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'Clap If You Believe in Sherlock Holmes': Mass Culture and the Re-Enchantment of Modernity,

c. 1890-c. 1940
Author(s): Michael Saler
Source: The Historical Journal, Vol. 46, No. 3 (Sep., 2003), pp. 599-622
Published by: Cambridge University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3133564 .
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TheHistoricalournal,46, 3 (2003),pp. 599-622 ? 2003 CambridgeUniversityPress
DOI: Io.IO7/SooI8246Xo30o3I70 Printedin the United Kingdom

'CLAP IF YOU BELIEVE IN SHERLOCK


HOLMES': MASS CULTURE AND THE
RE-ENCHANTMENT OF MODERNITY,
c. 1890-c. 1940
MICHAEL SALER
Universityof California,Davis

A B ST RA C T. Sincethelatenineteenthcentury,Western intellectuals
havetended todepict'modernity'as
beingincompatible with'enchantment'. ThusMax Weberargued thattwoaspectsintrinsic to modernity,
rationalizationandbureaucratization, wereinimicalto themagicalattitudes towardhumanexistence that
characterizedmedieval andearlymodern His
thought. gloomyimageof the 'ironcage'of reason echoedthe
fearsof earlierromantics andwasto berepeated bylatercultural pessimists throughthetwentieth century.
This articlerecovers a diferentoutlookthatemerged duringthefin-de-siecle, onethatreconciled the
rationalandseculartenetsof modernity withenchantment andthatunderlies manyforms of contemporary
cultural
practice.Thepopularity of SirArthurConanDoyle'sSherlock Holmesis takenas an exemplary
instanceof a specifically
modern formof enchantment. First,Holmes'sownformofrationalism, 'animistic
reason',oferedan alternative to thenarrower instrumental reasonthatcultural pessimists claimedas a
element
defining of modernity.
Second, manyadultreaders at theturnof thecentury andbeyond wereable
to pretendthatHolmeswas real,and his creator fictitious,through the 'ironicimagination', a more
capacious andplayfulunderstanding of the imagination thanthatheldby the earlyVictorians. Both
animisticreasonandtheironicimagination madeHolmesan iconicfigure whoenacted andrepresented the
reconciliationof modernityandenchantment, whereas Doyle,unableto acceptthisreconciliation, resorted
tospiritualism,a holdoverof'premodern' enchantment.

In I920, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published an article in The Strandmagazine


affirming his belief in the existence of fairies. Accompanying the article were sev-
eral photographs of the alleged sprites, taken by two young girls from Yorkshire
in 1917, which had convinced Doyle of a discovery he termed 'epoch-making'.1
'Obvious faking' was the preferred term of many of his readers, however. Fans
of the rationalist detective Sherlock Holmes were appalled that his creator, a
trained physician, could display such credulity. Did not Doyle even wonder why
many of the preternatural creatures in the photos were wearing contemporary
evening dresses and had their hair cut in the fashionable 'bobbed' style?2 Doyle

ArthurConan Doyle, Thecoming of thefairies(I922; London, I997), p. 7.


2 In the 198osthegirlsadmitted
thattheyfakedthephotographs usingpapercutouts.TerryStaples,
'The Cottingleyfairies',in Jack Zipes,ed., TheOxford tofairytales(NewYork,2000),
companion
pp. I09-I0.

599
600 MICHAEL SALER

had already come under public criticism for his wholehearted adoption of spiri-
tualism in I917, but with his acceptance of fairies even the spiritualists began to
keep their distance.3 In the 'Adventure of the chuclde-headed doctor', one of
Doyle's critics had Sherlock Holmes confess to being as baffled as the public: 'But
how,' Holmes asks, 'did a sober-minded and apparently abstemious doctor, last
seen at midnight at the National Sporting Club, come to be found at four a.m. on
the Mendip Hills, bereft of his wits and professing to have spent the night dancing
with fairies ? '4
The wonderful irony of this situation is that at the same time that Doyle was
criticized for claiming that fairies were real, many of his readers were claiming
that Sherlock Holmes was real. Indeed, Holmes was the first character in modern
literature to be widely treated as if he were real and his creator fictitious.5 Since
his appearance in The Strandmagazine in 1891, many either believed Holmes
existed or at least claimed that they did; and the interwar period witnessed an
outpouring of articles in prominent magazines, and books from respectable pub-
lishers, which treated Holmes and Watson as real individuals, and that never
mentioned Doyle. For example, scholarly 'biographies' of both Holmes and
Watson appeared in I932, inspiring equally scholarly reviews and leading articles
debating such fine points as which college Holmes attended or how many wives
Watson had. Looking back years later, the author of the Watson biography stated
he was 'amazed at the number of columns which editors allotted to reviews of
these two books '.6 He was not alone in his surprise. Doyle, who clearly was willing
to countenance many unusual ideas, nevertheless thought it was 'incredible how
realistic some people take [this imaginary character] to be'.7 G. K. Chesterton
observed, 'The real inference [of these works] is that Sherlock Holmes really
existed and that Conan Doyle never existed. If posterity only reads these latter
books it will certainly suppose them to he serious. It will imagine that Sherlock
Holmes was a man.'8
Was this simply a further peculiarity of the English? One English reviewer
thought so: 'Does anything puzzle a foreigner more ... than the enthusiasm with
which our learned men ... investigate the character and career of two purely
imaginary persons?'9 But the fancy that Holmes and Watson were real was an
international phenomenon. Americans also published articles and books treating
Doyle's characters as real. The SaturdayReview of Literatureunder Christopher

3 Daniel Stashower,Tellerof tales:a lifeof SirArthurConanDoyle(New York, I999), p. 356.


4 Richard Lancelyn Green, ed., The SherlockHolmes letters(London, 1986), p. 28.
5AsJacques Barzun noted, this 'has happened in no other book and no other characterin recent
times. It's a phenomenon.'Jacques Barzun,'The adventuresof SherlockHolmes: a radio discussion',
in PhilipA. Shreffler,ed., TheBakerStreetreader:
cornerstone Holmes(Westport,CT,
writingsaboutSherlock
I984), p. 25.
6 S. C.
Roberts, Adventureswith authors(Cambridge, I966), p. 228.
7Harold Orel, ed., Sir ArthurConanDoyle: interviewsand recollections
(London, I99I), p. 8I.
G. K. Chesterton, 'Sherlock Holmes the God', G.K.'s Weekly,21 (21 Feb. I935), pp. 403-4.
withauthors,
9Roberts,Adventures p. 231.
'CLAP IF YOU BELIEVE' 6oi

Morley's editorship in the I930s and 1940s published many pieces asserting the
reality of the characters; and even a mystery novel of 1940, Anthony Boucher's
The case of theBakerStreetIrregulars,could not resist injecting a note of realism into
the fictional proceedings: the dedication read 'All characters portrayed or
referred to in this novel are fictitious, with the exception of Sherlock Holmes, to
whom this book is dedicated.'10
Today we have little trouble pretending that fantastic characters exist, as Star
Trek fandom or concordances to The lordof theringsprove. But Sherlock Holmes
was the first fictional creation that adults openly embraced as 'real' while delib-
erately minimizing or ignoring its creator, and this fetishization of Holmes has
continued for over a century. There were other fictional characters preceding
Holmes who evoked considerable public interest, of course: Richardson's Pamela,
Goethe's Werther, and Dickens's Little Nell immediately come to mind. But the
Holmes cult was significantly different from the sporadic fads for these other
characters. Many readers identified directly with Pamela, Werther, and Little
Nell, all of whom were noted for their passionate sensibilities, which encouraged
sentimental identification; Holmes, on the other hand, is a distinctly fantastic
creation who provides little room for the affective release these other characters
elicited. And Holmes's fantastic nature, his apparent divorce from the concerns of
the mundane world, is not the only notable difference between him and these
popular precursors. The cult of Holmes focuses not just on a singular character,
but on his entire world: fans of the 'canon' obsess about every detail of the
fictional universe Doyle created, mentally inhabiting this 'geography of the im-
agination' in a way that was never true for the partisans of earlier characters.
(The desire to envisage this fictional world as autonomously 'real' is such that
many readers, particularly the self-professed Sherlockians, self-consciously ignore
the existence of its creator; meetings of the 'Baker Street Irregulars', for example,
deliberately avoid mentioning Doyle. Richardson, on the other hand, was often
invoked in the discussions and satires stemming from Pamela,just as Goethe and
Dickens were inextricably linked with their popular creations. These links tended
to preclude the characters from being mistaken as real, whereas there were many
readers who thought Sherlock Holmes actually existed, as will be discussed below.)
And the Holmesian phenomenon has continued for over a century, far longer
than the intermittent eighteenth-century vogues for Pamela, let alone the more
restricted generational enthusiasms for Werther, Little Nell, and others."
Sherlockian devotion is thus a departure from preceding public infatuations
with fictional characters, and a template for succeeding public infatuations for the

