“Disputation, Confrontation,

and Dialectical Hullabaloo”

Those felicitous words were how Old Irregular Robert G. Harris (“The Creeping Man,” BSI) described the spirit of the BSI’s annual dinners at the Murray Hill Hotel and Cavanagh’s in the 1930s through the 1960s, before growing numbers brought it to an end by forcing the annual dinner to move to many round tables (instead of close proximity as shown in the 1947 photograph on the website’s The BSI page), in huge banquet rooms in overplush hotels and clubs, ever since. To keep the spirit alive, we have this department for occasional items of Irregular controversy.

Do We Owe Baker Street Irregularity to Collier’s Weekly of 1903?

Reviewing Russell McLauchin’s 1946 memoir of his youth, Alfred Street, I reported that he wrote in one chapter about his boyhood interest in Sherlock Holmes going beyond mere enjoyable reading of the stories.

One was the Return stories appearing at the time in Collier’s Weekly,” he said, “leading to their parents buying bonus volumes of A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four.”

“This economical acquisition of a pair of masterpieces,” he said, “prompted the close perusal of the same by our elders, producing much Sherlockian conversation around every fireside on the street. Youthful ears overheard these discussions and the name of the detective grew familiar.” — A pattern doubtless replicated, I suggested, in many American homes then where early Irregulars were children. McLauchlin went on:  “something like that went on in every household where Collier’s was delivered by the postman.”

He was born in 1894, and was nine years old when the Return of Sherlock Holmes stories began to appear in Collier’s Weekly in 1903. Christopher Morley was born in 1890, and was thirteen years old; and in his great essay “In Memoriam: Sherlock Holmes,” 1930, he wrote:

I was too young to know the wave of dismay that went round the English-speaking world when Sherlock and Professor Moriarty supposedly perished together in the Reichenbach Fall, but I can well remember the sombre effect on my ten-year-old spirits when I first read the closing paragraphs of the Memoirs. The intolerable pathos of the cigarette-case on the rocky ledge; the firm clear handwriting of that last stoic message! I then put in two or three years in reading everything else of Dr. Doyle’s. . . .  But all that time I knew, deep in some instinct, that Holmes was not really dead. . . . So you may imagine the thrilling excitement—in 1903, wasn’t it?—when The Return began printing in Collier’s.

Elmer Davis, born the same year as Morley, wrote in his introduction to The Return  of Sherlock Holmes in their 1952 Limited Editions Club appearance: “We who were born around the year 1890 have seen many things that we would just as soon have missed seeing. . . . Yet against all our disillusionments and disappointments we can offset one great and glorious memory — we saw Sherlock Holmes come back.”

I can testify to the domestic excitement among subscribers to Collier’s, and gratefully acknowledge the self-abnegation of my parents who let me have first look at the issue that finally came in with The Return of Sherlock Holmes . . . . We did not then ask, “Is he as good as ever?” It was enough that he was back. But it turned out that he was as good as ever . . . . Indeed, in one respect he was better than ever; for here in Collier’s appeared, for the first time in print, what has become the classic, final and unalterable portrait of Sherlock Holmes. I say, the first in print; it had long been familiar on the stage.

Thanks to William Gillette, the second establishing factor in Russell McLauchlin’s account in Alfred Street. And for another twelve pages of his introduction, Elmer Davis expounded upon the exegetical scholarship that was applied, initially by excited young readers like himself in 1903-04, to the Adventures and Memoirs stories as well in light of the revelations of the Return stories in Collier’s Weekly.

Edgar W. Smith was born in 1894, like McLauchlin, hence nine years old when the Return stories began to appear in Collier’s. I know of no explicit statement by him about reading the stories at that time in that magazine, but it’s hard to doubt it when we read, in his very first letter to Vincent Starrett, dated October 15, 1936 (found in its entirety on pp. 158-61 of Irregular Memories of the ‘Thirties), his words: “I read your “Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” with all the genuine enthusiasm of one who has himself cherished from boyhood the admirable illusion that our hero really lived.”

And others? I shall look into Edgar’s correspondent at the time, Vincent Starrett, but I know that in his autobiography Born in a Bookshop he related being captivated by the historical novels of A. Conan Doyle before he was by Sherlock Holmes; and being born in 1886, he had reached a somewhat less impressionable age than had Morley, Davis, Smith, and McLauchlin in 1903. But I shall investigate and report, and would be happy for any other examples readers of this may send me.

2010’s Great Debate on the Origins of Irregular Scholarship:

“Dr. Hill Barton” vs “Rodger Prescott of evil memory”

A debate between yours truly and Dr. Richard Sveum of The Norwegian Explorers (“Dr. Hill Barton,” BSI) at the 2010 Sherlock Holmes Collections weekend at the University of Minnesota’s Andersen Library.

    On that occasion, Dr. Sveum championed the Baker Street Irregulars party line that Ronald Knox created Sherlockian scholarship, and Christopher Morley brought it to America and spread the gospel. Your humble Irregular historian endeavored to demonstrate that this is a myth myth of long standing, but myth nonetheless. Following are Dr. Sveum’s opening statement, my opening statement, his rebuttal, and my rebuttal.

opening statement of Dr. Sveum

In the Sherlock Holmes Collections Newsletter, June 2009, I wrote the “50 Years Ago” column about Evelyn Waugh’s 1959 biography of Msgr. Ronald Knox. You might say I received hate mail from Jon objecting to my statement, “Ronald Knox (1888-1957) was the English theologian who started literary scholarship in Sherlockiana.”

