Saturday, January 23, 2016

Sherlockians in amber.

I had been looking for a way to mention the new initiative by the Baker Street Irregulars to raise $250,000 over five years to digitize their Harvard archives. It's a pretty unbelievable concept -- a fan organization with a quarter-of-a-million Harvard archive, although one could probably see it coming. The value of the Sherlockian materials held by the Special Collections of the University of Minnesota far outreaches that figure, and a quarter mil just ain't what it used to be . . . though still not petty cash.

I just had a hard time wrapping my head around that one until I read a lovely blog post on "Monitoring the Media" about the writer's first time attending the BSI's annual dinner. The writer, "Anastasia" (I really have to do a post on this pseudonym trend -- coming soon), does a great job of encapsulating much of the Baker Street Irregulars experience. The starry-eyed first attending, the cherished anachronism, the upper-class venue . . . it really took me back to a time when I was much younger.

A time when I was not the only one that was much younger . . . the Baker Street Irregulars were also a much different organization than they are today. No Harvard archives, no Yale Club, not so many tuxedos, a Times Square that was kind of scary . . . and yet, all of what Anastasia describes about the BSI today was also very true back then. There has always been a large part of BSI culture that's been about looking back. To the Victorian era in its early years. To the 1930s in its later years. And to the . . . 1930s in its later years.

And to the 1930s in its later years.

And to the 1930s in its later years.

I don't recall much fuss about the Baker Street Irregulars of the 1950s. We don't really have a Sherlockian Fonzie to look back to to capture that era. Or the 1970s, when Nicholas Meyer was upsetting the apple cart and pastiches ran wild with crossovers. Or the 1990s, when women were first allowed to slowly be rationed into the Baker Street Irregulars, and Jeremy Brett was still holding the crown as the screen Sherlock. For in all those eras, the BSI would forever intersperse its loving gaze at Sherlock Holmes with longing sidelong glances back at the 1930s.

That charge was led by Jon Lellenberg back in the day, who remains, perhaps, the greatest devotee of that world before things went all . . . well, I don't exactly want to say "awry," but "very different." Despite the fact that he's not in vogue with the group's management of late, Jon is certainly responsible for much of the push for BSI history preservation we see today. The interest was always there, but I can't imagine anyone denying the snowball that he started pushing decades ago.

And I'll be honest here: As a rabid Sherlock Holmes fan, I've never been a big proponent of too much enthusiasm about the Baker Street Irregulars of New York. In places, it has always seemed to distract from the topic that I really wanted to focus on. Why sing "Aunt Clara" one more time when we could hear some tribute to Sherlock Holmes that could be the next longstanding addition to our Sherlockian history? My personal Sherlockian mantra might as well be the Moriartian "I'm *so* changeable!" because before ADD was even a buzz-acronym, I was there: "Forget that old stuff, let's see something new!"

And now, we've seen something new. Holy crap, have we seen something new. Sherlockiana has had its own version of climate change and the seas are rising. Not to imply our new Sherlockian world is a dangerous disaster -- it's brought some amazing goodness as well as some amazing badness -- there is just an undeniably powerful force behind the name "Sherlock Holmes" these days.

In such times, the urge to build up walls, secure the treasures, and lay in stores to maintain the life one once knew becomes stronger than ever. As Anastasia closes her blog about the BSI and its dinner, she ponders how that "preserved in amber" quality of the BSI will remain during all that's going on about it. The Baker Street Irregulars never had such a Sherlockian fandom at its gates as it now has. It's about to be changed forever, whether its more diehard members will acknowledge that fact or not, but that's the way life has always been. Changes is constant, even when we pretend it isn't there.

And that is why we find value in our historians. The keepers of the archives. It takes a certain religious zeal to be those people, as the monks of old demonstrate, and not all of us can, or should, be those people. Somebody has to be watching the horizon. But when the next generation comes along, that generation is always glad at some point that the records exist.

Which makes me really hope someone is hanging on to all the stuff that's happening right now. I think we have the 1930s down pretty well. But this current Sherlockian craziness? Who knows how that's going to look when the Sherlockians of eighty years from now look back.


  1. Anastasia is her actual name.

    1. Good to know. Apologies, Anastasia, but the Sherlock fanworld is a bit confusing these days.

  2. Hi Brad,
    Anastasia here, of the blog post in question (it is indeed my real name, but you're rather that there's a lot of pseudonyms going around, and I certainly use different names in certain online spaces).

    I have to admit, there have been as many responses to my post since I posted it as there are Sherlockians. The "preserved in amber" quote is actually not even my own, but taken from a friend with whom I discussed the Sherlockian world during the BSI weekend. I agree with you in that change is, certainly, always beneficial (in particular, that one small change the BSI made in 1991....) At the same time - and this is my view, having attended the BSI dinner for the first time this year: each "fandom" or literary society or group of enthusiasts has their own traditions around the texts they love, and Sherlockian traditions are unique. I have not met another group that is dedicated to a fictional character (rather than an author), or that toasts every item and location possible in the original stories, or who creates a weird hybrid between the history of their own literary society and the fictional stories and celebrates both. I've been in a lot of fandoms, in a lot of different fan spaces (especially on the internet), but the BSI and the scion societies are, to me, unique in their practices. I would want to see the toasts, or the practice of investitures, or the recitation of 221B, to go away. We've formed our own culture, with our own language and our own forms of cultural literacy and even or own epistemological economies, if you want to get fancy and academic. Of course, the same thing could be said for any fandom, but each fandom is unique. So these are traditions that I'd like preserved. (At the same time, I do very much think that if, say, the John Watson fund had a website it might help matters along).

    In terms of preserving what's happening now: it's interesting that you mention that. I didn't get a chance to include it in my post because it was already too long, but Mike Whelan started off the BSI dinner talking about the BSI trust, and the importance of preserving our past as we move on into the future, and those words really touched me. I'm an academic, and in addition to studying literature I study literary history, literary culture, reader response...and part of that means studying things like fandom and literary societies. So I too have a vested, academic interest in recording all of this history, thinking about it, and seeing how it evolves. I don't know how much recording other people do, but I know that I personally keep literally every single piece of paper I"m given at every Sherlockian/BSI event (I have a whole drawer of them) - menus, programs, business cards, everything. I write blog posts like this, and for every post I publish, I have 10 on my computer that are unwritten. I spend a lot of time on Tumblr, and though I don't exactly "record" what goes on on tumblr, I do reblog it, which means that there is a certain amount of fandom history there as long as Tumblr exists (I keep meaning to back it all up into a word document, all the memes and fan theories and fan reactions). My pet project is trying to document fan reactions to "The Reichenbach Fall" via Tumblr. Basically, I think with all the blogs, computers, references, and storage space we have these days thanks to technology, it'll actually be easier than ever to record history. There's always blog posts, the bsi weekend has a twitter hashtag, etc...we might actually end up with too much material, so I wish future historians luck sorting through it all..