Jody Baker: Rex Stout's Thoughts On Sherlock Holmes

Tuesday, January 28, 2014 - by Jody Baker

It has long been a favorite past time of Sherlockians to seek to identify those characteristics or factors of the Sherlock Holmes tales which give them their universal appeal and which engage the attention and devotion of first one generation and then the next.  What is the magic quality that accounts for their enduring popularity?  One of the early, and more prominent, of our Sherlockian predecessors was Rex Stout (1886-1975). He once presented his thoughts on this subject.

Rex Stout wrote in many fields, but he is best known as the creator of private detective Nero Wolfe and sidekick-biographer, Archie Goodwin. Stout has impeccable credentials in the detective-story genre, and we may gain insight by a consideration of his thoughts. Stout's analysis, entitled " Crime in Fiction," appeared in *The Saturday Review of Literature* (c. 1951). In this article Stout recognized Holmes's premier position, and then he asks rhetorically: 

“People say that Sherlock Holmes is the most widely known fictional character in all the literature of the world, and there is impressive evidence that they are right. Usually, having said it, they go on to ask why, and have no answer. They are puzzled and not a little irritated. What right has this

fantastic bloodhound to the top of a peak whence he can look down upon Achilles, Medea, Don Quixote, Hamlet, Pere Goriot, Anna Karenina, Karamazov, Scrooge, Tom Sawyer, Tarzan, and Scarlett O'Hara?” 

 

Stout continues. He answers his question:  "I have thought it over and I think I know. You have the answer as soon as you reflect not on what man is, but on what he likes to think he is. He calls himself homo but, not satisfied with that, makes it homo sapiens. His best-liked and best-known definition of himself is not the virtuous animal, or the passionate animal, or the handsome animal, or the just or merciful animal, but the  reasoning animal.”

Sherlock Holmes, he suggests, is the embodiment of reason. And Sherlock Holmes is that person which man, in his heart of hearts, aspires to be --- the cold, unemotional, perfectly-reasoning machine.  Rex Stout put it this way: “Sherlock Holmes is the embodiment of man's greatest pride and greatest weakness: his reason. I have heard it said by sneerers that he isn't even human. Certainly he isn't; but he is human aspiration. He is what our ancestors had in mind when in wistful braggadocio they tacked the sapiens onto the homo.”

Rex Stout acknowledges that the detective story, as an art form, may not rank among the great literary works of mankind. But in the conclusion to his excellent essay, Stout does give first rank to Sherlock Holmes. 

“As homo sapiens we resent --- with a resentment usually too deep for awareness, let alone expression --- being constantly  bullied by our emotions, not only into action or decision but also into a frantic search for excuses for them. 

“We enjoy reading about people in the same fix. We enjoy reading about people who love and hate and covet--- about gluttons and martyrs, misers, sadists, whores and saints, brave men and cowards. But also, demonstrably, we enjoy reading about  man who gloriously acts and decides, with no exception and no compunction, not as his emotions brutally command, but as his reason instructs. So, Sherlock Holmes is on his peak.” 

That's good enough for me. 

Respectfully,
Inspector Baynes


Roy Exum: Our Tubman Goat-Roping

Every spring there comes a bright day on the ranch when the straw-boss decrees a goat-roping should take place. What really happens is the veteran cowboys arm the greenhorns with some lariats late in the afternoon and take them to the pen that holds some Billy goats. This is before they get into bigger beasts -- horses and cattle – yet what appears to be easy most certainly is not. ... (click for more)

David Carroll: Touched By Alzheimer’s, A Thanksgiving Love Story

I want to share a Thanksgiving love story. Those smiles belong to Jim and Andi Erwin of Collegedale, now married 45 years. Jim is 68, Andi is 63.  I met them last summer, and fell in love immediately. Andi is a talker. Full of life, with energy to spare. Jim used to be a talker, an award-winning one. In his youth he was a teacher and pastor, very well-educated. Simply put, ... (click for more)

Grote Hall At UTC Campus Closed Due To Sinkhole

A sinkhole has prompted UTC officials to close off access to Grote Hall. Grote Hall employees have been told they do not need to report to work on Monday. Classes that are held in Grote Hall are called off for Monday. All other classes and campus activities are on for Monday. (click for more)

Bradley County Police Investigating Shooting; Victim Dies

The Bradley County Sheriff’s Office is investigating a shooting that occurred in the area of Georgetown Road. The sheriff's office said Sunday night that the victim had died. The victim's name has not yet been released.  A BCSO officer was waved down at the intersection of 25 th Street and Peerless Road by the driver of a vehicle who told the officer a gunshot victim ... (click for more)

Football Mocs Receive No. 8 Seed For FCS Playoffs

The hugs, high fives and first pumps by the Tennessee at Chattanooga football players late Sunday morning let everyone know in Moc Nation that the Blue and Gold had received a highy-coveted seed and would be hosting a second round NCAA FCS playoff game Dec 6 at Finley Stadium at 1 p.m. "When the television announcers called our name as the No.8 seed (out of eight ... (click for more)

Missouri Hangs On, Turns Back Tennessee, 29-21

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Missouri pin-pricked Joshua Dobbs’ bubble of invincibility Saturday night at Neyland Stadium. The nationally ranked Tigers drove a stake in Tennessee’s heart with Maty Mauk’s 73-yard touchdown pass to Jimmie Hunt in the fourth quarter, held Dobbs in check most of the game and beat the Vols, 29-21, before 95,821 fans on a chilly night on the banks of the Tennessee ... (click for more)