On January 14, 2010, in New York, I sat listening to Jon defame Msgr. Knox, so I foolishly challenged him to come to Minnesota and, using Oxford Union rules, debate the Motion that Ronald Knox founded Sherlockian Scholarship. I will lay out my case for Knox, then Jon will oppose the motion. I will then respond, then Jon, and then we will open it up for questions.

I actually heard John Bennett Shaw explain the Cult of Sherlock Holmes and began my collecting mania with the Shaw 100, and organize my bookshelves by the religious categories: Canon, Apocrypha, and Writings about the Sacred Writings. I thought everyone knew that Sherlockian Higher Criticism and calling Holmes the Master was due to Knox’s religious influence. I was shocked to learn that Mr. Lellenberg objected.

2011 will be the 100th anniversary of the lecture “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes,” and by it the founding of Sherlockian scholarship, by Ronald Knox. In the introduction of Knox’s 1928 book Essays in Satire, he writes, “That Sherlock Holmes paper was written, I believe in 1911, for the Gryphon Club at Trinity; it has been read to various societies, I suppose, above a score of times, and twice published, in The Blue Book and Blackfriars.”

For those bibliographers, “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes” has been published six times, the first being The Blue Book (conducted by Oxford undergraduates) Vol. 1, No. 2 (July 1912), 111-32, and was included in Edgar Smith’s 1958 The Incunabular Sherlock Holmes and James Edward Holroyd’s 1967 Seventeen Steps to 221B.

As a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in 1911, Christopher Morley heard Knox’s lecture “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes” and wrote about it in Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson: A Textbook of Friendship (1944). The lecture was a mock-serious inquiry into inconsistencies in the Sherlock Holmes stories, and a satire on Biblical Higher Criticism. Ronald Knox in his 1918 autobiography A Spiritual Aeneid writes that part of a don’s function is to read papers to undergraduate societies. He planned to write two, one on St. Paul for theological societies and one on Sherlock Holmes for secular societies, but found the Sherlock Holmes paper would do for both since it was interpreted as a religious tract. He took the Sherlock Holmes stories as a form of literary art and divided them into eleven characteristic divisions with Greek names. Knox invented a controversy about authenticity of the stories with comments by imaginary German scholars. Knox’s paper started our cult and Morley brought it to America.

Of special note is that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a letter to Knox dated July 5, 1912, which Waugh quotes in his book. “I cannot help writing to tell you of the amusementand also the amazementwith which I read your article on Sherlock Holmes. That anyone should spend such pains on such material was what surprised me. Certainly you know a great deal more about it than I do,” and he continued for four pages to discuss the criticism in detail. Steve Doyle will soon publish the entire letter in a book by Notre Dame Professor Michael Crowe titled Ronald Knox and Sherlock Holmes: The Origin of Sherlockian Studies.

In the letter Conan Doyle plays the Game and refers to the commentators as the learned and profound Sauwosch and the no less erudite Piff-Pouff, and ended with “renewed amazementat the trouble you have taken.” The Great Game and Sherlockian studies were blessed by the Literary Agent.

So who exactly was Ronald Knox? Msgr. Ronald Arbuthnott Knox was an English theologian, priest and crime writer born February 17, 188, 122 years ago. The sixth and last child of an Anglican Bishop, he attended Eton College and took a first in Classics at Balliol College, Oxford, in 1905. By 1910 he was a Fellow at Trinity College, ordained an Anglican priest in 1912, and became a Roman Catholic in 1917.

“Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes” was written during his conversion from Protestant Anglican to Roman Catholic. The Church sent him to teach school in Hertfordshire from 1919-1926. He was able to return to Oxford in 1926 as a chaplain for Roman Catholic students.

There to supplement his meager stipend as chaplain he began writing classic detective stories, publishing six in all including five novels and a short story featuring Miles Bredon, who is employed as a private investigator by the Indescribable Insurance Company. In 1930 he was a founding member of The Detection Club along with Dorothy L. Sayers. He wrote the introduction to The Best Detective Stories 1928-1929, and in it he codified the rules of the game—and Golden Age mysteries were considered games, different than our game.

According to Knox, a detective story “must have as its main interest the unraveling of a mystery, a mystery whose elements are clearly presented to the reader at an early stage in the proceedings, and whose nature is such as to arouse curiosity, a curiosity which is gratified at the end.” Knox’s “Ten Commandments” (or Decalogue) are as follows:

  1. 1.The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.

  1. 2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

  1. 3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.

  1. 4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.

  1. 5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.

  1. 6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

  1. 7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.

  1. 8. The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.

  1. 9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.

  1. 10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

The biography of Ronald Knox by Evelyn Waugh is an interesting story. Knox chose Waugh to write his biography before he died. Both Knox and Waugh were converts to the Roman Catholic Church. They were brilliant, came from middle-class families, were educated at Oxford, were temporary schoolmasters, wrote satire, and enjoyed the company of the British Catholic aristocracy. Knox helped Waugh by proofreading Brideshead Revisited and asked him to be his literary executor in 1950. Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion (1950) by Ronald Knox was dedicated to Evelyn Waugh. Waugh dedicated the Knox biography to Katharine Asquith and Daphne Acton. Msgr. Ronald Knox lived first at Lady Acton’s Aldenham in Shropshire from 1933 to 1947, and at the Manor House, Mells, Somerset, from 1947 until his death in 1957, the country home of Katharine Asquith.

