Wednesday, July 25, 2012

On clothes: Rescued, re-worn, donated, exchanged, and ever on their own journeys around the world.

Like money, garments circulate and are exchanged: among people and around the world.

One way to make them circulate is by resuscitating them, rescuing them from wardrobes and chests of drawers and giving them a new life by re-wearing them. What motivates this tendency that, breaking with the linear concept of modern time, reintroduces the traditional concept of cyclical time: the need to save the beautiful from destruction, eccentricity, love of the retro or déjà vu, lack of imagination, dissatisfaction with the present, a quest for evasion and dreams that betrays a hidden anguish? But clothes are also exchanged and travel through the world: for instance, from East to West. In the 1960s and again in the 1990s, an exotic trend vibrated through the West: the Other was worn on the body. If at first it was an act of rebellion against its society and its consumerist ideals, did it then become a way to signify its haunting ghosts?

Like money, clothes talk.

—Cristina Giorcelli,
professor of American Literature at the University of Rome Three and co-editor of Exchanging Clothes: Habits of Being 2


Paula Rabinowitz, professor of English at the University of Minnesota and co-editor of Exchanging Clothes: Habits of Being 2

The fabric of female friendship is woven often through the exchange of clothing. One friend borrows a dress, another loans a bracelet, a third needs a clean T-shirt, and on and on.

Women shop together and covet each others’ garments; we also cast them off as gifts or hand-me-downs. Lacking daughters, I give away clothes to friends, students, and now, my daughter-in-law. Before my mother died, we exchanged jeans as she fit into old pairs I no longer could zip up and I acquired hers that swam on her diminished hips. These items themselves rarely matter much.

Dress circa 1921 with a Georgette crepe
and fringed waist.
But sometimes they do. This is the story of one such exchange.

In the early 1970s, when everyone I knew spent long hours perusing Salvation Army and other used-clothing stores for discarded clothes from the 1920s to the 1940s (long, slinky jackets and fringed dresses from the 20s; crepe sheathes from the 30s; platforms and tailored outfits from the 40s), I got a treasure. I had moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, from California—home to the great used-clothing emporia, especially those in Southern California, where Hollywood studios often sent discarded wardrobe items—with a friend. One day, an old friend of hers (who was among the first women FM radio deejays with an all-night show devoted to recirculating great women jazz and blues singers like Ruth Brown, Etta James, Koko Taylor) showed up. She was from Detroit and needed money. She was an extravagant, flamboyant dresser—Janis Joplin was her idol and thrift shops her clothing haunts. She had a fabulous dress for sale from her suitcase.

It was a hand-embroidered, brown crepe Molyneux.

It was complete with the label from Paris, mid-calf and fitted—straight out of a late 1930s film with Joan Blondell—and it fit me perfectly. I bought it for $25, a lot of money then, as I was a waitress in a coffee shop. I wore it occasionally and kept it hanging in my closet through dozens of moves around the country and the world, but later lost contact with my roommate and her friend and haven’t pulled it out in decades.

Designer Edward Molyneux worked
with a limited palette: black, blues,
grays, and this rich mahogany color.
Last year by chance I opened a Facebook account but never look at it, as I don’t remember all the elaborate steps needed to access it. Still, it’s there. And out of the blue I received a message from this friend, with a shout-out to Etta James after her death in January, so I knew it was her. I responded with the inevitable Could it really be you? and immediately she answered back, not with queries about life or kids or work during the past 40 years, but with a crucial question: “Do you still have the Molyneux dress?”

I did and I do—or so I think*, but that’s not the point—the dress, a mythical object of pure desire and intimate exchange, still a bond.

* Or so I think. Because, when I went searching in my closet for the beloved dress one 90-plus-degree day this summer to photograph it, I could not find it.

And then I remembered: About a decade ago, a sorority was collecting clothing in a large van. Good-quality clothes only, no T-shirts or ratty jeans, and in one of my rare and always regretted purges, I divulged my closet of a slew of padded-shoulder jackets from the 1980s (damn, they’re almost back in style now with Dallas in revival!) and a few choice objects—including the Molyneux, which I figured I’d never wear and might bring a small fortune at the auction for the charity this drive was supporting.

