A recent gathering of the Norwegian Explorers -- devotees of the genius detective Sherlock Holmes -- was nearing adjournment when a messenger breathlessly delivered a telegram.

It was from Holmes himself, expressing regret that he could not attend because of a commitment to address the Beekeepers Association of Surrey, a county just south of London. There, Holmes has been spending his retirement years keeping bees.

While the notion of such a telegram, nay, of Holmes' very existence, seems preposterous to the rest of us, it is quite elementary to "Sherlockians," as they are known in the United States, and "Holmesians," their British counterparts.

"Any time any famous person in England dies there's an obituary in The London Times," says James P. Shannon, a member of the Norwegian Explorers, a chapter of Sherlockians in Minnesota. "And there has never been an obituary for Sherlock Holmes. Therefore it must follow that he's alive.

"Now, if you can buy that," he adds, "you can be a Sherlockian."

Indeed, Holmes and other well-drawn characters, such as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Huckleberry Finn and James Bond, have endured and prevailed in the imaginations of generations to become the Greatest Heroes Who Never Lived.

"At least two things are at work," Shannon says. "There's the person, or the entity, that's created by the artist. And then there's something that's done by other people with that persona. They invest in it a new life independent of its original life."

Shannon and 16 other cultural commentators will discuss "The Superhero in America" at a public symposium sponsored this weekend by the National Museum of American History. It is being held in conjunction with the museum's current exhibition, "Superman: Many Lives, Many Worlds."

Superman and other long-lived fictional heroes have become icons of popular culture because we identify so strongly with them. For generations, we've read about them in books and seen them in movies and on TV. We display them on our lunch boxes and wear them on our T-shirts -- and on our sleeves. They've become a part of our vernacular:

"Elementary, my dear Watson."

"Who does he think he is, Superman?"

"Holy buzzword, Batman!"

That's some staying power -- and it's because these characters reflect human nature and human needs.

Superman: The Strongest Man Who Never Lived. The orphan from the planet Krypton, with his super powers and Boy Scout behavior, has for 50 years captured America's imagination as the premier caped crusader.

In our complex, multifaceted society, a world that requires "greater patience, a lot of skills we never had to have before and a lot of virtues we never had to have," Superman does stand out as a beacon of hope, says Shannon.

"I suppose Superman makes life simple because he has automatic solutions. He can soar in the air like a bird or he can jump from a tall building. He's not limited the way the rest of us are."

Many say the success of the Superman story, created by Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster, two high-school boys from Cleveland, and first appearing commercially in a June 1938 comic book, stems in part from its recapitulation of the American story.

"The Puritans came over on a hazardous trip in a small boat. Likewise, Superman took a hazardous trip on an experimental rocket," says Arthur Asa Berger, a broadcast communication arts professor on sabbatical from San Francisco State University.

"And even though Superman comes from another planet," adds M. Thomas Inge, Blackwell professor of the Humanities at Randolph-Macon College, "he's raised by agrarian, farm people before he goes to the big city to work and fight on behalf of the American way.

"I think we see ourselves in him," Inge adds, "because we see ourselves as a benevolent world power. We feel that we, like Superman, should be able to zip to any part of the continent or the world and solve their problems for them."

Batman: The Greatest Crime Fighter Who Never Lived. Jenette Kahn remembers as a young girl reading Batman comic books and believing "I could be anything I wanted to be."

Today Kahn is president and publisher of DC Comics Inc. and Batman, a Bob Kane creation that first appeared commercially in 1939, remains her favorite character. In it she finds "a powerful myth of a person's ability to deal with pain and triumph over it."

Unlike Superman, who disguises his super powers under the guise of Clark Kent, Batman is a human being who, through self-discipline, exercise, study and the use of highly technical equipment, turns himself into a superhero to rid Gotham City of crime -- and to avenge his parents' murder.

