Sunday, March 14, 2021

Interesting Interview: Tim Johnson

What if there was a place that collected all of the printed Sherlockiana since the beginning of our hobby?  And who could we trust to be the keeper of such a magical place? Tim Johnson, that's who!

Since 1998, Tim has overseen the Sherlockian collections at the University of Minnesota, the largest collection of Sherlockiana in the world.  He also served as a consultant on the International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes that has been delighting audiences around the world over the past few years.  

That would be enough for anyone to pay attention to Tim.  But my biggest reason for wanting to interview Tim this week is his heart.  If you've ever heard Tim speak, you'll know what I mean.  It's hard to put into writing how heartfelt he is about this hobby, but his big-tent Sherlockian philosophy is evident in everything he says and does.  Tim is a fan of all Sherlockians and encourages everyone to join in the fun, no matter how.  

We could all be a little more like Tim Johnson.


How do you define the word “Sherlockian”?

Broadly. And with a sense of jollity. Just for giggles—and in the habit of a librarian—I looked up the word in The Oxford English Dictionary. The first thing I noticed is its longevity. It first pops up in The Bookman in 1903. “If you decipher this you are a real Sherlockian.” So, it is a word that has been with us for over a century. Some might say it is an aged word, an elderly word. But I prefer to think, in this case, that with age comes wisdom. It is a word chock-full of information, knowledge, and understanding. The question might be, in this continuum of knowing, whether or not it has reached a point of wisdom? I think it has, but the fact that we are still curious about its definition perhaps says something more about us and less about the word itself.

The second thing I noticed in the OED definition is its sense of space or geographical limits. Traditionally, we’ve used the word to describe an enthusiast of the Master and his adventures resident on this side of the Pond or other reaches of the globe, leaving “Holmesian” as the proper term for those in the United Kingdom and to a lesser extent those followers in Europe. I think technology and fandom disrupted that distinction, that the terms have become interchangeable, or ones of preference. Each word has its own lilt, its own poetry, but also its own harshness. “Holmesian” seems a more rounded term, with a bit of gentleness, or at least the appearance of good manners. “Sherlockian” is a bit rough around the edges, with sharp elbows, somewhat indicative of how we sometimes treat each other in a world meant for enjoyment. I find myself using both, depending on the situation. I like to think of them as inclusive, welcoming, playful, and in the end, kind and caring.


How did you become a Sherlockian?

Have I? Or am I rather in a state of becoming? I’m teasing you a bit, but I do think the identity also contains some sense of still being on the road, still learning and experiencing. If you want to try and nail me down, then I’d say I started to become this thing when PBS first aired the Brett series on “Mystery” starting in the mid-1980s. I read the stories as a kid and enjoyed the Rathbone/Bruce movies as a Saturday television matinee, but these were pastimes or diversions, not something taken seriously. Brett was another matter entirely. Colleagues from work (these being seminary faculty along with me as archivist and student) would gather to watch the stories and discuss them over following days. It was the first time I seriously engaged the adventures.

     

A second waypoint would be my introduction to Sherlockian society, first at the fiftieth anniversary conference of the NorwegianExplorers in 1998, three short months after I started my position as curator at the University of Minnesota, and then again the next year when I received my first guest invitation to the Baker Street Irregulars birthday festivities in New York. These occasions informed me that there was a whole other world and level of engagement with Holmes and Watson that I never experienced before. Somewhat solitary person that I am, I was unfamiliar, experientially and existentially, with enthusiasts or devotees on this level.

A third waypoint, and one I will always be thankful for, came with my attendance as a Guest of Honor (along with my friend and colleague, Peggy Perdue) at the 2015 Sherlock Seattle Convention. I have written elsewhere of this encounter (https://hdl.handle.net/11299/200027), so I won’t go into detail here except to note that this experience changed my life. It was an insightful, reflective, and moving weekend that will stay with me to the end of my days and brought me into the world of Sherlockian fandom.


Would I have become (or am becoming) a Sherlockian if it had not been for my work at Minnesota? It is a question I sometimes ask myself. If I’m honest, I would probably say no. I have as much enthusiasm for baseball or model railroading or hunting or fishing as I do for Mr. Holmes. I’ve watched trains and wet a line since the age of three. But I’m glad that in 1998 the Norwegian Explorers and The Friends of the Sherlock Holmes Collections got their hooks into me and started to draw me into this delightful world and group of friends and acquaintances that makes life ever so rich.

