Weekly Forum: 6 August 2014

Buttons is a bit late; sorry, busy you know.

This week’s Forum concerns the Canonical novels:  How do the American settings of VALL and STUD influence your opinion of the novels?  Contrast your feelings about those two novels to your feelings about HOUN and SIGN.

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Comments

Weekly Forum: 6 August 2014 — 14 Comments

  1. On VALL, the first time I read it, I preferred the American section over Holmes solving the mystery. I thought Birdy Edward’s story was much more exciting than the doing at Birlstone. I had the opposite reaction to the American section of STUD the first time I read it. I thought the London section was much more exciting–and believable–than “The Country of the Saints”. On further re-readings, both novels and their sections balance out–I appreciate Doyle’s writing in the “Saints” section of STUD and the characterizations in the British section of VALL. Because of their bifurcated compositions, for me they take a backseat in my personal ranking to SIGN and HOUN.

  2. Well . . . I will jump in!

    I prefer the HOUN and SIGN over VALL and STUD most likely because I WANT the atmosphere of England and London. Personally, the coal fields of Pennsylvania and anywhere in Utah just don’t make me tingle.

    It seems that the Literary Agent encouraged these two settings in order to sell books in America. As a former book publisher I can get behind the motivation of book sales, but these two books always seemed somewhat contrived to me, whereas HOUN and SIGN are just so perfect as adventures.

    To his credit, the literary agent did create a furor in America; it would seem that was the primary motivation at the outset of the book marketing.

    And, to Doctor Watson’s credit, the writing is accurate, authentic and representative of both American settings. You can taste the dirt of Utah and feel the emptiness. And the grit of the coal fields is palpable. Doctor Watson was a skilled writer.

    Neither of the “American” books, however, make one want to curl up in a chair next the fire. But, HOUN and SIGN demand a dark room with only one low lamp, a crackling fire, a glass of scotch (or two), and a long, uninterrupted night of pure indulgence. And if it happens to be foggy or storming, all the better!

  3. Buttons notes the authenticity of the American sections in the two novels as examples of Watson’s skill as a writer. I agree but have long believed that the authenticity comes from time Watson spent in America as a child. After all, he keeps a picture of an American preacher, Henry Ward Beecher, and daydreams about the American Civil War. Perhaps more significant is the portrayal of Birdy Edwards. Several commentators have described him as the first “hard boiled dick” and I second that. Was VALL the precursor to the stories of Spade, Marlowe, Hammer and do we owe the genre of film noir to this story? Many of the JHWS members are experts on other aspects of the detective story and film history. It would be great to hear their views on this.

  4. VALL is my personal favorite of the novels. The American History nerd in me especially likes the American section, but the entire story is well done. It has Porlock and Moriarty and first-rate Sherlockian deductions. And the writing is excellent … I rate ‘I am Birdy Edwards!’ right after ‘Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!’ as the best line in the Canon.

    The American section of STUD is another matter. It is not as engaging as the flashback section of VALL, and not as well written. For that reason, many suggest those just starting to read the Canon not begin here.

    As far as HOUN, it is perhaps the classic Holmes story, so any other story would be challenged to stand comparison. But when looking at VALL and STUD, we should recall that much of HOUN is not told by Holmes, either, but through Watson’s letters.

    • Perhaps with STUD the world was not ready for the Mormon story. It seems odd to base an adventure within the context of the Mormon milieu. Doubtless, this has been discussed in the literature, but I personally cannot recall any such discussion. Maybe the exodus from Nauvoo, Illinois to Utah it was much more current in those days, and the Mormon saga was of high interest in England and in America. Is it possible that there was a hidden agenda in choosing this setting and this religious group for the book?

      • If I remember a rightly, Mormonism was a “hot topic” when Doyle wrote STUD and his depiction of the religion and its practitioners was pretty much the general perception in England. Jack Tracy wrote a book on Mormonism and STUD, but it’s been awhile since I’ve read it.

  5. It would be interesting to know whether the Mormon church has ever made a reply to STUD. perhaps in the annals of the church history there have been either explanations or refutations to what was described in the book. Does anyone know Tracy’s conclusions or positions in his book? I am not familiar with that book.

  6. According to “Conan Doyle and the Latter-Day Saints” by Jack Tracy (Gaslight, 1979), Doyle based “The Country of the Saints” section in large part on T.B.H. Stenhouse’s “An Englishwoman in Utah: The Story of a Life’s Experience in Mormonism” (1875)–he reproduces the the title page of Doyle’s copy, signed by Doyle. He also supposes, for there is no direct proof, that Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Story of the Destroying Angel” in the 1885 collection “The Dynamiter” was an influence.

    To quote Tracy: “Today it is difficult to appreciate the tremendous impact that the teachings of Joseph Smith had on the American scene in the years prior to the Civil War. ‘The two permanent issues of the government from 1830, when Mormonism was founded, until 1877, when Brigham Young died, were slavery and Mormonism,’ declares one of Young’s biographers. ‘…By 1840, ten years after the organization of the Church, Mormonism had become a national issue and had aroused international interest.'” After Young’s death “began the great rash of anti-Mormon literature of which ‘The Country of the Saints’ must be considered a part,” writes Tracy. Very early in their founding, the Mormons conducted overseas proselytizing. “…the Mormons were well known in England through their missionary endeavours. Between 1850 and 1860 alone, some 43,000 Britons had been baptized into the Church, and 12,355 had emigrated to Utah. It was no secret that the Perpetual Emigration Fund gave preference to young people and especially to unmarried girls, and it was not supposed irrational that proselytizing polygamists who were known to do murder in Utah should abduct servant girls in England…” (Tracy pp 41-2).

