The scholarly rebellion of the early Baker Street Irregulars

George Mills

Harvard College, Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States

[0.1] Abstract—This work provides and analyzes an early institutional history of the pioneering Sherlock Holmes American fan club, the Baker Street Irregulars (BSI). Using the publications and records of these devoted Sherlockians, I track the BSI's development from a speakeasy gathering in 1934 to a national organization by the mid-1940s. This growth was built on a foundation of Victorian nostalgia and playful humor. Yet at the same time the members of the Irregulars took their fandom seriously, producing Sherlockian scholarship and creating an infrastructure of journals, conferences, and credentialing that directly mimicked the academy. They positioned themselves in contrast to prevailing scholarly practices of the period, such as New Criticism. I trace both how their fan practices developed over time and how this conflict with the academy led to many of the BSI's defining characteristics.

[0.2] Keywords—Fan community; Fandom; Scion society; Sherlockiana; Sherlock Holmes

Mills, George. 2017. "The Scholarly Rebellion of the Early Baker Street Irregulars." In "Sherlock Holmes Fandom, Sherlockiana, and the Great Game," edited by Betsy Rosenblatt and Roberta Pearson, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 23.

1. Introduction

[1.1] In A Scandal In Bohemia, Sherlock Holmes tells Watson not to simply "see" but to "observe" (Doyle 1930, 221). Over the years since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's hero began to appear in Beeton's Christmas Annual and Strand Magazine, he has captivated fans, scholars, and some who blur the boundaries between these labels. In studying such individuals, who do not fully conform to any one classification, scholars can both strive to further their understanding of the complexity of fandom and observe these individuals as a cultural barometer of their time.

[1.2] The Holmes-focused Baker Street Irregulars (BSI), a fan club founded in 1934, provides a prime example of a pioneering fan-scholar society. The BSI evolved from a lunch club and drinking group that gathered in New York speakeasies. Today, the BSI and its affiliated organizations have hundreds of members across the United States and around the world. As the group grew increasingly regular in their structure and restricted in their membership, their fan culture remained steeped in an ideology of affective scholarship. The Irregulars attempted to bring romance back into the professionalized American intellectual culture of the early and middle 20th century. In doing so, they thumbed their noses at the traditional highbrow culture that Russell Lynes satirized in his 1949 essay "Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow," asserting instead that literature should be passionately engaged with and enjoyed. Over the course of the 1940s, they built formal structures to support this belief system. They created a journal of Sherlockian scholarship, sponsored local scion societies throughout the nation, and hosted an annual dinner conference dedicated to Sherlockiana. Through literary magazines, newspapers, and their own publications, the Irregulars actively combated the elitism that precluded the object of their fandom from the highbrow literary canon. They argued that their work was as worthy as any literary critic, blasting the growing esotericism of contemporary professional scholars and couching their defense in pure aestheticism.

[1.3] The Irregulars' disposition for scholarly romanticism can be traced back to their earliest meetings. In an upstairs room of Christ Cella restaurant on the East Side of New York, they gathered to celebrate the birthday of their hero: the world's first consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes. It was December 1934, Prohibition had just been repealed, and the employees of the speakeasy turned restaurant poured numerous newly legal drinks for their amiable, albeit unconventional, patrons. In reference to Holmes's unofficial force of street-urchin assistants in Doyle's The Sign of Four (1890), they had dubbed themselves the Baker Street Irregulars. The Irregulars of this moment were an inchoate group of devotees marked by the peculiarity that, with their tongues tucked firmly in their cheeks, they believed Holmes to be a living, breathing individual. They read his stories as histories written by his partner, John Watson, rather than fictional tales of Doyle's imagination (note 1). The founder of the group, Christopher Morley, had planned a black tie evening of congenial fellowship for followers of this shared hobby. This dinner, their second official gathering, marked the beginning of many traditions that the Irregulars have maintained with almost perfect consistency for the past 80 years.

[1.4] The Irregulars punctuated the evening with the eccentricities of true aficionados. The room in Christ Cella restaurant was 17 steps up from the ground floor—the same number that led to Holmes and Watson's apartment at 221B Baker Street (Oakley 1976, 236). The menu represented their dedication to Sherlockian authenticity along with their playfulness. Every item, from the predinner "Cocktail Mycroft" to the dessert drink of "Scotch and Gasogene," referred to a character or piece of trivia from the stories. The main course was "Goose Henry Baker," in reference to Doyle's 1892 "Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" (note 2). Rather than being content with purely eponymous references to the story, one enterprising Irregular allegedly convinced a confused restaurateur to bake a blue sapphire inside the goose (Morley 1993, 276).