Knox left Oxford in 1939 and was told by the Church to stop writing detective stories. Living in Shropshire, he was able to devote his time to translating the Vulgate Bible into English, a project that took nine years. The Waugh biography was controversial by implying that Cardinal Bourne, Archbishop of Westminster, did not use Knox’s talents wisely. The book was nearly condemned by the Roman Catholic Church. Msgr. Barton, the senior censor, confirming the “Hierarchy’s displeasure” because it violated the unwritten law that bishops are not criticized in any public way.

In his will, Ronald Knox left his manuscripts and copyrights to Evelyn Waugh and the royalties to the Asquith family. Waugh published Literary Distractions by Ronald Knox in 1958. In ch. XIV, Detective Stories, the rules that he first wrote in 1924 were reprinted with commentary. The Detection Club adopted his rules for their code of ethic. The Detection Club also put out three serial novels, with each member writing a chapter full of clues and passing it on; Ronald Knox contributed to all three.

In 1932 Knox wrote a review of H. W. Bell’s Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson: The Chronology of Their Adventures and Thomas Blakeney’s Sherlock Holmes: Fact or Fiction? entitled “The Mathematics of Mrs. Watson,” which was published in the November 12th New Statesman. It was later reprinted in Baker Street Miscellanea 2:8-11, 1975. Knox wrote “The Mystery of Mycroft” for H. W. Bell’s Baker Street Studies in 1934. His final contribution to Sherlockian literature was “The Apocryphal Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the First Class Carriage,” a pastiche that appeared in The Strand Magazine in 1947. Dorothy L. Sayers in the foreword to her 1946 Unpopular Opinions wrote:

The game of applying the methods of the “Higher Criticism” to the Sherlock Holmes canon was begun, many years ago, by Monsignor Ronald Knox, with the aim of showing that, by those methods, one could disintegrate a modern classic as speciously as a certain school of critics have endeavoured to disintegrate the Bible. Since then, the thing has become a hobby among a select set of jesters here and in America. The rule of the game is that it must be played as solemnly as a county cricket match at Lord’s: the slightest touch of extravagance or burlesque ruins the atmosphere.

Waugh notes that thirty years after “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes” was published, it had brought Knox a form of fame he found tedious. Knox wrote to an editor who asked for a review, “I can’t bear books about Sherlock Holmes. It is so depressing that my one permanent achievement is to have started a bad joke. If I did start it.”

Both Christopher Morley and Ronald Knox died in 1957. Knox is gone but not forgotten and is especially remembered by us for starting Sherlockian scholarship.

opening statement of Mr. LELLENBERG

Well— I am no expert in false-memory disorder, but must point out that none of us remembers Ronald Knox starting Sherlockian scholarship. We weren’t around in 1911, nor in the early ‘30s when the scholarship took off and the BSI and Sherlock Holmes Society were founded. What you think you remember is what others have told you — and odds are, they weren’t around then either.

We have come to think that “the Master” and “the Sacred Writings” are religious affectations derived from Knox’s talk. It was as you say a rather juvenile talk, with its Monsieur Piff-Pouffs and Herr Bilgemanns. When did it come to be perceived as the origin of our scholarship? Edgar W. Smith remarked in 1958 that Knox’s death was “mourned by all who look to him as the originator of the Sherlockian critique.” So the notion that Knox was the genesis was afoot fifty years ago — though Smith, we shall see, felt otherwise.

In fact not many then had read Knox’s paper. Dr. Sveum in mentioning where it appeared over the decades glossed over the fact that it didn’t appear anywhere Holmes devotees could read it until 1928 in England and 1930 in America, when it was included in Knox’s Essays in Satire. And after that, only a few times at infrequent intervals, the last 26 years ago, and never in the Baker Street Journal or Sherlock Holmes Journal.

But the myth says Morley heard Knox’s talk at Oxford and spread the gospel in America. I grew up in that faith myself. But when I started researching the BSI’s history, reading dozens of essays and hundreds of letters by our founding fathers, slowly it dawned upon me that they weren’t talking about Ronald Knox. It was somebody else they were talking about.

Knox was not the first to peer into the Canon. Others had done so a decade earlier, Arthur Bartlett Maurice in The Bookman in America and Frank Sidgwick in The Cambridge Review in England, in January 1902 as Hound of the Baskervilles was appearing serially. Smith opened The Incunabular Sherlock Holmes with their work, not Knox’s. Knox’s paper, in fact, is only the seventh in the anthology’s chronologically ordered contents.  (And they omit Andrew Lang’s 1904 essay.)

Yet we need not argue that they any more than Knox shaped our scholarship. Someone else did, and was in the thoughts of the BSI’s and Sherlock Holmes Society’s scholars and founders in 1934.

And least of any of them did Christopher Morley need Knox’s example. Morley was inflicting examinations in the Canon upon his brothers Felix and Frank long before 1911, and forming, in turn-of-the-century Baltimore, a Sherlock Holmes club with other youngsters. The evangelistic Morley had all the makings of a cult leader from the start, without Knox to inspire him.

As for Morley bringing Knox’s paper to America, we don’t even know if he heard it in 1911. No diaries or appointment books exist, no letters indicate he did. On the sole occasion he referred to it as having been given at Oxford while he was there, in 1944 in Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Morley did not actually say he heard it. If you not only see but observe the reference, you find the BSI’s founder vague and indefinite about that.*

But let us assume Morley did — for it reinforces my point that he didn’t bring it to America and spread the gospel. By the time Morley arrived in Oxford in 1910 at age 20, having discovered girls, booze, and ambition, his boyhood Sherlock Holmes enthusiasm had gone dormant — and by his own admission it was still dormant when he came home in 1913 to begin his career as a writer.