    There were plenty of books in the 1860s, 70s and early 80s (of varying degrees of accuracy) to consult and Tracy concludes that Doyle did a lot of research on Mormonism, but didn’t let the facts get in the way of telling a story. As for how Mormons felt about STUD, Tracy doesn’t go into that. They were certainly use to written and physical abuse at the hands of the Gentiles. However, Tracy ends with this paragraph:

    “The last word, appropriately, is Conan Doyle’s. In 1922, he visited Salt Lake City to lecture upon Spiritualism and was warmly received by the people he has so unhesitatingly slandered thirty-five years earlier. In the book he wrote of his American experiences, he chided the British press for its uncharitable attitude toward the Latter-Day Saints. He noted that the Mormon faith was rapidly spreading in the United States and elsewhere, and, he concluded with enviable understatement, ‘I for one think that the world will be none the worse in consequence.'”

    Tracy’s book is a valuable, even-handed look at Mormonism, Doyle and STUD. Certainly, the subsequent thirty-five years have seen more information released about the early history of the LDS, by the Church and others, and a comprehensive update on the subject would not be amiss.

    • Thank you, Pippin, for the very informative and thorough summary of the topic. This does place a new light on the book and it helps immensely in understanding the background of the story.

  7. Forgive my late arrival to this interesting discussion; I was enjoying the Chesapeake Bay for a week (thanks again to “Herbie”!) and returned only last night to find the on-going consideration of the long stories. My comment here will focus on a different issue: I have noted before that the long stories remind us that the ideal form for a Sherlockian tale is the short story. The digression sections of STUD, SIGN, and VALL always seemed to me to be filler or padding. An author who was so adept at expressing complex themes in a few quick words or sentences didn’t need the long middle sections to achieve any story-telling goals; those sections – to this reader’s eye – look like part of a decision to turn long short stories into short novels. The London-based Sherlockian sections could have been expanded only at the risk of dragging out what are crisp and tightly written mysteries; the choice was to add background sections that are interesting enough, I suppose, but are certainly not necessary. Many of the short stories include a brief and effective descriptions of background events that explain or contextualize the events of a crime in the story’s present.

    Although The Hound is slightly different in structure, (and granting its well-deserved status as the most famous mystery novel ever written) it offers the same lesson: most of the novel concerns Watson’s stay at Baskerville Hall, which in the end doesn’t offer much to the solution of the mystery that could not have been described more briefly in a short story. It would be cynical to suggest that, in this case, the extraordinary per-word fee that was offered to the author for the story by the Strand helped to pump up the length, but even had it been we should be grateful, I suppose: there are few other adventures in the Canon that offer so much of Watson himself.

    • Thank you “Hound” for that insightful contribution. You have mentioned what had been nagging . . . the author’s per word fee and the serialization schematic of these books. Perhaps the hidden agenda was authorial income accompanied by a dollop of padding.

      I don’t get that feeling with SIGN or HOUN as much as I do with VALL and STUD. perhaps that says something about the “flashback” literary device.

      The other question that is present in this discussion, but as yet underdeveloped, is the origin of the author’s very accurate description of both Utah, the western geography and topography, and the rather obscure valley of the Pennsylvania area in what is actually the area near Scranton and Ashland, Pennsylvania, probably a place today named Eckley Miner’s Village which was the original anthracite mining village in those times. Not only is the author accurate, but also “gritty” and that takes some knowledge of a setting. This could have come from knowledge of English and Welsh coal mines, I suppose, but there are other elements of the setting that indicate a personal, ‘visual’ awareness.

      • “Buttons” mentions something to which I alluded earlier in this thread. The “gritty” description of the American West and Pennsylvania coal mines suggests that (to quote Buttons) “there are other elements of the setting that indicate a personal, ‘visual’ awareness.” I agree with Buttons and discussed this in detail in the first issue of our own journal, The Watsonian, in “A Long Afternoon”. Does anyone else think that Watson spent time in America and did that influence his writings?

  8. My belief is that the American sections of STUD and VALL (as well as MAZA–also in the premiere issue of the Watsonian) were authored by Doyle. The evidence is fairly obvious in STUD: “As to what occurred there, we cannot do better than quote the old hunter’s own account, as duly recorded in Dr. Watson’s Journal, to which we are already under such obligations.” (Part 2 Chapter 5) After the first person account of Watson, we have five chapters written in the third person, then the omniscient narrator talking directly to the reader and then chapter 6 headed “A Continuation of the Reminiscences of John Watson, M.D.” If Watson were the writer of those 5 chapters of part 2, he didn’t need to go to these lengths and add another authorial voice to the book. However, if Doyle edited Watson’s earlier “Reminiscences” which STUD is a reprint, and wrote the American section based on Hope’s brief outline, research, and a lot of imagination, then what we now have in STUD makes sense.

    Watson may have spent time in America, but I wouldn’t base that on the American sections of the Canon. Their third-person nature leaves their authorship open to debate. If Doyle did write “The Country of the Saints” section of STUD, its depiction of the American West did not owe its “visual awareness” to time spent there.

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