10 Green, ed., The SherlockHolmes letters,p. 40.


1 For an analysis of the eighteenth-century Pamela 'craze', seeJames Grantham Turner, 'Novel
panic: picture and performance in the reception of Richardson's Pamela', Representations,48 (1994),
pp. 70-96; T. C. Duncan Eaves and Ben D. Kimpel, Samuel Richardson:a biography(Oxford, I97I),
pp. II9-53. For an interesting exploration of the vogue for the late Victorian comic-strip character
Alley Sloper, see Peter Bailey, 'Ally Sloper's half-holiday: comic art in the I88o's', in Peter Bailey,
Popularcultureandperformancein the Victoriancity (Cambridge, I998), pp. 47-79.
602 MICHAEL SALER

characters and worlds ofJ. R. R. Tolkien, Star Trek, Star Wars, and so on: as
the New Tork Times reported recently, 'today there are hundreds of thousands,
perhaps millions of people, whose grasp of the history, politics and mythological
traditions of purely imaginary places could surely qualify them for an advanced
degree'.12 The popular fascination with Holmes commences this widespread
embrace of fictional and often fantastic worlds during the past century. The
question is, why Holmes?
There are several answers to this question, but the most important has to do
with the climate of cultural pessimism among intellectuals during the waning
decades of the nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth. This
particular stance towards modernity was famously captured by Max Weber's
discussion of the 'disenchantment of the world', which he believed was the
consequence of capitalist instrumental rationality and the growth of the bureau-
cratic state. Many at the turn of the century mourned the apparent absence of
communal beliefs and higher ideals in an age that seemed dominated by posi-
tivism and materialism, and turned to alternative sources of spiritual sustenance.
These ranged from the nostalgic medievalism of the arts and crafts movement,
to a fascination with non-Christian beliefs and non-Western art, to attempts to
reconcile science and religion through spiritualism, occultism, and psychical
research.
However, these and other efforts to escape from the 'iron cage of rationality'
that Weber imputed to the modern West were uneasy compromises between the
past and the present that left many unsatisfied. 'Modernity' was widely associated
with progress towards the rational and away from the supernatural, and efforts
by believers to impart the veneer of scientific respectability to the supernatural
were frequently greeted with scepticism if not outright disdain by contemporary
commentators. Thus psychical research and spiritualism, both nineteenth-
century efforts at finding a via mediabetween science and religion, tended to be
marginalized by established science at the turn of the century. Several of the
prominent scientists in the Society for Psychical Research who supported spiri-
tualism, such as Sir William Crookes, Sir W. F. Barrett, and Oliver Lodge, were
viewed by most of their professional peers as credulous believers who tried to
legitimate their faith with scientific rhetoric but without compelling scientific
evidence - just as Doyle's belief in fairies was to be viewed.l3 And while the
efflorescence of spiritualism at the popular level in Britain during and immedi-
ately after the Great War was an understandable emotive reaction to the
tremendous losses suffered by many, it too was often represented as a 'traditional'

12 A.
O. Scott, 'A hunger for fantasy, an empire to feed it', New fork Times(I6June 2002), Section 2,
p. 26.
13 Janet Oppenheim, The other world: spiritualism and psychical research in England, I850-I9I4
(Cambridge, i985), pp. 338-97; Pamela Thurschwell, Literature,technologyand magicalthinking,i88o-I920
(Cambridge, 2001), p. 15.
'CLAP IF YOU BELIEVE' 603
rather than 'modern' phenomenon (using the binary oppositions common to the
period) and one that was diminishing by the I930s.14
This is not to deny that the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries wit-
nessed significant attempts to reconcile the traditional and the modern in Britain
and America, but only to emphasize the ambivalent and contested nature of these
efforts.15Among elites in Europe, a more categorical association between mod-
ernity and disenchantment had a long history, extending back to the seventeenth
century;16 despite acknowledging the advantages of modernity, by thefin-de-siecle
the discourse had become tinged with pessimism. Adherents of positivism,
materialism, and scientific as well as literary naturalism often presented a bleak
picture of human existence, governed by bestial instincts that were themselves
reducible to mere chemical and physical processes. Disenchantment was pro-
nounced in the writings of cultural pessimists ranging from Arthur Schopenhauer
at the onset of the nineteenth century to Max Nordau, author of Degeneration, at
the century's end. Perhaps proving that you can never get too much of a bad
thing, the discourse continued into the new century in the writings of Toynbee,
Spengler, Freud, and many others.
The character of Sherlock Holmes, however, represented and celebrated
the central tenets of modernity adumbrated at the time - not just rationalism and
secularism, but also urbanism and consumerism. The stories made these tenets
magical without introducing magic: Holmes demonstrated how the modern
world could be re-enchanted through means entirely consistent with modernity.
Because Holmes represented the values of modernity in ways that addressed the
criticisms of the cultural pessimists, he spoke to the dissatisfactions and hopes of
adults as well as to the imaginations of children. Like many of his readers, Holmes
yearned for enchantment, confessing to his 'love of all that is bizarre and outside
the conventions and humdrum routine of everyday life'. But Holmes was also
able to gratify his sense of wonder by embracing modernity, rather than turning
nostalgically to the past: 'for strange effects and extraordinary combinations we

14
AsJay Winterhas argued,'The GreatWar, the most "modern" of wars, triggeredan avalanche
of the "unmodern". One salient aspect of this apparent contradictionis the wartime growth in
spiritualism.'Jay Winter, Sites of memory, sites of mourning:the GreatWar in Europeanculturalhistory
(Cambridge,1998),p. 54. Terms like 'tradition' and 'modernity' are complex and not necessarily
mutually exclusive; there were significantefforts to reconcile the two by intellectualsin the nine-
teenth and twentiethcenturies.See RobertAlter,Necessasy angels:tradition
andmodernity inKafka,Benjamin,
and Scholem (Cambridge,MA, I99I); PeterJ. Bowler, Reconciling scienceandreligion:thedebatein early-
Britain(Chicago,2002); Bruno Latour, Wehaveneverbeenmodern,
twentieth-century trans.CatherinePorter
(Cambridge,MA, I993). But this line of thought, arguably,was not the dominant one in Europe
duringthefin-de-siecle:contemporariestended to see modernityand traditionas opposingone another.
SeeJ. W. Burrow, The crisis of reason:Europeanthought,i848-19i4 (New Haven, 2000), pp. 112-13.
15 Michael Saler, Theavant-garde in interwarEngland:'medieval modernism' andtheLondonunderground
(New York, I999).
16 LorraineDaston and Katherine Park, Wonders andtheorderof nature:ii50-I750 (Cambridge,MA,
I998).
604 MICHAEL SALER

must go to life itself, which is always far more daring than any effort of the
imagination' 17
Sherlock Holmes became a modern icon partly because he utilized reason in a
manner magical and adventurous, rather than in the purely instrumental fashion
that many contemporaries feared was the stultifying characteristic of the age.18
He expanded the definition of rationality beyond a narrow, means-ends instru-
mentalism to include the imagination - he calls his procedure 'the scientific use of
the imagination'9- resulting in a more capacious concept that can be termed
'animistic reason' because it imbues its objects with meaning. It was through his
animistic reason that Holmes the private detective bested professional detectives
on cases, as he himself admitted. (In one case he confides to Watson that 'Inspector
Gregory, to whom the case has been committed, is an extremely competent
officer. Were he but gifted with imagination he might rise to great heights in his
profession.')20 Holmes solved cases by relating seemingly discrete facts to a more
encompassing and meaningful configuration, whose integuments were derived
from a combination of rigorous observation, precise logic, and lively imagination.
The professional investigators whom Holmes trumps in these cases tend to be
unimaginative positivists who miss everything that is not presented directly before
their senses, or are unable to interpret creatively those facts that are:

'Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?'
'To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.'
'The dog did nothing in the night-time.'
'That was the curious incident', remarked Sherlock Holmes.21

