego, Cal., is at work on a biography of William Marion Reedy. He will be grateful for letters, clippings, and ‘memories’ of the famous St. Louis editor.”
“Reedy was this commentator's first important editor outside the newspaper field (Mencken was the second) and at all times his friend. There must be many other young writers, now aging fast, who remember the Mirror’s editor with affection and gratitude for a kind word and a useful check when they were needed most. As the early publisher of some of Edna Millay’s finest sonnets and parts of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, Reedy was an important figure in our literature. His biography should be exciting reading.”
Reedy was certainly someone who appreciated Starrett’s work. I’ve found several of his articles in his publication, including a discussion of writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten, short story writer Arthur Cosslett Smith, and his most famous article in Reedy’s “Arthur Machen: A Novelist of Ecstacy and Sin.”
Starrett expanded on the 1917 Machen article for a little booklet by the same title published by Walter M. Hill in Chicago the following year. It would be the beginning of the Machen invasion in the United States. It was also one of Starrett's first appearances between hard covers.
Ranking very close to the Machen piece was “Persons from Porlock," published by Reedy’s in December 1919, and then as a limited edition pamphlet in 1923 by The Bookfellows of Chicago. It was later the title piece in a little book published in 1938 by Normandie House in Chicago as Persons from Porlock and Other Interruptions.
That book was dedicated to Christopher Morley.
So as you can see, Reedy’s birthed a slew of Starrettiana and is heavily intertwined with the start of Sherlockiana.
In 1918, the Great War was winding down, an influenza pandemic was rife throughout the world, and women’s suffrage was finally becoming a reality. And the friends of Sherlock Holmes were still wondering if “His Last Bow” was truly the last they would ever hear of Sherlock Holmes.
The short story bearing that title had appeared in Collier’s magazine in late 1917, and the slim collection of later adventures with the same title arrived just in time for the holidays. And yet, there was one man at least who hoped this was not the end of the beloved Baker Street detective’s adventures.
Writing in Reedy’s Mirror for February 22, 1918, Starrett recalled that this was not the first time readers were lead to believe that Holmes was no more.
“And now Mr. Sherlock Holmes is making ‘his last bow.’ Again! Really, I can’t help saying that because I can’t help hoping that it isn’t really his last bow. Deep down, inside of me I have a feeling that it is, but I shall not give up my hope, entirely, until I read—and may the day be far distant!—that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, himself, has made his last bow.”
And a little later:
“The advent of a new Sherlock Holmes book is a distinct literary event. Heaven alone knows how many millions of people from China to Peru breathe a delighted sigh at the word and hasten off to purchase the volume. It is very probable that Sherlock Holmes is the most popular single character in contemporary fiction; certainly he is the only one who has passed into the language, as it were; whose name has become a symbol by which all of his type and tribe are known.”
“He is the transcendental detective par excellence; an authentic figure in the world’s literature; a genuine and artistic creation.”
How does Starrett hope Holmes will live on beyond his “last bow”?
He goes on to list the stories alluded to by Dr. Watson. “These, at least, I submit, it is unfair to name, if we are not to have the delight of reading them.” (See the "Addendum" below for more on the importance of this list.)
It is clear from the essay that Starrett had already amassed a goodly collection of Holmes, but he was also completely dissatisfied. “As a book lover, and a collector, I am eager to collect the works of Mr. Sherlock Holmes. In my library, beside the de luxe “Manon Lescaut” and the historical writings of George Alfred Henty, I want to place those little brochures on crime to which Holmes refers so carelessly, yet so often.”
He then makes a nice little list of the trifling monographs and books Holmes has written.
And then, with an audible sigh, Starrett resigns himself to the inevitable.
“Let us hope there will be more, some day; but, if not, let us be grateful that we have had as many as we have, and that Sherlock Holmes is “still alive and well, though somewhat crippled by occasional attacks of rheumatism.”
We know now that there were other Holmes stories to come, collected into The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes.
More importantly, we also know that the ideas Starrett explored for the first time here eventually became the basis for his most enduring work and the first American book dedicated to the Baker Street detective, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.
And it all started here, in the pages of Reedy’s Mirror.
I wanted to take a quick minute to illustrate an earlier point about the relationship between this essay and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. There are 15 years between the two, but Starrett clearly had this essay at hand as he was writing the chapters that would become Private Life in 1933.
Just take a look at the list of unwritten cases. You can see that he referred to the 1918 list from Reedy's Mirror and used it, sometimes word for word, as the basis for an expanded list for the book's chapter, "The Untold Tales of Dr. Watson." The book list is longer, and takes up where the Reedy's list ended with "The Dramatic Adventure of Dr. Moore Agar."
This illustration shows the list of untold tales from Reedy's Mirror.
That list takes up more than two pages in TPLOSH:
Long before recycling was a thing, Starrett was accomplished at reusing his own work over and over again!