As I was researching Ruth Park for last week’s Monday musings, I came across some “Letters to the editor” in The Sydney Morning Herald and thought they were worth sharing. (As you read them do note how some of the letter writers sign themselves.) I’ll start with a couple of letters criticising Park’s novels:
Sir, The type of literature exemplified in Ruth Park’s “Harp in the South” and the first two instalments of “Poor man’s orange” fits into a pattern which appears also in modern painting and sculpture, and perhaps in a lesser degree, in much modern music.
This general trend may be described as the “cult of ugliness” …
Why cannot she, with her undoubted talent for portraying people, let us believe there are some normal and pleasant people, whose trials and failures and successes, joys and sorrows, would still present a fruitful field for her literary powers?”
(H.E. Ellen, Cronulla, 13 July 1949, p. 2)
Ruth Park, in her novel about the Darcy family seems to revel in the unpleasantness and beastliness of life…
(K.W., Pymble, 15 July 1949)
… We all know that such conditions exist, but making them a subject for a novel will do nothing towards eliminating them.
It seems a pity that we should feel duty bound to hasten on Sunday morning to keep that part of the “Herald” from falling into the hands of the young.
(M. Blayney, Rozelle, 15 July 1949)
Fortunately, though, other letter-writers saw value in the “cult of ugliness”, such as:
… Too many of us are cramped and stifled by our small world, so that when Miss Park flings a challenge to our “good” society, we shrink from the “ugliness” her claim contains, not willing to admit that the unpleasant morals of Surry Hills are to be found also in many a far more respectable suburb.
I should encourage my lads, were they old enough, to read these novels, for only by a personal touch with the fortunate and less fortunate, can they be really balanced in their adult outlook.
(Mother of Three, Lindfield, 15 July 1949)
… she has drawn a strong picture of loyalty and devotion in family life as it exists in the hearts of the poor and unfortunate, in spite of the worst possible conditions of living. One may just as well condemn Charles Dickens for exposing the horrors that existed in his day, as to condemn Ruth Park for the same objective …
(Mrs L.R. Fowler, 15 July 1949)
… Hughie Darcy’s loyalty to his friend, Mr Diamond, his understanding of his frailties, is born of a Christ-like love, however distorted it may appear to us …
Instead of writing scornfully about “nasty” novels, we need to “get under the skin” of our fellow Australian citizens and guard against such degradation in the future.
(G.M. Powell, St John’s Rectory, Mudgee, 15 July 1949)
Others distance themselves from the prudes and hypocrites who aren’t interested in facing society’s problems:
… “Poor man’s orange” … shows an understanding almost unrivalled in Australian literature of human psychology and of the problems facing certain sections of our society. I tender my congratulations to Miss Park and the “Herald” for writing and publishing, in spite of prudes and hypocrites, this human and moving story of slum life.
(Humanist, Sydney, 15 July 1949)
But my favourite of the supporters is G.M. Powell (already cited partially above) who praises Ruth Park’s ability to
look behind the dirty facade of human behaviour, and to find that the real personality behind it is really very lovable after all, and frequently very similar to us who walk the paths of rectitude…
Oh dear. Given more recent furores over books and “arts” in general (and I’m sure you all can name some favourite ones) which have engendered rather similar responses, it seems that we readers – including the prudes, hypocrites, and walkers in the paths of rectitude – are as universal as the subjects of the books we read. Funny that!