So the dress continues on its journey of exchange. Who knows where?


Paula Rabinowitz and Cristina Giorcelli are co-editors of Exchanging Clothes: Habits of Being 2, the second volume in a four-part series charting the social, cultural, and political expression of clothing. This volume analyzes how garments circulate through culture and the economy, signaling and altering identity. Read a post that correlates with the first volume, Accessorizing the Body.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Amicable Return of Roland Barthes

Assistant Professor of English and film at the University of North Florida

It seems to me that, for a writer, the issue isn’t how to be “eternal” (mythological definition of the “great writer”) but how to be desirable after death.

—Roland Barthes, The Preparation of the Novel (303)

Almost every journalist I’ve read who invokes Roland Barthes’s most famous and commonly assigned essay, “The Death of the Author,” gets it wrong. She or he always thinks that pointing out the survival of the significance of authors is enough to disprove Barthes’s claims. It is important to recognize that before Barthes’s thesis could congeal into a maxim, he shifted his position and began to imagine the “amicable return of the author.” We are now faced with the ironic problem of the literal death of the author Roland Barthes, and speculations about his “intentions” regarding the still continuing posthumous publication of his work. In “The posthumous life of Roland Barthes,” Éric Marty pictures the special ring of hell reserved for “the posthumous author,” a “fate” whereby Barthes’s critics manage to reduce his writing to the implicit confessions of a closeted homosexual, especially his posthumously published Incidents. Editor François Wahl justified this publication seven years after Barthes’s death by the fact that the manuscript was evidently prepared for publication, and Barthes had published an essay in Tel Quel, “Deliberation,” in which he considered whether it was worth keeping a journal with a view to publication, and included excerpts from two diaries.

It was thus fascinating to see Wahl and Marty engage in an editorial quarrel in Le nouvel observateur about the more recent posthumous publications: Barthes’s Mourning Diary and Travels in China. They do not address the publication of Barthes’s notes for (and audio recordings of) his courses at the Collège de France: How to Live Together, The Neutral, and The Preparation of the Novel; however, within the courses, Barthes himself speculates about whether publication might overly monumentalize—as “books”—courses that are by their very nature more ephemeral.

In what follows, I do not intend to “take a side” in this dispute. Nor do I intend to review the works in question in any comprehensive fashion. (This has already been done admirably by Michael Wood, and by Semiotext(e) editor Sylvère Lotringer.) Instead, I will follow Marty and D.A. Miller (Bringing Out Roland Barthes) in looking at the appearance within these works of homosexuality not as a confessional topic but as a form of “desire” (or something “desirable,” as Foucault would have it). I will also consider problems of inflection, translation, and “monumentalization.”

Like Barthes’s distinction between Proustians and Marcelians, this will primarily be directed to “Rolandians.” Barthes insisted that it was preferable to be seen as “egoistic” to avoid the greater evil and arrogance of pretended scientific objectivity. I was particularly convinced by my student William Petersen’s classification of two literary personas Barthes creates in his later writing: the lover and the curmudgeon. Incidents and Travels in China feature both, though Travels is primarily the curmudgeon speaking (often in response to a sense of obligation, responsibility, or political blackmail). The question remains whether the publication of Barthes’s self-reflexively “us/them” China notebook now, at our present historical moment of China’s rise to global superpower, has a kind of historical or critical value. Yet like Empire of Signs or his Moroccan “Incidents”—which represent, respectively and symbiotically, a utopian and dystopian fantasy of the Orient according to Diana Knight’s “Barthes and Orientalism”—there are also novelesque descriptions of fleeting moments of homosociality and boyishness that Barthes finds charming and classifies in his index to the manuscript under the term “homosexuality.”