17 Arthur Conan
Doyle, The completeSherlockHolmes (New York, I992), p. I76.
18
While many nineteenth-century writers feared that positivism excluded the imagination as a
legitimate source of knowledge, a closer reading of the positivists themselves reveals that several were
less antagonistic towards art and the imagination than their contemporaries gave them credit for. See
Peter Allen Dale, In pursuit of a scientificculture:science,art, and societyin the Victorianage (Madison, WI,
1989); Jonathan Smith, Fact and feeling: Baconian science and the nineteenth-centuyliterary imagination
(Madison, WI, 1994). And the turn towards idealism in late Victorian intellectual culture also gave
wider sway to the imagination than was to be found among the scientific naturalists and materialists;
see Bowler, Reconciling,pp. i8-I9. Nevertheless, the dominant discourse of mid- to late nineteenth-
century positivists, materialists, scientific naturalists, and cultural pessimists associated Western mod-
ernity with a narrow form of rationality inimical to wider sources of meaning, and this pervasive
association of modernity with disenchantment continued to be perpetuated among intellectuals in
Europe and America through the twentieth century: 'To be a member of a modern elite is to regard
wonder and wonders with studied indifference; enlightenment is still in part defined as the anti-
marvelous.' Daston and Park, Wonders,p. 368. In recent years, however, a number of scholars have
attempted to redress this discourse by demonstrating ways in which modernity can be reconciled with
enchantment. SeeJane Bennett, The enchantment of modernlife: attachments,crossings,and ethics(NewJersey,
2001); Kelly Besecke, 'Speaking of meaning in modernity: reflexive spirituality as a cultural resource',
Sociologyof Religion,62 (2001), pp. 365-8i; James Cook, The arts of deception:playing withfraud in the age of
Barnum (Cambridge, MA, 2001); Simon During, Modern enchantments:the culturalpower of secularmagic
(Cambridge, MA, 2002); Edward A. Tiryakian, 'Dialectics of modernity: reenchantment and de-
differentiation as counterprocesses', in Hans Haferkamp and NeilJ. Smelser, eds., Social changeand
19
modernity(Berkeley, CA, I992), pp. 78-93. Doyle, The completeSherlockHolmes, p. 687.
20 21 Ibid.,
Ibid., pp. 338-9. p. 347.
'CLAP IF YOIU BE,IEVE 605
Holmes's dramatic use of animistic reason was the mass culture exemplification
of a complex of ideas that circulated as part of the fin-de-sieclerevolt against
the dominant discourses of positivism, materialism, and scientific naturalism. In
creating Holmes, Doyle had been influenced by earlier writers, such as Edgar
Allan Poe andJules Verne, whose tales linked the processes of ratiocination with
an imaginative sense of wonder, and many of Doyle's contemporaries - figures as
diverse as Friedrich Nietzsche, Henri Bergson, Oscar Wilde, Ernst Mach, Henri
Poincare, and William James - were among those who maintained that reason
and the imagination were inextricable.22 By insisting on the integration of
reason and the imagination, these thinkers - and popular icons such as Holmes -
gainsaid the fashionable cultural pessimism of the period and made it possible to
see modernity and enchantment as compatible rather than antagonistic.
At the level of mass culture, this effort took on momentum with the increasing
popularity of detective fiction in the wake of Holmes. It was aided by the estab-
lishment of'science fiction' as a defined literary genre in 1926, when Hugo
Gernsback published Amazing Stories in America, the first magazine devoted
entirely to what he initially termed 'scientifiction'.23 An early contributor to
Amazing Storieshighlighted the role that Gernsback intended this new genre to
play in breaking down the seeming antagonism between reason and imagination,
modernity and enchantment: 'Scientifiction is the product of the human imagin-
ation, guided by the suggestion of science. It takes the basis of science, considers
all the clues that science has to offer, and then adds a thing that is alien to
science - imagination. 24 While writers like Poe and Verne and the later genres
of detective and science fiction celebrated the romance of reason, providing an
antidote to the narrower construal of rationality so pervasive at the time, it was
arguably Holmes who made this romance most explicit and attractive to a mass
reading public in sixty narratives published over the course of four decades.
These tales made analysis an adventure, quotidian facts an infinite source of
wonder: 'Depend upon it,' insists Holmes, 'there is nothing so unnatural as the
commonplace.'25 When Watson suggests that Holmes's analytical methods are
the most exciting aspects of the stories he narrates, Holmes demurs: 'Pshaw, my
dear fellow, what do the public, the great unobservant public, who could hardly
tell a weaver by his tooth or a compositor by his left thumb, care about the finer
shades of analysis and deduction! 26 Perhaps this was true before Holmes came
into their lives. But it was his example that helped thousands of readers to perceive
the romance of reason, ranging from elites disillusioned with the instrumentalized,
means-ends form of cognition that seemed to embody the spirit of the age, to

22
For a discussionof intellectualswho tried to fuse the 'two cultures'of science and art, see Wolf
Lepenies,Betweenliteratureandscience:theriseof sociology
(Cambridge,I988).
23 The phrase 'science fiction' and the first magazine devoted to it were establishedin America
by the Luxembourg immigrant Gernback. AmazingStorieswas established in I926 to publish
'scientifiction';Gernsbackmodified the ungainlyphrase to 'science fiction' in I929.
24
Jack Williamson, 'Scientifiction, searchlightof science', Amazing Stories Quarterly, I (1928),
25 Doyle, The completeSherlockHolmes, p. 191. 26
P. 435. Ibid., p. 317.
606 MICHAEL SALER

ordinary readers who might not have associated reason with disenchantment-
but probably did not associate it with enchantment, either. After encountering
Holmes, many of them did.
Indeed, numerous fans of the great detective emulated his own methods by
bringing their intellects and imaginations to bear on Doyle's stories, scrutinizing
every particular as if Holmes himself was a mystery that had been presented to
them to solve. Some actually believed that Holmes existed- 'naive believers'-
but most were 'ironic believers', who were not so much willingly suspending
their disbelief in a fictional character as willingly believing in him with the double-
minded awareness that they were engaged in pretence. Since the Enlightenment,
belief in imaginary beings had been relegated to an immature stage of devel-
opment, one more suited to children, the lower classes, or 'primitives' than to
bourgeois adults. But thefin-de-sieclerecognition that perceived reality was to some
extent an imaginative construct, and that reason itself was beholden to imagin-
ative insights and desires, made indulgence in the imagination more permissible:
one could actively believe, albeit ironically, in fictions, rather than merely sus-
pending one's disbelief in accordance with Coleridge's formulation. By emulating
Holmes's deployment of animistic reason, adults could immerse themselves
in imaginary worlds without relinquishing their practical reason: they could
'believe' in Holmes in an 'enchanted' yet still rational way. The Times noted in
i932 that the authors who treated Holmes and Watson as real did so with the
greatest sobriety, but that this was 'only their fun the single-minded fun of
spiritually young Sherlockians at play'.27
'Play' was precisely what many cultural pessimists thought had been driven out
of the modern world by the ineluctable advance of an impoverished instrumental
reason. Johan Huizinga, in his classic survey of the role of play in the creation of
civilization, Homo ludens(I938), ended on a morose note: 'More and more the sad
conclusion forces itself upon us that the play-element in culture has been on the
wane ever since the eighteenth century. '28But the widespread 'belief' in Sherlock
Holmes is a telling illustration that precisely the opposite situation existed in
Western culture at the very time Huizinga was writing. With the wider accept-
ance of the interrelations between reason and imagination in everyday life, as well
as the extension of leisure and the spectacularization of culture in the forms of
mass literature, films, and radio, individuals were both encouraged and enabled
to play without relinquishing their grip on reality.29 The double-minded con-
sciousness of the 'ironic imagination' accompanied these intellectual and social
changes; rational adults could immerse themselves in imaginary worlds of mass
culture without mistaking these worlds for reality because between thefin-de-siecle
and the interwar period these adults had become highly conscious of the artifices
that comprise human subjectivity and 'reality' itself.

27
Green, ed., The SherlockHolmes letters,p. 35.
28
Johan Huizinga, Homo ludens(1938; London, I970), p. 233.
29
James E. Combs, Play world: the emergence of the new ludic age (Westport, CT, 2000).
'CLAP IF YOU BELIEVE0 607
Thus a widespread form of modern rationality has become the animistic reason
employed by Sherlock Holmes, and a prevailing form of the modern imagination
is the ironic imagination deployed by many of his devotees. Together they con-
tribute to a particular form that enchantment takes in the modern period. The
conceptual intertwining of reason and imagination in the twentieth century yields
modern, secular enchantments that replace the supernatural enchantments of
the premodern period: as Richard Rorty argues, the progressive disenchantment
of the world through science 'force[s] us to the conclusion that the human
imagination is the only source of enchantment'.30 Modern enchantments are
enjoyed as constructs in which one can become immersed but not submerged.
Rationalist scepticism is held in abeyance, yet complete belief is undercut by
an ironic awareness that one is holding scepticism at bay. Cultural pessimists have
frequently criticized mass culture as a form of false consciousness or dismissed
it as a pernicious escape from reality. While both of these positions can have
a measure of truth, depending on the situations they discuss, neither takes into
account the buffering roles of animistic reason and the ironic imagination, which
inhibit complete acceptance or acquiescence into any particular cultural con-
struct. This rational and ironic stance distinguishes modern enchantment from
earlier forms of enchantment: the distinction, as we shall now see, between
Conan Doyle's premodern belief in preternatural fairies, and his readers' mod-
ern, ironic belief in the fictional Sherlock Holmes.

