Successive reprints of collections under new titles testify to the popularity of Walter Murdoch’s essays, which are regarded as models of relaxed, lucid writing in which insight and thought are brought to a great variety of accessible but not mundane topics.
Among the best known of his first essays, published in 1891 in the Melbourne journal the Australian Weekly, are “The Worst Hundred Books” and “Thackeray and Meredith.” In the former he combined critical insight with dry humor to encourage the general reader to look at literary texts with new interest; in the latter he took up his lifetime mission to make European literature a familiar possession of middle-class Australians who might not have had a university education. The essay was to Murdoch in the nature of vocation; he wrote in the essay “On Doors”: “I am one who believes that the essay, if not the highest form of literature, is the most difficult of all; that a good essay is harder to write than a good novel; that the great essayists are rarer than the great poets; that we are likely to see another Shakespeare sooner than another Montaigne.”
Murdoch’s style changed very little over the years, remaining witty, wry, and unselfconsciously urbane, and displaying on occasions a wonderful aptitude for parody.
Aware that his early writing in newspapers and journals from the 1890s might look “dowdy and old-fashioned,” he nevertheless retained in all his work the same liberal, critical, and often skeptical stance based on a respect for broad humanist principles and essentially British values. Tempered by a shrewd wit that appealed to the educated Australian reader, Murdoch’s essays reflected a transitional stage in Australian intellectual life from a conscious appeal to English ideas and tastes to a more confident Australian outlook. Murdoch’s apparent failure to appreciate the directions and achievement perceptible in Australian writing from the 1930s led to criticism from some younger academics. Yet Murdoch espoused originality and “Australianism,” and looked kindly on the Jindyworobak poets who sought to replace the dependence of Australian poetry on European models with closer ties to Australian landscape and Aboriginal culture. As a critic of contemporary Australian writing, Murdoch said little of permanent interest, but his respect for reasoned ideas and the language in which they are expressed remain relevant.
The critic A.A.Phillips (Meanjin, 1969) saw Murdoch as a master of “the art of goodhumored devastation.” Whether his subject was literary or related more generally to middleclass culture, he defended the habit of sober questioning and seeing things steadily and in perspective. His ability to steer a commonsense middle course in intellectual and moral questions should not be seen as mediocrity, a state which his writing and radio broadcasts persistently attacked. His attitude is summed up in the motto he wrote for himself: “Amid a world of sceptred sham/Be this my humble aim, at least;/To seem the sort of beast I am/And not some other sort of beast.”
Murdoch’s conversational, intimate engagement with the reader has been compared to that of Charles Lamb and usually renders palatable his tendency to unpretentious moralizing and admonishing. His best-known essays include “A Question Settled” (1931), “The Book and the Island” (1934), “The Pink Man’s Burden” (1936), and “The Art of Controversy” (1931). Murdoch’s essay “The Enemies of Literature” (1907), delivered as a presidential address to the Melbourne Literature Society, drew from the poet Bernard O’Dowd his famous credo, “Poetry Militant.”
Murdoch’s conservatism, however, was so mild that he seldom aroused controversy, and in “The Pink Man’s Burden” he describes the class who believes that there are two sides to every question and “to which I have the misfortune to belong; the mild people, the moderate people, whose colour is about half-way between the stainless white of the Tory and the vivid and flaming red of the Revolutionary; the pink people, in short.”
Refusing to promulgate any point of view other than that there are many, Murdoch gave few answers but encouraged readers both to question and to find their own answers.
When the questions raised in his essays touched on religion, Murdoch often found himself attacked by professional theologians, but his infinite courtesy in reply disarmed hostility. His essays are cultured but not cultivated, and learned without being academic.
His writing is never anti-intellectual but implicitly and explicitly expresses faith in common sense and in the ability of average people to arrive at sound and hard decisions should they apply themselves to big questions.
Murdoch’s essays often drew on European literature and culture, but were recognized as expressions of Australian intellectual and social ideals. As the writer and critic Mary Durack wrote in 1969, Murdoch’s essays were part of “his fight for the use of clear and precise language, for the development of informed opinion, for tolerance and consideration towards his fellow men, and for the right of the individual to be himself within the framework of his own personality.”
Walter Logie Forbes Murdoch. Uncle of the press baron Sir Keith Murdoch; great-uncle of the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch. Born 17 September 1874 in Pitsligo, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Came to Australia at age ten. Studied logic and philosophy, University of Melbourne, B.A., 1895; M.A., 1897. Earliest essays appeared, under pseudonyms including Diogenes, Nick O’Teen, and Elzevir, in the Australian Weekly and the Argus and other journals and newspapers, from 1891. Tutor near Beaufort, Victoria, 1895; taught at Hamilton Academy, Victoria, 1896, and Warrnambool College, Victoria, 1901–03. Married Violet Catherine Hughston, 1897. Lecturer in English, University of Melbourne, from 1904. Founding editor, Trident, 1907–09. Foundation Chair of English, 1912–39, and chancellor, 1943–48, University of Western Australia. Companion, Order of British Empire (CBE), 1939. Knighted, 1964. Second university in Western Australia named after him. Died in South Perth, 30 July 1970.
Essays and Related Prose
Loose Leaves, 1910
Speaking Personally, 1930
Saturday Mornings, 1931
The Wild Planet, 1934
The Two Laughters, 1934
Lucid Intervals, 1936
Collected Essays, 1938
The Spur of the Moment, 1939
Steadfast: A Commentary, 1941
72 Essays: A Selection, 1947
Answers, 1953; as My 100 Answers, 1960
Selected Essays, 1956
Walter Murdoch and Alfred Deakin on Books and Men: Letters and Comments, 1900– 1918, edited by John A.La Nauze and Elizabeth Nurser, 1974
Other writings: the collection of poetry Anne’s Animals (1921), the history The Struggle for Freedom (1903), and a biography of Alfred Deakin (1923). Also edited The Oxford Book of Australasian Verse (1918).
Crag, G., “A Walter Murdoch Bibliography,” Meanjin 9, no. 1 (1950)
Hergenhan, Laurie, and Martin Duwell, editors, The ALS Guide to Australian Writers: A Bibliography, 1963–1990, St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1992
Durack, Mary, “Walter Murdoch: The Man in the Mirror,” Meanjin (1969)
Green, H.M., A History of Australian Literature, revised by Dorothy Green, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 2 vols., 1984
La Nauze, John A., Walter Murdoch: A Biographical Memoir, Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1977
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