Homosexuality also plays a role in Barthes’s Mourning Diary and The Preparation of the Novel, but most often it is mentioned “in passing.” To me, this is not proof of the closet, but is rather proof of the relatively “exoteric” status of homosexuality for Barthes. I am struck by the fact that Barthes includes gay culture as an intertext and handy example in the course. For example, Barthes explains that “to come to terms with a loss, a bereavement, is to transform it into something else; Separation shall be transformed into the very material of the Work, into the concrete labor of the Work (cf. to come to terms with one’s Homosexuality=to transform it)” (298).

While there is a great deal of overlap between this course and Barthes’s published lecture “Longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure,” many of the selected quotations and examples are unique to The Preparation of the Novel, in particular examples bearing on gay culture. Barthes uses an implicitly gay porn theater as an example of the literary concept of mise-en-abyme (170), and US gay personal ads as an example of the coding of fantasies and to explain his “writing fantasy” (11). This question of coding and fantasy, or recuperation of something that seems transgressive, was a problem that interested Barthes in an early interview about homosexuality in “Arab countries” that he excerpted in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. In both of these examples, there is a degree of “othering” of the problem (as typical of the USA or Morocco, places Barthes visited), but this is complicated by the fact that Barthes makes these observations as if his interlocutors can immediately see their relevance to his work, as if they are commonplace examples rather than evidence of some personal minority experience, and as if it is obvious that questions of literary form and homosexuality are intimately intertwined.

An attempt to “illustrate” Barthes’s desire for Moroccan young men can be seen in the recent republication of Incidents in a new translation by Teresa Lavender Fagan with photographs by Bishan Samaddar. While this might be intended as a kind of “corrective” to Barthes’s Orientalism/fetishism, in fact it participates in it unwittingly, in particular by muddling “The Orient” since the photos were taken in both Morocco and India, and by fetishizing both the brown-skinned bodies of the men pictured and Barthes’s own desire in a way that is both literalizing and stereotyping (I am grateful to Robert Summers for our conversations about this problem). While Barthes’s Orientalism/Critique of Orientalism is a complex problem (addressed by Diana Knight, Pierre Saint-Amand, and Dalia Kandiyoti, among others), the disservice here seems mainly to a critic whose own reflections on the relationship between photographs and written text are far more complex and subtle. A better corrective might be found not by means of photographs illustrating Barthes’s desire, reducing his writing to a kind of “caption,” but rather by supplementing Barthes’s texts with other texts, for example Abdellah Taïa’s Salvation Army (touted as by the first “out” gay Moroccan writer). To me, this would be a more open dialogue.

Thus, while I remain “neutral” on the editorial debate between Wahl and Marty about the morality and ethics of posthumously publishing Barthes’s manuscripts, I believe that these problems need to be reckoned with in the case of the republication of Incidents with this dossier of photographs, as well as the case of the original US publication of Incidents bound with Miller’s Bringing Out Roland Barthes. Miller clearly doesn’t have the Final Word, and neither does Barthes. What Barthes has is “A Last (but not Final) Word” in The Preparation of the Novel in which he supplements Nietzsche’s famous injunction to “Become what you are” with Kafka’s saying “Destroy yourself … in order to make yourself into that which you are.” (304). While these have some bearing on the problem of homosexual identity (for both Barthes and Foucault), they also aptly describe Barthes’s tactic of destroying the Author in order to make himself into that which he is for his readers: desirable after death.


Nicholas de Villiers is assistant professor of English and film at the University of North Florida, and author of Opacity and the Closet: Queer Tactics in Foucault, Barthes, and Warhol.

"In a significant contribution to a growing body of work on queer ethics and subjectivity, Opacity and the Closet describes the tactics of disappearance and latency so crucial to survival in the postwar period. Attending to minor genres such as the fragment and the interview, Nicholas de Villiers traces the careers of some unlikely queer heroes—shy, matte, neutral figures who did not so much refuse the closet as suspend it."
—Heather Love, author of Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History

Thursday, July 12, 2012

On the evolution of sleep

We are not biologically programmed to rest a full night of consolidated sleep. In fact,
some societies favor shorter periods of sleep, during both the day and night.
Image via Creative Commons.

Assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz

Have humans evolved to sleep in a consolidated, nightly fashion, or is this some kind of social construct that we’ve fallen into?

There’s a nice write up on the evolution of diurnal behavior in humans by Cris Campbell, in which he uses my recent article in Current Anthropology to think about the relationships between economy, society, and sleep. I’m no hardline social constructionist by any means, but I’m sometimes concerned that evolutionary approaches to sleep can be fairly reductive. And one of the dangers of being biologically – and naturally – reductive is that we can come to accept things like American capitalism as the natural outgrowth of a particular pattern of human behavior (which I write about extensively in The Slumbering Masses). Some kind of middle road between biology and society is necessary to really see how sleep is shaped by social demands and how it impacts our biological well-being.

It sounds so reasonable, but it can come across as radical when I tell people that there’s no absolute human nature that determines our individual and collective actions, which is the basis of my argument in that Current Anthropology piece.

Rather than thinking of nature and nurture as absolute determinants of our behavior, it’s more appropriate to think of any individual behavior or social form as existing on a continuum between nature and nurture. That is, everything is somewhat natural and somewhat cultural (and sometimes, what we say is natural is actually cultural). Sleep is a great example of this: yes, we all have a natural, physiological urge to sleep, but how each person – and each society – organizes sleep varies, based on cultural norms and individual preferences. For some, this can mean nightly, consolidated sleep in an eight-hour chunk; for others, it might mean biphasic sleep – breaking sleep into two (or more) blocks of sleep, arranged throughout the 24-hour day. So our sleep styles might have developed out of evolutionary selection. Or it might be a little more complicated.

Biological anthropologists agree that niche construction can often interfere with (for better or worse) the process of evolution. Roughly, they mean that organisms of all sorts (including humans) can change their environments to maximize the possibility of their survival – think beavers building dams, which changes local ecology for the beavers as well as for the other animals, insects, and plants that are part of that environment. Humans, the usual argument goes, are niche constructors without parallel, having built complex societies, agricultural infrastructure, and cities. The assumption in much of the niche construction literature is that niches are positive – at least for the constructor. But humans may be able to build niches that are actually unhealthy for us. If humans had evolved to be biphasic sleepers, our pattern of consolidated activity throughout the day might be a very good example of a niche gone wrong.

The niche that Americans have built slowly, over the last 200 years, is one that consolidates our daily activities into one block in the day (say the 9-to-5 work schedule, alongside the 8-to-3 school schedule), followed by a period of recreation – usually taken up by dinner and nightly television – to be followed by our consolidated sleep. All of which begins again the following day. This kind of niche isn’t a byproduct of some inner nature, but rather a piecemeal construction that we’ve invested in over centuries of social development. And, if we look elsewhere, there are other models – including societies that favor biphasic or daytime sleep.

If we’ve developed a social structure based on our evolutionary desires for sleep, we could expect to generally not feel sleepy throughout the day and rarely see cases of insomnia. Because 30-40% of Americans claim to experience insomnia symptoms with some regularity, and because there’s a booming industry in alertness-promoting chemicals (Provigil, coffee, soda, tea, energy drinks, etc.), it would appear that our niche doesn’t really meet our needs. At its most benign, it might mean that we consume more caffeine than we should; but it might also be that the niche we’ve built is incredibly difficult for many to conform to, leading to experiences of sleep disorders.

There are at least two dangers in assuming our contemporary social structure is based on our evolutionary preferences. First, as I mentioned earlier, it naturalizes things like capitalism as inevitable outcomes of our selected-for behavior. Second, it means that disorderly sleepers aren’t just pathological and in need of treatment, but rather in need of evolutionary aberrations or throwbacks. That might sound silly, but similar ideas have been the basis for racism throughout history; as genomics provides a basis for our understandings of ourselves and others, we might also be facing a future of gene-based discrimination, not entirely different from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (which I also mention in that Current Anthropology piece).

