A Student of Starrett

A little talk about Vincent Starrett


Last month I had the great good pleasure of discussing Vincent Starrett with a lively group of D.C. area Sherlockians at the Red Circle of Washington. A few of those assembled asked if my talk was available for reading after the event.

It wasn’t then, but is now.


A Student of Starrett

I want to thank Peter Blau for asking me to speak tonight. *(See “The More You Know” at the end of this column.)

Peter said he wanted me to talk about Vincent Starrett, because there are many new members who do not know Starrett or his contribution to our common history, and I’m delighted to offer you some thoughts.

Tonight, I want to tell you a story.

It’s the story of a childhood fascination that became an adult obsession which bordered on madness.

A story of poetry and mystery.

A story of war and hope.

And in the end, it’s the story of friendship built around a mutual admiration for Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

Let’s begin.

Charles Vincent Emerson Starrett was born in Toronto, Canada, on October 26, 1886.

More importantly, he was born in the apartment that was upstairs from his grandfather’s bookshop. As Starrett would say: he was born to be a bookman.

Although his family moved to Chicago when he was a boy, Starrett continued to summer in Toronto, giving him opportunities to roam the bookstore.

Here’s how he remembered that experience, many years later.

"My happiest recollections of books and reading are the hours I spent in Grandfather Young's bookshop in Toronto. My particular playground was at the back, a small room given over exclusively to children's books, where on bright days the sunlight fell through a back window in a warm blaze of friendliness such as I have never experienced elsewhere. … 
"It is impossible to describe the radiance of that little room as the sunlight picked out the titles of the books and brought out the illustrations on their spines – soldiers, horses, cowboys, Indians, gold diggers, frigates, ships in full sail and ships sinking beneath the waves, a stirring panorama of all the traditional scenes of peril and adventure."** (See "The More You Know," below.)

Starrett would spend the rest of his life recreating that room and attempting to recapture that magical experience.

It was Starrett's aunts who introduced him to the Sherlock Holmes stories. Here's how he described the enchantment of reading his first Holmes book.

"I sat down with it on the front steps in a blaze of summer sunshine. My aunts came and went on the porch above me but, in the words of the old Biblical writers, I heard them not. I was still reading Sherlock Holmes when the lamps were lit inside the house, and I was called to dinner."

Starrett began collecting books as a teen and never stopped. After leaving high school, he went to work on the fast-paced Chicago newspapers of the 19-teens and twenties. He was also putting together authoritative collections of Stephen Crane, Robert Louis Stevenson, Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Alan Poe and Arthur Machen. 

And then there was his Holmes-work. We know that by 1917, when he was 31, Starrett already had one of the premiere collections of Holmes stories in the United States. That year he wrote a letter to the editor of The Bookman magazine, asking for a copy of an article about Holmes that had run a few years before.

“I’m anxious to get the paper now, and I’ll be greatly obliged to you if you can help me to it. I’m trying to collect, as faithfully as may be, the ‘literature of Sherlock Holmes,’ who is my favorite character in light fiction, and altogether a delightful creation.” ***

Did you catch that reference to “the ‘literature of Sherlock Holmes’?” Starrett was one of the first to recognize there was a growing body of commentary that existed outside the original mysteries. That’s a notion that seems common enough for us, but it was still new in 1917. As we will see, Starrett was ahead of his time.

In addition to his newspaper reporting, Starrett wrote poetry, short stories, detective novels and long essays extolling the romance of books, the stories behind their publication and the gentle madness that propels collectors.

For Christmas of 1920, Starrett wrote a short story that used the conventions of a Sherlock Holmes mystery to gently mock the obsession of book collectors like himself.

The story is called “The Unique Hamlet,” and concerns the rarest Shakespeare folio in the world, with four lines in the author's own hand. The book has been stolen, and Holmes is called in to find it. I won't spoil the plot, but I will tell you that Holmes manages to recover one page of the manuscript. When Watson asks him why he saved only a single page from “Hamlet,” Holmes explains:

"A fancy," Holmes responded, "to preserve so accurate a characterization of either of our (book collecting) friends. The line is a real jewel. See, the good Polonius says: 'That he is mad, 'tis true: 'tis true 'tis pittie; and pittie it is true.'