[1.5] The main event of this evening, however, was the delivery and discussion of pseudo-academic papers of literary and "historical" criticism on the lives of Sherlock Holmes and his partner, Dr. John Watson. These works engaged with a contemporary body of works in a field known as Sherlockiana that connected a burgeoning community of Holmes devotees across the Atlantic and throughout the United States. Morley and his compatriots debated such questions as whether Holmes had attended Oxford or Cambridge. They questioned the number of women Dr. Watson had married, and they probed into the narrator's inconsistent memory of whether Watson had been shot in the shoulder or the leg. These men, educated at the best British and American universities, had publicly declared that they considered these questions equal to the literary analysis of works by luminaries such as Chaucer or Shakespeare (Davis 1933, 307). In their professional lives, they were publishers, literary critics, radio commentators, industrialists, and doctors. But for many of this group, Sherlockiana would become a second, nearly professional passion that went beyond the casual activities of hobbyists. They were not just fans. Rather, they considered themselves to be expert scholars in a field they thought was equal to any traditional academic pursuit.

[1.6] As Henry Jenkins notes, "There is nothing timeless or unchanging about [fan] culture; fandom originates in response to specific historical conditions" ([1992] 2013, 3). The early Irregulars were no exception. The BSI was created by a distinctive group of journalists and men of letters in a growing New York literary scene. They represented what Joan Shelley Rubin calls a latter-day "genteel" class of Anglophile men (1992, xx). Nostalgic and bibliophilic, they harkened back to a world where lunches were long, alcohol flowed freely, and witticisms were paramount. In their day jobs, they were stewards of what Lynes calls the "upper-middlebrow"—distilling down the work of the intellectual elite for upper middle-class consumption ([1949] 1976, 152). By night, however, they built the foundation for a fan culture with a paradoxically quasi-academic structure characterized by humor and a dedication to pure literary pleasure. They pushed for affective literary studies built on a foundation of atavistic Victorianism. This sort of scholarship positioned itself in contrast to prevailing methodologies that grew within criticism during the 1930s and 1940s such as the New Criticism. Though the Irregulars were on more than one occasion mocked by critics who deemed their practices as ridiculous, embarrassing, and trivial, they fearlessly defended their belief in the worth of studying Holmes because he belonged to "that higher realism which is the only true romance" (note 3).

2. Justifying fandom: The Irregulars' argument for affective merit

[2.1] At the turn of the century, the academic study of literature was becoming an increasingly serious and professionalized pursuit. As Gerald Graff notes, "The idea that literature could be taught—rather than enjoyed or absorbed in the normal education of gentlefolk—was a novel one" (1987, 1). Given the relative newness of literary studies at the time of the Irregulars' operations, the theories and methodologies of how literature should be taught and studied were still being developed both inside and out of the academy. The process of organizing literature was not at all coherent during the Irregulars' time in college. Nostalgia still existed for the more emotional, nearly religious form of literary appreciation promoted by Victorians of the late 19th century (Graff 1987). The writings of Morley, Vincent Starrett, and other Irregulars subscribe to this tradition of literary appreciation. Their works insist that the emotional impact of literature is a valid indicator of literary value.

[2.2] A contrast between the methodology of the Irregulars and that of the New Critics provides insight into how these Sherlockians' seemingly odd practices and organization amounted to a defense of an older bibliophilic understanding of literary appreciation in the midst of a contemporary realignment of literary studies. The New Critics were a group of mostly Southern American scholars, professors, and writers, most notably John Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, and Robert Penn Warren. The principal tenets of this approach came in divorcing interpretations of art from the historical and social contexts of the artwork's production, as well as from the affective response of the reader. Instead of these less empirical forms of criticism, the New Critics promoted a more scientific approach, known as close reading, steeped in attention to how the formal elements of a work affect its overall themes (note 4). While these scholars cannot be treated as entirely monolithic, their general ideology developed in the mid-1930s and early 1940s and remained a fixture of English departments until the New Criticism's waning in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

[2.3] The Irregulars pushed back against the development of empirical literary scrutiny and a myopic literary canon by providing their own elaborate analysis on the Sherlockian canon in both romantic and imaginative historiography, as well as by adhering to a scholarly format. Sydney Castle Roberts, an Englishman, wrote one of the first major works of Sherlockian studies in 1931, "Doctor Watson" (note 5). Roberts postulated that Miss Violet Merville, from Doyle's "The Illustrious Client" (1924) could be Watson's second wife. His evidence for this claim was that Watson does not narrate the story immediately after "The Illustrious Client," in which the second Mrs. Watson is introduced. Roberts theorized that Watson, preoccupied with restarting his medical practice, "turned over the task of editing one of the memoirs" (Morley 1993, 31). This argument would not hold up under peer review, yet Roberts acted as a legitimate scholar taking up a historical problem in Watson's narration of true events. Given that Roberts was a Cambridge professor, he gave some scholarly legitimacy to his argument by including detailed citations in his pamphlet.