 

What is your favorite canonical story?

From the time I found out a childhood friend’s older brother served on a nuclear submarine, I’ve been fascinated by these ships. So it’s probably no surprise, then, that I am rather fond of “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans.” There are a number of other reasons why I am drawn to this tale, some by content, and others by association.

First, it is one of few adventures that features that somewhat mysterious older brother, Mycroft. I thoroughly enjoyed Charles Gray’s performance as Mycroft in the Granada series. I am drawn to Mycroft as a character and wish Doyle had developed him further. From Mycroft it is a very short step to spies, the British government, and international intrigue, something else that occupies some of my reading and entertainment (for example, the late John le Carr√©, Len Deighton, House of Cards—the British version, please—and the Johnny Worricker trilogy). 

Second, there are a ton of interesting characters and locations in this tale. Plus, it includes trains and an emerald pin. Finally, it was the BSI investiture of someone I was pleased to know, if ever so briefly, and whose name I carry in my job title: E. W. McDiarmid.


Who is a specific Sherlockian that you think others would find interesting?

Well, I hope he won’t be embarrassed by this answer, but it would have to be perhaps the first Sherlockian I ever met, Dr. Richard (Dick) Sveum. Dick attended my public presentation, part of the day-long interview I had for the Minnesota position, and called me after I accepted the post to welcome me to Minnesota and alert me to the upcoming Norwegian Explorers anniversary conference. Curiously and comically, I did something I don’t think I’ve ever done, before or since, during that phone call. I asked if Dick was the elderly gentleman sitting near the back during my presentation. It must have been his beard that fooled me (it fluctuates in length depending on the season; being January at the time of my interview, it was quite long), but it was (and is) totally out of character for me to describe someone like this, especially to their face (or over the phone). We chuckle about it now, but I was horrified as soon as the words flew out of my mouth. I must have been overly excited about coming home to Minnesota!


Dick is interesting in so many ways. He’s a very accomplished, knowledgeable, and networked collector as well as a compassionate, intelligent, and community-spirited physician (lately retired). He reads widely across a number of areas and makes connections in the manner of the late James Burke that can take your breath away. If you ever go booking with Dick, you’ll need your best walking shoes and plenty of stamina. I was full of enjoyable aches and pains following such a stint with Dick across Manhattan during a Birthday Weekend. He also enjoys many things Scandinavian, the outdoors, and being a grandfather—things we share. Our children overlapped during high school, so there’s another family connection. He’s generous to a fault and someone I deeply value as a friend. He couldn’t have been a better introduction to Holmes and a welcoming presence as I returned to Minnesota.

 

What subset of Sherlockiana really interests you?

After my experience in Seattle, I would have to say that it is the creative energy and content I have seen and read coming out of the newer fandom. I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface and need to read a lot more fics, view a lot more videos, and just sink myself into this ocean of material and experience. After Seattle, a highlight for each year has been the 221B Con in Atlanta, and recently, the gathering in Portland, Oregon


On a related note, I’m interested in ephemera, the hard to collect and fleeting material that is here one day and gone the next. In a digital age where so much is being created on electronic platforms, it is both hard to capture and preserve. I don’t know how many times I’ve clicked on a link only to discover that the thing I was interested in is no longer there. I am afraid of a “digital black hole” that might confront students, researchers, archivists, and fans in the future because so much of this material is transient by nature. I’ll never be able to collect it all; the best I can hope for is a representative sample.

What things do you like to research related to Sherlock Holmes?

Here your question touches on things I would like to do, but have not yet had time to really dig in. Some of this involves Doyle and some Holmes. On the Doyle side, I’m interested (as someone with a theological studies/church history degree) in his epistemological and spiritual pilgrimage. Coming, as he did, from a family with a deeply held Catholic experience, what caused him to break with this tradition in search of something else? What did he find objectionable in the Catholic faith? What was he looking for and why did Spiritualism seem to satisfy this religious longing? What impact did World War I have on his faith? (My grandfather was in the war, so there’s a personal angle to this question.) 

I also would like to dig a bit more into Doyle’s interest in photography, an area that touches on another collection I curate, the Mertle Collection on theHistory of Photomechanics. I like it when there are crossovers between collections and ACD’s work in photography would be an interesting avenue to explore.