A little later Holmes says:

"They are strange people, these book collectors.”

While there is a little dispute about this, it appears that 110 copies of “Unique Hamlet” were printed.

Today, copies of this little pamphlet are quite rare. When there are any for sale, the prices are handsome indeed, settling in at about $6,000.

I do not own a copy. But Peter Blau does.

Did I mention I was staying with Peter tonight?

Starrett's book collecting continued through late ‘20s and '30s, which was also the period of his greatest output in fiction, with several novels and dozens of short stories being placed in magazines.

One non-fiction piece is worth noting, coming as it did at the end of 1930.

You will recall that ACD died in July of that year, and six months later, the Christmas number of The Golden Book Magazine published an essay by Starrett entitled "The Real Adventures of Sherlock Holmes."

In it, Starrett tells how ACD used Holmes-like methods to investigate two cases where innocent men had been charged with crimes.

The article was a great success, and Starrett quickly drew up plans for a book along the same theme. Each chapter would be a free-standing essay, with the essays linked together by the common theme of Sherlock Holmes as one of the world's great characters and cultural icons.

The dust jacket to the 1933 edition.

He called it The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.  The book was published in 1933 by Macmillan. While its revelations would not be surprising to any modern day Sherlockian, the fact is there WERE no Sherlockians at this time, certainly not in way we recognize ourselves as such today. Starrett was ahead of his time.

Some of Starrett’s essays "played the game" and treated Holmes as a living, breathing person. Others discussed Arthur Conan Doyle and his relationship to the great detective.

There were chapters that traced Holmes’ pop culture impact, by looking at the illustrators who had created the images we recognize today, and the stage actors who have contributed to the detective’s renown, especially William Gillette.

The last chapter was a “Selected Bibliography,” of major Holmes editions and was essentially a catalogue of Starrett’s collection. For generations, this chapter served as a guide for serious Holmes book collectors, and Starrett became their patron saint.

There is one particular paragraph in Private Life that’s worth quoting in full here. You can hear Starrett the poet coming through.

 “But there can be no grave for Sherlock Holmes or Watson … Shall they not always live in 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.”

Starrett hoped he had written a classic, a book that would be every bit as popular as the Holmes stories themselves. And while the book had some success--it had a second printing in the U.S. in 1934 and there was a British edition that same year--it slowly slipped from the shelves. This was, after all, the height of the Great Depression, a time when paying the rent and putting food on the table was a daily challenge for many, and books were an unthinkable luxury.

But then a curious thing happened. Christopher Morley, a New York writer, sent a letter to Starrett praising his book and inviting him to attend the first official meeting of a group Morley called The Baker Street Irregulars.

Morley and Starrett became fast friends—kinspirits —which shows the power of Sherlock Holmes to build bridges. They shared a love of good books, tobacco and decent booze.

Still, they were different in so many other ways. Morley was a Rhodes scholar and classically educated writer. Starrett didn't finish high school and was a self-educated polymath. Yet, their close friendship —made fast by their shared love of Sherlock Holmes—remained strong for the better part of three decades, until Morley's death in 1957. In this way, their friendship foreshadowed the lifelong friendships many of us share.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was instrumental in bringing others from around the country into what was the beginnings of the Sherlock Holmes.

Besides the Morley connection, the most important link was no doubt that of a Vice President at General Motors named Edgar W. Smith. Smith wrote to Starrett to compliment him about the book, and then began picking apart some of Starrett's theories in favor of his own.

Starrett told Smith to look up Morley, and the troika was complete. These three men would be the heart and soul of the Sherlock Holmes movement in this country for 30 years. They are our Sherlockian forefathers, and we owe them a great deal.