[2.4] Roberts's use of these strategies in a quasi-academic manner influenced like-minded thinkers in the United States creating an ecosystem of Sherlockian scholars. Roberts expanded his pamphlet into a full biography of Watson in 1931. Inspired by this opus, an American theatre critic from Chicago named Vincent Starrett published The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, a biography of the detective, in 1933. Starrett expressly thanked Roberts in his introduction and his extensive bibliography cited the growing community of Holmes scholar-fans. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes became a major work in the canon of Sherlockian studies because it provided justification for the intensive study of the "life" of a man whom Starrett only grudgingly admits never lived. To Starrett, the cultural resonance of Holmes was more important than the veracity of his corporeal existence. He instructed skeptics to ask the London post office how many letters had been written to "a man who never lived and a house that never existed" (Starrett 1933, 188). Because of the love and belief that Holmes engendered in his readers, Starrett argued that Holmes's popularity validated sustained research into the gaps in Watson's legendarily faulty memory.

[2.5] The reading methods found in Starrett's and Roberts's biographies map closely onto Jenkins's description of television fan practices. Jenkins defines typical reading practices as "close scrutiny, elaborate exegesis," and "repeated and prolonged re-reading." Fans, he argues, apply these practices to more "disposable texts of mass culture," like the literature of Sherlock Holmes ([1992] 2013, 17). While these practices were similar in spirit to the close reading of the New Critics, the early Irregulars' investigations, such as Robert's questioning of Watson's authorship of "The Adventure of the Three Gables" (1926), were grounded in the extratextual inferences that New Critical close reading shunned. Starrett's erudite background as a theatre critic in Chicago and Roberts's impressive résumé as a Cambridge don meant that these individuals could compellingly apply a pseudo-professionalism to their undertakings—one that seems out of sync with the subject matter. By including complex timelines, footnotes, bibliographies, and references to Doyle's own papers, these fans co-opt the apparatus of scholarship to make an implicit argument for the inclusion of Holmes in the literary canon.

[2.6] This argument of Sherlockian studies as a worthy field became a rallying call for fans devoted to the detective. In December 1933, Elmer Davis gave public credence to the writings of his fellow Sherlockians in the Saturday Review of Literature. In his review of Starrett's Private Life and Roberts's Dr. Watson, Davis argued for the scholarly merit of their discoveries in comparison to "the dreary trivialities of the average PhD thesis" (1933, 307). In contextualizing the histories of Holmes and Watson within the scope of the academy, Davis validated the endeavors of men like Roberts and Starrett. Yet he went even further. By describing the credentialing work of academics as dull and obscure, Davis elevated his own proclivities for Holmes trivia above the average work of professional scholars. Even at this nascent moment in Sherlockian scholarly fandom, Davis's piece emblematized the tension between scholars and fans to which fan studies critic Matt Hills (2002) refers: Hills suggests that while "wary" of one another, the practices of scholars and intensive, elitist fan societies are not as irreconcilable as either scholars or elite fans might think (18).

[2.7] Davis's protestations fit within this framework. He showed clear contempt for the academy by mocking the topics that he deemed less worthy of such intensive study than Sherlock Holmes. The corollary of this argument was that he urged further scholarly engagement with Holmes. After spending much of his review of Starrett's and Roberts's books begging for more insight into the omissions around the edges in the lives of Holmes and Watson, Davis drove home his point regarding the need for further study:

[2.8] These are all matters that deserve the serious attention of scholars and will undoubtedly receive it. The sort of research worker, who delights in studies of the iota subscript, or the use of prepositions in Chaucer, or an analysis of the duties of the high-school janitor, may feel himself superior to these investigations of the history of Holmes and Watson; actually competent historians should not. (1933, 307)

[2.9] Davis's list of increasingly ridiculous and exaggerated professional studies bemoaned a lack of respect for Holmesian scholarship from the academy. How a study of janitors might be more suitable for academic validation than research into the identity of Watson's second wife seemingly befuddled him.

[2.10] Though his examples were comical, Davis offered an earnest critique of the academic and literary critical elite. The antagonistic tone in this defense of fan culture anticipated the sense of marginalization that fans often experience. The Irregulars were on the receiving end of this condescension in the wake of their December 1934 dinner. Alexander Woollcott wrote an acerbic takedown of the Irregulars in the New Yorker. He called their dinner a "befuddled hope" and mocked the Irregulars' early forays into Sherlockian scholarship by placing sardonic quotes around the word "paper" when describing a thesis read by Davis. Perhaps most cruelly, Woollcott implied that William Gillette, the star of Broadway's theatrical Sherlock Holmes and the Irregulars' guest of honor, thought the Irregulars to be ridiculous and was embarrassed to attend (Woollcott 1943, 173). Jenkins begins Textual Poachers ([1992] 2013) with William Shatner's famous 1986 Saturday Night Live sketch where he suggests Star Trek fans should get a life. Just as Saturday Night Live used Captain Kirk himself to mock Trekkies, Woollcott used Holmes incarnate to mock the Irregulars.

