By Jim Curtis
“There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us Lands away,” the irredeemably landlocked Emily Dickinson once wistfully wrote. Immobilized by her father, her society, and her psyche in equal measure, she often wrote about movement and things that can move, like birds (“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers”), ships, and trains. Her famous poem about trains begins like this: “I like to see it lap the Miles.” It is poems like these that have given me my lifelong connection with her.
When I was about twelve, I wanted to get away from the small town of Tupelo, Mississippi, as much as Dickinson ever wanted to get away from Amherst, Massachusetts. But at the time I wasn’t thinking about any means of transportation any more substantial than my bike, on which I used to take long rides on Sunday afternoons. What I didn’t realize then is that when I was riding on the still unpaved streets on the outskirts of Tupelo, I was feeling the first urges of a desire that’s remained with me all my life—the desire to get out and see the world, to visit places so beautiful that I couldn’t yet imagine them.
At a time before television, not to mention computers, at a time when radio meant AM radios with tinny speakers that could only receive low-powered local stations, I had nothing more than a vague idea of what the world outside of small Southern towns was like—until I read my first Sherlock Holmes story. Sherlock Holmes stories became the frigate that transported me lands away to turn-of-the-century London, which seemed irresistibly exotic to my still nascent imagination.
My father had many deficiencies both as a father and as a human being, but he inadvertently did something wonderful for me. He did something very atypical for a Southern working-class man: he collected a modest library, and it was from his books that I learned to love reading. It now occurs to me that I never knew where he got his books, and our limited, distant relationship prevented me from asking him about them. Somewhere my father bought an edition of the complete works of the Italian-English writer Rafael Sabatini, author of adventure novels such as The Sea Hawk. I had no idea what kind of name Sabatini was, but I was pretty sure that it wasn’t English. “Rafael Sabatini,” I used to say to myself just to hear the exotic sounds roll off my tongue.
What matters, though, is that in addition to his edition of Sabatini and his Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, my father also bought a book that changed my life—The Complete Sherlock Holmes. He didn’t take enough interest in me to suggest that I read any of the stories in it, though. I don’t think he even noticed that I was reading it with rapt attention. It was a substantial volume, and I suppose I must have picked it up one day out of simple curiosity. I started The Hound of the Baskervilles and was immediately entranced. Although I’m sure that I didn’t read all the Holmes stories in one sitting, I must have read them all in a short period of time.
I read and read and then finally I had an unforgettable experience—one that remains vivid in my memory to this day, over sixty years later. I will always remember what it was like when I finished the last Sherlock Holmes story. I sat there shaken. I closed the book with deep regret, realizing that I would never again have a new Sherlock Holmes story to read.
Needless to say, at the time I had minimal understanding of the social context of the Holmes stories, which presented innumerable conundrums for me. In one story Holmes reads the agony column aloud to Watson. “What,” I wondered, “is an agony column?” The stories contained reference after reference that posed mysteries as puzzling to me as the plots. I remember being brought up short by a minor detail in “A Scandal in Bohemia.” In that story there is a reference to a coat of arms on the door of a carriage that someone deliberately obscures by throwing a blanket over it. Although I guess I had seen farm wagons, I had certainly never seen a carriage. I had only a vague idea of what a coat of arms was, and what it might signify. “If it’s on the carriage door, why would anyone want to hide it?” I wondered to myself. I didn’t figure that out until much later, when in college I finally acquired some understanding of the European class system.
One way to say it, I suppose, is that such references to an unknown social world both puzzled me and enticed me. I wanted to get away from what I knew all too well—Southern small towns—and the very fact that I couldn’t understand the minutiae of daily life in turn-of-the-century London meant that it was different from the daily life that I did know. It was a reassurance that what I did know was not all that there was. The obvious contrasts between turn-of-the-century London and Tupelo in the 1950s relieved some of my anxiety that Tupelo, Mississippi, was all that there was, and all that there would ever be. That, I think, was my deepest fear at the time, and one that stayed with me for a long, long time.
And what of our hero himself? What about Holmes? What really mattered about Holmes, what made him so unforgettable, is that he was utterly unlike any man I had ever known or heard of. Like so many kids in the fifties who were unconsciously longing for the wild abandon of rock and roll, I chafed at the slow pace of life in a small town and at the complacent acceptance of it on the part of the people who lived there. When Holmes said to Watson, “The game is afoot,” by “game” he didn’t mean a high school football game, which was about the only thing people in Tupelo ever got excited about. No. By “game,” Holmes meant something important to him, some personal mission that was worth getting excited about.
If Holmes was pursuing game, then he must have been a hunter. But the only hunters I knew anything about were coon hunters, good ole Southern boys who spoke excitedly about tromping through the woods all night. (If that was hunting, I wanted no part of it; I wanted to sleep in a comfortable bed at night!) Holmes, though, went hunting in a carriage with a magnifying glass and with his trusty companion Dr. Watson at his side. “If you’re going to go hunting,” I thought, “that’s the way to do it.”
