Wednesday, September 26, 2012

18. Anti-Semitism

Human nature is a strange mixture
“The Adventure of the Stock-Broker's Clerk”

As the previous post has shown, Conan Doyle was not above placing his characters in the unenviable position of commenting on the very same prejudices and attitudes that their readership possessed and were predominant in England at the time. As with many popular genre writers, such as H. Rider Haggard, the degree to which the author or a character embodies these prejudices comes under considerable scrutiny to the modern reader and critic. One such criticism made by historian Jonathan Schneer in his 1999 book London 1900—The Imperial Metropolis, accuses Conan Doyle of infusing the canon with “mild anti-Semitism”  and offers up evidence in statements made by characters in A Study in Scarlet, “Shoscombe Old Place” and “The Cardboard Box,” among others. Indeed, careful readers also point to the “The Adventure of the Stock-Broker’s Clerk” as potentially possessing the same hints at anti-Semitic attitudes that would, in just forty year’s time, take virulent root on the Continent. Writing against Schneer and others’ contentions in the Baker Street Journal, Andrew Solberg refers directly to “The Stock-Broker’s Clerk” when he writes:

The…reference to Jews was made by [Holmes’s client} Hall Pycroft […]:

Well, I was sitting doing a smoke that very evening after I had been promised the appointment, when up came my landlady with a card which had ‘Arthur Pinner, Financial Agent,’ printed upon it. I had never heard the name before, and could not imagine what he wanted with me, but of course I asked her to show him up. In he walked—a middle-sized, dark-haired, dark-eyed, black-bearded man, with a touch of the sheeny about his nose. He had a brisk kind of way with him and spoke sharply, like a man who knew the value of time.

“Sheeny” was an ethnic slur used against Jews at the time. In this case, this statement was not made by either Holmes or Watson, but by Pycroft. However, shouldn’t we be troubled that when Pycroft made the slur against Jews, neither Watson nor Holmes rebuked him? Let us consider the story, itself…[The Stock-Broker’s Clerk”]  is a parable about bad judgment, and Pycroft is the fool throughout this parable. Watson continuously quoted him as saying so himself. Holmes never corrected Pycroft on anything in this story, including Pycroft’s assertions about what a fool he was. Further, Watson made Pycroft and his slur look ridiculous when, at the end of the adventure, he disclosed that the man whom Pycroft thought was Jewish was, in fact, named “Beddington” (unlike “Pinner,” not a Jewish name). There is no glorification of anti-Semitism or the anti-Semite here.

Although Solberg makes an excellent case for clearing Holmes and Watson of charges of anti-Semitism in “The Stock-Broker’s Clerk,” the fact is that the client’s unseemly comments, while not glorified or given any credence, and, possibly, in fact, ridiculed when spoken by a brash and foolish client, function within the story  so as to be recognized as prejudice. Thus, much like Dickens’s positive portrayal of Judaism amid anti-Jewish sentiment in Our Mutual Friend, it would seem to be the case that Conan Doyle assumes prejudice on the part of the reader via familiarity with the slur, but unlike Dickens (or, like racism in “The Five Orange Pips” or “The Yellow Face), does not offer, through his characters, any form of corrective.  

Conan Doyle’s own political commitments and historical discourses are often grafted onto his characters, although closer inspection into the stories reveals that while Holmes and Watson, Professor Challenger and other Doyle creations were sometimes, as with “The Yellow Face,” the mouthpiece for Conan Doyle’s own polemics, his carefully crafted sense of character did not allow that they were always simply puppets on a string. Despite debates among historians as to the degree to which a sociocultural trend such as anti-Semitism had worked its way into the literature of the time, we can hardly be any surer of what the author or character believed then what is provided on the page. Within the Holmes canon and throughout Conan Doyle’s short fiction, there may appear characters who respectively espouse, assert, affirm, critique, retort, or contradict many different popular sentiments—a detail that made Conan Doyle’s fictions instantly relatable, reflective of “real life,” and immensely popular.

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