Wofford chair and associate history professor Tracy Revels was honored last month as the recipient of the Beacon Society award for innovative utilization of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories in an educational environment. She will never forget the first time she was introduced to her favorite fictional character.
“My love of the Sherlock Holmes stories began when I was in the fifth grade,” she says. “I had an aunt who was a reading teacher who would leave a lot of her books behind. I found a seventh grade reading book that had the Sherlock Holmes story ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’ in it. About midway through the story I thought ‘I wonder if this is what’s going to happen in the end?’ Well, it was what happened in the end and I felt pretty smart for figuring it out."
“I was hooked. I started reading the canon of Holmes stories throughout middle school and high school. Then I started collecting pastiche novels, which are novels written in the Sherlock Holmes style but by other people.”
The Star Trek and Star Wars conventions of today had predecessors that still exist. Only instead of dressing up as aliens and talking space/time theories, ‘Sherlockians’ discuss something much more elementary.
“For years the oldest American ‘scion societies’ have gotten together to read the canon, or the collective writings, of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle about Sherlock Holmes,” says Revels. “The original society is called The Baker Street Irregulars. It’s a very elite club. You have to be nominated and voted in."
“Fortunately for the rest of us there are scion societies who emulate the Baker Street Irregulars but are open to everybody. The Beacon Society is one of these groups. Their special goal is to introduce young people to Sherlock Holmes, and they give an award every year to someone who they feel has done good work in terms of teaching about Sherlock Holmes.”
Revels was that person this year.
“It’s a very big honor,” she says. “The best thing about it to me is that it means Wofford gets a year subscription to the Baker Street Journal, which contains all sorts of scholarly works on Sherlock Holmes. This will allow me to make assignments in it.”
Revels teaches a humanities class on Holmes almost every year. The only exceptions come every four or five years when she teaches an Interim course (like this year). It’s a labor of love for Revels, who uses modern examples of the Holmes influence on our culture.
“Many TV shows owe a debt to Sherlock Holmes,” she says. “Just like today the popular show ‘House’ is modeled on Sherlock Holmes. The creator of ‘House’ has acknowledged that it is basically Sherlock Holmes in a hospital. House…Holmes. Dr. Wilson…Dr. Watson. House lives in apartment 221. Holmes lived at 221 Baker Street. And they both share a cantankerous personality.
“I also really want my students to know more about Sherlock Holmes than what they see in some advertisement or old movie their grandparents might have watched. Most people think they know Sherlock Holmes, but when you read the stories, you find out that a lot of the things people identify with him were added in later. To get to the true character, you have to go back to the original stories. I want my students to see how the stories fit into and were a reflection of the world and time in which they were written.”
And who knows? Maybe one or more of her students will follow in her footsteps. One of them recently went with her to a meeting of the Survivors of the Gloria Scott, the scion society that Revels belongs to in Greenville. The student liked it so much she decided to join.
“When you read the stories and you really get into them, what you have given yourself is a secret language,” says Revels. “If you go to New York City, there’s a scion society there. Or Chicago, or any other large city in America or even overseas. You have a group of instant friends and associates anywhere you go in the world. It’s a gift you are giving yourself long after you leave Wofford College.”
And for Revels, it has led to a well deserved reward.