Because reading about Holmes became such a formative experience in my life—because my idea of Holmes mattered more to me than the stories in which he appeared—I didn’t enjoy the movies about him as much as I thought I would. Holmes became the signature role for Basil Rathbone, of course, and he was as good in the part as any actor could be. Still, for me, the problem was that he had a face. The sight of his very British face limited my imagination; it brought down to earth my idea of Holmes as a role model. Strange as it may sound, Holmes helped me to realize that what I really wanted to be was a professor.
The connection between a detective and a professor is not as far-fetched as it might seem. The thing to remember is that Holmes was the first person I had ever heard of who investigated the world. Holmes wrote a monograph on cigar ash, for example. He carried out experiments on cadavers with the goal of determining the extent to which bruises could be created after death. “Wow,” I thought, “you mean that there’s somebody somewhere who uses his mind to figure stuff out?” Although I didn’t know the word “research” at the time, I did realize that Holmes was engaged with the world in a way that seemed very attractive to me.
To understand my adolescent fascination with Holmes at a deeper level, you have to understand that I lived in a world of mystery—in a world of social, not spiritual, mystery. It was a mystery to me why my parents talked so much to their relatives and wanted to spend time with them. And of course they took me with them when they went to see their relatives on weekends, thereby depriving me of precious reading time. I thought then—and still think—that my relatives were neurotic people with limited social skills who were incapable of taking an interest either in me or in my parents. “So why do we have to spend so much time with them?” I wondered. Looming behind that question was a bigger question: “Why do my parents and everybody I know find Tupelo so fascinating? I don’t find it fascinating at all. As a matter of fact, I find it stifling and boring.” I had a bad case of what the song “New York, New York” would later call “the little town blues.”
Little did I know at the time that these questions that perplexed me so much were merely the initial versions of the substantive questions of the relationship between place and cultural identity that would engage me for much of my career as a professor of Russian. And I certainly could not have imagined that the historical similarities between Russia and the South—they are both primarily agricultural areas with violent, suppressed histories—meant that growing up in the South would give me an excellent background for analyzing Russian novels!
Holmes played the violin and took drugs. Needless to say, when I was a teenager I never knew anybody who did either of those things. I now realize that Holmes was in part a turn-of-the-century aesthete with affinities to Marcel Proust, among others. But at the time the dialectic between his moody withdrawal from the world outside and his commitment to understanding it fascinated me. I knew all about withdrawal from the world, of course. I couldn’t play the violin, and I wouldn’t have taken drugs even if I had known what they were, but I withdrew from the world around me by reading and, later, by listening to records. What I couldn’t yet do, and longed to do, was what the other pole of Holmes’s personality allowed him to do—to go out and investigate the world, and by investigating it, understand it. Although I didn’t quite put it in these words, I told myself, “If you’re smart and work hard like Sherlock Holmes, you can achieve an understanding of the world. The world won’t be such a mystery anymore. You won’t have to go around puzzled and confused all the time.”
Although Holmes wasn’t the only reason I became so besotted with education that I wanted to study all the time, he did provide me with an image, an approximate one, to be sure, of what a scholarly life might be like. And once I went off to college and met people with PhDs (there were none in Tupelo, of course), there was no stopping me. Whether you want to call it karma or destiny or whatever, I realized that I was put on earth to be a professor, and I didn’t dare to think what an improbable career that would be for a kid from a dysfunctional working-class family who had grown up in a dysfunctional part of America. That was an audacious desire indeed, and I am infinitely grateful that I was naïve enough to nurture that dream until I was finally able to make it come true.
After I succeeded in leaving Tupelo and was safely in college, during my sophomore year at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Holmes did one final thing for me. He prepared me to recognize a real live mentor when I saw one. During a course on existentialism, which was maybe the single most important course I ever took, I looked at my professor one day, and I said to myself, “That’s the way I want to be. That’s how I want to live my life.”
I had never met any men in Tupelo that I admired or wanted to emulate, and Holmes himself remained on the pages of a book. But my professor Dr. Philip Hallie was a real, live flesh and blood person. I could sit in his office and talk to him. He cared about my opinions and drew me out. He showed respect for me, as no man had ever done before. I was on my way, and for the next four years I went to school summer and winter. I couldn’t get enough of education and the excitement that it brought to me.
The frigate that was The Complete Sherlock Holmes put my feet (and, more importantly, my mind) on a path that ultimately led me to a lifelong professional engagement with Russia and to travel to Italy, to China, and Japan. I overcame the disappointment of my realization that there never would be any more new Sherlock Holmes stories by realizing that there would always be new books that would take me to new places.
Jim Curtis received his PhD from Columbia University and taught for thirty-one years at the University of Missouri. He is now a professor emeritus and lives in a retirement community in southeast Pennsylvania.
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