Jody Baker: A Bumbling Watson

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

[I love Peter Blau’s expression – “Further to…” – It says so much in so few words, --- literary brevity at its best.] 

Those of us who first experienced Holmes and Watson through Saturday afternoon matinees at the "moving picture show" have a particular fondness for Nigel Bruce as Watson. And we have a special loyalty toward both of those whom we grew to love and to respect in our youth. It may be a generational thing that we prefer Rathbone over Brett and Bruce over Hardwick. But loyalty is loyalty, and Nigel Bruce is, for me, the definitive Watson. He portrays John Watson as the "boobus  Britannicus" because that is precisely the way that Arthur Conan Doyle crafted the character in his stories.

Sherlock Holmes viewed Watson in that light, and when we look beyond the cutting and sarcastic barbs of Holmes, there is additional evidence. Corroboration is found in the remarks of Conan Doyle in the short movie interview  [Fox Movietone, filmed at Crowborough, October 1928, transcript of which was published in the New York Times May 26,1929]. There Sir Arthur, without objection or contradiction, reports that many readers refer  to Watson as the "rather stupid friend" of Sherlock Holmes.  

But that is not all that Conan Doyle had to say on the subject. In "The Field Bazaar" he gives an assessment of Watson with the words that he puts into the mouth of Holmes. "Field Bazaar" is a parody done by Doyle to raise money for Edinburgh University. (Published in "The Student " November 20, 1896). In that work Doyle, revealing his own thoughts, presents the truth in these words of Holmes to Watson:

"You will not, I am sure, be offended if I say that any reputation for sharpness that I may possess has been entirely gained by the admirable foil which you have made for me. Have I not heard of debutantes who have insisted upon plainness in their chaperones ? There is a certain analogy."

Objection may be raised that the author, himself, may not be a reliable evaluator of his own creation. Therefore, we shall consult other sources for an evaluation of the intellectual inaptitude of Dr. Watson. 

"Webster's Dictionary of Proper Names" (G & C Merriman Company 1970) lists Watson and says of him that he is: 

" The slow-witted foil, to Sherlock Holmes...."

"The Oxford Companion to English Literature " (Oxford University Press 1932) concurs: 

"Watson, Dr. - in the cycle of stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (q.v.) relating to Sherlock Holmes, the detective, is a stolid medical man, Holmes's companion and assistant in his adventures, and his chronicler. His stupidity, which is good-humoredly tolerated by his brilliant leader serves as a foil to set off the qualities of the latter. " (p. 874)

Stephen Vincent Benet, in his essay "Watson" [See "Profile By Gaslight" (Simon and Schuster, 1944, p. 155)] characterizes Watson with this description: 

"If he had a tail he would wag it incessantly -- there is something very canine about him somehow; it is easy to see him transformed, a solemn, ponderous St. Bernard, galumphing after Holmes with portentously stately bounds. 

Now, I tell you, that's the Watson that I know. By far the most significant external evidence may be that found in a 1926 literary review: "Detectives in Fiction" in The Times Literary Supplement (London literary weekly), August 12, 1926, (repeated in "The Living Age," September 18, 1926). The pertinent parts of this article merit careful consideration. In this review the author reports: 

"Sherlock Holmes as a type [ of detective story ]  caught the fancy of the public to such an extent that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle set a fashion in the presentation of detective stories through the medium of a companion to the hero whose intelligence and powers of observation were so nicely calculated as to give the reader a pleasing sense of slightly contempuous superiority.The Watson who was the fidus sed hebes Achates* of Holmes...."                      

* [The faithful -- but dull, obtuse, stupid -- close companion of Holmes. Achates was the close companion of AEneas in Virgil's AEneid. The phrase "fidus Achata" is an accepted one for close friend or best pal. The author of the review added the "sed hebes."]

When "Detectives in Fiction" was published in The Times Literary Supplement, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was active and commanded a position of prestige in the literary world. So we may ask ourselves, what did Sir Arthur have to say in reaction to this characterization of his creation? 

Well, like the dog in the night time, he did not bark. 

May I submit to you that if you will apply rational reasoning and thought to the matter, you will find that your deep and abiding love for the Sherlock Holmes tales is because of Watson and not because of Holmes.

The Defense Rests. 

Respectfully, Baynes

(Jody Baker is a Chattanooga attorney, who specializes in Sherlock Holmes lore. He can be reached at josiahbaker@bkhcw.com.)


May Is Skin Cancer Awareness Month

Listen up, Dad! Your teen daughter isn’t the only one at risk for skin cancer. An estimated 87,110 Americans are expected to be diagnosed with melanoma this year, with 1,840 cases expected in Tennessee alone. But did you know that more than half of those cases will be men? Males age 50 and older are at increased risk of skin cancer, and by age 65 skin cancer rates in men are double ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: The Public Defender And The Mental Health Court

I am holding in my hand a list of the names of 50 very real people who cost the taxpayers of Hamilton County a combined $3,037.090 in incarceration charges before July 2015. These people live in our county and I dare say it is not completely their fault that they were put in the county jail. Each has a professionally-diagnosed mental illness and today, most regretfully, the County ... (click for more)

Alexander: Corps Allocates $37 Million For Chickamauga Lock, Construction For 3rd Consecutive Year

Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said the Army Corps of Engineers Work Plan for Fiscal Year 2017 "includes good news for all of East Tennessee – and everyone who benefits from river traffic passing through the Chickamauga Lock in Chattanooga." In addition to funding slated for the first three priority projects of the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, the Corps of Engineers’ Work ... (click for more)

Chris Thomas Serving As Interim Executive Director At Finley Stadium; Stadium And Pavilion Constantly In Use

The operation of Finley Stadium is in transition since the departure of former Executive Director Paul Smith and his staff. At the meeting of the Stadium Corporation’s board of directors Tuesday, Chairman Gordon Davenport announced that Chris Thomas, principal manager of the Chattanooga Market has stepped in to serve as interim executive director. Mr. Davenport told the board that ... (click for more)

McCallie Edges Briarcrest 1-0 On Costo's Sacrifice Fly In Seventh

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – McCallie’s Corbin Brooksbank and Briarcrest’s Connor Shamblin locked up in an old-fashioned pitcher’s duel Tuesday night in the TSSAA Division II-AA state baseball tournament. Through six innings there wasn’t a crooked number to be seen on the scoreboard. Brooksbank, a Vanderbilt signee, stopped the Saints on five hits. Shamblin went into the seventh ... (click for more)

GPS Erupts To Blast Briarcrest, 10-0, In D-II Softball

MURFREESBORO – The GPS softball team seemed to be in some kind of lethargic funk at the start of their game with the Briarcrest Lady Saints, but they finally got their act together in time for a 10-0 six-inning win in the opening round of the Division II state softball tournament at Starplex Field No. 3 Tuesday evening. The Bruisers had cruised to a doubleheader sweep of Harpeth ... (click for more)