[2.11] The community built by the Irregulars, however, provided a supportive and rapt audience for Sherlockian scholarship. Davis's argument preceded the establishment of any formal organization, yet in his review of Roberts and Starrett, Davis concluded with the prediction of a community of scholar-fans, whom he asserted need not be traditional historians to study Holmes and Watson. Rather, he quoted Starrett saying that those who will come to write about these men "still live…in a romantic chamber of the heart: in a nostalgic country of the mind: where it is always 1895" (1933, 307). Davis's prediction proved prescient as a community of scholars took shape and produced a glut of Sherlockian studies over the following decade. The pinnacle of these was the collection Profile by Gaslight (1944), edited by Edgar Wadsworth Smith. It is a pure document of textual poaching as the Irregulars wrestle with Doyle for control of their hero's history. As Smith wrote in the introduction, "The characters in this book are real persons. Any resemblance to fictional characters, living or dead, is purely accidental" (1944, vii). By playfully presenting themselves as academics studying a true history, the Irregulars attempted to bring a sense of romance back into an academy that had grown increasingly scientific. The demand for Profile by Gaslight was far beyond the 60 or so Baker Street Irregulars centered in New York. It sold nearly 7,000 copies and was renewed for another publication run in 1945 (Lellenberg 1995, 52).

[2.12] Vincent Starrett combated the newer empirical theories of literary analysis directly in his 1944 review of Profile by Gaslight. Starrett called this work an example of "higher criticism," invoking the terminology of biblical studies in reverence for what the Irregulars called in their constitution "The Sacred Writings" (Davis 1934, 491). Starrett positioned himself in a literary generalist mold that ascribed literature with the power to evoke "emotions that, a half century earlier, would have been expressed in evangelical Christianity" (Graff 1987, 85). To this point, he described the proper methodology of a literary critic in the eyes of the Irregulars as opposed to modern empiricism, quoting 19th-century classicist A. E. Housman:

[2.13] A textual critic engaged upon his business…is not at all like Newton investigating the motions of the planet; he is much more like a dog hunting for fleas. If a dog hunted for fleas on mathematical principles…basing his researches on statistics of area and population, he would never catch a flea except by accident. They require to be treated as individuals; and every problem, which presents itself to the textual critic, must be regarded as possibly unique. (Starrett 1944)

[2.14] Starrett's review, ironically enough, shares a page with a review of Robert Penn Warren's Selected Poems, 1923–1943 (1944). Warren and Cleanth Brooks's Understanding Poetry (1938) was a key work in systematizing and disseminating the theory and practice of the New Criticism. Despite this ironic proximity, Starrett uses Housman's unpleasant metaphor to imply that the scientific method holds no place within the "scholarly method of Baker Street Irregularity" (Starrett 1944). Instead, these nuggets of insight must be sought intuitively rather than methodically. While the New Critics focused on a work in a contextual vacuum, the Irregulars studied Holmes's stories as though the characters were real historical figures, whose personalities and biographies could help illuminate the texts in which they appeared. Starrett (1944) viewed their extratextual excursions and inferences as valid literary practices; "Watson's postulatory inaccuracy" was comparable to "disputed passages in Shakespeare and Chaucer."

[2.15] This disagreement went beyond the validity of different reading practices to questions of taste and worthiness for literary study. At the time of the BSI's creation in the mid-1930s, there was a deep tension within the American critical community, the result of the growing democratization of literature. John Guillory comments on the New Critical revision of the canon—which celebrated the modern and deprecated the romantic—by arguing that it must be viewed in conflict with "mass culture" (1993, xii). Men such as Morley, Davis, and Starrett were positioned as enablers of a middlebrow culture in America. They worked as cultural decipherers, making high culture palatable to the average consumer. After beginning his career as a writer and publisher, Morley's column in the Saturday Review, "The Bowling Green," was so widely read that the Book of the Month Club elected him as a judge. The club's selection committee chose a book every month that was mailed to their subscribers. By 1929, the club had 110,588 subscribers (Rubin 1992, 96). Advertisements for the club said of Morley: "Perhaps he has done more than any other single man to revive the memory of good old books and welcome new ones" (Rubin 1992, 136). Through the reach of the Book of the Month Club, the popularity of his column, and his early successes as a novelist, Morley was a household name by 1930.

[2.16] He personified Lynes's critique of the upper middlebrow: journalists watering down highbrow culture, "who straddle the fence between highbrow and middlebrow and enjoy their equivocal position" ([1949] 1976, 153). Rubin notes that author and poet Malcolm Cowley in particular scorned Morley for his "whimsy" (1992, 135). He was out of step with the intellectual elite of his moment with his belief that great literature should be enjoyed by all. His first novel, Parnassus on Wheels (1917), is the tale of a farmer named Helen McGill. She is the sister of a famed Thoreau-esque intellectual who has moved to the wilderness to write about its glory while Helen takes on true experience: the hard work of tending to the farm. Itching for an adventure, McGill buys a portable bookstore and travels the countryside helping farmers appreciate great literature. There is less condescension in the novel than a true belief that everyone should be exposed to a little Shakespeare in his or her life. The first line of the novel sums up Morley's view of academic elitism as Helen muses, "I wonder if there isn't a lot of bunkum in Higher Education." This attitude came in the midst of a changing intellectual landscape in the United States in which most scholars and critics looked down on Helen McGill's customers as the "hoi polloi" and did not consider Sherlock Holmes to be worthy of the focus men like Morley and the Irregulars were giving him (Lynes [1949] 1976, 157). Critic Clement Greenberg was referring to men like Morley, who treaded the balance between highbrow and middlebrow culture, when he wrote, "It is hard to tell who is serious anymore" (qtd. in Lynes [1949] 1976, 149).

