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



Antibiotics: The Gateway To The Apocalypse

Imagine everyone you love and care about being so sick that they are begging for it to finish them off. Imagine every doctor in the world becoming completely powerless to save them. Imagine seeing the world burn right before your eyes, and wondering how many days you have left. This could very well be what the world looks like if antibiotic resistance spreads around the world.  ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: Those We All Ignore

I was in the midst of my “morning readings” the other day when a number leapt off my computer screen. Hark, heralded angels, did you know in the state of Iowa there are two (2) inpatient psychiatry beds for every 100,000 people? I’m not the best with percentages but there are some people in Iowa who aren’t getting the help they need. There are roughly 3.2 million people living in ... (click for more)

1 Killed, Another Injured In Shooting On The Southside Early Sunday Morning; Delivery Driver Carjacked On Southside Earlier

One person was killed and a second person injured in a shooting on the Southside early Sunday morning. The victims are Sharone Porter, 22, who was killed, and Torrie Porter, 24, who had non-life threatening injuries.  At 2:47 a.m., Chattanooga Police responded to 1400 Cowart St.  on a person shot. Upon arrival, Chattanooga Police found two victims suffering ... (click for more)

Bradley County Deputy Shoots And Kills Stabbing Suspect At Charleston

A Bradley County deputy shot and killed a man who was a suspect in a stabbing early Sunday morning. The Sheriff's Office said, "At approximately 11:54 p.m. on Saturday, a call was received at the Cleveland/Bradley County 911 Center to report a stabbing at a residence on Leyland Drive in Charleston. "The caller indicated a male had been stabbed and another male had fled from ... (click for more)

Lady Mocs Rally Late To Trip Florida Gulf Coast

What a difference a week makes. Coach Jim Foster was verbally upset and unhappy following a sloppy and uninspired performance by the Chattanooga Lady Mocs and the result was an embarrassing 64-44 loss to Virginia Tech. The Lady Mocs were facing another really good non-conference opponent in the Florida Gulf Coast Lady Eagles, a member of the Atlantic Sun Conference.  ... (click for more)

Commerce Wins Bradley Invitational With Four Champs

CLEVELAND, Tenn. – The host Bradley Bears were the two-time defending champs in their own Bradley Invitational this weekend at Jim Smiddy Arena, but they weren’t able to make it a three-peat. The Commerce Tigers, a powerhouse Class A team from Georgia, had a slim three-point lead going into Saturday afternoon’s medal rounds, but after winning all four of their championship matches ... (click for more)