Only in 1926, said Morley in the Saturday Review of Literature that year, was his enthusiasm rekindled. Not by Knox, but an unnamed printer he met in New York; and what rekindled it was an impromptu trivia game of the kind Morley had often played as a boy with brothers and chums. “We found ourselves,” he reported, “embarked on a mutual questionnaire of famous incidents in the life of Sherlock Holmes” — the “delicious minutiae” Morley extolled in “In Memoriam Sherlock Holmes,” the first Complete Sherlock Holmes’s 1930 preface, in which Morley never mentions Knox.

It was a game Morley proceeded to transfer to a luncheon club of his wherein the BSI gestated (or perhaps marinated) at his favorite Manhattan speakeasy. Robert K. Leavitt’s indispensable “Origin of 221B Worship,” a first-hand account of our origins, tells how competitive examination in the Canon at those lunches in the late ’20s and early ’30s gave birth to the BSI.

In 1930 “Studies in the Literature” came out in America, but it wasn’t Morley’s kind of game, and he went his own way. It was Dorothy Sayers who said that “the rule of the game is that it must be played as solemnly as a county cricket match at Lord’s; the slightest touch of extravagance or burlesque ruins the atmosphere.” And Morley played by the same rule: no Bilgemanns or Piff-Poufs for him.

Several things prompted Morley in late 1933 to found the BSI. Prohibition ended, and Americans no longer had to drink furtively in little back rooms. Another that October was Vincent Starrett’s Private Life of Sherlock Holmes — a rapturous tribute barely mentioning Knox. And the decisive factor was another development of which Starrett and Morley were keenly aware, and led to England’s society as well: a 1931 monograph riveting Holmes devotees as Knox’s paper had not.

Let us investigate that. In 1932 T. S. Blakeney’s Sherlock Holmes: Fact or Fiction? said:  “A certain body of critical writings has already grown up, and it will be evident throughout this work to what extent we are indebted to them.” What Blakeney noted about Knox were his limitations: that his paper was based on only a portion of the Canon. Who stood out instead as source and strawman for canonical scholarship was Cambridge’s S. C. Roberts. Declared Blakeney: “Roberts has achieved for Watson what he and other scholars have accomplished for Boswell.”

Roberts earned this accolade through two critical works, influential where Knox was not except in terms of refutable error that Roberts exposed in the lesser of them, a 1929 leaflet called A Note on the Watson Problem. To give its context, Edgar Smith in the preface to the 1955 edition of H. W. Bell’s anthology Baker Street Studies, said: “It is true that as far back as 1912 a young priest named Ronald Knox had contributed an article to the Oxford Blue Book in which a tongue-in-cheek probing of some esoterica in the Saga was tentatively undertaken” — words lending little support to the idea that Knox was our scholarship’s fountainhead. 

Smith continued: “if we may judge from the casual tenor of much that [he] wrote (including a blatant misquotation of the most famous single passage in the Canon), his essay was not inspired so much by a profound curiosity about the Master’s life and times as by a desire to poke fun for its own sake at [German biblical] Higher Criticism then having a European vogue.”

Smith explained that Knox’s paper, appearing in Essays in Satire, “elicited a rejoinder in 1929 from S. C. Roberts in A Note on the Watson Problem, and the foundation for what was to follow may be said by that action to have been laid.” The importance of that observation by a student, contributor, and editor of Holmesian scholarship like Edgar W. Smith cannot be overstated. Roberts, said Smith, is the foundation of Holmesian scholarship.

He said so because of the biographical treatment of Watson that Roberts was commissioned to write in 1930. Doctor Watson, published by Faber & Faber in early 1931, had tremendous impact upon devotees on both sides of the ocean. It not only entranced, it showed what could be done, prompting further effort by others — not least Christopher Morley. It was in Morley’s hands quickly, and he praised it lavishly in the Saturday Review of March 7, 1931. We know no earlier example of Morley so much as mentioning Knox.

In 1932 Bell’s Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson: A Chronology of Their Adventures also gave Roberts first place among students of the Canon, while referring to Knox but once. — Starrett’s Private Life discussed Roberts’ treatise in detail, while barely mentioning Knox. — And the BSI’s founders paid even less attention to Knox. Elmer Davis, reviewing Starrett’s Private Life in December 1933, discussed Roberts almost more than he did Starrett’s book, without once mentioning Knox. Morley, for his 1933 collection of essays Internal Revenue, added to In Memoriam’s 1930 text a lengthy discussion of Roberts’ Doctor Watson; Knox went unmentioned once again. And with the BSI launched in 1934, Knox might not have existed to tell from what Morley wrote that year. “Was Sherlock Holmes an American?” and “Doctor Watson’s Secret,” a jewel of chronological exegesis, built upon Roberts’ Doctor Watson without mentioning Knox.

Davis was also at Oxford in 1911, and his Constitution refers “the study of the Sacred Writings.” But Davis was a devotee long before, and in any event the term “Sacred Writings” does not appear in Knox’s talk. There was little religious terminology in Knox’s paper, which satirized German scholarship, not religious rites. Leavitt called the study of the Sacred Writings “pure Davis-ese.” Not until 1941, in an unpublished memoir about the BSI’s beginnings, did Morley allude to it: “since the Irregulars refer to [Doyle’s] works as ‘The Sacred Writings,’ perhaps he may be nominated ‘The Sacred Writer’”— but as a nod to his old chum Elmer, saluted by name immediately afterwards.