[2.17] Sherlock Holmes in many ways represented the kitschy, commodified mass culture that the New Critics opposed (Guillory 1993, 85). Criticism of detective fiction's place in the canon came explicitly from Marxist critics like Edmund Wilson in the New Yorker. Wilson directly lambasted Irregular Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe detective stories (1934–75), calling his work derivative of Doyle, whose work he considered "literature on a humble but not ignoble level" (Lellenberg 1995, 347). Stout responded with typical Irregular humor and academic form to this critique. He delivered a paper at the 1944 BSI dinner, speculating that Holmes's nemesis, Moriarty, had a child named Edmund Wilson (Lellenberg 1995, 347). Morley responded to the criticism of "high minded observers," arguing that "no printed body of modern social history (including Keyserlings, Spenglers, Paretos, and other brows like Dover Cliff) either by purpose or accident contains a richer pandect of the efficient impulses of its age" (1993, 276). Morley stood tall against criticism to proclaim the worthiness of studying Sherlock Holmes because of the feelings it inspired in those who studied it as a "social history."

[2.18] Central to the Irregulars' scholarship was their belief that affective appreciation of literature warrants deep study—a belief directly opposed to the New Critical credo that the reader's feeling about a work is not relevant as a marker of literary importance. Starrett argued, as he had for many years, that he studied the Holmes canon because he loved it. He wrote, "We are all a little mad, perhaps but…behind all this curious activity lies the stupendous legend of Sherlock Holmes, an illusion unique in profane letters," for which, he continued, "I am profoundly grateful for half a century of as good pleasure as the world of print affords" (Starrett 1944). The practice and purpose of analysis itself lay in the pursuit of literary pleasure. Though New Critical scholars W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley would soon disparagingly term emotional impact in literary interpretation the affective fallacy, Starrett and the Irregulars planted their flag as hopeless romantics. Starrett understood that he might be considered "mad" or that others might not appreciate the pleasures that he and his fellow Irregulars experienced, but he tried to convince his readers in any case.

3. Organizing fandom: The Irregulars become regular

[3.1] Starrett claimed that he saw Holmes in ways that those uninitiated as Irregulars could not understand, an attitude that led to a distinct hierarchy in the Sherlockian world, not unlike that of the academy. When Starrett began his review by arguing that the current Irregular publications were part of a "higher criticism" in Sherlockian studies, he placed the Irregulars above the average consumer of detective fiction. He noted the existence of "close to 100 volumes concerned…with Baker Street's most famous inhabitant," but he considered many of these to be "travesties" (Starrett 1944). Starrett's comments surrounding other Sherlockian research exemplified his belief that not all Sherlockian fandom was created equal. The Irregulars earnestly prized quality in literary criticism of Holmes, leading to the development of much of the infrastructure of Sherlockian studies that would develop over the next decade.

[3.2] Indeed, while the Irregulars mocked the highbrow literary critics who deemed the Holmes oeuvre to be below their standards, they were not overly accepting of those perceived to be below the standards of their Sherlockian academic field. To be a member of the BSI, they thought, meant to hold a level of arcane knowledge about the Holmes canon that surpassed the knowledge a casual Holmes buff might possess—a gatekeeping mentality that sprouted along with the BSI's inception in the early 1930s. In May 1934, Frank Morley created a crossword puzzle with questions from the various Holmes stories. Christopher Morley published his brother's work under the pseudonym Tobias Gregson—a detective from the Holmes stories—in the Saturday Review of Literature. Only someone who filled out the crossword puzzle with 100 percent accuracy and then sent it to Morley could be considered for membership in the BSI. Morley called this the original Sherlockian "shibboleth"—again giving a pseudo-religious significance to the Irregulars' pursuits. Morley bragged that fame alone did not earn one membership, as H. G. Wells could not even pass the exam (Morley 1993, 277). Yet Morley didn't match his enthusiasm and charisma for creating the society with the organizational skills required to sustain the early Irregular efforts. Indeed, the group might have dissolved were it not for General Motors–trained industrialist Smith, who catalyzed the Irregulars and Sherlockiana from an inchoate idea into a fully fledged academic organization. After the success of Profile by Gaslight in 1944, Smith worked with Morley to create an official voice for the Irregulars to disseminate the increasingly scholarly pursuits of the group: the Baker Street Journal (BSJ), a quarterly publication.