Many of the early readers of the Sherlock Holmes stories assumed that the author
must share those attributes that made Holmes so quintessentially modern: his
secularism, his rationalism, his scepticism. But from an early age Doyle had
expressed ambivalence about modernity. He had been raised as a Catholic and
educated by Jesuits, but as a young man he renounced Catholicism and gravi-
tated toward the rationalist and positivist stance of his medical school instructors
at the University of Edinburgh. Yet he was not comfortable with modern atheism
and materialism either; his disenchantment with these aspects of modernity, and
dissatisfaction with agnosticism, led him to explore spiritualism beginning in
1886, a year before he wrote the first Holmes story. His spiritualist convictions
increased over the decades, and he announced his full-fledged conversion to
spiritualism in I9I7 (before either his son or his brother were killed in the Great
War).
The Holmes stories reflect Doyle's ambivalence about modernity. Twentieth-
century critics often argue that Holmes's continued popularity is partly due to
the nostalgic vision of the late Victorian era the stories convey: T. S. Eliot, for
example, claimed that 'Sherlock Holmes reminds us always of the pleasant

30 Richard
Rorty, TimesLiterarySupplement,3 Dec. i999, p. II.
608 MICHAEL SALER

externals of nineteenth-century London',31 and Vincent Starrett wrote that


Holmes and Watson 'still live ... in a nostalgic country of the mind: where it is
always I895 .32 But aside from the occasional reference to a cozy fire in the hearth
or buttered toast on the table at 22IB Baker Street, Doyle's stories tend to
emphasize the unpleasant rather than pleasant externals of nineteenth-century
London. In the first Holmes tale, 'A study in scarlet', London is described by
Watson as 'that great cesspool' and 'the great wilderness'; other descriptions of
the urban environment focus on dank fog, murky clouds, 'mud-colored streets',
'dingy streets and dreary byways', and so on.33 In 'The sign of four' the externals
remain the same: in London the 'mud colored clouds dropped sadly over the
muddy streets. Down the Strand the lamps were but misty splotches of diffused
light which threw a feeble, circular glimmer upon slimy pavement.'34 Once you
start to notice this trend, which continues through the series, it is difficult to
imagine 'pleasant externals' in the London of Doyle's imagination. Twentieth-
century critics have projected their own nostalgia for a distant era on to the
stories - an important reason for Holmes's popularity, particularly during the
troubled thirties - but the stories themselves depict the squalor and anomie of
modern urban existence.
Doyle's ambivalence is also reflected in the character of Holmes, who is as
much a victim of modern reason as he is, in Watson's words, 'the most perfect
reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen'.35 Holmes is often
trapped in the iron cage of reason: the banal routine of modern life bores him,
and at times he resorts to cocaine for stimulation. As he tells Watson in 'The
wisteria lodge', 'Life is commonplace, the papers are sterile; audacity and
romance seem to have passed for ever from the criminal world. '3 Yet when an
interesting case does arrive, Holmes snaps out of his lethargy: mystery has been
restored to the world, however briefly, and as Holmes notes, 'mystery ... stimu-
lates the imagination'37 and restores romance to the world. But this is a modern
form of romance in which reason provides the magic, and indeed Holmes's use
of reason is so uncannily effective that Watson remarks, 'You would certainly
have been burned, had you lived a few centuries ago.'3 In the Holmes stories,
rationality is the problem, but it is also the solution.
Doyle was not satisfied with the romance of reason, however. He grew tired
of Holmes and tried to end the series in I893 by having Holmes and his arch-
nemesis Professor Moriarty plunge into the Reichenbach Falls. Public demand
and a very lucrative contract from his publisher, however, led Doyle to revive
Holmes a decade later. But Doyle never had many good words to say about
his most famous character, and believed that his most lasting novels would be his

31 Shreffler, ed., BakerStreet,p. 17.


32 Vincent Starrett, Theprivatelife of SherlockHolmes (New York, I933), p. 93.
33
Doyle, The CompleteSherlockHolmes, pp. I5-86. 34 Ibid., p. 98.
35 Ibid., p. i6i. 36 T. S. Blakeney, SherlockHolmes:fact orfiction(London, I932), p. 126.
37 Doyle, The CompleteSherlockHolmes, p. 37. 38 Ibid., p. I62.
'CLAP IF YOU BELIEVE0 609

medieval romances The WhiteCompanyand Sir Jigel. Doyle was not simply bored
with Holmes, as he himself maintained; rather, Holmes's ambivalences about the
modern world were those of his creator, but Holmes's solution - the use of reason
to re-enchant the world - was not one that Doyle found possible. Like Holmes,
Doyle had been trained to be analytical and sceptical, but unlike Holmes (as far
as we can tell), Doyle had also been brought up in a religious environment, and
he continued to crave the unambiguous certainties, along with the traditional
mysteries, that religion provided. Thus Doyle converted to the faith of spiritual-
ism in 1917, and in I920 eagerly accepted the photographic evidence of fairies:
'these little folks ... will become familiar', he proclaimed in his article for The
Strand.'The recognition of their existence will jolt the material twentieth-century
mind out of its heavy ruts in the mud, and will make it admit that there is a
glamour and a mystery to life.'39 But Doyle's belief in fairies and supernatural
spirits, a premodern form of enchantment, no longer had a future. Instead, many
of his readers believed in Sherlock Holmes as a way to re-enchant the modern
world without rejecting the secular and sceptical tenets of modernity.

II

Many readers of the Holmes stories no doubt took them as little more than
entertaining fictions, but Holmes also found readers who believed in his existence
from his earliest appearance. After the second Holmes story was published in
1890, Doyle wrote to his editor, surprised that 'a ... tobacconist actually wrote to
me under cover to you, to ask me where he could get a copy of the monograph in
which Sherlock Holmes described the difference in the ashes of I40 different types
of tobacco'.40 There were two types of Holmes believers: the 'naive believer' and
the 'ironic believer'. Let me take each in turn.
The naive believer genuinely believed that Holmes and Watson were real. The
press had field days reporting on these naive believers, who wrote letters to
Holmes requesting his assistance or scoured Baker Street looking for his residence.
Doyle received numerous letters addressed to Holmes, as did the magazines that
ran the stories.41 Some responded coyly to their earnest enquirers; in 1892 the
penny weekly Tit-Bits remarked, 'Buttons wishes to know whether Sherlock
Holmes, the detective genius ... is or is not an actual person. We cannot positively
say ... [I]f... we should find that no such person is in existence, we shall then

39 Doyle, The comingof thefairies, p. 32. Doyle's Uncle Richard was a famous illustrator, who was
known for his depictions of fairies; his father, Charles, had also been interested in fairy lore, and drew
fairies while he was confined to a sanitarium. Arthur Conan Doyle's willingness to believe in fairies
may thus have had personal as well as spiritual origins. See Martin Booth, The doctor,the detective,and
ArthurConanDoyle: a biographyof ArthurConanDoyle (London, I997), p. 321.
40 Green, ed., The SherlockHolmes letters,p. 4.
41 The General Post Office continued to receive letters for Holmes through the I950s. Booth, The
Doctor, p. I II.
6TO MICHAEl. SALTER

be very much disappointed indeed.'42 (Although a note of exasperation could


also be detected in the editor's comments, as in the following to reader 'H.L.':
'It is not true that Oliver Wendell Holmes was the father of Sherlock Holmes; as
a matter of fact, they were not related at all. ')43 Interestingly, the press identified
many of these naive believers as foreigners, perhaps reflecting unease with the
idea that British common sense could in practice be so uncommon. In 1926
a leader in The Timesnoted that
In certainbackwardcountries,it is said,full obituariesof the great Sherlockwere published
as of a real man; and those who spent any time on the Continent about twenty years ago
may recall seeing ... what seemed to be whole librariesof apocryphalHolmes literature,
not by any means translations,but the free creationsof a mythologicalfancy, ratherlike the
Easternlegends of Alexanderthe Great.44

And in 1930 one writer to The Timesobserved that 'thousands of people' believed
Holmes was real, citing among the thousands the Turks in Constantinople.45 But
press reports of naive believers were not simply an instance of Orientalism; in
I937 The Times also enjoyed reporting about an elderly Danish couple who had
written a respectful letter to Holmes requesting financial assistance.46
The naive belief in Sherlock Holmes can be explained in part by the dynamics
of mass publishing and the beginnings of celebrity culture in the i88os and I89os.
The Holmes stories quickly garnered a wide readership among an increasingly
literate population. Doyle's own talents as an author, and Holmes's distinctive-
ness as a character, were of course central to the popularity of the series. Several
commentators stressed how lifelike Holmes was in comparison with the detectives
of Edgar Allan Poe and Emile Gaboriau, or of Doyle's contemporary imitators.47
Doyle also maximized the size of his avid audience by writing the continuing
adventures of his character as self-contained short stories rather than serial
chapters, enabling new readers to become involved with Holmes at any point
in the run of stories, and established readers to become eager anticipators of
his next adventures. George Newnes, the publisher of The Strandand Tit-Bits,
promoted the Holmes stories vigorously in both mass circulation magazines.
While The Strand,in which the Holmes short stories first appeared, was aimed at
a middle-class audience, the penny-weekly Tit-Bits extended Doyle's readership
into the working classes. Tit-Bitsreprinted the Holmes stories after they appeared
in The Strand,and published editorial material implying Holmes was real, as well
as frequent references to, contests about, and parodies of the stories. In addition,
Holmes received enormous media exposure both when Doyle tried to end the
series by killing him in 1893, and when Doyle bowed to public pressure and
brought Holmes back in I902. Holmes was also one of the first characters to
become ubiquitous through being taken up by all the new mass media. He was

