“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.
Jeff gets 2nd Sigerson Award!
On December 5, 2019, Jeff Falkingham received his second Sigerson Award from the Norwegian Explorers of Minnesota. Jeff was cited for his essay on "Doyle's Imagination." 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 nearly 100 Sherlockians from the upper Midwest.
Fitting for a year in which Jeffrey Hatcher was a guest speaker at the triennial Holmes conference at the University of Minnesota in August, and Nicholas Meyer (pictured above) was keynote speaker at the annual year-end gathering of Minnesota's Norwegian Explorers in December, Jeff's essay was titled "Doyle's Imagination Reflects Vision of -- a Screen Writer!"
The essay was featured in the latest issue (pictured above) of the Explorers' Christmas Annual., based on the theme 'Mystery, Imagination & Horror.' 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. Jeff's award-winning essay appears below.
Doyle’s Imagination Reflects
Vision of -- a Screen Writer!
Imagination > image. Visionary > vision. All have to do with the eye. In particular, the eye in one’s mind - and how it perceives things. Arthur Conan Doyle was obsessed with images perceived by the mind’s eye. Thus, we should not be surprised that his visionary imagination made Doyle the world’s first and foremost practitioner of the fine art of - screen writing.
Yes, I know. Doyle wrote books - both novels and short stories. He wrote stage plays, or at least collaborated on a few of them. But he surely never wrote a movie script, you say? Maybe not. My contention is that Doyle wrote stories as if he anticipated that they would appear on a giant screen.
For proof, we need look no further than The Adventure of the Speckled Band - the tale that Doyle himself rated as the best of his 56 short stories about Sherlock Holmes. Consider this narrative by Helen Stoner, the prerequisite damsel in distress: “It was a wild night. The wind was howling outside, and the rain was beating and splashing against the windows.” Is that not the prototype opening scene for a hundred spooky movies?
Then, “Suddenly, amidst all the hubbub of the gale, there burst forth the wild scream of a terrified woman.” The entire audience is now tingling with goose bumps, and teetering on the edges of their theater seats. Sure, it works on stage; radio, too. (As Timothy Johnson likes to say, “Sherlock Holmes is adaptable to ANY medium.”) But nowhere does it work as well as it does on a big screen. I maintain that Doyle knew that would be true!
Before I tell you how he knew it, let me cite just a few more examples from The Speckled Band: the moment that Grimesby Roylott bursts, larger than life, thru the doorway of the sitting room at 221B Baker Street; the second that Holmes and Watson, about to enter the manor through a window under the cover of darkness, are startled by the “hideous and distorted” figure of the baboon; the instant that Holmes “sprang from the bed, struck a match, and lashed furiously with his cane at the bell-pull” - ALL are “made-for-the-movies” moments, imagined and written by a superb visual storyteller!
There are similar moments as well, in every story in the Canon – more and more as the years went by. I’ll let you recall a few of those images for yourself. Now, it’s time for me to explain how Conan Doyle came to be the movie world’s first and foremost writer of scenes for the silver screen - and why I feel he ought to be recognized as such.
Four quick observations: (There’s another word that deals with the perception of images!)
First of all, Doyle fully understood the eye, and how it works. He studied it extensively - at an Eye Clinic in Portsmouth, with eye surgeons in Vienna, with the ophthalmology specialist Landolt in Paris. Doyle knew how the eye absorbed darkness and light, how it reacted to motion, how it relayed these impulses to the brain. Furthermore, he knew all of these things months before he published the first of the 56 short stories that made him famous.
Secondly, Doyle knew film. More than an avid amateur photographer, between 1881 and 1885, he had at least 13 articles published in The British Journal of Photography.* Beginning with his study of cormorants, when he repeatedly attempted to capture the very instant a flying bird becomes a dying bird as it is struck by shot from a hunter’s gun, Doyle grew increasingly interested in producing images that depicted motion – plumes of smoke rising from the stacks of a far-off steamer, the ripple of the water caused by a fleet of passing canoes, etc.
Third: Doyle extrapolates. From a tiny seed, he infers acre upon acre of bountiful crops. Take Bertram Fletcher Robinson’s report on the legend of a phosphorescent hound. Doyle saw its potential and ran with it. Once the seed was planted, he nourished it, embellished it, made it grow into something far beyond its original form – a perfect example of the Master making mountains out of molehills.
Finally, as a man of science, Doyle kept abreast of the latest developments in a variety of fields. He followed (and in some cases anticipated) advancements in blood analysis. He was aware of Lacassagne’s work in criminology. He knew of (though he mostly ignored) the rise of fingerprints as an important investigative tool. With his interest in optics, we can safely assume he was familiar with the work of Daguerre, Muybridge, Edison and the Lumieres.
I propose that Doyle foresaw the outcome of these gentlemen’s work even before they did. He knew the advances they were working on were not only possible - they were inevitable! That knowledge enabled Doyle, with his visionary imagination, to logically INFER the coming creation of the film industry. In other words, Doyle envisioned Hollywood - or something very much like it (perhaps in London?). Consequently, he wrote for it.
To my knowledge, he has never received credit for writing a screenplay. You have to admit, though: because of the way they were written, adapting a Conan Doyle story for the silver screen has to be the easiest job in show business! If hundreds of Sherlock Holmes movies aren’t enough to convince you, throw in the Jurassic Park films based on Doyle’s Lost World.
There’s a reason that Sherlock Holmes has been portrayed on screen more times than any other person. That reason is: because Arthur Conan Doyle was, first and foremost, the most imaginative and visionary screen writer in the history of film. Take that to the bank, Sherlock - and put it in the vault. That’s a wrap.
* Doyle’s two-part essay, After Cormorants with a Camera, originally published in the weekly British Journal of Photography on October 14 and October 21, 1881, was reprinted later that year in Anthony’s Photographic Bulletin. That makes it the first of Doyle’s written works to be published in the USA (Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia @ arthur-conan-doyle.com)
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., centered on a theme of 'War and Peace.' 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 award-winning essay appears below.