Now, it may be that through this niche construction, we are slowly selecting against people who don’t sleep in accordance with it -- but with such a large, complex society, that’s unlikely to happen. One neurologist I know once said that our brains work best with a cup of coffee in our system. It’s a strange fantasy to imagine that we evolved over time through the selection of individuals who respond well to caffeine. Rather, it’s an accidental correlation between our physiologies and our lifestyles that leads us to really thrive on caffeine (for those of us who do).

It’s a lot safer to recognize that evolution isn’t purposeful in all of its selections; some selections are accidents, although they can be beneficial. What we can select are the social models that govern our lives, and other models are possible, as organizations like the Take Back Your Time movement have advocated for. And what we should be working toward are social forms that meet the needs of all sleepers, not some or even most. Recognizing that society can be different – and more flexible – also accepts that variation within the human species is non-pathological, and that there might be better ways to think about difference than as disorderly.


Matthew Wolf-Meyer is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life, available in October 2012 from University of Minnesota Press. He blogs regularly here.

"A groundbreaking contribution to our understanding of sleep and its manifold discontents. With scrupulous care, Matthew Wolf-Meyer probes the current state of sleep medicine as well as its absorbing history. At a time when modern society’s dependence on sleeping pills and plush bedding has never been greater, The Slumbering Masses is all the more welcome for its ambitious compass and penetrating insights."
—A. Roger Ekirch, author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Trying to escape "politics" as usual.

This infographic illustrates the actual cost of obtaining a seat in Congress. While this
could be termed "politics as usual," John McGowan argues for a different,
pragmatic approach to politics with an emphasis on the rule of the law.
Graphic via

Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at the University of North Carolina

When President Obama issued his recent executive order to stop the deportation of undocumented aliens under the age of thirty who have no criminal record, the press predictably called the move “election-year politics.” The more accurate description, it seems to me, would be “democracy in action.” Isn’t this the way it is supposed to work? Citizens exert pressure on elected officials through the vote. If Obama believes he must protect some illegal immigrants in order to secure the Hispanic vote this year, then the system is working for Hispanics.

Perhaps the confusion here has to do with sincerity. One might think Obama doesn’t truly care about the plight of the undocumented, but he pretends a concern in order to win votes. But therein lies another confusion: Obama’s true feelings are both unknowable and irrelevant. What he does matters; why he does what he does makes no difference. Our personality-driven presidential elections have hopelessly obscured this point. Gary Wills recently wrote that one should always vote for the party, not for the man. Mitt Romney, famously, has a very inconsistent record on a number of issues: abortion and health care to name two. But his positions at any given moment in his career track quite closely to received wisdom in his political party. A politician acts from what she understands as the basis of her political power—and the party remains the form in which political power is most well organized and mobilized. So the politician is first and foremost beholden to her party. If you want to know what Romney as president will do, you need look no further than what his party currently trumpets as its top priorities.

I don’t dispute that parties are not the only significant players. Obama’s executive order is about trying to win Hispanics’ long-term loyalty to the Democratic Party, but also about wooing a set of voters who are currently often unaffiliated. So the successful politician must also build bases of power beyond what her party currently affords. But in a democracy it is always about creating a mass support that approaches a majority. Otherwise, little can be done, and nothing can be sustained. And that is how it should be. That’s what democracy promises. And that means it is politics all the way down, if politics is understood as the unending effort to forge a substantial enough coalition that enables, supports, and defends the politician’s actions.

There are many ways we can try to escape politics, which means trying to escape the hurly-burly of endless conflict and the infinite effort to secure (and maintain) the power to gain one’s ends. I shall consider one such way here: the rule of law.

Rights are only the most extreme example of the attempt to place some things outside the range of political negotiation or change. A constitution, we might say, is a promise to ourselves as a political community that these stipulated rights will remain above dispute. Except, of course, that they are disputed all the time through our adversarial court system. Thus, the Supreme Court aspires to be above politics, and is institutionally absolved from the need to build bases of popular support for its decisions. That very absolution gives it extraordinary power—and makes it unanswerable to democratic procedures.

