Monday musings on Australian literature: Changing literary tastes (2)

My last Monday Musings post was on Changing literary tastes from the 1920s to 1940s, using newspaper articles I’d found in the National Library of Australia’s Trove. Today’s post draws on just one article from the 1950s. I’m choosing just one because it, unusually in my experience, has a by-line – for a person worth introducing – and because the article is so delightful.

Leon Gellert, 1920s, by May Moore (Presumed public domain,, via Wikipedia)

So, the by-line. It is Leon Gellert (1892-1977), but I can’t resist telling you that when I first heard his name all I could think of was a tragic epic poem I read as a child about the dog Gelert (sometimes Gellert). Being a dog lover, that tale of a faithful dog has dogged me (sorry!) so powerfully ever since that whenever I heard the name Leon Gellert I couldn’t get past the dog – until now.

Why now? Because the article I found in Trove titled “The decline of the bookcase” was so entertaining that I decided to shake off my childish memory and check the man out. I found him in the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB). Biographer Gavin Souter describes him as “soldier, poet and journalist”. Gellert was born in South Australia, and taught briefly before he enlisted with the AIF. He ended up at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915, was injured, and repatriated home in 1916 after which he returned to teaching. He wrote poetry during and after the war. Souter describes him as “Australia’s closest approximation to a Brooke or Sassoon”. His short, powerful poem, “The jester in the trench”, appears in Jamie Grant’s 100 Australian poems you need to know.

According to Souter his early promise was not sustained and he turned to journalism. In 1942 he became The Sydney Morning Herald‘s literary editor “and wrote a graceful column, ‘Something Personal’, for the Saturday book pages”. The article I found is one of these, so let’s look at it.

Published on 16 June 1951, it captured my attention because it starts off talking about bookcases, and what reader isn’t interested in them! He starts

RECENTLY I roamed the city in search of some ready-made bookshelves. It was an almost fruitless search. The few that came within the bounds of my requirements were pitifully stunted little things obviously designed by craftsmen who had never read a book in their lives. The top-most compartment reached no higher than a man’s waist and the lowest could be approached only by crawling on all fours.

I was confident I would enjoy reading this. He then talks about

glass-fronted book-cupboards; ungainly remnants from late Victorian days now raised to the peerage with the dubious rank of “antique.” These, doubtless, once held their stern leather-bound arrays of Scott and Thackeray and Carlyle, close-corseted in the gloom against casual and curious hands. But they were too prohibitive in price for my pocket and too full of shadows for my purpose. There is so much unlatching and probing to be undertaken that the extraction of a volume is like an obstetrical operation.

Hmm, we Gums rather like glass-fronted bookcases because of the dust factor – but we only have a couple (recently inherited), and he is right about the “unlatching and probing”. He continues in a similarly entertaining vein, pronouncing his preference for bookcases “of open countenance that smile their invitation across the whole length of a room.” This is the type we mostly have – floor to (nearly) ceiling, most double-stacked. Very convenient, but pretty dusty too! What are your favourite types of bookcases?

He progresses from describing various bookcases to discussing their dearth in contemporary homes. He says where once they had a place in every small home, now they are viewed with suspicion:

How often have I admitted a guest to hear him exclaim, with a tincture of mistrust, as he crossed the threshold for the first time, “Ah, I see you are a reader,” and that mark you, with no more evidence to guide him than a meagre rack of books in what is referred to with sweeping hyperbole, as the entrance hall!

Hands up if, like Gellert and us, your first of many bookcases is in your entrance “hall”.

And then he gets on to WHAT people are reading …

He says that in the past people all read the same sort of material – a wide mix encompassing the likes of Henry James, H. G. Wells, Thomas Hardy, Eden Phillpots and Stanley Weyman (who was also known, says Wikipedia, as “the Prince of Romance”). “Those beyond the pale”, he writes, “read Mr. Garvice“. I had to look him up too! He was a very popular writer of romance in the early twentieth century.

However, now, he says, readers are dividing into two groups, “those who read, let us say, Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, Graham Greene and Joyce Cary, and the vast mass who read what I believe are called ‘Westerners’.” What’s more, he suggests, these groups are contemptuous of each other. This is interesting. Is he right that this divide, one that still largely exists today, only started around the 1950s?