[3.3] As editor, Smith positioned the BSJ as a mouthpiece for the organization with high editorial standards. He wrote, "Every effort will be made to maintain a level of scholarship for the quarterly which will hold its circulation to modest figures by assuring the complete indifference of hoi polloi" (1945, 205). This foundational credo of the journal implied a level of highbrow exclusivity among the Irregulars akin to that of the literary critical elite. The Irregulars had embraced their esotericism. They intended the journal to operate as a centralized location for Sherlockian scholarship rather than a vehicle for making money. In fact, industrialist Smith positioned financial gain against pure scholarship.

[3.4] This rigor was not born entirely as a counterpoint to highbrows such as the New Critics. The Irregulars—particularly Morley—harkened back to Victorian nostalgia for gentleman's societies, exclusive for the financial and literary elite. In 1923, noted critic and scholar Carl Van Doran wrote that Morley "has the air of a man reading old books and drinking old wine with old friends before a fire of old wood" (qtd. in Radway 1997, 181). At the time of Van Doran's writing, Morley was only 33 years old—hardly timeworn enough to merit the word "old" four times in one sentence. Yet he radiated Victorianism in his tastes, fashions, and hobbies. Rubin writes that Morley was "an anachronism" and "a symbol of a more gracious earlier era," though she adds that these tendencies at times veered into pretentiousness and "foppishness" (1992, 135). He was famous for his daily lunches—one of his biographies is called Three Hours for Lunch—and he had a tendency to declare any gathering of multiple people a club, though few lasted for a second meeting (Oakley 1976). For Morley, the creation of a club served to bring people together and create a sense of closeness through firmly defined borders. This also contributed to the Irregulars' choice of quasi-academic rigor as their particular means of exclusivity.

[3.5] The BSJ helped unify the growing community of Irregular scionists around the country who aspired to be part of this elite community of Sherlockians. Smith announced to the Irregulars that space in the publication would be reserved for local scion societies to report on their activities. Upstart Holmesians from coast to coast who aspired to Irregularity could contribute to the growing archive of "the writings upon the writings," as the Irregulars' commentary came to be known (Smith in Shreffler 1989, 33). Given the journal's precarious business model, Smith warned Irregulars that its success or failure would rest on their willingness to contribute scholarship to the publication (Lellenberg 1995, 205). The quantity of submissions Smith received dispelled these worries. The contents of the BSJ's initial editions attempted to fulfill Smith's high ambitions for the publication. The first 3 years of the BSJ yielded nearly 1,700 pages of Sherlockian criticism and analysis. Upon seeing the initial subscribers' list in 1946, Christopher Morley playfully appropriated Winston Churchill, quipping, "Never has so much been written by so many for so few" (qtd. in Smith in Shreffler 1989, 33). The journal's original series were printed on ornate yellow pages with Victorian lettering (Shreffler 1989, 3). A typical edition hovered around 100 pages of analytical essays, poems, reports from scion societies, and other Sherlockian miscellany. The academic aspirations of the journal's editor come through in these essays. Smith and Starrett intentionally focused on setting a "respectful" and "reverent" tone to their writings so as to avoid the "flippancy" that could come from a casual readership (letter, Edgar Smith to Vincent Starrett, October 25, 1945, in Lellenberg 1991, 210). For this quality, it was determined that the cost for a year's subscription would be $5. This was a stretch for some less affluent Irregulars and scionists. Clifton Andrew, the founder of the Scandalous Bohemians of Akron, crowd-sourced among local Sherlockians, asking for donations of a dollar to buy a subscription for the Akron public library (Hugh Harrington, "Profile of a Scionist," in Lellenberg 1995, 250).

[3.6] Localized nodes of the Irregular network throughout the country, such as Clifton Andrew's group in Ohio, provided a small but avid audience for Sherlockian scholarship. The creation of these local societies allowed the Irregulars to spread outward, and it also inwardly bolstered their own elite status as fans. An elaborate network burgeoned across the nation, connecting the Scandalous Bohemians of Akron with the Hounds of the Baskerville of Chicago. At their core, fans are networkers (Duffett 2013, 21), and the Irregulars were no exception as they sought to connect with other like-minded Sherlockians to share their various theories, research, and exegesis. Local scions were akin to small university departments—local hotbeds of Sherlockian learning, discussion, and research that all subscribed to an overarching network that mediated the field. One Boston society even monetized Sherlockiana through essay competitions on scholarly topics concerning Holmes (note 6). While the Irregulars may have started as a friendly outgrowth of a casual lunch club, they helped create a broad network of societies with arduous standards for what it meant to be a qualified Sherlockian.

[3.7] This standard was upheld from coast to coast, reaffirming the authority and expertise of the Irregulars in Sherlockian circles. The Five Orange Pips of Westchester were the first such society, founded in 1935. The Pips prided themselves on their exclusivity and their high standards of Sherlockian knowledge. Founding member Richard W. Clarke remembered that this was due to the "rigid requirements, which face each applicant" ("The Five Orange Pips of Westchester County," in Lellenberg 1990, 134). Indeed, Clarke wrote that "individuals having only a temporary flair for this labor of love are sometimes awed and deterred from further pursuit of our favorite muse" (134). What Clarke described in his requirements for entry were not the characteristics of simple hobbyists or aficionados. Rather, to join the Five Orange Pips, one had to submit to "formidable and lengthy questionnaires," write "theses which must be acceptable to all members," and demonstrate "a fervent and continued literary interest in the stories of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson" (134). Those who could not meet these requirements—despite their love for the subject and genial relationships with members—could not join the club.

