Literary daybook, Nov. 7

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.


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the Salon Books Editors
November 7, 2002 10:00PM (UTC)

Today in fiction

On Nov. 7, 1659, Robinson Crusoe begins making a chair.
-- "Robinson Crusoe" (1719)
by Daniel Defoe

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to fictiondays@yahoo.com.

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Today in literary history
On this day in 1872 the Mary Celeste set sail from New York, bound for Genoa and, in large part because of a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for legend. His "J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement" purported to be an eyewitness account of the gruesome end met by those aboard the mysterious "ghost ship." When it was published in Cornhill Magazine in 1883, many found it so convincing that the British and American governments responded with formal denials and official investigations. All this was something of a jump-start for Conan Doyle's literary career, as this was his first appearance in a major literary publication, and where his adventure tales in "Boy's Own Paper" and the like had fetched three or four guineas, this one sold for 29. Though it was published anonymously, many of those who knew it to be literature and not fact assumed that the author was Robert Louis Stevenson, and critics compared it to Edgar Allan Poe.

J. Habakuk Jephson, a consumptive American doctor, embellishes and fantastically explains but does not throw overboard the known facts: The Mary Celeste was found drifting in the open seas off Gibraltar, its cargo untouched, plenty of food and water aboard, the personal belongings of passengers and crew in place but all 10 people vanished and never heard from again. Dr. Jephson reveals that they were all murdered by African-American cutthroats bound on a racist jihad against all white men; he alone survived because he had just the right sacred jewel in his possession.

Conan Doyle had experience as a ship's doctor, the second time on a voyage to Portugal and West Africa in 1881. Aboard with him was Henry Garnet, U.S. consul to Liberia, a learned man, a former slave and a leading abolitionist. Garnet apparently triggered a turnaround in Conan Doyle's estimation of "the latent virtues of the swarthy races." His early opinion "that you abhor them on first meeting them, and gradually learn to dislike them a very great deal more" had, by 1909, evolved to writing "The Crime of the Congo," a 45,000-word treatise on the horrors of exploitation and imperialism.

In this respect, Conan Doyle was ahead of his time, and less Stevenson or Poe than Joseph Conrad. And bringing to this issue the zeal he would bring to so many, regardless of the scoffing -- the Boer War, reform to divorce law or the Olympics, spiritualism and fairy power -- Conan Doyle followed the publication of his Congo book with an international letter-writing campaign and a three-month lecture tour, all at his own expense. The cost to him was more than money, too: Invited to referee the racially charged heavyweight title bout between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries in 1909, Conan Doyle very reluctantly declined, on the grounds that the event fostered rather than combated bigotry.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

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