There is no hint of Knox in that 1941 memoir about the BSI’s beginnings, nor in Morley’s rewriting of it in 1946 for the Baker Street Journal. What Morley identified specifically as the BSI’s inspirations were William Gillette’s Farewell Tour of 1928-32, Roberts’ Doctor Watson, Starrett’s Private Life, and Davis’s Roberts-besotted review of Starrett in the Saturday Review.

Let’s look at England’s Sherlock Holmes Society next. Its founding in 1934 was reported at length by R. Ivar Gunn, who had been at Oxford at the same time as Morley. He named all present, and Knox was not. Messages from absent friends were read that night, from Blakeney, Starrett, Morley, and Desmond MacCarthy, but not from Knox. Attendees discussed the impetus behind their new club: of mention of Knox there was none, nor in connection with the BSI whose recent founding was discussed. But: “A genial note of welcome was struck by placing in front of each member a copy of Mr. Roberts’ masterly study of Dr. Watson.” And was S. C. Roberts present? As Governor Palin would say, you betcha.

By now you may have recalled the curious incident of the dog in the night-time. Knox’s talk cracked up Oxford lads compelled to read nineteenth-century biblical criticism, but in our scholarship and movement, Knox is only a latter-day saint: no evidence of having been in Morley’s mind when his zest for Holmesiana was revived in 1926, nor when he turned his luncheon club into a Baker Street club, nor when he founded the BSI. Only much later was Knox grafted onto our movement retroactively, assigned a place he had not occupied in the 1920s and ’30s.

It was a knoxious thing to do. Our scholarship’s starting point is Frank Sidgwick’s examination of Watsonian chronology in 1902, and our movement was triggered by S. C. Roberts’ brilliant study of Watsonian biography in 1931. We should be conscious and appreciative of that. Not only did Roberts’ Doctor Watson instantly captivate Blakeney and Bell, Starrett and Davis, and others when they read it, it did Morley too—

And earlier than anyone else in America, earlier than even most in England, for Morley had an “in”: the Faber & Faber editor who commissioned Roberts to write Doctor Watson was Christopher Morley’s brother Frank.

* Later this same year (2010), we learned from Nicholas Utechin’s BSJ Christmas Annual From Piff-Pouff to Backnecke: Ronald Knox and 100 Years of “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes” that Morley (and Elmer Davis) did not hear Knox’s talk at Oxford in 1911.

rebuttal by dr. sveum

The Baker Street Journal for December 1992 has an article by Jon Lellenberg entitled “Logan Clendening: Canonizing an Irregular Saint” which starts out:

We Baker Street Irregulars possess more than a few religious parallels in our structure and lore. For example, Sherlockiana’s beginnings in a 1912 parody of contemporary biblical exegesis by Ronald A. (later Monsignor) Knox; and in calling Sherlock Holmes the Master, one need not subscribe to the blasphemies of Samuel Rosenberg, or his heretical adherents, to admit that we refer not only to Holmes’s masterful accomplishments but also to the death-and-resurrection theme in the Sacred Writings.


Poor Jon, I’m sorry to hear that you lost your faith in Knox and no longer believe that Christopher Morley brought the gospel to America. Not who started the BSI, but who do we credit with founding Sherlockian Scholarship. So you propose S.C. Roberts as your cornerstone, propped up by Frank Morley?

S. C. Roberts in his 1966 book Adventure with Authors writes:

It was not until 1928 that I was led into the mock-solemnity of Holmesian scholarship. In that year the editor of the Cambridge Review invited me to review the omnibus edition of the short stories of Sherlock Holmes together with R. A. Knox’s Essays in Satire. I had often heard about the brilliant paper on “The Literature of Sherlock Holmes” which Knox had read to college societies and was delighted to find it included in the book. This essay was indeed germinal . . .

. . . As I read Knox’s essay and re-read some of the stories, it occurred to me that I might well carry on his own style of scholastic criticism. To his gallery of savants (Sauwosch, Backnecke, Piff-Pouff, etc.) I added one or two of my own (Keibosch, Pauvremutte) and expressed some doubts about the reliability of Knox’s textual scholarship. Finally, I urged that serious students should devote their energies to the elucidation of das Watsonischechronologieproblem.

Roberts goes on to say that it was Desmond MacCarthy who first printed his early life of Watson essay in Life and Letters. After he wrote about Watson’s later life the two essays were combined for the Criterion Miscellany series and there by association with Frank Morley. In the 1952 preface to Holmes and Watson: a Miscellany he recorded his debt to R. A. Knox’s famous essay. Roberts reports that, later reading Waugh’s biography, he sadly learned that Knox “was entirely out of sympathy with the later cult.”

Vincent Starrett’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes reprinted “A Final Examination Paper on the Life and Work of Sherlock Holmes” by E. V. (“Evoe”) Knox, editor of Punch and Ronald Knox’s oldest brother. Starrett includes a reference to Essays in Satire published in America by E. P. Dutton in 1928 with the comment: “An important critical study cast in the mould of a satire.” Thanks to Karen Murdock and George Vanderburgh we have Sherlock Alive: Sherlockian Excerpts from Vincent Starrett’s “Books Alive” Column in The Chicago Tribune 1942-1967. (Starrett’s Private Life footnote quotes Father Knox, but it comes from his Trollope essay “A Ramble in Barsetshire” and not from “Studies in the Literature.”) From his column in 1957: “’Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes,’ written in 1911, was the first important contribution to Holmesian scholarship, a critical ‘spoof’ that is today a Sherlockian classic.” And in the midst of the Cold War in 1960: “. . . Ronald Knox who inaugurated the Holmes cult with his “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes” (1911)—unless the Russians can prove an earlier date.”