[3.8] Under the guidance of Smith over the course of the early and mid-1940s, the Irregulars became increasingly regular. By the late 1940s, the BSI had developed into a quasi-academic society with an official publication, local scion societies, and annual dinners that functioned as conferences bringing together a community of scholars from across the country to share their latest research. Yet the form of their society was ultimately built on the subversive arguments of Starrett and Davis as well as the traditions of earlier Sherlockian scholars by pushing back against what Jenkins calls "the institutional power that values one type of meaning over all others" ([1992] 2013, 33). In pursuit of this struggle with their contemporaries, they created structures that would last far beyond the original founders of the organization—structures that over time must cope with a vastly different Sherlockian landscape than that of 1934.

4. Modernizing fandom: The "romantic chamber of the heart" lives on

[4.1] Holmes is omnipresent in modern culture. He has been portrayed more times in film and television than any other human literary character (note 7). There have been 75 different film and television adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, beating Shakespeare's Hamlet by 48. The most recent flurry includes BBC's Sherlock (2010–), CBS's Elementary (2012–), and the Sherlock Holmes films (2009, 2010) starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. Even when Holmes is not the focus of the story, the trope of the brilliant detective with a lack of social skills and a more genial partner appears in numerous other incarnations, including HBO's True Detective (2013–) and USA's TV shows Monk (2002–9) and Psych (2006–14). Holmes has been portrayed in mass market formats like film and radio nearly continuously since the early 1930s, and in today's online age, Sherlockian fandom has seen explosive growth.

[4.2] These modern versions of Holmes have birthed a new generation of Sherlockians online with the fervor to match even the most devout Baker Street Irregular. Web sites like Tumblr provide instant community for fans regardless of their location, socioeconomic status, or gender (Stein and Busse 2012). Blogs give any fans with a theory a venue to espouse their thoughts without the fear of social alienation of high-minded critics. One such blog, The Baker Street Babes (, releases a podcast on all things Holmes, including texts from the Holmes canon as well as BBC's Sherlock. These younger Sherlockians are embracing new technologies to broaden the message and the appeal of the Holmes canon. Yet these newcomers have also come to be incorporated within the traditional structures of the Baker Street Irregulars.

[4.3] Along with these rapid changes in the media of fandom, the Irregulars have to some extent modernized. Irregular Andrew Solberg, chair of BSI Trust, which is dedicated to archiving the group's history in Harvard's Houghton Library, states that young Sherlockians, brought in by the television programs, are bringing "fresh viewpoints on the canon." He insists that the Irregulars appreciate all of these modern approaches to Sherlockian fandom, as "it all keeps the memory of the master green" (Solberg 2015). The Irregulars remain dedicated to high-quality scholarship. Their publishing enterprise, BSI Books, releases three to four volumes per year. Yet newer members are encouraged to contribute to the effort through their own media—for example, the leader of the Baker Street Babes, Kristina Manente, received an investiture into the group in January 2015 for her work spreading Sherlockian fandom by podcast. As a result of this more open-minded definition of what comprises a contribution to the field of Sherlockiana, the group is trending toward a slightly younger demographic. Whereas the average Irregular in the early days was invested while he was in his 50s, newer Irregulars are joining in their 20s and 30s (Solberg 2015).

[4.4] The purpose that undergirds the Irregulars, however, remains the same. The Irregulars engage in the scholarly pursuit of intellectual stimulation as a means of aesthetic escape, and they remain steadfast that this is justification enough for their practices and only works to bolster the quality of their scholarship. Solberg (2015) describes the character of the group:

[4.5] The Edgar Smiths of the world, they weren't young. They were grown men. We're all grown people, and we all contend that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were real people, so we're starting with out tongues planted firmly in our cheeks. And I think that may be one of the things that make it enjoyable for us, but we're all grown people. And the BSI are, for the most part, accomplished grown people. Doctors and lawyers and teachers and actors and writers, but they're all people who have accomplished stuff in their private lives and also in the Sherlockian world. And it's always been interesting to me that we grown ups are willing to put so much time into the kind of scholarly analysis that we do…It may be that the scholarly analysis is a good…what's the word…you know alternative to what they do in real life on a daily basis. I don't know. It may be that. It's still scholarly; it still meets a need for intellectual curiosity.

[4.6] Though the world has changed since the original Irregulars founded the group, their core principles remain. Solberg (2015) admits that the group is escapist, but he insists that it is also scholarly. To the Irregulars, these are not contradictory, as scholarship comes from the "romantic chamber of the heart" (Davis 1933, 307).

