“War of Words”
by Jeff Falkingham
No, that’s not a typo. The War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells’ science-fiction tale about a Martian invasion of southern England, was published in December 1897. I’m talking about another attack that was going on at about the same time. This battle involved a war of words -- between two titans of American and British literature: Samuel Clemens (also known as Mark Twain) and Arthur Conan Doyle.
Admittedly, their feud was a bit one-sided. Clemens did most of the warring; but Doyle got in the final word. Here’s my take on it:
Often called “the father of American literature,” Clemens was born in Missouri in 1835 and died in Connecticut in 1910. His best-known works are The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, published in 1876, and its sequel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in 1885.
Until the publication of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in 1925, Clemens’ Huckleberry Finn had been known, for 40 years, as “The Great American Novel.” It is not unlikely that Clemens himself gave it that name! A proud man who came from humble beginnings, Clemens was already at the peak of his popularity when Arthur Conan Doyle appeared on the scene in 1887.
Word of Doyle’s work came to Clemens from his long-time friend (and frequent traveling companion), Reverend Joseph Hopkins Twichell, who loaned Clemens a copy of A Study in Scarlet. Subsequent reports of the British writer’s growing popularity came from the network of friends the American writer had assembled in his many trips abroad (including to London).
It is clear that Clemens did not appreciate this upstart newcomer, who quickly threatened to steal his literary thunder. In his many speaking engagements, both at home and abroad, Clemens rarely missed an opportunity to put down or one-up his British counterpart.
For example, when the press made a big deal out of Doyle’s budding friendship with Harry Houdini, Clemens pointed out that his own circle of friends included both Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. (Clemens and Doyle also had at least one friend in common: American actor, director and playwright William Gillette – who figures into this story later.)
In 1891, Doyle published A Case of Identity, in which Sherlock Holmes uses the unique characteristics of a typewriter (then a fairly new device) to identify a killer. Clemens immediately boasted that he had been using a typewriter for years – and that, in fact, Tom Sawyer was “the first-ever novel to be written on a typewriter.”
When confronted with evidence that this simply was not true, Clemens recanted. He then claimed it was Life on the Mississippi, published much later, which he had written on a typewriter. In fact, handwritten notes to friends and colleagues reveal that, while he owned a series of typewriters, Clemens never really got the hang of actually using one; and, under deadline, he regularly dictated his stories to a clerk – or scrivener, as they were known at the time.
Clemens not only belittled Conan Doyle in his speaking engagements; he also attacked Doyle in writing. In 1889, just two years after the appearance of Doyle’s first Holmes story, Clemens published A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. In this tale, an ingenious American travels back through time to medieval England, where he stuns the backward British population with his thorough knowledge of science and modern technology.
In the works for more than four years, the tale was seen by many as an attack on Great Britain’s aristocratic traditions and institutions, including everyone and everything from Sir Walter Scott to the Catholic Church. To some readers, though, the “ingenious Yankee” was Clemens himself (who lived in Connecticut at the time) and “King Arthur” was not Arthur of Camelot, but Arthur Conan Doyle –- the implication being that astute American readers are not nearly as easily duped as their doltish British counterparts.
If you doubt this interpretation, consider a subsequent attack on Doyle that was not nearly so subtle. But first, we’ll return for a moment to William Gillette. In 1875, Clemens gave the 22-year-old Gillette his first real break in show business, handpicking the young actor for a starring role in a Globe Theater of Boston production of his stage-play, The Gilded Age.
Imagine how Clemens felt when, 24 years later, Gillette teamed up with Doyle to bring Holmes back to life on stage -- over 1,300 times! -- after the Great Detective had been (temporarily) killed off in The Final Problem. Undoubtedly triggered by this betrayal, in 1902 Clemens published A Double-Barreled Detective Story. In this satiric tale, Sherlock Holmes finds himself in a California mining town, where Clemens has him using his investigative methods to a ridiculously exaggerated degree – resulting in a completely wrong conclusion.
How did Doyle react to this so-called “feud”? For the most part, he took the high road and ignored it. However, I believe a clue to Doyle’s annoyance with Clemens can be found in the way that Sherlock Holmes treats the subject of fingerprints.
As all Sherlockians know, Holmes and Doyle were years ahead of their time when it came to utilizing such forensic methods as blood analysis, ballistics, toxicology, chemical or microscopic analysis of minutia, unique physical characteristics and so on. Yet even though the use of fingerprinting experienced a meteoric rise in the early 1900s, Doyle barely mentions it. In fact, in Sherlock’s 60 cases, a fingerprint comes into play only once (more on that in a moment).
Why does one of the era’s major breakthroughs in criminal investigation methods not play a more significant role in The Sherlock Holmes Casebook? The answer is simple: Because Clemens beat Doyle to the punch!
In 1893, Clemens published The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson and the Comedy of the Extraordinary Twins. In one of the book’s story arcs, David Wilson is a small-town Missouri lawyer who, for no apparent reason, enjoys the curious life-long hobby of collecting fingerprints. To make a long story short: two babies, from different families, are switched at birth. One grows up as the heir to riches, the other endures an upbringing amid abject poverty and ridicule. In adulthood, one man turns out to be “good,” the other is “bad.” Eventually, one is accused of murder. Is it the right one? Only Pudd’nhead Wilson knows for sure!
In Doyle’s Case of the Norwood Builder (the only Sherlock Holmes story in which fingerprints play even a minor role in the solution of the crime), a bloody thumb-print found at the scene turns out to be a red herring – a phony clue, made by a wax reproduction, planted to lead the detective astray. Published in 1903 (ten years after Pudd’nhead Wilson, but just one year after A Double-Barreled Detective), The Norwood Builder, with its red-herring fingerprint, was Doyle’s way of “pooh-poohing” Clemens, like a cow swishing its tail to swat away a pesky fly.
PHOTO: Reverend Joseph Hopkins Twichell and Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain)
AN ELEMENTARY INVESTIGATION
Jeff gets Sigerson Award from Norwegian Explorers!
On December 6, 2018, Jeff Falkingham received a coveted Sigerson Award from the Norwegian Explorers of Minnesota. Jeff was cited for his "War of Words" essay about a feud between Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle.
Phil Bergem, VP/Treasurer of the Explorers, presented Jeff with his award at the local scion's annual British Buffet Dinner at the Minneapolis Golf Club, attended by 55 Sherlockians. Explorers president Tom Gottwalt also noted Jeff's popular Book Talks program for libraries, schools and book or social clubs.
Jeff's essay is featured in the latest issue (pictured above) of the Norwegian Explorers' Christmas Annual.. This publication is modeled after Beeton's Christmas Annual in which Doyle's inaugural Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, first appeared in 1887.. The Explorers publish 350 copies of their annual, to be distributed to attendees of The Baker Street Irregulars Dinner and Gaslight Gala (honoring the birthday of Sherlock Holmes) in New York City in January.
The award-winning essay appears below.