Anyhow, then, having mentioned “westerners”, which, according to the writers in my first post, were their way out, he moves on to detective novels. He wonders if they are the cause of the impermanence he’s identified. The detective fiction craze has been going for forty years he says. When will it stop? One of their attractions, he thinks, is that they are a game that can be played in private, like patience, and they have “something in common with the crossword puzzle”. He quite likes detective novels himself, but is concerned that, having lasted more than thirty years – his marker for “the most obstinate vogue in history” –  detective fiction will “establish itself as a durable department of literature.”

He trots out, too, a concern about what it means to love detective fiction. We deride melodrama, he says, but “the most outrageous complexity of treachery, murder, torture and rape is regarded, by the intellectual and the illiterate, as legitimate fun”. Is it really the harmless game people think, he asks? He then tells us that detective fiction is popular with world leaders. Hitler loved them, as do “the most distinguished statesmen in the English-speaking” world and “the most scholarly writers and the most immaculate ministers of religion”. They all “squander countless hours in company with M. Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsy”. And yet, he says, when people worry about child delinquency, it’s cinema and radio they blame!

He concludes by wondering whether the time could come when detective fiction is banned. He doesn’t really want to see that, but at least it could “help to reestablish our pride in the permanent companionship of good books”.

We now know that detective fiction has indeed become “a durable department of literature”, but I’d argue that we have also reestablished our “pride in the permanent companionship of good books” (if he was right that it had been lost). Putting aside for a moment economic issues, the interesting question here is how important to literary culture is “the permanent companionship of good books” – meaning ownership and storage in personal bookcases – versus the fact that people are reading (as he says people were in his time).

45 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Changing literary tastes (2)

  1. I enjoyed this! Very entertaining fellow. I’d personally consider the fact that people are reading to be more important than ownership and storage in personal bookcases. I indulge in both, but I met a fellow once who collected books merely for display. He had every single title by Bryce Courtney, bar the last, signed and in pride of place on his ‘personal bookshelf.’ When I asked him which was his favourite, began to detail why Solomon’s Song was mine, and what did he think of the lone pine scene, he interrupted me to admit he hadn’t read any of them. He merely collected them, signed editions of novels for the sole purpose of being able to show them off. He actually had never read a novel at all. He was a fake. So while I collect books and get a lot of pleasure out of doing so, I also actually read them. I have to surmise that there might be other fakers out there as well with fully stocked, unread, ‘ornamental’ books.

    • I had the same reaction reading this piece Theresa. Owning and reading are not necessarily the same things. Just think how many people bought Stephen Hawking’s book just because it was the one to be seen with at the time – a lot of them had no intention of reading it beyond the introduction……

      • Haha Karen. Yes, that’s a good example. And of course there are those people with their matching sets of classics they’ve never read. As a teenager I used to assess the people I babysat for by their bookshelves but perhaps I was often wrong about them and their interests or ideas!

      • Similar to owning a shelf of classics yet never having read them…
        You’ve started a new topic for investigation and musing here Whispering Gums.

      • No, he didn’t. Perhaps they have evolved over time. Or maybe the mere thought of their existence was too distressing for his contemplation!

  2. At the turn of the century people bought “yellow backs” to read on the train – I think they are mentioned in Seven Little Australians for instance. And Steele Rudd was published by the Bookstall Company which specialized in such books up to the Second World War. I haven’t seen a western for years but single mens living quarters used to be full of them. (Zoo Magazine more recently, until its demise).

    • Thanks Bill. I don’t recollect reading about yellow-backs. I do recollect Westerns still being around in my youth, though that wasn’t their heyday. Interesting that Westerns were very popular on TV in the 1960s (and presumably the 1950s) but have long been overtaken by crime series. Does TV to some degree follow reading interests?

      • I show my age here. Back in the 1950 before television, i worked for an elderly doctor. His secretary’s job every Thursday was to go the local newsagents and pick up his collection of Westerns. I guess they came out in series so there were four or five books each week.

