“Santa Claus is not real! Sherlock Holmes is not real!” That was the comically exasperated and provocative outburst of a student in my Sherlock Holmes senior seminar in the spring of 2013. We were debating the nature of the “reality” of Sherlock Holmes, and not just as a resilient, versatile literary character.
An icon of rational, scientific, and thus seemingly genuine investigative techniques, Holmes has long existed as more than an imaginative creation. Since 1934, Sherlockian and Holmesian Societies have officially played the “grand game” of treating him as an historical figure. More surprisingly, since 1887, many have seriously believed that the detective was (or is) a real person.
It is the eve of the start of the new season of Sherlock, following the 125th anniversary of the introduction of Conan Doyle’s original character in A Study in Scarlet, published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual. My student’s demand that we come to our senses and clarify borders between superstition and cold facts seems to me now more than ironically reminiscent of Holmes’s own agenda and talents. It was also a fitting gauntlet to throw down in a liberal arts environment. But in this context—in a liberal arts college classroom full of senior English majors—the question of what is real was perhaps a more pressing, less philosophical one than it might ordinarily have been.
My students stood poised on the threshold of graduation, likely fearful of falling into an abyss of unemployment and possibly defensive of their choice of major. They had probably been asked more than once, “What will you do with that?” This valid question stems from the belief that higher education should allow them to get a job. The end.
But negotiating a bad economy is not the end of their stories or challenges any more than it is for Watson and Holmes, who together perhaps, in their time spent on Baker Street, can act as models for today’s generation of graduating seniors. The pair’s shortness of funds leads to their sharing rooms, and Watson, an unemployed army surgeon recently returned from Afghanistan, has suffered both physical and psychological wounds. Alone and lonely, he must rebuild his life and adjust to an odd roommate, as must Holmes, who, upon first meeting Watson, startles him with uncanny knowledge of his background.
Watson soon turns to puzzling out Holmes’s mysterious occupation. If Holmes knows “next to nothing” about philosophy, literature, and politics, his learning in chemistry and “Sensational Literature” runs deep. If he has more affinity for the sciences than the humanities, he is, nevertheless, a good violinist and an excellent swordsman and boxer. His shocking ignorance of the solar system seems anomalous, but he argues for stocking his “brain-attic” with only the most useful knowledge.
Holmes hardly sounds like a friend to the liberal arts, yet Watson’s difficulty discovering what practical, vocational use Holmes makes of his learning may suggest the reverse. His scant information about Holmes is coupled with limited powers of observation, imagination, and deduction. These are the skills that the consulting detective, in his invented profession, relies on: his learning has helped him hone these skills, and they allow him to use an array of seemingly eccentric or seemingly useless knowledge.
Ultimately, the two men complement each other. Accompanying the unconventional Holmes on cases mends Watson’s frayed nerves and stimulates his imaginative powers as a successful writer. Certainly, Conan Doyle’s detective can be merciful and reflective, but Watson’s romance, humanity, and ethical principles help compensate for the arrogance and detachment of Holmes as “calculating machine.”
Baker Street represents much of what liberal arts colleges offer – although their mission is not to groom students to live in squalor, to inject themselves with seven-per-cent solutions of cocaine, to chain smoke to stimulate their little grey cells, to shoot holes in the walls of their apartments, or to live as automatons. These may be dimensions of Conan Doyle’s Holmes and other versions of the character. They are not, however, all of Holmes or his fuller life with Watson.
In Baker Street, they both live and prepare for life, for the two states of being are not mutually exclusive there or on a liberal arts college campus. Baker Street is where they experiment and theorize to solve cases; it is where they greet clients and guests; it is where they wrangle over the pros and cons of their habits and actions and interrogate the nature of justice and reality; it is where they play music, consult their records, read the newspaper and books on beekeeping, and integrate knowledge from an array of disciplines, as they build a partnership and a friendship. In Baker Street, the world comes to them, and they go into the world.