The View from Sherlock Peoria
Was Conan Doyle A Racist?
Hold on. Don’t give me your knee-jerk, gut reaction. Yeah, he was a scholar and a gentleman. And, yes, he should be given a special sort of sainthood for creating Sherlock Holmes. But Doyle also passed gas and was sometimes less than fresh like all other mortal men. So let’s consider the question again.
Was Conan Doyle a racist?
Tell you what . . . we won’t even consider his characterization of Steve Dixie in “Three Gables” or Splayfoot Dick, Ling Tchu, and the rest from Angels of Darkness. Those cringe-worthy stereotypes were Doyle’s lame attempts at humor, and he’s not exactly known as a humorist. And since Angels alsocontained three awful white stereotypes in that bad attempt at comedy, we can be generous and give him a pass on those.
The character we should really focus on is Tonga, from The Sign of the Four.
Tonga is depicted as more monster than man. “This savage, distorted creature.” “The unhallowed dwarf with his hideous face.” His eyes glow. His yellow teeth gnash. Watson says he has a clear view of the man, and yet his every word depicts Tonga as something else entirely.
The new gazetteer on the shelf at 221B Baker Street is not much nicer about Tonga’s people: “They are naturally hideous, having large, misshapen heads, small fierce eyes, and distorted features. There feet and hands, however, are remarkably small. . . . They have always been a terror to shipwrecked crews, braining the survivors with their stone-headed clubs, or shooting them with their poisoned arrows. These massacres are invariably concluded by a cannibal feast.” And this was from a reference book in Holmes’s world.
In the modern day, it’s hard to imagine any legitimate source calling a particular branch of humanity “hideous” and “misshapen.” Depicting an entire people as monsters is something saved for the small-minded and those lost in the heat of war. In today’s world, it seems like somebody out there is always going to try and see things from a stranger’s point of view before turning them into a mythical monster. But in Holmes’s world? Even Tonga’s best friend seems to just be using him, and doesn’t even seem very concerned when the guy dies.
And Conan Doyle wrote all of that. Doyle was a man of his times, writing in a different era, true. And fans tend to forgive him and take it as harmless, like an elderly grandfather who makes a stray racial remark during a basketball game. But what does that do to the continued viability of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories as a modern entertainment? Or the character of Sherlock Holmes himself?
Nothing, if Sherlock Holmes can live on outside of the Doyle stories themselves, displaying his most important features for modern sensibilities, even if he remains forever Victorian. James Bond pulled that trick off – at this point, most James Bond fans have probably never even read Ian Fleming’s original works. To hardcore Fleming fans, that might seem a shame, but I’m sure they would find it a much greater tragedy if James Bond slipped from the public consciousness along with the 1960s. Those who find their way back to the Fleming tales do so knowing they were not written for modern readers. But it has taken modern re-envisionings to keep Bond alive. Hopefully, it will be the same with Holmes.
We live in new times, and often find ourselves having to ask new questions. Was Conan Doyle, a fairly liberal fellow in so many ways, a racist? It’s a bit like discussing Sherlock Holmes and cocaine – those were such different times. One has to consider that the world was a very different place back then. Had Conan Doyle or Sherlock Holmes lived in better times, either question would not even come up. They were both good, kind, and intelligent men. But the questions are going to come up, and we must be prepared to discuss them.
Your humble correspondent,
Past 2009 Columns