      • I’m still thinking about westerns. If you don’t send in despatches from the prairies I may have to review a Zane Grey. And as it happens westerns (silent movies) were a favorite of the subject of my latest post, Jack Davis, in the 1920s.

        • Haha, Bill, we don’t plan to extend to the prairies though when we lived in the west I did buy Riders of the purple sage for my Dad. Have always meant to read it.

  3. Off on another tangent here, but yesterday I watched The Dressmaker which is based on the book by Rosalie Ham, and it struck me, could be wrong here, that when books and films focus on Australia in the 50s, there’s a thread showing the confines and pettiness of society. Am I wrong?

    • No, probably not Guy. We would also respond to the “Grease” mentality, but I think any more intellectual fare, as against escapist, is most likely to look at narrowness of lives, social restrictions on gender, etc. Do you think that’s not the case in the USA?

      Did you like the Dressmaker?

        • Oh yes, Guy, sorry, I realised that. What I meant is that musicals like Grease which celebrate the freedom of youth at that time are applicable here too and we’d have stories like that, but books (and other media) that are more intellectual as against escapist in style, like The dressmaker, do I agree look at the confines/narrowness of the period. Is that not so in the USA. Are the 50s still seen glowingly like “Leave it to Beaver” et al?

          I liked The Dressmaker too. I did wonder a little at all tonal shifts and was a little uncertain whether the film handled that completely convincingly, but the look of it, the performances, the evocation of the darker sides of the era, were well done. I should read her later books.

  4. Exactly what I thought of when I read Gelert’s name 😉 (That and my friend’s noble hound who was named for the hero of that epic.)

    I think that YES, YES, reading is more important, but I certainly treasure my “ownership and storage in personal bookcases”.

    Amusing how he viewed detective fiction. If he could only see the face of popular fiction today!

    • Oh phew Debbie, glad I’m not the only sentimental one!

      Sounds like we all agree re reading vs ownership, even if most of us are owners. A good friend of mine, who’s in my reading group, is a keen reader but mostly a borrower, particularly since she downsized. She’s also gone almost totally digital so what she owns you can’t see anyhow. What would Gellert say about that too!

      • i put my hand up for a bookcase in the Hall! it contains some of our reference books, Australian plants and gardens, bird books, general nature books etc. there is another too, which has books kept for sentimental reasons, some from our parents, some I read as a child and some I read to my children. There are also a few cookbooks which have escaped from the kitchen. There are two bookcases in our living room. roughly divided into books I’ve enjoyed very much and think others might enjoy and the other is TBR- sometime. The real TBR and interesting books from the local library shelves are on the coffee table in piles that threaten to fall over. So I’m not a buyer except for presents.

        • Haha, not a buyer but you seem to have a lot all the same, crlbth! My hall bookcase has poetry and plays, and exhibition catalogues mainly. It did have art books but they are one group I have culled because you can see so much art online when you want it. (OK artlovers, slap me down, but I had to start somewhere!)

  5. Great read! I love his line about ‘treachery, murder, torture and rape’ being ‘legitimate fun’ – something that never seems to go out of fashion but a genre that doesn’t really appeal to me.
    We never seem to have enough bookshelves and have recently decided we should cull some books we’re never likely to read again – but each one is a friend, bringing a memory of how you acquired it or who gave it to you, where you were when you read it, why it was so important way back when … and then I put it back on the shelf! (Yes, we have bookshelves in our entrance hall and often get comments.) So in these days of downsizing and digital or library books, I’m not sure how sensible it is to hang on to old books (although we can’t resist browsing in any bookshop we pass and often buy more). Anyway, no one seems to want donated books any more.

    • You’ve captured me exactly Anna. I’m starting to tinker with culling but for all those reasons you give – the connections and meanings – I’ve not got far at all.

      As for donated books, not so here. Lifeline Book Fair, held twice a year, is a high spot on Canberra’s calendar for many, and the fair is doing amazingly well. When I do cull that’s where the books go. (Admittedly, that’s mostly that’s been from my aunt’s estate and my parents’ downsizing, and my was that painful for Mum.)