[4.7] By 1949, Christopher Morley recognized that the Irregulars had changed from "a group of a dozen devotees." His tone playfully mournful, he described the nature of the group: "The scholarly group of Baker Street find themselves swaddled, or saddled, with a publishing business, an annual meeting, and a province of pulp. They have about 30 scionist branches whose letters have to be answered. But not by me" (Morley 1993, 240). The Irregulars had changed. Morley's charisma and Smith's industriousness combined to build a society for Victorian romanticism and nostalgia, couched in formal scholarly packaging. The writings of these Irregulars show that their efforts were part of an often confrontational dialogue with the literary highbrow establishment of their age. The Irregulars pushed back on the rigidity of contemporaneous methodologies, justifying the worth of both their methods as fan-scholars and the media that they adored. Furthermore, this bridging of the gap between fan and scholar created the by product of consciously academic structures that Morley notes in his 1949 description of the group. These outlets provided the Irregulars a venue to both engage with one another in playful scholarly banter and to create internal exclusive hierarchies among themselves. Assessing how these patterns evolve will only provide further room for study as the group modernizes in the online age.

5. Acknowledgment

[5.1] Thanks to my advisor, Stephen Biel, Committee on Degrees in History and Literature, Harvard University.

6. Notes

1. Michael Saler (2012), in one of the Irregulars' few treatments by modern scholarship, argues that many Holmes fans engage in "ironic belief" or "suspended disbelief" (113). This state is what Saler calls a "double minded awareness" that allowed them to engage in their Sherlockian world without "relinquishing their practical reason" (110). Saler's chapter "Clap If You Believe in Sherlock Holmes" is a superb scholarly take on the Irregulars focused on literary fantasy theory using Sherlockian fandom as a case study.

2. "1934 Dinner Menu," December 23, 1934, Baker Street Irregulars' Papers, Container 340, Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

3. Felix Morley, "Significance of the Second Stain," Baker Street Irregulars' Papers, Container 306.

4. For an in-depth take on the New Critics and their infusion into American universities, see Graff (1987).

5. Roberts's work here built from an even earlier work, Ronald Knox's "Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes," which was presented at Oxford's Gryphon Club in 1911. Knox took up the study of Sherlock Holmes in the style of biblical analysis, providing some of the first deep pseudo-scholarly investigations of many of the questions the Irregulars would come to focus on.

6. The Speckled Band of Boston, founded in 1940, created a tradition of prize competitions for essays that shed light on disputed matters of Sherlockian lore. One such contest in 1945 offered a $100 war bond to the best "paper elucidating the various difficulties of a scandal in bohemia." Smith concluded his message announcing the competition to the Irregulars with the statement, "It would, of course, be inexcusable if a member of one of the scion organizations were to win this contest." The Irregulars were the preeminent Sherlockian scholars; they would therefore be expected to "uphold the dignity" of their station in this contest. Despite this hierarchy, the contest served as a democratizing force in the academic community. In these small, remote societies, fans could work on their theories and discuss their opinions among friends. They could then gain affirmation, notoriety, and financial support of their expertise of their work through these contests. See Lellenberg, Irregular Memories (1990, 232).

7. "Human" is a key distinction here. Bram Stoker's Dracula beats Holmes, with 272 representations (Guinness World Record News 2012).

7. Works cited

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Davis, Elmer. 1933. "The Real Sherlock Holmes." Saturday Review of Literature, December 2.

Davis, Elmer. 1934. "Constitution of the Baker Street Irregulars." Saturday Review of Literature. February 17, 491.

Duffett, Mark. 2013. Understanding Fandom: An Introduction to the Study of Media Fan Culture. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Graff, Gerald. 1987. Professing Literature: An Institutional History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Guillory, John. 1993. Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Guinness World Record News. 2012. "Sherlock Holmes Awarded Title for Most Portrayed Literary Human Character in Film and Television." Guinness World Records May 14.

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Knox, Ronald. 1911. "Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes." Diogenes Club,

Lellenberg, Jon. n.d. "2010's Great Debate on the Origins of Irregular Scholarship." BSI Archival History,

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Roberts, Sydney Castle. 1931. Doctor Watson: Prolegomena to the Study of a Biographical Problem. London: Faber & Faber.

Rubin, Joan Shelley. 1992. The Making of Middlebrow Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Saler, Michael T. 2012. As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality. New York: Oxford University Press.

Shreffler, Philip A., ed. 1989. Sherlock Holmes by Gas-Lamp: Highlights from the First Four Decades of the "Baker Street Journal." New York: Fordham University Press.

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Smith, Edgar W. 1945. "Memo to the Baker Street Irregulars," October 11. In Lellenberg 1991, 205.

Solberg, Andy. 2015. Phone interview with author, February 23.

Starrett, Vincent. 1933. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. New York: Macmillan.

Starrett, Vincent. 1944. "Books Alive." Chicago Tribune, April 9.

Stein, Louisa Ellen, and Kristina Busse, eds. 2012. "Sherlock" and Transmedia Fandom: Essays on the BBC Series. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Woollcott, Alexander. 1943. Long, Long Ago. New York: Viking Press.

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