42
Green, ed., The SherlockHolmes letters,p. 64. 43 Tit-Bits,
27 (27 Oct. 1894), p. 67.
44 45 Ibid., p. 148. 46 Ibid., pp. 173-4.
Green, ed., The SherlockHolmes letters,pp. 143-4.
47
See, for example, 'Some inconsistencies of Sherlock Holmes', Bookman, 14 (1902), p. 446;
Review,i8 (28Jan. 1939),p.
ChristopherMorley, 'Notes on BakerStreet', Saturday 12.
'CLAP IF YOU BELIEVE' G6iI

visually recognizable through Sidney Paget's remarkable illustrationsin The


Strand;Doyle said of Paget 'he illustratedthe stories so well that he made a
type which the whole English-readingrace came to recognize'.48He also became
recognizablethroughWilliam Gillette'sportrayalof him in a very popular stage
dramatizationthat touredAmericaand Britainat the turn of the century,through
numerous short films that appeared by the mid-twenties, and through radio
dramatizationsas well as feature-lengthfilms in the thirties.
Thus Holmes became a media celebrityin his own right, in a period when the
culture of celebritywas new and not yet fully understood.The synergisticeffect
of all this attention devoted to Holmes may have encouragedless sophisticated
readersto approachthe storiesas non-fictionalratherthan fictional.AsJonathan
Rose has noted, working-classreaders who were used to interpretingthe Bible
literallymight also approach secularliteraturein the same manner if they were
not familiarwith diverse forms of writing, and '[e]ven into the early twentieth
century, many older working people had not learned a different method of
reading'. (The son of one such reader recalledwhat happened when his mother
read TomJones:'She believedevery word of it and could not conceive how a man
could sit down and invent the story ... out of his head. )49 Doyle wrote the stories
in a realiststyle,with allusionsto contemporaryeventsand earlier'case-histories';
readers who were unused to distinguishingamong different modes of writing
mighteasilyhave falleninto the trapof believingDr Watson'scompelling,'factual'
narratives.50
Indeed, Doyle was one of several prominent writers of the fin-de-siecle
who
reacted against the dominance of literaryrealismby artfullycombining the em-
piricism and apparentobjectivityof the realistswith the imaginativefabulations
of the early nineteenth-centuryromantics.Followingthe precedentsset by Edgar
Allan Poe andJules Verne, writerslike Doyle, H. Rider Haggard, Robert Louis
Stevenson,RudyardKipling, Bram Stoker,H. G. Wells, and others clothed their
fantastictales in the guise of realism,creatingthe genre of the New Romance.51

48
Orel, ed., SirArthurConanDoyle,p. 79.
49 Jonathan Rose, Theintellectual
lifeof theBritishworking
classes(New Haven, 2001), p. 97.
5 Editors could deliberatelyefface the distinctionbetween 'fact' and 'fiction' in order to attract
readers;at other times sensationalistfiction and reportagewerejuxtaposedwithin the samejournal or
newspaper.For examples of the blurringbetween sesationalfiction and sensationalreportagein the
I86os,see Deborah Wynne, Thesensation novelandtheVictorianfamilymagazine (New York, 200o). And in
Britain, at least, public education in the years immediately after the i870 Education Act did not
necessarilytrain studentsto distinguishamong differentgenres of writing.David Vincent arguesthat
at this time the schools tended to provide studentswith 'an acquaintancewith literacyratherthan an
effectivecommand'. David Vincent, Literacy andpopular culture:
England,i75o-I9i4 (Cambridge,1989),
p. 90.
51 Some critics, such as PatrickBrantlinger,have argued that this genre was a reaction against
realismand returnto the Gothic. But, as Nicholas Daly notes in his rebuttalto this line of argument,
this was not how contemporarycritics envisaged it, a finding my own research supports. Patrick
Brantlinger,Thereading lesson:thethreat
ofmassliteracy
innineteenth-century
Britishfiction
(Bloomington,1998),
pp. I71-209; Nicholas Daly, Modernism, romance and thefin de siecle:popularfiction
and Britishculture,
i880-i9I4 (Cambridge, I999), p. I2.
6I2 MICHAEL SALER

To contemporaries, these new works appeared to redress the sense of pessimism


expressed by scientific and literary naturalism during the last third of the century.
'The world is disenchanted', wrote the critic Andrew Lang in an i887 sonnet
about Haggard's She (1887). But, he continued, it can become re-enchanted
through imaginative leaps exemplified by Haggard's epic.52 Writing about
Haggard's King Solomon'smines(1885) and She, the critic W. E. Henley observed
'just as it was thoroughly accepted that there were no more stories to be told, that
romance was utterly dried up, and that analysis of character ... was the only thing
in fiction attractive to the public, down there came upon us a whole horde of
Zulu divinities and the sempiternal queens of beauty in the caves of Kor'.53
Many of the works of the New Romance were themselves spectacular texts
for the new age of the spectacle. They utilized the latest advances in printing
technologies, such as half-tone lithography, to incorporate photographs, drawings,
diagrams, and maps as a complement to the authors' aim of imbuing their
fantasies with an aura of scientific authenticity.54 She, for example, contains
numerous footnotes - a mark of objective scholarship - by both the narrator and
an unnamed 'editor' to correct or elaborate on the narration. (Thus footnote 2,
attributed to the narrator, begins 'The Kallikrates here referred to by my friend
was a Spartan, spoken of by Herodotus (Herod. Ix.72) as being remarkable for his
beauty. He fell at the glorious battle of Plataea (September 22, B.C. 479).')55 The
-
frontispiece of Sheis a photograph - another contemporary indicia of truth56 of
a 'Facsimile of the Sherd of Amenartas', Haggard's invented potsherd that
provides the protagonists with key information for their rather incredible quest
in search of She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. Haggard had an artist friend create the
sherd, and had three separate scholars insure that the ancient Greek, Latin, and
Old English inscriptions on it were correct; these were also presented in the three
languages within the text itself.57One reviewer called She 'a marvelously realistic
tale of fantastic adventures', and Blackwood'sEdinburghMagazinepraised Haggard
as 'the avatar of the old story-teller, with a flavour of the nineteenth century
and scientific explanation'.58 In these ways, the New Romance facilitated the
exercise of animistic reason, in which imaginative explorations were grounded
in rationalist tropes, as well as the ironic imagination, which delighted in the
sober presentation of the extravagant. But the knowing admixture of realism and

52
Anonymous [Andrew Lang], He (London, 1887), n.p.
53 Peter Beresford Ellis, H. RiderHaggard: a voicefromthe infinite(London, 1978), p. II9.
54 Neil Harris, 'Iconography and intellectual history: the halftone effect', in Neil Harris, Cultural
excursions:marketingappetitesand culturaltastesin modernAmerica(Chicago, I990), pp. 304-17.
55 H. Rider
Haggard, She (London, 1887), p. 0o.
56 For a discussion on how photography was used as evidence by the Victorians, see Jennifer
Tucker, 'Photography as witness, detective, and imposter: visual representation in Victorian science',
in Bernard Lightman, ed., Victoriansciencein context(Chicago, I997), pp. 378-408.
57 Ellis, H. RiderHaggard,p. Io8.
58 Morton Cohen, RiderHaggard:his life and works(London, 1960), pp. 102-I6.
'CLAP IF YOU BE,IEVE6 6I3
romanticismcould also make it more difficultfor naive readersto distinguishfact
from fiction.
This befuddlementwas exacerbatedwhen Doyle became a celebrityalongside
his celebratedcreation. He was featuredin many of the gossipy interviewsthen
being pioneeredby the NewJournalists,in which he and his interlocutorcasually
referredto Holmes as a real person. Holmes returned the favour, granting his
first interviewto the NationalObserverin 1892 and then to other publications.As
celebritiesDoyle and Holmes were thus linked, and often confused,in the public
mind, especially as Doyle himself attempted to solve several highly publicized
crimes.He recalledone unnervinglectureengagementwhen the audienceseemed
visibly disappointedat his appearanceat the lectern: 'they all expected to see in
me a cadaverouslookingperson with marksof cocaine injectionsall over him'.59
When Holmes received obituarynotices in I893, many thought that Doyle had
died;60when Doyle ran for parliamentin 1904,a newspaperran a storyheadlined
'How Holmes Tried Politics.'61When Doyle announced his belief in fairies,
one headline read 'Poor SherlockHolmes, HopelesslyCrazy?'62At a time when
celebrity culture itself was beginning to efface distinctionsbetween reality and
appearance,naive readersmight be forgivenfor mistakingDoyle for Holmes, or
Holmes for a real person.
The second type of believer was the 'ironic believer', who pretended that
Holmes was real - but for whom this pretence was so earnestthat the uninitiated
might not recognize it as pretence. Like the naive believers,the ironic believers
appearedin the early I89os. But the tenor of the ironists'writingschanged over
time, from outright parodies to more solemn, quasi-scholarlyinvestigations.
Initially, the ironists published parodies and pastiches of the stories in college
magazines, Punch,and Tit-Bits.A famous example was Ronald Knox's 'Studies
in the literatureof SherlockHolmes', firstpublishedin I912. In this piece Knox
parodiedthe German Higher Criticismof the Bible by applyingsimilarmethods
to the numerous discrepanciesin the stories. Questions about whether Watson's
name was John or James, whether he was shot in the shoulder or the leg, ad
infinitum,were resolved by reference to the multiple authors of the canon: the
Deutero-Watson,the Proto-Watson,and so on.63
Knox's essay was not only funny; it used Holmes's own methods to solve the
mysteriesof Holmes's history, enabling the ironist to play at being his favourite
characterwhile readinghis exploits.When Knox's essaywas republishedin 1928,
a year afterthe final SherlockHolmes storyhad been published,it inspireda host
of more solemn studiesof the seriesthat have continued ever since. These works
usuallymaintainedthat Holmes and Watson were real, and simplyignore Doyle.
Such studies were not entirely serious, but they usually were not spoofs either:
most often they were quite scholarlyand sober, epitomizingrationalscholarship.

