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.
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).