Monday musings on Australian literature: Dear Sir, or The cult of ugliness

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)

The Surry Hotel, Elizabeth Street, Surry Hills

Surry Hotel, Surry Hills (Courtesy: J Bar via Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 3.0)

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!

With thanks to the National Library of Australia for its wonderful newspaper digitisation project which made this post possible.

11 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Dear Sir, or The cult of ugliness

  1. I love reading such contrasting, and yet well-expressed, arguments for and against the value of reading about this world we live in! And, particularly, the world as it is, not just as we might wish it to be. For couldn’t these arguments apply to any literary exploration of the ups and downs of human experience, not just to Ruth Park’s novels?

    Oh, and before I start sounding too plausible for my own good… I can’t help thinking of “rectal” when I read “rectitude”. Yep, I’m 23-going-on-11.

    • Thanks Hannah. Yes, they could which is largely why I wanted to post them. As I see it the criticisms often fall into two groups: “moral” grounds (don’t want young people to read/see this, or writing about/reading such things is prurient), and “head in the sand” or “escapist” grounds (don’t want to read/see things that are unpleasant). Sometimes, I guess, these overlap a bit. And the rest of your comment, I’ll just take, as Tony Jones says on Q&A, as comment!

  2. Oh what a boring and insipid world it would be if all we could read about is rich people. First most of these rich people made their money off the backs of the poor people, if not by outright swindle. Minorities could not possibly appear in any novels, because they couldn’t possibly meet the standards of the pathetic rich people.
    In a just world, the Darcys would have a lot more money and a lot of the rich people a lot less.

    • Well said, Tony … and it’s not that Park was mining the life of the Darcys for sensationalism but because she really empathised I think with them as “people” and their situation. And, she did in fact live in Surry Hills for some time (and not in a “more respectable suburb”).

  3. I feel really lucky to have read those.

    People do tend shy away from the difficult issues, but unless they are put out there, whether it be in the (responsible) media or in fiction like Park’s novels, there is no way that we can really start doing anything about it.

    We have to think before we can act.

    • Well, thanks Becky. I loved them when I came across them so am glad they’ve fallen on some receptive ears (eyes?). I agree with you regarding the need to put difficult issues out there… there’s nothing like having issues presented clearly and, yes, confrontingly, to drive them home is there.

  4. I don’t have anything to add on the subject of Ruth Park, but I’ve been reading some old reviews of Bleak House — contemporary ones, written during the serialisation and just after it was published for the first time as a book — and it strikes me how many reviewers hated the Smallweeds for some of the same reasons that your letter-writers dislike the characters in Park. The Smallweed family is a group of, quote, “horrible,” unquote, people, who, unhappily, quote, “cannot be avoided” by the reader, unquote. “The Smallweeds blot the pages of the book wherever they appear.” The difference is that the Smallweeds are cartoonishly vicious where Park’s people aren’t, but the objection in both cases boils down to the same thing: they are ugly.

      • [I am about to write a Bleak House SPOILER for anyone reading this who doesn’t know the book.]

        It is — you see points of view that would be lost to a reader today. One reviewer complains that Grandfather Smallweed’s treatment of his wife is the kind of out-of-date comedy routine that only appears nowadays (back-then nowadays) in the cheapest theatres.

        My favourite bit of character-dislike in these reviews is directed at Mr Krook. “The early decease of Mr Krook, by any calamity, even by spontaneous combustion, was most welcome.” (Westminster Review, 1853)

    • It’s interesting, too, how naturally they slip from, “I don’t like this character,” to, “This character shouldn’t be in the book at all,” (that kill-Krook review for example) as if the reviewer’s real and secret thought, behind everything else, is, “Why isn’t it tailored to me?”

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