59 Orel, ed., SirArthurConanDoyle,p. 80. 60 Green, ed., TheSherlock Holmesletters,


61 62
p. 80.
Ibid., p. 28. Stashower, Tellerof tales,p. 35I.
63
Ronald A. Knox, Essaysin satire(London, I928).
614 MICHAELT SALER

The writers were some of the most prominent figures in Britain and America,
including journalists like Desmond MacCarthy and Christopher Morley, novelists
like Dorothy Sayers and Vincent Starrett, academics likeJacques Barzun, broad-
casters like Elmer Davis, and businessmen like Edgar Smith, the vice-chairman
of General Motors. In I934 Sherlock Holmes Societies were formed on both sides
of the Atlantic, to pursue these studies and to celebrate the memory of the greatest
detective who ever 'lived'. Morley, during his tenure as an editor at the Saturday
Review,used the weekly journal to promote this conceit to a wide audience.
The aspect of Holmes that made him into a modern icon for all those who
professed belief in him, to whatever degree, was that he re-enchanted modernity
without compromising the central tenets of modernity: rationalism, secularism,
urbanism, mass consumerism. He made reason magical, the prosaic poetic. He
believed that every detail of modern life, ranging from the footprints of a giant
hound to advertisements in mass circulation newspapers, was charged with
meaning.64 By I920, Doyle no longer believed that; only the existence of the
supernatural could imbue modernity with enchantment. But Holmes, and the
conventions of the mystery genre he stood for, could assuage the modern craving
for the magical without ever reverting to the supernatural. In a 1942 interview
Jacques Barzun stated, 'We believe in Holmes because he believes in science and
we do too.'65
But Holmes's science of observation was not the same as positivistic science.
It re-enchanted the world by imbuing everything with hidden import. Holmes
demonstrated that profane reality could be no less mysterious or alluring than the
supernatural realm; the material world was laden with occult significance, which
could be revealed to those with an observant eye and logical outlook. When
Watson remarks that Holmes has made deductions based on clues 'quite invisible
to me', Holmes replies in exasperation, 'not invisible but unnoticed, Watson. You
did not know where to look, and so you missed all that was important. I can never
bring you to realize the importance of sleeves, the suggestiveness of thumb-nails,
or the great issues that may hang from a boot-lace.'66 While Holmes is obviously
gifted in his powers of observation, the implication of the tales is that such skills
can be practised by anyone. In 'The red-headed league', this democratic message
is made explicit. The client of this tale is initially dumbfounded when Holmes
scrutinizes him and determines that the man has engaged in manual labour,
takes snuff, is a Freemason, has visited China, and has recently done a great deal
of writing. Holmes then explains how he deduced each point from the man's
appearance, and the client is pleasantly surprised at the apparent simplicity of the
detective's methods: 'I thought at first that you had done something clever, but
I see that there was nothing in it, after all.' The client reveals his ignorance, of

64 Franco Moretti suggests that Doyle's detective stories may have become canonical, unlike those
of his rivals, because of Doyle's novel emphasis on the use of clues in the narrative. Franco Moretti,
'The slaughterhouse of literature', Modem LanguageQuarterly,6i (2000), pp. 207-27.
65 Shreffler, ed., BakerStreet,p. 26. 66
Doyle, The completeSherlockHolmes, p. I96.
'CLAP IF YOU BELIEVE' 615

course, since Holmes is supremely clever, but readers could nevertheless share
his delight that the method is accessible to the common individual. Watson's
occasional successes in its practice are further confirmations of this enchanting
notion.
G. K. Chesterton readily perceived both this reinscription of supernatural
glamour into the profane world, and the democratic implications of the mystery
genre Doyle helped establish. A fan of the great detective, Chesterton argued in
I9OI that mysteries were the modern equivalent of fairy-tales that encouraged
ordinary readers to perceive marvels in the commonplace:
No one can have failed to notice that in these storiesthe hero or the investigatorcrosses
London with somethingof the lonelinessand libertyof a prince in a tale of elfland,that in
the course of that incalculablejourney the casual omnibusassumesthe primarycoloursof
a fairy ship ... It is a good thing that the average man shall fall into the habit of looking
imaginativelyat ten men in the street even if it is only on the chance that the eleventh
might be a notorious thief.67

Contemporaries agreed with Chesterton, arguing that the Holmes tales should
not be considered mere escapism, because they encouraged readers to emulate
Holmes's rational scrutiny of everyday life. Writing to Tit-Bits in 1894, one
physician said that the stories 'make many a fellow who has before felt very
little interest in his life and daily surroundings, think that after all there may be
much more in life, if he keeps his eyes open, than he has ever dreamed of in his
philosophy'.68 Tit-Bits reported on readers like F.W.B. who 'has been applying
the principles of this great detective in various matters connected with actual
private life'.69
Holmes's method thus provided an alternative to the purely means-ends
rationality that Weber and other cultural pessimists believed characterized
modernity and had rendered it sterile. Rather than practising this instrumental
rationality, Holmes brought reason and imagination together into an animistic
rationality, one that was congruent with intuition. While Holmes may have been
a thinking-machine, he was also a fin-de-siecle aesthete who arose late in the
morning, cogitated best when he was smoking tobacco (stored in a pair of Persian
slippers) or playing his violin, and of course had his occasional recourse to co-
caine. In one of the first 'biographies' of Holmes, T. S. Blakeney noted that 'this
[combination of reason and imagination] was one of Holmes's strongest assets as
a detective - he called it the scientific use of the imagination'.70 Animistic reason
of the sort practised by Holmes clearly was important to the ironic believers; it
was precisely this union of reason and fancy that enabled them to maintain that
he existed.

67 G. K.
Chesterton,'A defence of detective stories', in G. K. Chesterton, TheDefendant
(London,
9I01), pp. II9-21. For a comparison of mysteries with myths and fairy tales, see David Lehman, The
perfectmurder:a studyin detection(Ann Arbor, 2000), pp. 23-36.
68
Green, ed., TheSherlock
Holmesletters,
p. 79.
69
Tit-Bits, 28 (I895). 70 Blakeney, SherlockHolmes, p. I20.
6I6 MICHAEL SALER

Readers also appreciated that Holmes's animistic reason restored a holistic


import to the world. Cultural pessimists feared modernity was fragmented, and
looked back to the premodern period as a time of organic unity they believed
might be forever lost; Doyle's spiritualism and belief in fairies was an attempt to
restore such unity through restoring premodern beliefs.71 But Holmes's form of
reason revealed subtle links to modern existence that did not require supernatural
intervention. He always managed to establish logical, but not necessarily obvious,
connections among all the empirical facts that he observed. Through careful
scrutiny, analytical reasoning, and imaginative insight, Holmes demonstrated
that modern experience could be holistic and legible -but also wonderfully
variable. Writing in I894 to Tit-Bits, a reader praised the Holmes stories for
highlighting an underlying 'chain of causation'. He stated,
The glory of all 'The Adventuresof SherlockHolmes' is that in them a due proportionis
preservedfor every link in the chain. In Holmes' examinationof [a] room, every action
and every deduction appears, not as an isolated phenomenon, but as one of a series of
events, and the gradualevolutionis ... the greatestcharm of all to me.72
Decades later the same point was made by Marshall McLuhan, who likened
Holmes's use of reason to the organic holism of Coleridge and Flaubert, and
contrasted it to the narrow instrumental reason of bureaucrats, whose 'technique
is serial, segmented, and circumstantial. They conclude effect immediately from
preceding cause in lineal and chronological order. They do not dream of totalities
or of the major relevance of details.' While cultural pessimists like Max Weber
or Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno sought but were unable to find an
alternative to the instrumental reason practised by the growth of the modern
bureaucratic state, Sherlock Holmes was practising one: and McLuhan found
that 'the ordinary man finds a hero in Holmes ... because the bureaucrat is
always putting the finger on each of us in a way which makes us feel like Kafka's
characters - guilty but mystified'.73 Holmes's use of animistic reason implied that
the world was resonant with wider meanings and capable of endless surprises.

