Monday musings on Australian literature: Bernard Cronin, an Old Derelict!

Bernard Cronin

Bernard Cronin (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

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!

19 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Bernard Cronin, an Old Derelict!

  1. I love it when you dig up fascinating stories from the past like this:)
    BTW, talking of valuing the arts, have you heard that Wakefield has lost its SA government funding that enabled it to publish all those brilliant history books I’ve reviewed? That beautiful book Ochre and Rust that showed how indigenous people used artefacts in the SA Museum? I can’t believe it…

    • Thanks Lisa, and no I hadn’t. I just received a Wakefield book yesterday. I haven’t read many of theirs but enough to love the variety and quality of their output. Seems like, in Cronin’s terms, we have a long way to go yet before we are well-bred!

  2. Cronin sounds like a fascinating man. I love the name of the club he started! So I have to ask now, do you plan on reading any of his numerous novels?

  3. thanks for yet another interesting post. I am not a literature academic, but I love to read. I find that you often direct me to areas of literature that are new to me. I am beginning a study of womens embroidered handwork in colonial australia – what it took to be a woman in australia at that time, how the ordinary woman coped with the differences of australia (the harsh environment), and how did they find the time and inclination to do handwork. all with reference to gum trees and how they leave their mark. (sorry, you probably didn’t need to know all that!) so maybe i’ll try to hunt out ‘the sows ear’ and read ‘kangaroo’.

    • Thanks for this Jane .. It’s wonderful knowing people get value from these posts. If you read either of those, let me know. As for research, I loved hearing about it. Are you doing it “just” for yourself, or for an organisation or a course?

  4. I was intrigued by that comment on Lawrence because I’m following a Coursera module on Australian literature at the moment and the lecturer says Lawrence found the area away from the coastal belt threatening and was relieved to move back to the city

  5. What a fascinating post, WG! And poor Cronin – what a struggle he must have had. It would be interesting to read his novels and I think he was spot on re Lawrence. I find a lot of Lawrence infuriating (sexism) but Kangaroo is one of the best things I’ve ever read about Australia, at least the Australia I encountered in the 50s and that Lawrence met up with in the 20s. It is in my opinion a remarkable work, given that it was written in six weeks and grasped the nettle of the basic dilemma: how a narrowly conformist society can come to appreciate and live up to the grandeur and soulfulness of its surroundings.

  6. Very interesting post. I think that Cronin would have been pleased at the success of Australian literature. Australian writers have made an international impact and the country’s novelists and poets are exploring all aspects of being Australian. Would you say that Australian literature has been aided by an excellent library system and good education or has Australian literature thrived in spite of indifference?

    • Oh, that’s a tough question Ian, but I think you are right that he’d be pleased.

      I think we do have/have had a pretty good library system and do have good education, so I’m sure that helps though there’s always been a sense that Australians don’t read and watch their own creative output. I think there have been pockets of periods where Australian literature has had some strong players who have really pushed hard – the 1920s-1940s was one of those periods. I think the 1980s was another in which we particularly saw a lot of great women as well as men writers be published, and I sense that it’s strong now. So, while political support has often not been as visible/active as we’d like, there has been, particularly in those periods, a strong literary culture. Does that make sense?

      • It does indeed. Literature may thrive more if it is not embraced too warmly by the state. I agree too that Kangaroo does sound like a book that needs to be read!

        • Well said Ian … it’s all about balance isn’t it, but the arts do need to retain some distance. We could discuss about support for the arts in the ideal, truly democratic society I suppose, but that’s probably a pipe-dream.

  7. Mention of the Society of Australian Authors made me think of Miles Franklin who was a member of this or a similarly named association. Cronin appears in the index of both Jill Roe’s biography and the letters “My Congenials”. In a letter to her father Franklin writes, “There is suceeding Coonardoo in the Bulletin now, a story called Bracken by Bernard Cronin, which seems to me better writing than Pritchard’s, and it is hard reality of dairy farming among the poor white trash of Gippsland & the bracken.” (Dec 23, 1928).

    On a different point, it no doubt reflects my parochialism as a Western Australian but I prefer DH Lawrence’s The Boy in the Bush (1924) to Kangaroo. The story might be Molly Skinner’s but the writing is Lawrence’s and strikingly evocative of the country in which I live and work.

    • Thanks wadholloway for all this. I was intrigued by your Miles Franklin reference. I checked a couple of my books here but didn’t find a reference to him. However, you sent me to my book. the diaries of Miles Franklin’ in which she writes a little of Cronin, saying that she’s told film producer Ken Hall that ‘Cronin had done a good book in “The sow’s ear”‘.

      Thanks too for the comment re DH Lawrence. Must say I haven’t read that book either but will add it to the list.

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