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


Process

My favorite TreeHugger once commented I'm a process sort of guy. One might suppose that's true, even though there are situations in which we must lower our center of mass to keep a firm base, lean forward, put our head down, grab a cheek in each hand and, like Teddy Roosevelt, scream "Charge! (but not with credit cards)" as we move forward con mucho gusto. However, unless one is ... (click for more)

City Pension Double Standard - And Response

Re: Chattanooga City Council OKs pension plan amendment 8-26-14 The Chattanooga City Council voted Tuesday to keep future retirees who are re-employed by the city from dipping into their current retirement while contributing to a new city pension. But first council members gave an exemption to two of their colleagues and one other city employee. Councilman Moses Freeman ... (click for more)

General Motors To Invest $185 Million In Engine Plant, Build New Cadillac SRX In Spring Hill

  General Motors will invest $185 million to make small gas engines at its Spring Hill manufacturing complex, officials said Wednesday.  GM also identified the next-generation Cadillac SRX as a future mid-size vehicle to be produced at Spring Hill. “We want to congratulate GM on this important investment in its future in Spring Hill and Middle Tennessee,” Governor ... (click for more)

Reception Honors County's 2nd-Longest Serving Employee

General Sessions Court Judge Clarence Shattuck, at a County Courthouse reception, asked anyone who was working at the courthouse in 1966 to raise their hand. Only Circuit Court Clerk Paula Thompson was able to do so. Judge Shattuck said he believes only Edna Camp of the Criminal Court clerk's office, has been at the courthouse longer. Ms. Thompson did not seek re-election, ... (click for more)

Chattanooga Christian Sweeps Notre Dame In 7-AA Volleyball

 It didn't matter that the Chattanooga Christian volleyball team was on the road Tuesday night.  Who cared that they were playing one of their biggest rivals in District 7-AA in a loud and spirited Jack Steiner Sr. Gymnasium at Notre Dame High School. None of those factors came into play as the Lady Chargers were ready to play and the Lady Irish were not. The results ... (click for more)

Fulghum, Walker Power Soddy-Daisy Past Cleveland

Soddy-Daisy’s Lady Trojans shook off an up-and-down performance in last weekend’s Early Bird tournament at Oak Ridge and throttled Cleveland, 3-0, in a District 5-AAA volleyball match Tuesday at Soddy-Daisy High School. The Lady Trojans (8-4, 2-1) swept the match with set scores of 25-18, 25-22 and 25-15. Abby Walker and Karigan Fulghum combined for 30 digs and 18 kills to ... (click for more)