On the Holmes front, and given my life-long interests in railroads, I would enjoy the chance to dig deeper into the junctions between rail transportation in the United Kingdom and the adventures. There are so many stations, for instance (some of which I have visited or transited through) that seem to call out for further attention. Or the routes and timetables. I have barely touched any existing writings on Holmes and railroads, so that would be my starting point: to build a bibliography of extant writings and then take it from there. 


Beyond trains, earlier I mentioned an interest in espionage. I’ve played around with a few ideas that might develop into a short story (or stories) about Holmes (both brothers) and the early history of the Secret Service in the United Kingdom. I know others have written some fictional works about this, but I would still like to explore the possibilities. Having lived in Chicago for nearly two decades, I’m also intrigued by Holmes’s experience in the Windy City.

What are one or two of your favorite items in the UMN Collections?

The first items that come to mind are the four original manuscript leaves from The Hound of the Baskervilles. First, because they are so iconic in terms of the Canon. Second, because they are simply beautiful to look at. And, third, because these leaves are connected with a very special tour I gave to a grandfather and granddaughter that moved us to tears and confirmed that I was doing the right work in the right place. It is a longer story, told in part elsewhere (http://umbookworm.blogspot.com/2018/08/a-spark-in-dark-hollow-of-my-hand.html), but I’ll give you the “Reader’s Digest” version. During this tour of the Collections and the underground caverns, I was in the presence of a very conversant and well-read teenager who was absolutely thrilled with everything I showed her, from Beeton’s Christmas Annual to Frederic Dorr Steele and beyond. The mystical moment, however, was when I set one of the Hound manuscript pages in front of her. Here she was, face to face with her favorite story, in the handwriting of her favorite author. She wept at the sight, as did we who watched. We were all overcome by the moment. I still get choked up in the recollection. I was meant to be the curator of the Holmes Collections for just this reason and this instant. It was one of those precious events that confirmed my choice of profession.

 

How have you seen Sherlockiana change over your tenure with the Collections?

Seven years before my tenure marked the first year that women were admitted as members to the Baker Street Irregulars. I think this change was still playing out and in its early days when I began as curator in 1998. Since then, now twenty-three years into my tenure, the role of women and the LGBTQ+ communities continue to influence and lead Sherlockiana in energizing and productive ways. But in some fashion we’re still taking baby steps and have a long way to go. I look forward to a day when someone other than a white cis male leads the Baker Street Irregulars or edits The Baker Street Journal

People of color are few and far between. Has institutional racism been present in Sherlockiana from its beginnings and overdue for eradication? At the same time, beyond the communities I see in Portland or Atlanta, the traditional Sherlockian world is getting grayer and older. I do not know if a younger cohort is waiting in the wings to step in, or if “traditional” Sherlockiana might be a thing soon past, evolving or merging into something new and wonderful.

 

What book would you recommend to other Sherlockians?

Just one? Then let it be a book that touches on both Doyle and Holmes, one I enjoyed and would wish for more attention: Andrew Lycett’s The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes: The Life and Times of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Free Press, 2008). If I squeezed in a second it would be Daniel Stashower’s Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle (Henry Holt & Co., 2001).

 

Where do you see Sherlockiana in 5 or 10 years from now?

Do I see it or hope for it? In either case, I would desire a younger and more diverse Sherlockiana. The promise is there. But it will take hard work; meaningful and deep relationships; and open arms to make it a reality.


3 comments:

  1. Lovely article about a lovely person. I met Mr. Johnson after a attending an annual Norwegian Explorers dinner a couple of years back. He was kind enough to offer me a guided tour of the University of Minnesota's collections (I couldn't fathom what was in store was something more like the Batcave than any library I've seen). My jaw dropped a handful of times during that tour. Highly recommend.

    I would love to see some captions on the photographs of groups and individuals pictured, if possible.

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  2. Tim Johnson has been a friend since we met on the UMN campus since 1995 when I attended the dedication of the John Bennett Shaw collection. I’ve never missed an opportunity to spend some time with him. And he has done incredible work with the Sherlock Holmes Collections. I admire him for his genuine and authentic spiritual depth. Wonderful interview, Robb.

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  3. For photos:
    1. Tim Johnson
    2. Gary Thaden, Tim, Dick Sveum
    3. Tim, Kris Kiesling
    4. Peggy Perdue, Tim
    5. EW McDiarmid, ?
    6. Dick Sveum
    7. ??
    8. Tim
    9. ???

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