There are some people in the world who just bring a smile to your face when you hear their names. I would bet that Julie McKuras is one of those names for almost anyone in the Sherlockian world. To know Julie is to know a wonderful person. She is knowledgeable, active, determined, and welcoming. I don't remember the first time I met Julie, because she's the type of person who automatically makes you feel like you've known her forever.
When lockdown started earlier this year, Julie was probably the Sherlockian that I emailed back-and-forth with the most. I was working on different projects, and she is always welcoming with her knowledge. But simple queries turned into 2020's equivalent of long, rambling conversations: long, rambling emails between us. We talked of books, scions, and Sherlockiana, but also of our kids, her grandkids, work, retirement, our spouses, and all sorts of other things. What I'm trying to say here is Julie McKuras is delightful in any medium!
I recently read a piece on Julie from 2005 that compared her to John Bennett Shaw: "People like Julie and John fool you, even when you know better. They seem to just be kicking back and having fun, even when they're working, organizing, and generally getting a lot more done than most people around them." Fifteen years later, that still holds true. Julie has been president of the Norwegian Explorers of Minnesota, cornerstone of the University of Minnesota Sherlock Holmes Collections, coordinator of their conferences, editor of the collections newsletter, and speaker at a million different conferences. Get ready for the interview equivalent of a big ol' hug. Here's Julie!
How do you define the word “Sherlockian”?
I think of a Sherlockian as someone who’s become so involved with Sherlock Holmes and his world that it’s become integrated into their own lives. When people become acquainted with scion societies, online groups, or conferences they meet others who share that interest and suddenly one has an exponential reason to study Holmes.
It always strikes me that Christopher Morley’s book Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson is subtitled A Textbook of Friendship. With everything Morley knew about the Canon and the Irregulars he chose friendship as a vital part of his title. Every year my husband Mike comments that we got more and more cards from people we’d met through Sherlockian events and now consider close friends. I think that’s an important aspect of this. People accept you.
How did you become a Sherlockian?
I was 11 or 12 when I watched the Basil Rathbone movies on late night television. I hadn’t read the stories at that point and was either too young or too taken by the character of Holmes to realize how often those films weren’t set in the proper locale or time period. What mattered was that Holmes was smart and used his intelligence to set the world to rights whether it was solving the mystery of the Hound of the Baskervilles or defeating Nazis. It was a great lesson that one person could make a difference. I was already a rather voracious reader of mysteries like the series with Nancy Drew and Donna Parker to name a few and the Rathbone movies were my gateway to the original Holmes stories.
My entry to organized Sherlockiana came during parent teacher conferences when one of my daughter’s teachers had a display of mystery stories to be read in the class. I mentioned to him that I’d always loved Holmes and he asked if I was a member of the Norwegian Explorers. I had no idea what he was talking about so he explained that was the local Holmes society. One week later I was in a bookstore and saw the brochure for the group. I joined immediately and will always be glad that I did. I’ve been a member of the Explorers since 1993 and belong to several other scions as well.
What is your favorite canonical story?
“The Blue Carbuncle.” It’s the only story in the Canon with a reference to Christmas, “the season of forgiveness.” It conveys the simple and heartfelt wish that Watson had to extend the compliments of the season to his friend and goes on to give us a look at Holmes and his sense of justice.
Who is a specific Sherlockian that you think others would find interesting?
Edith Meiser. Her collection of correspondence, radio scripts, articles, and recordings are held in the Sherlock Holmes Collections at the University of Minnesota. I’ve done a lot of research about her for our newsletter and for several presentations. Her interest in Holmes began when she was a seasick child on an Atlantic crossing and read the stories as a distraction. She became an actress but when she saw the end for vaudeville she focused on a new medium, radio. She pitched the idea for a Holmes radio program, wrote the scripts, and found sponsors. In addition to Holmes she worked on a number of other radio programs, continued to act on stage and in film, wrote a mystery novel, and was a union official. Meiser was multi-talented, confident and brilliant and deserves our appreciation for helping to break the glass ceiling for women in the Sherlockian universe.
What subset of Sherlockiana really interests you?
I’ve been editing the newsletter forthe University of Minnesota’s Sherlock Holmes Collections for 21 years. When I became editor I focused on the fact that the Holmes Collections was comprised of varied donations but often we didn’t know the background of those items. What I hoped to accomplish was to compile a history of sorts. It’s been a continual process of learning how much I don’t know about the people who have contributed to our shared interest. I start to write about a book or essay but end up engrossed in learning about the author.
As part of that research I went to the online BSI dinner photos to see if some of the authors were at the dinners because I wanted to know what they looked like. But I ended up even further down the rabbit hole by wondering “who are the other people in the photos?” The BSI Trust website indicated that no formal identification of the attendees was done for many of the dinners so I volunteered and started on that project. Edgar W. Smith had typed lists of the men who attended but not where they were seated. Julian Wolff had handwritten seating charts but only with last names and people often switched seats or I had a bit of trouble reading his handwriting. Add to that the fact that some men who were there had apparently left before the photo was taken. Quite a few of the men were easily identifiable while others were guests for only one or two dinners.
Correctly identifying those dinner attendees involved research using various newspapers, genealogy sites, writing to people who were at the dinners, and even contacting a few descendants of the attendees for verification. Randall Stock and I came up with a format that indicated what resources were used. I’ve now completed the dinner keys for 1950 – 1971. I’ve never heard from anyone who said they looked at or utilized these new dinner keys - they’re posted on the Baker Street Irregulars Trust website - but I’m still glad I did it. I’d like to think these names aren’t lost to our history.