The Supreme Court's recent health-care decision does nothing to mitigate the paradoxes and dangers of the institution's anomalous position in our American political system. Chief Justice Roberts might very well have been motivated by a desire to maintain the notion that the Supreme Court is above politics. But I think it more accurate to understand the Supreme Court as positioned differently than the legislature or the executive, but still firmly within the political arena.

The rule of law is a precious thing; we scorn it at our own peril. We do want and need a law that does not change each time a new party takes office. Yet no less an authority than James Madison thought rights worth little since he believed a determined majority or a powerful party could always abrogate rights with impunity. Rights are no bulwark against tyranny; there must be strong advocates for the rights if they are to be maintained. Removing the Supreme Court from direct democratic pressure is meant to make it easier for the Court to defend rights, especially the rights of minorities. The history of the Court, of course, shows that it can be as wayward in its opinions as the fickle demos that writers like Madison or Tocqueville feared.

All of which leads me to the pragmatist position that stating principles has its uses as a way of clarifying one’s commitments and for rallying one’s forces. The principles captured in the law also can provide some stability, some sense of the ground rules, for social interaction and disputes. But it would be foolish to think principles or laws are immune to change—or to think that such principles and laws disconnected from committed adherents can maintain their effectiveness.


John McGowan is author of Pragmatist Politics: Making the Case for Liberal Democracy. He is the Ruel W. Tyson Jr. Distinguished Professor of Humanities and director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He is the author of five previous books, including American Liberalism.

"This is an exceptional book, both instructive and challenging, and one that almost anyone concerned with the huge political problems facing modern, developed societies will welcome."
—Alan Malachowski, author of The New Pragmatism

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Sherlock Holmes and the famous Kensington Rune Stone

Architectural historian and author of Sherlock Holmes and the Rune Stone Mystery

The trouble with fiction, as anyone who wrestles with writing it will tell you, is that it can seldom match the sheer weirdness of reality.

Images of the two carved faces of the Kensington Rune
Stone (Illinois State Historical Society, 1910)
This explains why, when it came time to write my third Sherlock Holmes adventure in Minnesota, I decided to base my tale on the Kensington rune stone, an artifact so curious that no mere writer like myself could have thought it up. Sherlock Holmes and the Rune Stone Mystery is indeed a work of fiction, but a good deal of my tale draws on the vast and controversial historic record surrounding the stone and the wonderful cast of characters associated with it.

The real story began in November 1898 when a Swedish-born farmer named Olof Ohman unearthed (or so he claimed) the now famous artifact on his farm, near the village of Kensington in Douglas County in west central Minnesota. Ohman said he found the 200-pound slab of graywacke stone on a hill, entangled in the roots of an aspen tree. Chiseled into one face of the stone and along one side as well was a lengthy runic inscription that has been translated thusly: “8 Swedes and 22 Norwegians on an exploration journey from Vinland westward. We had our camp by 2 rocky islets one day’s journey north of this stone. We were out fishing one day. When we came home we found 10 men red with blood and dead. AVM save us from evil. We have 10 men by the sea to look after our ships, 14 days’ journey from this island. Year 1362.”

Naturally, Ohman’s discovery caused quiet a stir, suggesting as it did that Norsemen not only reached North America 130 years before Christopher Columbus but somehow managed to sail all the way to Minnesota. It would have been quite a trip, since Minnesota is about as far from the bounding main as anywhere on the continent. Despite its seeming implausibility, the stone soon found ardent defenders. Not surprisingly, there were plenty of skeptics as well, and the stone’s authenticity or lack thereof quickly became the subject of a debate that has now raged for well over a century.