The Knox brothers, much like the Morleys, had an early interest in Sherlock Holmes and wrote to Doyle in 1905 their “Sign of Four” letter. Knox also wrote the Decalogue Symposium, an early play with Sherlock Holmes along with sixteen named characters from history and literature along with New Women, Bimetallists, Flagellants, Seventh Day Baptists, and Choruses of Virtue and Vices.

I want you to hear Knox’s own words from the opening of “Studies in the Literature”:

If there is anything pleasant in life, it is doing what we aren’t meant to do. If there is anything pleasant in criticism, it is finding out what we aren’t meant to find out. It is the method by which we treat as significant what the author did not mean to be significant, by which we single out as essential what the author regarded as incidental. 

There is, however, a special fascination in applying this method to Sherlock Holmes, because it is, in a sense, Holmes’s own method. “It has long been an axiom of mine,” he says, “that the little things are infinitely the most important.” And it is, is it not, as we clergymen say, by the little things, the apparently unimportant things, that we judge of a man’s character.

Ronald Knox founded Sherlockian Scholarship in 1911. The influence once germinated, gestated, and in 1928 was boosted by its reappearance which stimulated Christopher Morley and Elmer Davis. It also newly infected those primed by love of the Master like S. C. Roberts and Vincent Starrett. Even Edgar W. Smith in Baker Street Inventory has “Studies in the Literature” as “The first essay in the order of higher criticism.” It was not Knox’s intention to start a game or a cult. But his methodology is what endures. Those that followed who played the game so well must admit that Knox was the unintended founder.

rebuttal by Mr. LELLENBERG

I appreciate Dr. Sveum quoting an article of mine from the Baker Street Journal at me, but that was written in 1992, when my BSI history researches were still young. As I said in my opening statement, I was raised in the Knox faith myself; it was only considerably later that I realized how little there is to it.

Much the same can be said for Dr. Sveum’s citation of Edgar W. Smith’s Baker Street Inventory. It was written in 1945. By the time Smith wrote his introduction for The Incunabular Sherlock Holmes in 1958, he had done his homework too, and learned differently.

And I too have read S. C. Roberts’ Adventures with Authors. But in 1966 he was writing about events nearly forty years earlier; he was now seventy-nine years old and in the last year of his life. Just as Vincent Starrett in 1960 got the date of U.S. publication of Essays in Satire wrong, saying 1928 when it was actually 1930. But we should make too much of their lapses. We must rely instead on what they and others wrote about Knox’s paper around the time it appeared back then — to the extent that they wrote about it at all, which we’ve seen was very little.

I realize some Sherlockians are deeply invested in the Knox myth, even unto multiple revenue streams for the BSI over the next two years. Our Wiggins recently re-asserted the faith in an encyclical letter of sorts to Irregulars, though strangely it did not arrive in my in-box. But a kind Irregular forwarded it to me, and in it I saw quoted the same two authorities on behalf of the Knox myth. Said this letter,

One of the great Holmesians, Sir Sidney [sic] Roberts, wrote this homage to Knox in 1952: “It was Monsignor Knox’s famous essay that first beckoned me to Baker Street.”

Homage? If you read what Roberts wrote about Knox’s paper in A Note on the Watson Problem in 1929, what you actually find is scholarly scorn mingled with the irritation of Cambridge University Press’s head man confronted by something beneath its professional standards, as for example when Roberts wrote “It is a matter of some surprise that this article, first written in 1911, should now be issued unrevised and without reference, even by way of a footnote, to the investigations of later scholarship.” Instead of homage, Roberts took notice of Knox’s paper by publishing a demolition of its arguments, which he was able to do in fewer pages than Knox had taken, getting him commissioned to write something longer that got the Canon right: his monograph Doctor Watson,  published in 1931 to universal acclaim.

And people at that time, when so much was suddenly stirring in canonical scholarship, did not believe Knox was its founder. The Cambridge Review, for example, opened an editorial entitled “A Plea for a More Liberal Spirit in the Criticism of the Sherlock Holmes Canon” in its November 11, 1932, issue with the following words:

    The question of the Sherlock Holmes canon is once more before the public, and it will not be out of place to make some remarks on it in these columns, the place in which the Higher Criticism of the Holmes saga was first originated by Frank Sidgwick in 1902.

    It is not unfair to say that the article then published by Sidgwick has determined the whole tendency of this branch of learning. He was mainly concerned with pointing out discrepancies and very serious ones in the dates of the “Hound of the Baskervilles”; and since that time, critics have faithfully followed his method, have concentrated their attention on questions of chronology, of text, of the minutiae of the literary technique. It is true that they have now succeeded in doing a thing which Sidgwick himself hardly envisaged they have directed this textual criticism to the solution of the difficult problems of the Holmes canon; but this is hardly so much an innovation as a natural continuation of the work of Sidgwick.*


The recent BSI encyclical letter went on to say:

Vincent Starrett wrote in his “Books Alive” column in March 1945, “When Ronald Knox inaugurated the Holmesian higher criticism, in 1912, he did so on a note of solemn mischief that still sets the tone for all research students in the literature of Sherlock Holmes.” 

Starrett the newspaperman knew his audience. His Chicago Tribune column was written not for us, but for the masses, “the great unobservant public, who can hardly tell a weaver by his tooth or a compositor by his left thumb.” He knew better. Knox’s paper did not set the tone for all subsequent students of the Canon, certainly not for Starrett himself whose 1933 Private Life of Sherlock Holmes did not echo the Knox tone in the slightest, which is why we still read it when we don’t bother to read Knox. In the early 1930s, Starrett paid very little attention to Knox, as we’ve seen — but great attention to S. C. Roberts instead.