  6. Hi Sue, it was a good fun to read. I have books in bookcases and on tables and shelves. I have read most of them. I have began collecting the old Pan and other similar paperback editions because of their book covers – I love the art work. I think most people have a dark side and like to read.. .’“the most outrageous complexity of treachery, murder, torture and rape”. The op shop I volunteer at, have a book of freebies that are usually taken up my customers. It is sad we don’t sell many books even though they are very cheap. And detective novels are our best sales.

    • Interesting Meg re not selling many books. That echoes Anna’s comment. I’m not sure about how our op shops go here, but overall secondhand books sell pretty well I think and people love to donate to Lifeline which can make nearly $500k at a fair.

      Pan Book, I remember those. That old art would be fun to have on one’s shelves.

  7. As well as my own personal library, I have bookshelves in every room in the house except the bathroom and laundry, and two sets of shelves in the hall, including my favourite of all my shelves because my father built it in the 1980s to house my paperback novels. He was anxious about its fate when we renovated but the builder was under strict instructions to make sure it was unharmed, and it was put back and repainted when the dust settled. My paperback collection has long since outgrown it, and modern trade paperbacks don’t fit the height of the shelves, so it has become a repository of the books I read back then: my reading adventures with the great feminist writers of the 1980s, Fay Weldon, Nina Bawden. Marilyn French and so on; my discovery of Australian authors like Elizabeth Jolley and Henry Handel Richardson; books my father gave me like the Orwells and the Huxleys; and my books from uni, mostly modernist novels. Along with light fiction like Nevil Shute and RF Delderfield, these are the books that shaped me as a reader. And yes, Theresa, I have read every one of them!

    • I don’t have a bookcase in my hall. Instead, when I bought this flat I put a wall between the front door and the lounge room which is a bookcase. As well, my study in particular is a jumble of non-matching bookcases, including one made by my father for my son and a rough jarrah one made for my mother in law’s house full of girls by a family friend, supplemented by a wall of Billys from Ikea. And no, between my father’s and grandfathers’ books and second hand stock I have bought wholesale, I haven’t read them all. But I think Sue if you were to come here babysitting you could work out who I was.

      • Haha, Bill, sounds like I probably would. And yes, our bookcases are a jumble too – some bought new, some secondhand. I’d like to rationalise them, partly because I could probably then fit more books in!

    • I now have in our rumpus room (cum library now the kids have gone) the bookcase my grandfather made for my mother. Like yours the shelves were for different books – such as Mum’s Collins Classics that she started to buy when she got her first job. It’s a beautiful piece, with a couple of little cupboard sections as well as open shelves – and is most likely going to my daughter. We also have the glass fronted bookcase he made – one needing unlatching etc! – which will also go to her or stay with us. They could not be let go in the downsizing process!

      • I love jumbled bookcases – so much that I had a huge cull of books last year and this meant being ruthless with a lot of genre books. A scattering of the different kinds of books I like is the result and is still a reasonable little library.

        • Sounds like a very successful culling Ian. When you say jumbled, how jumbled? I rather like my jumbled case – double layered, things balanced on top, little mementoes scattered around – as along as the books are in some sort of order! Is that what you mean?

  8. What a great post! Thank you, Sue. I loved reading about Gelert too. And one of my short-term goals is to buy a bookshelf with glass doors. My books are in my bedroom. Sometime in the future, I would like to move them to the living room. 🙂

    • Jumbled tamed by memory and a rough sort of classification . I do like bookshelves where a Stephen King paperback lies next to an anthology of green poetry next to a PG Wodehouse….I just like that serendipity.

  9. Love your Gellert story! He is a fellow who is rather easy on the eyes, isn’t he? Has a kind of old-time movie star aura about him. What a fun essay you found. I am sure if my entry hall were large enough to be called a hall there would be a bookcase there, as it is, it barely holds the coat rack. However, you are immediately in my living room where it is not hard to spy three floor to almost ceiling bookcases crammed full to bursting.

  10. ! I rather like my jumbled case – double layered, things balanced on top, little mementoes scattered around – as along as the books are in some sort of order!

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