A locator map of Kensington, MN, where the
famed Kensington Rune Stone is reported
to have been discovered by a farmer in 1898.
Most academic historians and runologists have dismissed the stone as a hoax concocted by Ohman with the help of a friend or two, and there is indeed evidence to suggest that the farmer had a bright strain of whimsy beneath his stoic Scandinavian surface. If Ohman really did concoct the whole thing, you have to give him a big tip of the hat, since his hoax is still going strong after all these years. I’d be happy to have such a clever, tantalizing and enduring bit of foolery on my resume. The stone’s early defenders tended to be amateur historians, with the occasional crank or crackpot thrown in for good measure. But over the last twenty years or so, the stone has also gained support from a number of enthusiasts bearing impressive academic credentials.

There are a dozen or so books, as well as numerous articles, devoted to the stone and its meaning. Minnesota historian Theodore Blegen’s 1968 book, The Kensington Rune Stone: New Light on an Old Riddle, remains the best account by a skeptic. Books and articles written by the stone’s adherents are more numerous and contentious. Geology, dendrology (the study of trees), epigraphy (the study of inscriptions), linguistics, and of course runology have all been enlisted by various authors to argue on behalf of the stone’s authenticity. Among the best of these books is The Kensington Rune-Stone: Authentic and Important, written in 1994 by Robert A. Hall Jr., an emeritus professor of linguistics at Cornell University. Alas, many of the books penned by supporters of the stone are so dense and esoteric that they verge on the unreadable.

I confess to being a skeptic when it comes to the stone’s authenticity, but I love the rather crazy story surrounding it, which is why I thought it would form the basis for a good mystery novel. The timing of its discovery was also convenient for my purposes, since it gave me an excuse to bring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson back to Minnesota only a few years after their 1896 adventure in St. Paul, which was featured in Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders. I also liked the idea of bringing my two English heroes out to the prairies, quite a different environment from the northern pineries where they’d experienced their first taste of Minnesota (as recounted in Sherlock Holmes and the Red Demon). The setting of the mystery was convenient in another respect, in that Shadwell Rafferty, my other favorite detective, had long fished at nearby Lake Osakis and so was familiar with the territory when the time came to help Holmes and Watson in their investigation.

The real rune stone saga, as far as I know, did not include any acts of murder or mayhem, but for my fictional tale I naturally had to spice up the historic record with various kinds of criminal wrongdoing. The names of many characters in my novel are based on actual people who were involved in one way or another with the stone and its discovery, but I gave them different roles than they had in real life, just to mix things up a bit.

As part of my research for Sherlock Holmes and the Rune Stone Mystery, I drove out one spectacular autumn day to Alexandria, MN, where the stone is displayed in its own small museum. Joe Rossi, then a photographer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, where I worked at the time as a reporter, was with me. While in town we met a retired car dealer who claimed to have discovered, with the help of dowsing rods, the remains of buried Viking ships in the hill where the rune stone had been found. Hoping he could demonstrate this wonder to us, we accompanied him and his wife to the pretty little Douglas County park that now occupies the site of the stone’s discovery.

As it turned out, however, the man’s dowsing rods proved to be uncooperative and our expedition in search of buried nautical treasure did not succeed. No matter. We chatted a bit and then went back down to the park shelter, where the man’s wife surprised us by producing a thermos of hot coffee and some delectable homemade “bars.” Above us, buttery October light raked Runestone Hill, as it’s now called, and it was easy to imagine Ohman grubbing out a tree and suddenly coming upon his astounding discovery. It was possible, too, to imagine a different scenario in which the sly old farmer pulled off a joke for the ages.

Even Sherlock Holmes himself wasn’t entirely sure about what to make of the stone. At the end of my novel, he’s asked by Watson whether there is any possibility that the stone might be the genuine article. He replies: “I do not know, Watson, I do not know, though I must always remain a skeptic. But I am inclined to think that a hundred years from now, people will still be debating [its] authenticity . . . and what the world will think of I then, I cannot fathom. Perhaps it will be a mystery for the ages.”


Larry Millett was a reporter and architecture critic for the St. Paul Pioneer Press for thirty years. He is the author of fifteen books, including five other mystery novels in this series featuring Sherlock Holmes and Shadwell Rafferty, all in new editions from the University of Minnesota Press.

"Millett recreates the world of Holmes with uncanny precision."