Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Watsonian - review number two - 'A Long Afternoon: John Watson's Youth', by Robert S. Katz

Most of the time, when movies are made or books are written about historical facts, or people or events, a certain amount of license is taken to fill in details that may not be known about these facts, people or events.
Usually it is explained away as being done to add dramatic effect. And for the most part, we have come to expect that as normal. After all, if we only wanted the facts, and not to be entertained, we would watch more documentaries or sticking to non-fiction.
Some circles call it 'artistic license'.

This insertion of dramatic license to help fill out 'facts' quite often comes into play whenever Sherlockians Play the Game.

For, after all, if we are Playing the Game, when we explore the world of Holmes and Watson, we are stating, at least for a short period of time, that, in fact, Holmes and Watson are real. And that just like with any other 'historical' individuals, when facts are not known, we take a little dramatic license to fill them in.
This is most often done when writers create pastiches or novels (or screenplay's)  about Holmes and Watson dramatizing events or times that Watson eluded to, but never wrote about.

The other time this is done is when a writer is trying to piece together tidbits of facts, like trying to piece together a puzzle, to create a clearer picture of an event or person. Example; We know a person visited town 'A', and then traveled to town 'L', and that took three days, and they stopped at least two nights and they traveled by train. Therefore, knowing the train traveled along this line, the others towns they could have stopped at, based on what we know, could be towns 'H' and 'K'. If the writer can come up with enough details, and facts and clues that make this a convincing possibility, then this new narrative sometimes becomes attached to the facts as common lore. As an example; We do not in fact know that John Watson's middle name is Hamish. But enough of a convincing argument has been suggested that in some circles, while Playing the Game, this has become attached to John Watson's biography. We do not know for sure when Holmes was born, but it has become commonly accept by many as 1854, because someone made a good case, derived from clues and hints, that this date was a very good possibility. And this to as become accepted by many as a real possibility.

The more clues the writer has and the less 'filling in the blanks' he has to do, the more credible his claim becomes. The more substantiated the facts and possibilities collected to add to the actual 'historical' facts, the more the new 'dramatization' is accepted, or at least considered with some relevance.

One of the only other things that can hinder the writer and his claims, even when just 'playing the game', is when the path he or she chooses to take Holmes or Watson down goes entirely somewhere the reader or reviewer does not want to see them go at all. Then the conclusions have very little chance of getting accepted.

And that brings us to the second article in the new The Watsonian I am going to 'review', 'A Long Afternoon; John H. Watson's Youth', by Robert S. Katz.

Mr. Katz wonderfully starts his piece off by reminding us how little we really do know about Holmes, and more importantly, for this publication, how even less we know about John H. Watson. And that how much we have come to 'know', is actually speculation. ( I know I have fallen into that pit before.)

Mr. Katz finely examines what few clues there are about Watson, and puts together a credible argument for his case about where Watson spent much of his youth.
Unfortunately Mr. Katz has very little to work with, so much of his case is built on speculation.
But he does an excellent job explaining his stance, taking us from the gold fields of Australia, to the coal mining counties in Pennsylvania.  And along the way he explains what could be the reasons for Watson's share affinity for Henry Ward Beecher and  Gen. Charles Gordon. I had once done a paper comparing the slavery issue as seen by Beecher and Gordon, so I found this part very resonant.
From the coal fields Mr. Katz eventually follows Watson's path The Twentieth Maine Regiment and it's involvement in the Battle of Gettysburg.

Although Mr. Katz builds a very strong, and appealing case, there are unfortunately, through no fault of his own,  not enough 'facts' to work with, and most of his case, again unfortunately, is built on wonderful speculation. Even if we want it so, it doesn't mean it is. (Maybe a few mine companies that used English engineers or were owned by British companies.)

I liked the path he chose to explore for Watson's youth, and it makes for a compelling back story, and you can tell Mr. Katz did his homework, and, like the rest of us, he loves his subject.

It is a very well written piece, and done so in the best spirit of 'Playing the Game', so therefore I could not let myself give it any less than;

out of a possible five.

These first two articles have set a high bar for the rest of us.


  1. Doyle had an interest in the American Civil War. The eponymous protagonist of "The Narrative of John Smith" had some experiences in the Civil War. In the short story "F. Habakuk Jephson's Statement" marrator Jephson is a Harvard grad doctor who joined the Union army, fought at Gettysburg and: "Finally, I was severely wounded at Antietam, and would probably have perished on the field had it not been for the kindness of a gentleman named Murray, who had me carried to his house and provided me with every comfort." John Smith and F. Habakuk Jephson have points of similarity with Watson. It seems a likely possibility that Doyle would have given Watson a Civil War background if he had thought of it. Robert Katz did a very good job in play the game with an eye to the "Doyle probable". Yes, a five pipe essay.

    1. I will have to read further on this John Smith and Murray.
      Thanks for stopping by.