For those who don't get into podcasts, here's the text of the opening talk from this week's "Watsonian Weekly" podcast. It's an often silly podcast, but when times call for something a bit more, we try to do a bit more.
Watsonians and Sherlockians like to give John H. Watson a lot of credit for bringing Sherlock Holmes to us with his narratives. We also like to point out his flaws and faults. Before anyone was doing that “well actually” retort to anything on the internet, Sherlockians were doing “well actually” to John Watson, fact-checking him, calling out his incorrect calendar dates, how he didn’t get his war wound or his wives the same twice, etc. And for the most part, we work hard to excuse him.
But John H. Watson was far from a perfect fellow, and as much as we’d like to change gears when it comes to his stories like “Three Gables” and suddenly start putting all that Steve Dixie business on his literary agent, John Watson has to own that, too. This is where things start to get a little uncomfortable for the good doctor, and for us as well.
Chances are, among the handful of people who listen to the Watsonian Weekly podcast, and I am grateful for every one of them, we don’t have any black listeners. And there’s a reason for that. It’s not that we’re overtly racist and not that we don’t care about people who aren’t white, British-identifying, doctors, or those who have nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes. It’s just that the Watsonian Weekly is a John H. Watson centered podcast, and our buddy John just isn’t very representative of the struggles faced by people of color.
Without kith or kin in England, John Watson managed to become a doctor, and even as a wounded veteran who was unable to work, still got a pension that allowed him to live comfortably by sharing a two bedroom apartment with a guy who would make him famous. While I know that the phrase “white privilege” triggers defensiveness in a lot of us, John H. Watson would surely not have had any of that had he been a person of color, coming from a similarly humble background.
It didn’t matter that Watson didn’t have family behind him. It didn’t matter that he was disabled and getting government money to live. It didn’t matter that Watson was not a hardworking doctor, running off to go on adventures with his weird friend all the time.
John Watson succeeded, in spite of all that, because the world around him allowed him that. Hell, he even helped break into a house and escaped a murder scene, then had the police come into his apartment, have someone say “Hey, one of the murderers looked just like you!” and didn’t get arrested.
John H. Watson is the very poster child of white privilege, when you come right down to it.
Now, suppose we pointed this out to Dr. Watson if we could be in the room with him today. What do you think his response would be?
Would it be “I earned this! Let everyone else find a weird room-mate and write stories about them that the Strand publishes and gets them famous! Not everybody gets to be me, and that’s sad for them, but it’s not my fault.”
No. That doesn’t sound like Watson at all. That’s not our Watson.
No, John H. Watson could admit when he was wrong. Can you imagine how many times, living with Sherlock Holmes, that Watson had to own up to being wrong? If any human being ever didn’t have any chance of being a narcissist in a bubble of his own opinions, it was the guy who shared rooms with Mr. Sherlock Smarty-Pants Holmes, always there, always ready to take you down a peg.
Watson was a racist like we’re all racist, and trying to do better, if we can just stop and admit our own flaws.
Our Watson wrote what he wrote about Steve Dixie, but he also wanted to hang a photo of Henry Ward Beecher on his wall. Beecher fought to end slavery, came to England to rally support for his fellow Americans fighting for that cause, and went on to fight for women’s rights when that war was done.
I’ve written before about how we have to look deep into the Watson we see on display in “Three Gables,” the older man who is frightened by the huge black man threatening him in Baker Street and then played it off to supposedly comic effect in the story, as if to say, “I wasn’t that scared.” I think Watson would have owned up to that if you spoke to him about it. And he would have tried to do better.
We’ve been living in fear of a virus for months now, and at the beginning of that, the fear had people doing stupid things, like hording toilet paper. Frightened people get selfish and silly. And there are those who want us to be frightened now. To look at a protest and fear a damaging riot. To look at reform and fear that something will be taken from us. To look at someone different from ourselves and be so frightened that we let the wrong people have power, just to be safe from an imagined threat.
John wasn’t in the Ku Klux Klan like Elias Openshaw or Captain Calhoun. Like the rest of us, he might have felt the temptation to go, “Well, that is racist. I plainly am not that.” But we know. We know for a fact, reading his own words, that Watson did not always see people of color the same way he saw his fellow white Englishmen. And just as he is an everyman who stands in for us as we read those stories, we have those same flaws within us. They can be found in the most primitive parts of our brains, studies have shown that. But he always tried to do better. And he would try to do better now.
If John H. Watson stood for anything, it was being there to help a friend, or even someone he just met, despite the fear, despite the possibility his life would change. And it wasn’t just because he had Sherlock Holmes.
No, John Watson went to demon-hound haunted Dartmoor, alone. John Watson went into an opium den on the docks to find Kate Whitney’s husband for her, alone. He was a good man who always wanted to help. And he didn’t stop wanting to help just because he might find out he was wrong on this point or that.
There’s a scene in “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot” that people love because Watson sees emotion in Holmes for a moment, after they nearly die of the poison Radix Pedis Diaboli. But there’s a moment earlier in that series of events that I want to call out today, a moment that doesn’t focus on Holmes so much as John H. Watson.
As the deadly fumes take hold of Watson and Holmes in that story, Watson’s imagination runs wild and every one of his senses starts screaming at him that something horrible is coming. His exact words are “all that was monstrous and inconceivably wicked in the universe.” He writes of the feeling that a horror whose very shadow would be enough to destroy him is at hand, and he feels his hair rising, his eyes wide with terror, and he tries to scream, but he can’t. John H. Watson is paralyzed with fear and despair. Paralyzed. He is frightened beyond anything he’s ever seen before, and he’s seen a lot.
But even with that level of paralyzing, screaming fear coursing through him, John Watson looks over and sees another person, and I don’t think it even matters who that person was. Watson sees that other person with the same features Watson has seen on the dead. And in that moment, Watson draws together an instant of strength and sanity to act.
The fear is there, yes, but John Watson’s concern in that moment isn’t for himself. It’s his concern for that other human being in the room, his empathy, his lifelong commitment to helping fending off death itself when it comes for other people, that drives Watson out of his chair, despite all the fear in the world, to help that other person and to save them both.
And that is the Watsonian moment I think we need to focus on right now. To see how the lives of others are being threatened and push through our fears to help them. Without that impulse, without that drive to help another, Watson would have been either insane or dead after the Devil’s Foot vapors took him. If he only thought of himself, the fear and paralysis would have been his end. But Watson looked beyond himself, saved that other person and also saved himself as a side effect.
And that’s where we are right now. In a bit of a nightmare that we can only get through if we try to save others instead of ourselves. To push past our own fears, our own pride, the threats to ourselves, and try to help that other guy. Just like John H. Watson did.
There’s a reason we have a John H. Watson society, and it’s not all Sherlock Holmes.