Note: What follows is updated with information on a previous birthday tribute which appeared on the Chicago Now blog "The Quark in the Road" on May 22, 2013. Thanks to my esteemed colleague Aquinas wired for permission to use the link.
Saturday, May 22nd
A heavy swell all day. I come of age today. Rather a funny sort of place to do it in, only 600 miles or so from the North Pole.
-- Arthur Conan Doyle in the ship's log which became "Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure" (University of Chicago Press, 2012)
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, one of the great writers of the 19th and 20th centuries, was born in Scotland on May 22, 1859. By 1880, as a medical student, he accepted a berth as surgeon on an Arctic whaling ship. His stories in the ship's log, cited above and in this post, show him finding his voice as an adventure writer.
But of course, it is detection, rather than what we think of as adventure, for which Doyle is most remembered today. Using one of his Edinburgh University professors, Dr. Joseph Bell, as a model, Doyle created Sherlock Holmes. (For a tribute centered on Mr. Holmes, see http://www.chicagonow.com/quark-in-the-road/2013/05/a-conan-doyle-his-brainchild-was-sherlock-holmes-prototype-crime-scene-investigator/ )
The daunting thing for me as I try to find my own fictional voice is that even a great writer like Doyle didn't recognize his best work -- or at least didn't agree about what it was. "The Final Problem" (1893) was meant to be the final Holmes story so that he could go on with work that (in his own eyes) he did better. Most of those books have sunk into obscurity, while when he was pressured to write about Holmes again, "The Hound of the Baskervilles" (1901) and "The Adventure of the Empty House" (1903) are classics in the genre (and in the language).
Doyle was one of the first "good influences" I recognized in my own writing. On the night in 1977 when I finished reading "The Complete Sherlock Holmes" for the first time, I'd read so much that my teenage syntax just wasn't there in my diary that night. I'd picked up his way of using words. The only way I could express it at the time was "I fear," but since then I've realized that there is nothing to fear from so good an influence.
Doyle died in 1930. In memory of "a great heart as well as a great brain," as he once had Dr. Watson describe Holmes, here is young Doyle's own farewell to John Thomas, the pet sea snail he kept on the ship:
"He has gone the way of all flesh so peace be to his molecules."
For more fun with words, stop by the Margaret Serious page on Facebook.
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