III
Thus Holmes became an icon of modernity precisely because he served as an
example of, and provided the means to, re-enchant the modern world. By com-
bining reason and imagination in a tight synthesis he was able to vivify inert facts
and reveal underlying correspondences; his readers could apply this example of
animistic reason to their own lives, and many - the ironic believers - certainly
applied it to the Holmes canon itself. In so doing, they helped to legitimate the

71 David Frisby, Fragmentsof modernity:theoriesof modernityin the work of Simmel,Kracauer,and Benjamin


(Cambridge, MA, I990). For a response to this fear by German scientists who turned to biological
holism in the interwar period as a way to reconcile modernity and enchantment, see Ann Harrington,
Reenchantedscience:holismin GermanculturefromWilhelmII to Hitler (NewJersey, I996).
72 Green, ed., The SherlockHolmes letters,pp. 78-79. 73 Shreffler, ed., BakerStreet,p. 39.
'CLAP IF YOIJ BELIEVE' 617
idea that Western adults could indulge their imaginations without losing their
reason - indeed, by engaging in such imaginative play they could bring the two
together, as Holmes himself did.
There were those who were not amused by the spectacle of respectable,
rational, and seemingly responsible adults devoting their leisure to the fiction that
Holmes was not a fiction. Arthur Conan Doyle's son Denis, trustee of the Doyle
Estate, indicated his 'grave disapproval' when he attended a Baker Street Irreg-
ulars (BSI) dinner in 1940. According to one account, he listened with perplexity
to the numerous toasts to Holmes, and to the short papers explicating aspects
of Holmes's life. Turning to a BSI member, he whispered, 'I don't understand
this! My father's name has not been mentioned.' The member explained that
this was the highest compliment an author could obtain: not even Shakespeare
created characters that were seen as more real than their creator. When Doyle
asked the member what exactly the BSI saw as his father's role, he was told
that his father was usually referred to as Watson's literary agent.74 By the end of
the decade Denis and his brother Adrian were sending messages to the BSI to
'Cease, Desist, and Disband. '75
While Doyle's sons had a certain proprietary interest in establishing that
Holmes was fictional and their father factual, there were others who felt that the
spectacle of adults pretending to believe in a fictional character was unbecoming.
Edmund Wilson bluntly called the phenomenon 'infantile',76 and S. C. Roberts
recalled that when news of his election as president of the Sherlock Holmes
Society was published in The Times of London, he received a chiding letter from
an old friend: 'I could hardly believe the evidence of my eyes when I read about
[your election]. Sherlock Homes and Watson were two ficti[t]ious characters
invented by Conan Doyle. All there is about these two invented people is what
Conan Doyle wrote. There is nothing more to it and very little at that!'77
But this was a residual Victorian understanding of how responsible adults
should behave. By the early twentieth century there was an increasing recognition
by artists and intellectuals of the constitutive role of the imagination in percep-
tions of reality: a new, 'aestheticist' episemology that gave adults greater latitude
to indulge their imaginations than had been the case in the early to mid-nineteenth
century. Friedrich Nietzsche, Oscar Wilde, Stephane Mallarme, and William
James extolled the fictive aspects of existence; emblematic of this turn of thought
was the I911 publication of Thephilosophyof' as if', a manifesto of' Fictionalism' by
the philosopher Hans Vaihinger, in which he discussed the prevalence and utility
of fictions in science and in everyday life.78 We are accustomed to think of this
'aesthetic turn' at the turn of the century in terms of elite culture, but it is also

74
Jon L. Lellenberg,ed., Irregular
memories
ofthethirties:
anarchival of theBakerStreet
history Irregulars'first
decade,I930-1940 (New York, I990), p. 228. 75Ibid., p. 253.
76 77
Shreffler,ed., BakerStreet,
p. 5. Roberts,Adventures,p. 231.
78 Hans
Vaihinger, Thephilosophy of 'as if' a systemof the theoretical,
practicaland religious
fictionsof
trans. C. K. Ogden (I9II; London, I924 edn).
mankind,
6I8 MICHAEL SALER

found in the popular literature of the period. While aesthetes were turning to
formalist works of art as a way to escape a disenchanted world, mass culture was
providing ordinary readers with equally autonomous worlds of the imagination
that gratified the sense of wonder without denying modernity. Using terms similar
to those used by contemporary aesthetes, Robert Louis Stevenson described
how reading popular fiction can transport readers into a separate sphere of con-
sciousness:
The process itself should be absorbingand voluptuous;we should gloat over a book, be
wrapt clear out of ourselves,and rise from the perusal, our mind filled with the busiest,
kaleidoscopicdance of images, incapableof sleep or of continuousthought. The words, if
the book be eloquent, should run thenceforwardin our ears like the noise of breakers,or
the story, if it be a story, repeat itself in a thousand coloured pictures to the eye. It was
for this last pleasure that we read so closely and loved our books so dearly in the bright
troubledperiod of our boyhood.79

Stevenson's recollection of his childhood reading reminds us that the auton-


omous worlds of the imagination created by both modernist and popular writers
during the fin-de-sieclewere indebted to the genesis of children's literature as a
genre beginning in the i86os - the new genre itself marking the decline of earlier
Victorian evangelical and utilitarian strictures against the indulgence of the
imagination.80 Works by Charles Kingsley, George MacDonald, Lewis Carroll,
and others absorbed their young readers in autotelic worlds of fantasy, and the
generation that came of age in the i88os was anxious to recapture the enchanted
spheres they had inhabited in their youth.81 Many of the authors of the New
Romance of the i88os and i89os, such as Doyle, Stevenson, Haggard, and
Kipling, intended their fiction to restore the enchantments of their own childhood
reading; and their novels, replete with maps, photographs, and footnotes, com-
bined realism and romance in a knowing, ironic manner acceptable to rational,
responsible adults no less than children. (Doyle famously dedicated The lost world
(1912) 'To the boy who's half a man/Or the man who's half a boy.') Such works
appealed to a fin-de-sieclereadership that had been acclimated in childhood to
inhabiting imaginative worlds as well as mundane reality, just as their forebears
had lived in worlds at once sacred and profane.
The illusions created by this attention to realist detail did more than heighten
the 'reality effect' and induce the willing suspension of disbelief: they allowed
rational readers to become immersed in these fantastic worlds, while at the same
time maintaining an ironic distance - to remain rational and enchanted simul-
taneously. The influence and practice of these writers continued through the next
century. J. R. R. Tolkien, for example, created in his The lordof theringsa fictional

79 Edward Salmon, Juvenile literatureas it is (London, I888), p. 105.


80 For
eighteenth- and nineteenth-century concerns about the moral and spiritual effects of reading
fiction, see Brantlinger, The readinglesson;Vincent, Literacy;Richard D. Altick, TheEnglish commonreader:
a social historyof the mass readingpublic, i8oo-igoo (Chicago, I957).
81 Humphrey Carpenter, Secretgardens:thegoldenage of children'sliterature(Boston, I985).
'CLAP IF YOU BELIEVE' 6I9
universe that rivals in popularity that of the Holmes canon. In his I938 discussion
of fantastic literature, Tolkien argued that modern readers would accept autotelic
'Secondary Worlds' of 'arresting strangeness', provided that these worlds were
also logically and internally consistent. Like the writers of the New Romance,
Tolkien's works exemplified a form of animistic reason, combining rationalist
and aestheticist outlooks. (He also outdid his predecessors when it came to the
incorporation of maps, glossaries, and other paratextual apparatus.) He insisted
that 'fantasy is a rational not an irrational activity'; that 'it does not either blunt
the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary.
The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make.' While
rational, the modern enchantments found in fantastic literature are also allied to
aesthetic formalism: 'Enchantment produces a Secondary World into which both
designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are
inside; but in its purity it is artistic in desire and purpose. '82
Another interwar author who has attracted a wide and devoted following,
the American writer of 'cosmic fiction' H. P. Lovecraft, echoed this definition.
Lovecraft was an agnostic and materialist, and stated that he wrote his tales of
cosmic wonders and terrors in order to re-enchant modernity without denying its
secular and rational foundations. While an adherent of modern scientific thought,
he also thought of himself as a symbolist whose fictions were intended to evoke
sensations of wonder, fear, and astonishment, so as to re-enchant a world that
instrumental reason had stripped of its marvels. His autonomous fictional uni-
verse, which became known after his death as the 'Cthulhu Mythos', consisted of
plausibly invented New England towns and the extraterrestrial entities that
menace them; this universe was brought to life through a wealth of realist detail
and intertextual references among the stories themselves. (Indeed, one of the
'dread' tomes he invented, the Jecronomicon,has taken on a virtual life of its
own - although the text is only mentioned briefly in his stories, in recent years
there have appeared at least two full-length paperback editions, purporting to be
the 'real' thing.) Lovecraft claimed he got a

big kick ... from takingrealiyjust as it is - acceptingall the limitationsof the most orthodox
science - and then permitting my symbolizingfaculty to buildoutwardfrom the existing
facts; rearing a structureof indefinite promiseandpossibility ... But the whole secret of the
kick is thatI knowdamnwellit isn'tso ... I'm probablytrying to have my cake and eat it at
the same time - to get the intoxication of a sense of cosmic contact and significanceas
the theists do, and yet to avoid the ignorant and ignominious ostrich-actwhereby they
cripple their vision and secure the desiderateresults.83

