Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Mark Twain and the Holmeses (Oliver Wendell and Sherlock)

Mark Twain, 1902
I've been reading my way through Mark Twain's very late books and stories--including A Horse's Tale, A Dog's Tale, and, just yesterday, A Double-Barrelled Detective Story.  As Twainians know, he had veered dark as his career--and life--wound down (he died in 1910).  He had lost loved ones--his wife, two daughters (one of whom drowned in the bathtub after suffering a seizure)--and was profoundly depressed about our species.  He saw little or no hope in us.  Our ignorance terrified him--as did our easy conversion into mob thinking and behavior.  (Remember Col. Sherburne's derisive lecture to the lynch mob in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?  That speech appears in various guises elsewhere in Twain--including A Double-Barrelled Detective Story.)

Both Horse's Tale and Dog's Tale begin like children's books (puppies! ponies!); both end so grimly that no major publisher would dare touch them today.

But Double-Barrelled is a bit lighter.  Not much.  A little.  And very odd.  And may have a connection to Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Twain knew Holmes (who lived until 1894).  And he probably knew, as well, that the physician, the lawyer, the poet of "Old Ironsides" and "The Deacon's Masterpiece,"  and the essayist of The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table had also found time to write three novels (sometimes disdainfully referred to as his "medicated novels"), each of which had a more-or-less medical/scientific aspect.

Relevant here is Holmes' 1861 novel Elsie Venner.  Elsie is a strange girl.  And, later, we find out why: A rattlesnake had bitten Elise's pregnant mother.  And Elsie now exhibits some serpentine traits.  She has "diamond eyes," "cold fingers," and moves with "a peculiar undulation of movement" (57).  Hmmmm ...  Later, we hear about the "strange, cold glitter in her eyes" (74). And so on.  Her reptilian and human sides war in her.  The human wins, and she dies.  Happy tale.

(By the way, Holmes, who taught at Harvard for a long, long time, has a sentence about teaching that rings true for those of us who've done it: "Nobody knows what the weariness of instruction is, as soon as the teacher's faculties begin to be overtasked, but those who have tried it" (51).)

So ... back to Twain to see the relevance of all this.  In A Double-Barrelled Mystery, a beautiful young woman marries a stranger in town; her father is upset, tells tales about the young man, who, embittered by this, resolves to make miserable the life of his bride.  And he does--not physically, at first, but psychologically.  But she is resilient.  Withstands him for a while.  Then he takes his final step: Late at night he takes her to the woods, ties her to a tree, lets his bloodhounds attack her (they strip her clothing from her), leaves her there, vanishes.  (Not the best of honeymoons.)

She's discovered, treated, rescued.  But ready for revenge.  Oh, and pregnant.  When her son is born, she soon discovers that he has the abilities of a bloodhound (he can follow a person by smell only).  She brings him up to hate his missing father and plots to use the son to destroy the father.

Well, years pass.  The son pursues the father.  There are some questions of mistaken identity.  And so on.

We end up in a Western mining camp, about halfway through this novella.  A mysterious murder occurs.  And shortly afterwards, arriving on the stagecoach is the uncle of one of our characters.  The uncle's name?  Sherlock Holmes.

Yes, that Sherlock Holmes.

And Twain rips into him, making him look like a fool: All of Holmes' inferences about evidence are wrong; he utters nonsense (all assassins are lefthanded); he identifies the wrong man as the murderer.  But the celebrity-loving miners are besotted by him and it takes a long, long time for them to realize the error of their adulation.  Before they do, however, a lynch mob forms to string up ... Sherlock Holmes!  The sheriff arrives to save him--and then, in true Col. Sherburne fashion, lectures them.  Of a mob, he says, "I've never seen one that had a man in it. ... It's made up of cowards, and so is the community that breeds it ..." (173).

Identifying the actual murderer is our bloodhound-son.  And we learn on the last page that the murder victim was none other than ...  I'll bet you can guess.

I wonder, reading Twain, about the difficulty of arriving at the end of a long life without surrendering to bitterness and despair.  Think of losing everyone you've loved--everything you've loved.  Think of being unable to do the things you've always loved to do.  Think of the circumference of your life--how it expands, how you think it will always do so.

And then it shrinks, a little at first, then closes in upon you.  Iris-out, as the old screenplays used to say ...

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