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"The Razor-Potato Man": Using the Biographical Approach to Teach Literature

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357101_Daniel+Lambert.jpg Today's guest blogger is Daniel Lambert‌. Daniel has taught Literature and Communications courses for Colorado Technical University since 2010. In addition, he teaches on-ground English courses at California State University, Los Angeles and East Los Angeles College. He was nominated for the Distinguished Faculty of the Year Award at CTU in 2017 and 2019.

Daniel enjoys writing fiction, essays, and poetry. He published a poetry collection, Love Adventure (with his wife, Anhthao Bui), in 2017. He published his first collection of short stories, Mere Anarchy, in 2016. His fiction appears in the anthologies When Words Collide, Flash It, Daily Flash 2012and Daily Frights 2012. His writing also appears in the periodicals Silver Apples, The Daily Breeze, Easy Reader, Other Worlds, and Wrapped in Plastic.

When is it appropriate to use the biographical approach to teach literature? Sometimes an author’s autobiography proves to be as interesting as the fictional stories they tell. On occasion, the line between an author’s life and their literary output blurs. When we find the same themes in an author’s life and their fictional stories, it is an opportune time to utilize the biographical approach in our classes.

A case in point is the prolific speculative fiction author Harlan Ellison (1934-2018). One of his last stories, “He Who Grew Up Reading Sherlock Holmes,” was published in the 2014 anthology In the Company of Sherlock Holmes: Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon (edited by mystery authors Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger). The story was also published in Ellison’s short story collection, Can & Can'tankerous (2015). The unnamed narrator of Ellison’s story shares three important traits with the beloved fictional detective Sherlock Holmes: a craving for justice, a meticulous desire to solve mysteries (both old and new), and a (mostly) endearing eccentricity.

Let’s start with the third similarity, the undeniable eccentricity of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. There is much evidence of this in the canon: his habit of firing a gun into the wall of his flat or his practice of keeping his best tobacco stored in a Persian slipper are merely two examples. Likewise, if you have spent any time in science fiction fandom, you probably already know Harlan Ellison was eccentric – you may have encountered the legends of Ellison using peculiar methods to get even with editors and publishers who wronged him (such as mailing dead gophers to their offices). Having met Ellison in person, I can attest to his uniqueness and his eccentric character. Let me say just this: Nobody made an entrance like Harlan Ellison.

Much of Ellison’s writing is very dark, and “He Who Grew Up Reading Sherlock Holmes” is no exception. This is a story about a wrong that is righted in a less-than-legal, less-than-peaceful manner. The story begins with an explanation of the wrong. The author explains it this way: “A bad thing had happened . . . A man in Fremont, Nebraska cheated an honest old lady, and no one seemed able to make him retract his deed to set things right. It went on helplessly for the old lady for more than forty years. Then, one day, she told a friend” (Ellison 215). Could Harlan Ellison be the friend in question? Is this story fiction or nonfiction? Ellison gives the reader a choice: for those who choose to believe it is fiction, he writes, “have at it . . . for those who choose to believe that I am recounting a Real Life Anecdote, I’m down with that, equally: your choice” (215).

The first actual scene of the story finds a man in bed in a New York high-rise apartment. It is early morning. He awakens to the ringing of his bedside telephone. He picks up the receiver, and a voice on the other end instructs him to watch his window curtain. Sure enough, a figure in black steps out from behind the curtain. The figure is holding a raw potato with a double-edged razor protruding from one end. The razor-potato man holds the weapon to the recent sleeper’s throat. The voice on the phone tells the recent sleeper to follow his directions precisely or his throat will be cut.

The recent sleeper is told to sell an item in his possession, a “painting by a nearly-forgotten pulp magazine artist named Robert Gibson Jones,” to a particular dealer (218). Presumably, this is one of the items that was stolen from the old lady by Billy Brahm, the perpetrator in Nebraska; the recent sleeper is apparently Billy’s brother.

I use words like “presumably” and “apparently” because this story is a mystery in every sense of the word: Ellison tells the story in a scattering of fragmentary scenes that are interspersed with descriptions of seemingly-unrelated events from seemingly-random corners of the globe. Is Billy brought to justice? Is the Robert Gibson Jones painting (not to mention the forty-seven other stolen pieces) returned to “the old woman Back East” (223)? I can’t answer these questions; every time I reread “He Who Grew Up Reading Sherlock Holmes,” I feel as if I learn something new.

Ellison’s story ends with a man in London (the story’s apparent protagonist) reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story “The Red-Headed League.” He closes the book, smiles, and repeats a Latin phrase uttered by Sherlock Holmes in the story: “Omne ignotum pro magnifico” (223). Translated to English, the phrase means “Everything unknown is taken for magnificent.” Holmes’s foes are amazed when he finds them out, simply because his methods are a mystery to them. Billy Brahm was undoubtedly amazed to be brought to justice after forty years. Could the voice on the phone, the man in London, and the “He” of the story’s title be Harlan Ellison himself? Could Ellison be the mastermind who used Holmesian tenacity, resourcefulness, and, yes, eccentricity to bring a forty-year-old mystery to a satisfying end?

I will go one step further: Ellison ends his very unusual, eight-page tale with a dedication: “[To] the memory of my friend, Ray Bradbury” (223). What if the events recounted in “He Who Grew Up Reading Sherlock Holmes” are mostly true, except for Ellison’s description of the victim? I can imagine not an old lady but an old man (named Ray) telling his friend Harlan the story of his Robert Gibson Jones painting (and forty-seven other items) being stolen from him forty years ago.

Can I imagine Harlan Ellison promising his old friend to right this forty-year-old wrong? Can I imagine him carefully, meticulously constructing a less-than-legal, less-than-peaceful plan to bring the thief to justice? Can I imagine him hiring the Razor-Potato Man? Yes, but I can imagine lots of things. It’s only fiction, isn’t it?

In cases like these, when the clear distinction between an author’s life and writing blurs, biographical details can enhance an understanding or interpretation of the writing in question. Be careful, though, that students don’t elide author and writing too much – there is a fine line between using biography to interpret literature, and assuming literature is biography.

Which authors have you encountered whose lives mirror their fictional creations? How do you use biography to teach literature? I would love to hear from you.

Work Cited

Ellison, Harlan. “He Who Grew Up Reading Sherlock Holmes.” In the Company of Sherlock Holmes: Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon. Ed. King, Laurie R. and Leslie S. Klinger. Pegasus Books: 2014. pp. 215-223.