Review Blog

Jul 28 2014

An unsentimental bloke: The life and work of C.J. Dennis by Philip Butterss

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Wakefield Press, 2014. ISBN 9781743052877.
(Age: 17+) Recommended. These days, readers are likely to encounter the verse of C.J. Dennis in one of his poems for children. However, nearly a century ago, many Australians only needed to hear the line, 'Er name was Doreen', to recall The songs of a sentimental bloke, a narrative poem that sold over 100,000 copies in its first five years of publication. Philip Butterss has explored the life and works of the poet and discovered a gifted but troubled man whose 'larrikin verse' captured the spirit of his age.
The result is not only a detailed account of a life lived under the shadow of asthma, alcohol dependence and financial problems, but also a critique of the writer's work in the context of the society in which he lived. Dennis produced a prodigious body of poetry while working as a clerk, journalist, editor, political campaigner and public servant. Like many of his contemporaries, he embraced a form of nationalistic egalitarianism that celebrated the lives of so-called ordinary people, while ostracising minorities and non-British foreigners. During the Great War, stories about the love-struck bloke and the unassuming heroism of Ginger Mick, boosted morale and contributed to the creation of the Anzac legend. After the conflict, The Glugs of Gosh lampooned the Melbourne establishment under the guise of nonsense verse and The singing garden depicted life in the Victorian countryside. Philip Butterss has tracked the changes in Australian popular culture that led to a decline in the appeal of Dennis's writing, as well as recent attempts to reignite a delight in its wit and humour. He has also drawn an intimate portrait of a complex man who could 'think in verse' that was deceptively naive.
Philip Butterss' scholarship is evident in his meticulous prose, an extensive bibliography and source notes. At once a work of biography, literary criticism and social history, An unsentimental bloke will provide older readers with memorable insights into the life and times of an influential Australian writer.
Elizabeth Bor

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