Friday, March 18, 2011

Further Follies of Frenetic Philistinism

One of the ways I’m spending my “time off” over spring break is reading scripts, looking for a show to do this summer. It is probably not giving too much away to say that I am probably looking for a play that qualifies as “summer fare” without being a kids’ show, a musical, or (necessarily) a comedy. In other words, I’m reading mostly horror stories and mysteries.

When I think of those two genres of literature, the two names that immediately come to mind are Edgar Allen Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle. Poe’s short stories—“The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” etc.—are unequalled in the horror category over a century and a half after they were written. And Doyle’s greatest creation, Sherlock Holmes, remains the fictional detective against whom all others are measured; not many literary characters inspire pilgrimages to their utterly fictitious lodgings. I confess I’ve dropped by the 200 block of Baker Street in London more than once, myself.

What fewer people remember is that Poe was, arguably, the first great detective writer (although the term “detective” hadn’t yet been invented): his character C. Auguste Dupin appeared in several short stories—“The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” “The Purloined Letter”—and, by employing the process of “ratiocination,” became Holmes’s most significant literary predecessor. Nor should it be forgotten that Doyle was one of his era’s most prominent spiritualists. He might not have written fictional tales the like of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” but he certainly contributed to the public’s belief in spirits whose existence transcends our quotidian reality.

So, while Poe was an American and Doyle a Scotsman who wasn’t born until a decade after Poe’s death, they had a lot in common. Now, they share another similarity: both their homes are facing closure.

Poe’s house is currently a museum in Baltimore. But the estimated $80,000 a year it costs to run the place has apparently been deemed too high a price to pay. My personal guess is that the museum probably contributes that much to the city coffers every year, but only indirectly, through increases in tourism-related activity.

But let’s assume that the museum contributes literally nothing to the city’s bottom line. $80K? Really? These cretins are going to shut down the museum to the city’s greatest writer for a savings of almost exactly 10 cents a year per Baltimore County resident (the county has a population of a little over 805,000). By contrast, that same Baltimorian, as one of about 310 million Americans, has paid over $470 per year towards the $12.2 billion monthly cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That Baltimore County resident will spend more in two hours on unpopular wars than s/he would spend in a year on preserving the legacy of one of the city’s greatest figures, literary or otherwise, and the latter is what qualifies as extravagant?

But politicians as a group are as stupid as they are arrogant, and this is precisely the sort of false economy that the right champions and the left is too pompous and cowardly to reject. The Baltimore Sun article linked above suggests that the greatest hope is a benefactor—the article suggests the Baltimore Ravens, who are, after all, named for Poe’s most famous poem, as a possibility. But Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti is only worth about a billion and a half. Let’s see… endowment managers generally figure that a well-managed portfolio will generate about 6% a year, conservatively speaking. To generate $80K a year in income, then, there would need to be a nest egg of about $1.35 million. That would represent a little less than 1/10 of 1% of Bisciotti’s net worth, or a little less than the weekly income from his portfolio. For a tax-deductible contribution to a good cause and a great promotional gimmick? Clearly too high a price.

There are fund-raisers afoot. An Amontillado wine-tasting event just happened, for example. And there’s a petition to sign. But, frankly, there has been far too little hue and cry. That petition has been around for months, and still falls short of its goal of 5000 signatures. My own efforts a couple of weeks ago generated a few dozen signatures, totaling perhaps 5% of my Facebook friends: hardly a significant accomplishment. And there are frighteningly few folks from Baltimore or environs on the list. We can tsk-tsk all we want, but ultimately this is on us: in the words of the great Arlo Guthrie, “if you want to stop war and stuff, you gotta sing loud.”

The fight over Doyle’s home, Undershaw, designed by Doyle himself for his wife, Louise, who suffered from tuberculosis, has been going on for several years. Undershaw was where the accomplished author wrote his greatest (in my mind, at least) full-length work, The Hound of the Baskervilles, as well as The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Among the guests entertained at Undershaw were such literary luminaries as Bram Stoker, J.M. Barrie, and Virginia Woolfe. (An article in the Daily Mail points out that Sherlock Holmes is the most filmed character in history; Stoker’s Count Dracula is second.)

After being widowed, Doyle wanted his son, Kingsley, to take over the property, but the young man died in the 1918 flu pandemic at the age of 25. Doyle sold the property (at a loss), and the house was converted into a hotel, which stayed in business until 2004. It was subsequently bought by a developer. According to the website,
Today, Undershaw stands sorrowfully empty, neglected and vandalised, Waverley Borough Council having granted the owners planning permission to carve up the literary, historic house into three flats, with five more homes built on its side.
Henry Chu of Los Angeles Times, in an article published last August, interviewed John Gibson, a retired surveyor who has taken the lead in trying to preserve the historic building. Chu’s paraphrases of Gibson’s comments: “You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that a crime against Britain's literary heritage is in the offing”; the opposition to Gibson’s cause includes “a profit-driven developer, unsympathetic local officials and an incorrigible gang of cultural snobs.”

To clarify that trifecta: the developers, who bought Undershaw for £1.1 million and have done nothing to it but allow it to fall into disrepair (including allowing irreparable damage to the stained-glass windows, caused by vandals), reportedly would, as of last spring, “entertain offers” of £1.5 million. Decent of them. Asshats. The planning committee of the town council decided to endorse the developers’ project rather than, say, buying the property and converting it into a museum (which people like me would flock to). After all, they have to be “pragmatic and unemotional.” So much easier than thinking, don’t you think? And the “cultural snobs”? Well, it’s not like Conan Doyle were somebody important like Charles Dickens or Jane Austen, right? Arrgghhh.

There is still a chance to save Undershaw, thanks to the dedication of people like Mr. Gibson and the high-profile support of folks like Stephen Fry. And there are things you can do: go to the Save Undershaw website and send a message of support. Follow the Undershaw Preservation Trust’s blog. “Like” their Facebook page. Buy a pin (even counting shipping, it’s well under $20 American). Write your own blog piece or letter to the editor. Oh, and if you’ve got a couple million pounds (or even dollars) you don’t know what to do with, you might drop Mr. Gibson a note.

These two stories, of course, are only the tip of the iceberg. History and culture are under-valued across the board and around the world. The examples from our side of the pond are too numerous to mention, but a short list would include threatened cuts or indeed elimination of the NEA, NEH, PBS, NPR, virtually every state arts commission, and most of the historical societies. Oh, and education. But I guess if no one can read, then losing the historic home of a writer doesn’t seem so bad.

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