"Batman gives an answer to anyone who feels pain, or is lonely, or is in anyway traumatized or feels misunderstood," Kahn says. "He offers an answer to triumph over your life and rise over the pain."

Wonder Woman: The Most Amazing Woman Who Never Lived. The star-spangled hero, who first appeared commercially in 1940, was created by psychologist Charles Moulton to give little girls what little boys had plenty of -- a superhero to relate to.

"He took a look at what qualities women seemed to cherish most closely," says Mary Moebus, licensing director of DC Comics.

"And so he developed this character who is very compassionate and adheres to the truth and tries to persuade her adversaries to her point of view. Rather than just beat them, she tries to convert them."

With Superman and Batman, Wonder Woman makes up DC Comics' trio of lead characters, Moebus says. "Virtually all the other superheroes that have been created are different interpretations of these same themes," she says.

"Mankind and womankind tend to have ideals that they reach toward. And to have characters like this that are so powerful, and at the same time compassionate and fighting for what is right, does help to give us some hope."

Huckleberry Finn: The Embodiment of the American Spirit. Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn is what sociologists would call an ideal typical specimen of the frontier life in the days when life was simpler in this country," Shannon says. "There's a strong element in every culture to be admiring and appreciative and sort of wistful about 'the good old days.' "

Inge says Huck's staying power is attributable to his "pragmatic approach to things."

For instance, "He prays for fish hooks and he doesn't get any so he doesn't see any point in it," Inge says. "And his heart is in the right place because he is willing to sacrifice himself for Jim, a slave.

"I think Americans like to see themselves in that image," he adds. "That while they may be rough and unsophisticated, they're good-hearted."

Bond ... James Bond: The Greatest Secret Agent Who Never Lived. Like Batman, he is a high-tech hero on the side of good. Like Bruce Wayne, Batman's alter ego, Bond glories in his playboy, dilettante image.

Yet, unlike Rambo and Rocky, who are regarded as strong, but mindless and limited, mere shooting stars in the firmament of heroes, Bond, who first appeared commercially in the early 1950s, employs cunning and deception to outclass his adversaries.

"There's a bit of a wild, racy, sexy, risk-taking streak in all of us. And Bond appeals to it," Shannon says.

The popularity of Bond, created by Ian Fleming, "has to do with the American image of the Englishman, with the whole fascinating world of spies," Berger says.

"And it has to do with Oedipal aspects. Bond is usually involved with these very powerful, sort of 'evil father figures' that he has to destroy."

Sherlock Holmes: The Greatest Detective Who Never Lived. Fans of the consummate detective with the meerschaum pipe and deerstalker cap will celebrate in December the 100th anniversary of the appearance of the first Holmes story in London.

"He's reclusive, he's eccentric, not particularly handsome or attractive," says Roger B. Rollin, William James Lemon professor of Literature at Clemson University. "And yet he has that magnificent rational capacity that makes him in many ways a perfect modern hero.

"He's like Mr. Spock of 'Star Trek' in that regard. Both of them are thinking machines. In an age of technology, and particularly in the age of computers, someone whose mind can function almost like a machine seems to be something that draws us."

An earlier generation had to lobby to keep Holmes alive when his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, wanted out. "In some letters to his mother," Shannon says, "{Doyle} says, 'Holmes is very much liked and very famous, but I don't like him anymore and I'd like to quit.' So he kills him off.

"But public pressure made him resurrect the allegedly dead Holmes and start a whole new series."

This kind of cult following, Shannon says, is what keeps characters like Holmes alive in the imaginations of generations.

Sunday, one symposium panel will discuss "Where Have all the Heroes Gone?" "One answer," Rollins says, "is, 'To popular culture, nor have they ever left it.' "

"The Superhero in America" symposium will be held in the Carmichael Auditorium at the National Museum of American History from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday; free but pre-registration is recommended. For further information: (202) 357-4185.

Linda Chion-Kenney is a free-lance writer based in Columbia, Md.