So far we have looked at two crucial contributions by Starrett: a short story in the “Unique Hamlet,” and a book of essays, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

There is one last major contribution of Starrett's that I want to briefly highlight.

Even as the Sherlock Holmes movement was gathering steam in the 1930s and 40s, major changes were taking place in Starrett's life.

His career as a mystery and detective writer was floundering as the hard boiled school took over the space his cool, ratiocinative detectives once held. Starrett needed a new career.

He had always written about his love for books and collecting, and it was no surprise when he re-invented himself as a book columnist for Chicago newspapers, naming his column "Books Alive."

These changes in Starrett’s career seemed minor when compared with the outbreak of war in Europe.

A reprint of the famous sonnet "221B" done for The Hounds of the Baskerville.

The news that London was the target of a German blitz in the early 1940s was particularly troubling. Starrett had visited London and walked up and down Baker Street, imagining which of these homes had once been 221B. Now whole blocks of Baker Street were burned husks, and western civilization itself seemed on the edge of going up in flames.

To deal with his fear and sadness, Starrett put a sheet of paper in his typewriter and wrote a sonnet to a fading age.

That sonnet has gone on to become a kind of profession of faith for the Sherlock Holmes movement in this county, and around the world. In less than 100 words, Starrett summed up the hope and joy we feel from the eternal nature of the Holmes mysteries, and the equally endless friendship between Holmes and Watson.

Speaking of friendship, here’s one anecdote I want to share in closing. It involves Dr. Logan Clendening, a Kansas City physician, writer and Sherlockian. Here’s their story, as Starrett told it in his memoir, Born in a Bookshop.

“Once more when financial disaster threatened, I as obliged to see some of my books. I had brought together perhaps the finest collection of Sherlockiana in the world, which I prized above gold and rubies; but when the rub came it had to go. I was pretty sick about this catastrophe and, for a time, I thought I never would collect books again.

"Then a beautiful thing happened. My loss had been well publicized by the appearance of Scribner’s fine catalogue of my collection, and one other collector at least knew how I as feeling about it. Inspired by my enthusiasm, (Dr. Logan) Cledening had been making a Sherlock collection of his own; and one day I received a letter from him. It was a casual sort of letter.

'My dear boy,' it said in effect, 'I find that I am not getting as much fun out of my Holmes collection as I had anticipated. I hear that you have just parted with your own collection, and I think you ought to start another. Why not start with mine? It is small but goodish—it contains a number of the better pieces that you might have difficulty duplicating—and I am boxing it up this afternoon and getting it off to you tomorrow morning. You will really take a load of my mind if you will accept it.'

"It is unnecessary to underscore the generosity of the gift or of the doctor’s fellow feeling. I suppose no finer thing ever was done for one collector by another. The box contained some twenty of the most desirable items in the field, including the desperately rare first printing of A Student in Scarlet. It was the nucleus of a new collection and, touched and overwhelmed by the gift, I began upon it at once.”

Charles Vincent Emerson Starrett died on January 5, 1974, at the age of 87. He was buried in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery. He was near penniless when he died and his grave had only a small marker for many years.

In 1986, to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth, a headstone was placed on the grave. Paid for by his friends and admirers, the stone has an image of an open book at its top. On the left page is one of Starrett’s bookplates and the words “The Last Bookman.”

On the right, is Starrett’s Sherlockian bookplate, and the inscriptions, “And it is always 1895.”

Thank you.

The Starrett tombstone at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.


The More You Know

* I am very grateful for Peter’s invitation and the hospitality he and Bev Wolov showed me. I had the opportunity to revisit Peter’s library after more than 20 years, and it was a tremendous pleasure wandering the shelves of one of (if not THE) best Sherlock Holmes collections in private hands today.

** All quotes are from Starrett’s memoirs, Born in a Bookshop, unless otherwise noted.

*** From Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle and The Bookman, edited by S.E. Dahlinger and Leslie S. Klinger, Indianapolis: Gasogene Books, 2010.