Thursday, May 26, 2016

Even a part of the Canon for Memorial Day.

Part of the magic of Sherlock Holmes is how you can tie the detective and his adventures to very nearly anything . . . even an American Monday holiday.

It's Memorial Day weekend. The holiday that was originally called "Decoration Day," and founded at a time to put flowers on the graves of America's Civil War dead. Since then, it has expanded its purpose to all Americans who have died in service of their country, but it's origins are totally in that conflict that was in John H. Watson's thoughts in that passage first printed in "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box."

"You were recalling the incidents of Beecher's career. I was well aware that you could not do this without thinking of the mission which he undertook on behalf of the North at the time of the Civil War, for I remember your expressing your passionate indignation at the way in which he was received by the more turbulent of our people. You felt so strongly about it, that I knew you could not think of Beecher without thinking of that also. When a moment later I saw your eyes wander away from the picture, I suspected that your mind had now turned to the Civil War, and when I observed that your lips set, your eyes sparkled, and your hands clenched, I was positive that you were indeed thinking of the gallantry which was shown by both sides in that desperate struggle. But then, again, your face grew sadder; you shook your head. You were dwelling upon the sadness and horror and useless waste of life."
We depend upon Sherlock Holmes to reveal Watson's thoughts to us, as Watson never shared his passionate feelings about Beecher's mission to England and Europe in 1863 to gain support for the United States and deprive the Confederacy of recognition as a sovereign nation. Why was Watson so passionate about an issue an ocean away that happened when he wasn't more than twelve  years old?

Well, Henry Ward Beecher came back to England on a speaking tour in the summer of 1886, and I would wager Watson found a way to hear one of those talks. Why? Beecher's support of Darwin's theory of evolution? Beecher's push for women's suffrage? No, there is one topic sure to draw Watson to Beecher: Temperance.

Watson's brother died before his time, perhaps due to alcoholism we know he was afflicted with. And Watson's hatred of Holmes's "self-poisoning" shows us that John did not go unaffected by the condition of his "unhappy brother." While chronology of Watson's writings has always had its issues, it's not so hard to see Beecher's 1886 speaking tour coming at a time when Watson's feelings about the drink that ruined his brother were at their strongest. His respect for Beecher and his causes was enough to get a portrait for the walls of his Baker Street flat. And it also probably moved him to have some "passionate indignation" about the way Beecher was treated on his earlier trip to England during the American Civil War.

So, like Watson, many an American will be reflecting upon the sacrifices of war this Monday. And even if you're such a dedicated American Sherlockian that you can't turn away from the Canon, even for a national holiday, well, there is still a roundabout route for you to get there.

Have a good Memorial Day weekend.

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