I’ve also worked on compiling biographies of the members of the Hounds of the Baskerville (sic) utilizing the same tools as I did for the dinner photos.
I find the backgrounds of the people involved in the Sherlockian movement really remarkable. In looking at those from the earlier days, so often what we knew about them was only related to Sherlock Holmes but they had lives outside of that shared interest. It’s been instructive to discover more about them and how long they were involved. I love knowing how different they were in other aspects of their lives but were equal in the fellowship relating to Holmes. They played a part in the Sherlockian world and I certainly don’t mean that’s restricted only to Irregulars. Multiply that by every person in every scion society or group of friends who find a certain London detective a life-long journey.
They paved the way for the people who came after them and continue to do so. I hope each generation does the same.
What things do you like to research related to Sherlock Holmes?
You mean there’s something that isn’t worthy of research?
I’ve become increasingly interested in the women who appear in the Canon and how they’re portrayed, and the women who contributed to our literature at a time when many were denied membership in the BSI and scions.
As a frequent traveler, how has that influenced your interest in Sherlock Holmes?
I love the title of Dr. Seuss’s book Oh the Places You’ll Go! It’s so full of promise and resonates with me because Sherlock Holmes certainly opened the door to visiting some fabulous places and meeting people I otherwise wouldn’t have met.
I feel really fortunate that I’ve had the opportunity to travel to different conferences from Los Angeles to New York and points in between, Toronto, Prague, Florence, several Swiss locales, London, Denmark, and the Sherlock Holmes Society of London Baltic Cruise. I think at each and everyone one of these I’ve met people who interested and inspired me.
So often we hear about the Sherlock Holmes Collections at the University of Minnesota. How would you describe these collections to a Sherlockian that's never been to the university before?
It all started with University of Minnesota Librarian E. W. “Mac” McDiarmid, one of the five co-founders of the Norwegian Explorers, who wanted Holmes represented at the library. It began with the 1974 purchase of the James Iraldi collection. It grew from there with the additions, in no particular order, of the collections from John Bennett Shaw, Philip Hench, Edith Meiser, William Baring-Gould, Frederic Dorr Steele, Howard Haycraft, David Hammer, Vincent Starrett, Jennie Paton and so many more.
There are books, periodicals, foreign language publications, scion society newsletters and files, notebooks, recordings, correspondence, advertisements, posters, photos, games, pins, bookmarks, paper weights, pens, wallpaper, wine bottles; the list goes on and on. The University website indicates the Collections hold over 60,000 items but I think that’s too conservative.
The Holmes Collections are massive and stored about 90 feet underground in the temperature and humidity controlled secured vaults of the Elmer L. Andersen Library. It’s not accessible to the public but researchers can request items for review. You can check out the Holmes Collections at https://www.lib.umn.edu/holmes
The website gives information about other Collections as well.
Curator Tim Johnson has worked on making parts of the Collections visually available on UMedia at https://umedia.lib.umn.edu/ . Just type Sherlock Holmes to search what’s been posted. You’ll have an opportunity to see artwork and other ephemera.
One thing I appreciate about it is there’s everything there from the last Czarina of Russia’s personal Sherlock Holmes books and four copies of the 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annuals to playing cards and little scraps of paper with cartoons. The Collections represent what a big role Holmes has played in both the literary world and popular culture.
Another noteworthy aspect is the part the University and the Holmes Collections plays in co-sponsoring of thetriennial conferences with the Norwegian Explorers and the Friends of the Sherlock Holmes Collections. I’ve worked on all of the conferences since 1998 and it’s been a wonderful working relationship. We generally gather 100-150 people from throughout the U.S. as well as foreign countries.
What book would you recommend to other Sherlockians?
The Annotated Sherlock Holmes by William Baring-Gould. I’d always found it a valuable resource but when I began working with Dick Sveum, Tim Johnson and Gary Thaden on the 2019 Baker Street Journal Christmas Annual about Baring-Gould I learned so much about him and what it took to produce this massive work. To have made it through the mine field of publishers, research, writing, and Adrian Conan Doyle while maintaining an incredibly busy professional and personal life is something that’s difficult to imagine. It’s continued to inspire researchers.
The second part of why I’d recommend this book is that I’ve had the opportunity to read his correspondence that’s held at the University of Minnesota and at the New York Historical Society. In all the speeches he wrote and his letters I read, no matter what the subject was, he was unfailingly polite and often self-deprecating. He was quick to admit any mistakes he made and treated his correspondents with respect. I learned more about him through the lens of his daughter when I met with her.
Where do you see Sherlockiana in 5 or 10 years from now?
We’ve certainly seen the interest in Holmes wax and wane over the years. There’s always been that “scarlet thread…running through the colourless skein of life.” Perhaps that thread has taken different forms, inspired by a variety of books, films, plays, or people, but it’s never disappeared. I’d like to think that in the next 5 or 10 years we’ll see more to inspire people to read the Canon, more to write about it, and more to include in teaching and outreach. The manner in which any of this happens might change but I think it will continue.
I don’t think that everyone has to take the same approach to how they view Holmes; there’s something for everyone and that’s what makes the whole study of Holmes so interesting. Mine is a more traditional view but that’s what works for me. I always think back to a membership brochure that the Norwegian Explorers designed some years ago. It had 10 questions to determine your knowledge of Holmes. If you got all 10 right, great! You’re an expert and belong in the group. If you got zero correct, great! We can tell you’re really interested, join us!
I like that big tent approach. Come on in because you never know what can happen. There should be room for everyone and it shouldn’t be necessary to insist we all have to look at things the same way. Be kind. This doesn’t have to be a competition.
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