Thursday, May 28, 2020

Does the Canon have an expiration date?

As fans of Sherlock Holmes, we like to think of him as eternal.

And to some extent he is. The legend, the icon, the archetype, all that is a part of our culture now. But the original ACD stories? Classics, indeed. Favorites of many a living human, yes. But generational change is going to impact how future folks see those same tales.

After reading "The Adventure of the Wisteria Lodge" for our monthly Sherlock Story Society discussion at the Peoria Public Library (currently on Zoom), the good Carter remarked on how racist the story was with respect to any non-white, non-English people in the story. While we all go "Hey, that Three Gables thing is awfully racist!" it's slowly creeping up on most of us that the Italians, the South Americans, the Greeks, the anybody-but-regular-Brits tends to be seen as the problem to be solved.

Even if it's just a "fiery and passionate" woman with "Welsh blood" or the "fiery tropical love" of a Peruvian (both of which add a charming bit of sexism to the racism), there are many a trait from caricatures apparent when it comes to those of foreign birth. Where once we finally just went, "Steve Dixie is awful!" more and more people are looking at characters like his boss, Isadora Klein, with a scrutiny she didn't get before.

Even that best of Conan Doyle's tales of dealing with race, "The Yellow Face," has that very unfortunate title and main issue that there's something to be worried from that face of a different color. Replace "Yellow" with "Ghostly" and you not only can do the same story, but it actually becomes more eerie. Not just the possibility of a dead husband in the neighboring cottage, but a seriously dead husband back there.

Movies tend to show their age in a much more obvious way. The clothes, the dated dialogue, all those details that can make the whole venture seemed a bit foolishly dated. They are easily seen for what they were: products of a less considerate age. Literature, especially that deemed "classic," is usually of a quality that doesn't call itself out so quickly. And yet, over time, the details emerge. E-books of the "complete" Sherlock Holmes become less complete.

The bathwater around this baby is the same bathwater as in years past. Our awareness of how dirty it is sure has changed in the last forty years. But here's the thing: Sherlock Holmes is popular in Japan. Sherlock Holmes exists in India. Sherlock Holmes is well known in lands where the words aren't exactly the same as the words we read in England, America, Canada, etc. And yet, Sherlock Holmes is still enjoyed with different words.

We call those sixty stories "the Canon," comparing them to the Bible or some other Holy Book. And the thing about the Bible? It's been read and enjoyed in several different English editions for a very long time. As the Canon of Sherlock Holmes falls completely out of copyright, could it be time for a new edition of our own Canon? Something a little more cleaned-up for modern and future readers?

There will always be those purists who cry "blasphemy!" at such a thought, but there are also those legions who enjoy Sherlock Holmes in words that are not at all Conan Doyle's, in every form of fiction we have. What would a little polishing of the diamond hurt? There are actually a lot of differences in our existing editions, and super-purists still go back to the original Strand Magazine version if they feel the need. Or even the printed manuscripts.

Sherlock Holmes is eternal. But every single word of those sixty stories needn't be, if we want to show some thoughtfulness and care for people other than ourselves. That's what so much of the questions we face now really are: Are we just thinking of ourselves, or caring for our neighbors?

Even here in Sherlock-land.

Postscript: And can you imagine the joy some congress of Sherlockians would have debating every change in the creation of a New Modern Complete Sherlock Holmes? You know they would, even in the most heated debates along the way.

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