“Who are we to argue with such giants?” the encyclical letter concludes.

Who are we? We are Sherlockians and Irregulars, and should adhere to what Christopher Morley called “the metal actuality of Baker Street doctrine.” Like Sherlock Holmes, we do not take things on faith. We do not form theories in advance of the facts. We do not see Rache on a wall and conclude that Miss Rachel has done this dreadful thing. That’s for Lestrade and Gregson. We are not dogmatists, we are independent thinkers. We investigate. We search out and examine clues. We follow the trail. And the trail leads us not to Ronald Knox, but S.C. Roberts –- and even his fellow Cantabrigian Frank Sidgwick, who first tackled Watsonian chronology in 1902.


“Dr. Ainstree” (Robert Katz) said (August 19, 2010, 2:46 p.m.) ...

The always learned and erudite Dr. Hill Barton does a fine job delineating the history of Ronald Knox and his essay. However, he faces one basic problem in trying to prove that the Knox essay was the basis for Sherlockian scholarship. The essay is simply not scholarly. It is funny, in a silly way, for a few pages, and then becomes tedious. Finally, one comes away from the Knox paper not really learning new or insightful about Holmes. The meticulous Rodger Prescott comes nearer the point, but does not deliver the knockout blow. While it is true that Sidgwick and others wrote important papers, papers with real content, before Knox, it was Morley who put it all together. Between his work in Saturday Review and his founding of the BSI, this truly was the basis of the long-term study of the Canon, both institutionally and in print. But then, Dr. Ainstree is also a son of Haverford College. . . .

“The Trepoff Murder” (Russell Merritt) said (August 19, 2010, 11:35 p.m.) ...

Thanks again for the goad to read S.C. Roberts. I discovered I had two books by him, the collection of Sherlock Holmes stories he edited for Oxford University Press, and the jumble he anthologized as Holmes and Watson: A Miscellany. When I started reading him on Watson, I immediately recognized why I stopped the first time around — he plunges into matters of Canonical chronology, which, unhappily, I was deeply uninterested in at the time. But even when he turned to his survey of Watson's career, I now think that the grace and subtle wit of his style would have escaped me. Oddly, I never connected him with the elegant S. C. Roberts who wrote on Samuel Johnson, a great hero of mine when I was in grad school.

    I only wish you had told your audience more about Roberts in your talk. It seems to me telling that he is so less well-known than Knox. I think it may have been a master stroke that you stoked your reader's interest in Roberts and then let the reader do his own homework.  You are never boring.

Mr. Lellenberg replied:

Time in the debate was scant, but even my detailed and documented paper that will appear in the Sherlock Holmes Journal next summer won’t have a huge amount to say about Roberts himself, for he’s already far better known to the SHJ’s principal audience: British himself with a reputation as a scholar and academic publisher, and a co-founder of both the 1930s and 1950s Sherlock Holmes Societies there. But go to “Entertainment and Fantasy” in the Essays section of the website to read the last part (“Closing Memories”) by Ronald Mansbridge: Ronald had been one of his students at Cambridge in the mid 1920s, and then worked for him as the U.S. representative for Cambridge U. P. from about 1932 to Roberts’ death in 1966, and has lovely things to say about him there.

Tim Johnson said (August 20, 2010, 6:52 a.m.) ...

Some more food for thought. While working on my Holmes/Doyle bibliography I came across an article in the Sunday Telegraph from April 28, 2002. It opens thus:

“All the Knoxes loved jokes and spoofs, as Penelope Fitzgerald shows in her wonderful joint biography of them, The Knox Brothers, just republished. As boys, for example, they wrote a letter to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, denouncing inconsistencies in the Sherlock Holmes stories and including five dried orange pips, in allusion to the threatening letter in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Later, Ronald Knox expanded the joke into an essay called ‘Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes,’ a parody of Biblical scholarship in which he pretended to detect, from careful study of the text, that some of the stories must be fictitious inventions by a drunken Watson. Conan Doyle was delighted by the spoof and wrote to Ronald Knox to thank him.

“Nowadays we’re rather more sensitive. Or so it would seem from the first programme, called ‘Panic in the Streets,’ in a new series, The History of Fear (Radio 4, Monday), presented by the feminist historian, Joanna Bourke. On January 16, 1926, Father Ronald Knox (as he was by then) went into a studio in Edinburgh and delivered a talk over the air called ‘Broadcasting from the Barricades.’ An introductory statement explained that the talk was a work of humour and imagination and would be illustrated with ‘sound effects,’ then a novelty.

   “Knox proceeded to describe a riot of the unemployed in central London as though it were happening in real time. Parliament and the Savoy Hotel were blown up and the Minister of Traffic was hanged from a lamp-post. Meanwhile, an assistant in the studio produced crashes and bangs and even the sound of breaking glass.

    “The broadcast took in many listeners, and Father Knox was much reprimanded in the press....”

My question: is the reprimand of Father Knox continuing?

* Who was Frank Sidgwick?

        What was it he wrote in 1902?

And from the Editor’s Gas-Bag for September 8, 2011:

“Dear me, Father Knox, dear me!’

