Monday musings on Australian literature: Bernard Cronin, an Old Derelict!
It’s a bit cheeky, really, to write about a writer I’ve never read, but I do this occasionally, particularly in Monday Musings because I use them to educate myself as well as to share ideas and knowledge with you. I came across Bernard Cronin (1884-1968) when I was roving around Trove earlier this year. He’s an English-born Australian writer and you can read about him on Wikipedia and at the Australian Dictionary of Biography. If you want to read about his life, do go there, because my focus is not going to be that.
However, I will give you a nutshell! Cronin came to Australia when he was 6 years old, and graduated from an agricultural college. He worked in cattle-farming, as a salesman and clerk, and as a journalist, but for most of his life he was also writing. He wrote novels, short stories, plays, and verse, some in his own name and some using pseudonyms. In 1920, he co-founded the Old Derelicts’ Club (don’t you love that!) for struggling authors and writers. This became the Society of Australian Authors in 1927, with Cronin its first president, but in 1936 the society was wound up because, according to Cronin, it was becoming “infiltrated by politics”. Cronin St, in a suburb in my city, is named for him.
Cronin first came to my attention when he appeared in the top 10 of the 1927 plebiscite on Australian authors*. And then, as I was following other links, I came across him again in an article written in 1933 by Canadian writer, Aidan de Brune (1879-1946), who also settled in Australia. Aidan de Brune wrote a series of articles on Australian authors for The West Australian, devoting the third article to Cronin. By this time, 1933, Cronin had published around 15 or so novels, and saw himself as an Australian writer. De Brune writes that unlike many writers he had stayed in Australia, and quotes Cronin as saying:
The writer in the Old Country finds his scenery, as it were, ready made for him. In this country it is definitely not to be found upon the surface of things. One has to dig deeply to become aware of the very great natural beauties of the Australian landscape. Real treasure is mostly of the buried variety. To my mind there is more character in an old Aussie gum tree than in any other tree I ever heard of. Incidentally, I should say that that much abused genius, D. H. Lawrence, came closer to an understanding of the spirit of the Australian landscape than any other writer, local, or imported, has yet done. He is the first scribe definitely to sight the real genii of the bush.
De Brune interprets this as Cronin seeing “Australia as a literary theme”, but without a need to “sentimentalise” it. I’m intrigued by Cronin’s comment on DH Lawrence. I still haven’t read Kangaroo and, while I’m not driven to read Lawrence again, I feel I should make an exception for this, one day. I also love Cronin’s description the “Aussie gum tree”. Yes!
De Brune then quotes Cronin again:
Our trouble is that we lack real breeding, and crudeness is a poor scaffold for the Arts. Further, the indifference of our rulers to the absolute need to develop a national soul has not made matters any better. Hansard will never make this country aware of the sublimities of human destiny. We need to see Australia from her own standpoint, and with her own individuality. The Arts are our only hope of salvation.
De Brune comments that “by this last phrase our fierce realist is revealed as an idealist, after all”. Perhaps so. What interests me, these eight decades later, is that ongoing battle against indifferent rulers for validation of the arts, for recognition of the importance of the arts to our souls, national and otherwise.
Cronin’s next novel, to be published in 1933, was The sow’s ear. Set in Tasmanian timber country, it is, says De Brune, “a ruthless exposure of the tragic life of young girls enslaved by the system of marrying without love, at the command of domineering parents”. He writes that all Cronin’s novels have this “fierce” quality, exposing what Cronin “considers to be wrong, stupid or uneconomic. In this sense he is the strongest of the Australian writers who wish to make us aware of our short comings, so that we may eliminate them, and become a truly civilised nation.” So, Cronin had a very clear image of what sort of Australia, what sort of “national soul” he wanted us to develop.
After giving a brief rundown of Cronin’s life and career to date, de Brune concludes with Cronin’s role in the Australian Society of Authors. He again quotes Cronin:
There is much to discourage the Australian writer. Nevertheless, he holds steadily to his job. He hopes that the pioneering work which he is doing will prove an invaluable foundation for the generation of writers to come. Give him the support of his own Government and public, and he will win to wider distinction inside a decade. But he’ll win through, any way.
I love that optimism – that writers will “win through anyway”. In many ways I think they do – but I do often wish it were easier for them! De Brune ends his article forecasting that “when Australian authors have finally won recognition from their own people, the name of Bernard Cronin will stand high in the roll of honour of those who have fought for this objective”. Now, that makes me sad. Maybe this is a case of back-slapping between mates, but somehow, reading Cronin’s words, and of his role in various writers’ organisations, I suspect there is a good deal of truth in De Brune’s assessment – and yet I didn’t know Cronin. I’d love to know if other Aussies here do.
* I wrote on this plebiscite in a Monday Musings last year, but only gave the top 6 novelists. Cronin was number 7!