Thus, beginning with the genre of children's literature in the I86os, gaining mo-
mentum with the New Romance of the fin-de-siecle,and continuing into the next
century, realistically conceived, autonomous worlds of wonder provided readers

82
J. R. R. Tolkien, Treeand leaf (Boston, I989), pp. 45-51.
83 H. P. Lovecraft, Selectedletters,I9II--924 (Sauk City, WI, 1965), III, p. I40.
620 MICHAEL SALER

with the enchantments that the discourse of modernity claimed to have super-
seded. The double-consciousness of the ironic imagination enabled adults to
immerse themselves in these worlds while simultaneously remaining grounded
in the real.
In addition to the influence of children's literature and aestheticist epistemo-
logies, the concomitant spectacularization of everyday life resulting from the new
mass media during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries made such
imaginary worlds an almost inescapable aspect of everyday existence for many.84
The ubiquity of the fictive worlds of mass literature, film, and radio rendered the
conscious engagement in pretence common and even habitual among adults, far
more so than had been the case in the early to mid-nineteenth century, when
there were fewer venues and the exercise of the imagination had been circum-
scribed by a more puritanical outlook. The sheer onslaught of images, represen-
tations, and symbols fostered by a spectacularized commodity culture cultivated
the ironic imagination, which had already been nurtured by the prevailing climate
of scientific scepticism. As Michael North has argued,
even by the turn of the century,irony had become less a defense against commercialized
modernity and more a way of participating in it ... As society becomes progressively
aestheticized,... as audiences begin to consume imaginative and symbolic materials as
they had previously consumed material goods, then everyday life acquires an inherent
ironic distancefrom itself.85

Many postmodern theorists have simply asserted that the public remained pass-
ively in thrall to these images, but more recent research indicates that the public
on both sides of the Atlantic enjoyed playing with these 'artful deceptions', even
when they knew or suspected fakery. This was recognized by P. T. Barnum when
he stated in his autobiography 'The public appears to be disposed to be amused
even when they are conscious of being deceived.'86 Similarly, Jonathan Rose's
study of British working-class readers affirmed that in the nineteenth century
there were 'naive' readers who mistook fiction as fact, partly because they did
not have access to a range of texts that would expose them to different represen-
tational strategies. But 'by I900, thanks to compulsory education and cheap
reading matter, even relatively unsophisticated readers knew not to believe
everything they saw in print'.87 Thus, in the last third of the nineteenth century,
'naive' and 'ironic' believers may have formed the extremes of a wider spectrum
of readership, but by the early decades of the twentieth century it appears likely
that numerous 'common readers' had moved to the ironist camp.
Many of these fictive worlds were presented by multiple media over a period of
time, resulting in a synergistic effect that imbued these worlds with a heightened
verisimilitude, arguably an early form of virtual reality. Elaine Scarry has analysed

84 Vanessa Schwartz, Spectacularrealities:earlymass cultureinfin-de-siecleParis (Berkeley, 1998).


85 Michael
North, Reading1922: a returnto thesceneof the modern(New York, 1999), pp. 206-8.
86 James Cook, The arts of deception(Cambridge, MA, 200o).
87
Rose, The intellectualife, p. 99.
'CLAP IF YOU BELIEVEF 62IT

how poems and novels provide subtle instructions for the reader's mind to
recreatethe images that the author attemptedto capturein words;88 when other
media - pictorialand audio - are enlistedfor this purposethe fictionscan appear
even more familiarand believable. Earliernineteenth-centuryfiction may have
attained some synergistic effects when texts were simultaneouslyadapted for
the stage and representedpictorially,89but the number, type, and circulationof
images increaseddramaticallyby the end of the century.Holmes's continuedlife
as a serial character,for example, was extended and made more durableby his
appearancesnot only in illustrated,mass circulationmagazinesand on the stage,
but also on the screen and through radio,just as the fictionalpersonaeknown as
'movie stars' (as opposed to the real-lifeactorsthey represent)owed their 'virtual
life' to the concertedeffortsof Hollywoodpublicists,newspapercolumnists,radio
broadcasters,newsreel compilers, and fan magazines. The synergisticeffect of
the new media emerging at the turn of the century was qualitativelyand quan-
titativelydifferentfrom all that went before, and is one of the factors that dis-
tinguishesHolmes's reception and continued longevity from that of Pamela and
other popular charactersthat preceded him.
Fictive creationsbecame even more 'alive' when individualsjoined together
in groups to share in a communal fantasy, as was also the case with both the
SherlockHolmes societiesand (to take but one example)the movie-starfan clubs
that originated in the interwarperiod. The fact that so many adults united to
share these imaginary worlds over a protracted period of time indicates how
acceptable and alluring- indeed, enchanting- these virtualworlds had become
by the early decades of the twentieth century. By the end of the century such
virtual realities of the imagination had become substantiallyaugmented by in-
formation technologies, but arguably there is a direct line of descent from the
Baker Street Irregularsto the denizens of online computer gaming worlds and
the enthusiastsof fantasy role-playinggames.90And the fashion for publishing
biographiesof fictionalcharactershas continuedsince those of Holmes: even the
Dictionary in the new edition scheduled to be published in
of NationalBiography,
2004, will contain entriesforJohn Bull, SpringheelJack,and Robin Hood.91
The ironic imaginationhas thus become ubiquitous,re-enchantinga secular,
rational, and commodifiedworld without rejectingthese central components of
modernity.Modernistself-reflexivitywas as much a part of mass cultureas it was
of the so-called fine arts from the turn of the century onwards. Naive believers
might have been misled by the footnotesin Haggard'sSheto thinkit an historical

88 Elaine
Scarry, Dreamingby the book(NewJersey, 200oo).
89
Martin Meisel, Realizations: narrative,pictorial, and theatricalarts in nineteenthcenturyEngland (New
Jersey, I983).
90 There are several interesting overlaps between the Sherlock Holmes societies and gatherings of
those who play fantasy role-playing games such as 'Dungeons and Dragons.' For a sociological
analysis of the phenomenon of these games, see Gary Alan Fine, Sharedfantasy:role-playinggamesas social
worlds(Chicago, I983).
91 Anon., 'Welcome faces in the
family album', Sunday Times, 15July 200I, p. 9.
622 MICHAEL SA, ER

account, but readers attuned to irony would have recognized the citations to be
almost as extravagant in their mock sobriety as the events of the novel. (Indeed,
when Haggard's friend Andrew Lang read Shein proof, he cautioned the jocular
Haggard against being too facetious: 'I'm sure the note about a monograph on
Ayesha's Greek pronunciation for the use of public schools, will show the Public
you are laughing - a thing I can never help doing, and the B[ritish] P[ublic] hate
it. )92 Examples of ironic self-reflexivity from mass culture easily could be multi-
plied, but one seems particularly apt here in light of earlier references to the
fictional yet 'living' personae of movie stars. In an early scene from the wonderful
Ernst Lubitsch comedy 'To be or not to be' (I942), Carole Lombard plays a
famous actress, Maria Tura, who is visited by an ardent male fan who starts to
recount all sorts of fanciful events from her life that he has read in gossip columns.
Tura is puzzled, until she realizes that the fan is a naive believer in her movie-star
persona, which, thanks to the creative imagination of her publicists, carries on a
romantic existence quite different from that of the genuine Maria Tura. So she
politely goes along with the naive believer and becomes an ironic believer in
the fictitious life she is supposed to have led. The scene elicits a laugh even from
those who continue to follow the exploits of movie stars, just as many of the
activities of the Sherlock Holmes societies contain deliberate notes of self-parody.
The self-reflexivity of the ironic imagination is not incompatible with provisional
belief, and permits a wide range of enchantments to be enjoyed without necess-
arily incurring the dangers often imputed to modern entertainment: from aimless
'escapism' to insidious 'false consciousness'.
Cultural pessimists of the fin-de-sieclepromoted a concept of instrumental
rationality that distinguished reason and the imagination, rendering modernity
as disenchanted. But at the same moment a countervailing trend was emerging
within elite and popular cultures, one that has become commonplace today. We
now acknowledge that what we call 'real' is also a provisional and contingent
construct; that so-called 'objectivity' is always tinged with our imagination.
Holmes was the first fictional character to embody this synthesis overtly, through
his animistic reason. His way of combating modern ennui has become our way
(setting aside the cocaine use). In so doing he replaced our need for fairies to
enchant the world, and became one of the many fictive enchantments purveyed
by the mass media to be enjoyed with the ironic imagination. While there were
those, like Arthur Conan Doyle, who found modernity disenchanting and turned
to the security of premodern beliefs, others were content to relegate those pre-
modern beliefs to imaginary fancies, and then to embrace imaginative fancy as
a distinctly modern form of enchantment. As Dorothy Sayers asked in a deadpan
manner in I934, 'Why, if mere creatures of the imagination, like Peter Pan, are to
be commemorated with statues, this honour should be withheld from national
figures such as Sherlock Holmes'?93

92
Ellis, H. RiderHaggard,p. 109.
93 R. Ivar Gunn, 'The Sherlock Holmes Society', BritishMedicalJournal, i Aug. I934.