Re: the “Ronald Knox: Fact or Fiction” debate at the Disputations page, the French scholar Benoit Guilielmo points out to me something telling about Edgar W. Smith’s view: “I think [Smith] didn’t like very much Knox, as he described S. C. Roberts’ Note on the Watson Problem as a “gentle but well-merited attack on the atrocious Holmesian scholarship of that other ‘incunable’, Monsignor (then Father) Knox.” BSJ (OS), vol. 1 no.1 (January 1946), p. 34 n.1.

    Smith was footnoting Christopher Morley’s very first “Clinical Notes by a Resident Patient” column in the BSJ, on this occasion taking the form of a letter from “my good friend Chief Inspector (Retired) Stanley Hopkins,” who toward the end said:

    I am interested in what you wrote me in your last letter: you spoke of Monsignor Ronald Knox and Mr. S. C. Roberts as the two “incunables” (whatever that meant,) of your modern Baker Street studies, but I don’t think you knew that Mr. Roberts’ little biography of Watson (1931) was preceded by Mr. Roberts’ own trial version of the same, his A Note on the Watson Problem1 of which only 100 copies were printed at the University Press, Camb., in 1929. Very few collectors indeed have this pamphlet, but naturally Mr. Roberts sent me one. I thought you would be interested to know about it.

Smith’s footnote in full said: “Mr. Hopkins is slightly in error. The piece in question is not, actually, a trial version of the classic biography; it is, rather, a gentle but well-merited attack on the atrocious Holmesian scholarship of that other ‘incunable,’ Monsignor (then Father) Knox. As such, and since Hopkins is correct in saying that only a hundred copies were printed, the Note is reproduced in this issue of the Journal, so that all who may have missed it may see it now.”

    Roberts’ Note appeared on pp. 29-32 of the BSJ. Smith did not bother to reprint Knox’s paper, then or later, nor has any other editor since. Perhaps Steve Rothman, reading this, will rush to do so in the so-called Year of Ronald Knox coming in 2011, in hopes I’ll stop pointing out this embarrassing fact.

    Mr. Morley’s column in the Baker Street Journal’s debut issue would have been a new opportunity to say he heard Father Knox give his talk at Oxford in 1911, or cite its supposed foundation of our scholarship, or the making of BSI. But he does neither: he calls our attention to S. C. Roberts instead.

[September 8, 2010]

From Benoit later the same day comes this:

In the last paragraph of your Editor’s Gas-Bag you stated:

    “Mr. Morley’s column in the Baker Street Journal’s debut issue would have been a new opportunity to say he heard Father Knox give his talk at Oxford in 1911, or cite its supposed foundation of our scholarship, or the making of BSI. But he does neither: he calls our attention to S. C. Roberts instead.”

In fact there is another important “Clinical Note” from Morley that you omitted to mention in your debate. It is another letter from Stanley Hopkins, published in the BSJ (OS), vol. 2 no. 4, October 1947, p. 397:

During the horrible winter we had here I reread the best of all spuriosa, Rev. Knox’s Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes; I have a horrid notion that very few of your members ever saw it, and think they are having fresh new fun when they are only saying (less wittily?) what Rev. Knox wrote 35 years ago. I have a sad feeling that many of your members only read their own stuff? Tell me I am wrong? For instance Knox’s classical analysis of every Holmes-Watson story into its eleven canonical points: pro-oiminion, exegesis, ichneusis, etc. I was brutally drilled in all those severities at Bedford Grammar School, but I have a feeling they mean less to your vigorous young men.”

“The best of all spuriosa” dixit Morley. Of course this is not a declaration of Knox’s “supposed foundation of our scholarship, or the making of BSI,” as you say. But it’s an enthusiastic evaluation of Knox’s essay and certainly more than a call for attention to any student of the Corpus Watsonicum.

    We shall also note that Christopher Morley concludes his review of S.C. Roberts’s pamphlet Doctor Watson (1931) -- “a delightful bit of serio-spoof” -- stating that “his essay, together with that of Father Ronald Knox in Studies in Satire [sic], is a necessary addition to the Holmes-Watson codex.” (Saturday Review of Literature, March 7, 1931, p. 645). There is just a mention of Morley's review in your debate. I thought it would be interesting to quote here this Knox-Roberts Sherlockian Connection so dear to Morley.

    Like in LADY, the coffin is maybe too large. Don’t you think so ?

Well, like Lady Frances Carfax, there’s still some fight in the corpse, but we shall see. I have to wonder why Morley put these references to Knox’s paper in Stanley Hopkins’ mouth, not his own. Why the separation? Perhaps one clue is found in the remark “I have a sad feeling that many of your members only read their own stuff” -- for by that time Morley was very tired of the BSI, in fact declaring that there would be no more BSI dinners (a draconian position from which Edgar Smith dislodged him only with great difficulty). Morley was happy to denigrate the Irregulars’ sense of scholarship at that point, and to do it here seized upon the one original aspect of Knox’s paper, what he describes above as “classical analysis.”

    But if Morley/Hopkins is correct in suggesting that Irregulars were duplicating something earlier by Knox of which they were ignorant (and most were at the time), it doesn’t seem like he’s making out a case for Knox’s supposed vast influence, only for 1940s Irregulars not knowing their own humane science’s past literature. (Which is not surprising since very few had read it.)

    1931’s Saturday Review comment nodded to Knox in the course of Morley lavishly praising S. C. Roberts’ Doctor Watson at length immediately upon its publication, in England. Never before, to my knowledge, had Morley mentioned Knox anywhere, let alone describe his 1911 paper. (And both this review of Roberts in 1931 and the BSJ column of 1947 were opportunities for Morley to mention hearing Knox’s paper in 1911 and the impression it had made on him, if such had happened, and he did not.)

[September 8, 2010]

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