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Morrison, John Gordon (Jack) (1904–1998)

by Aidan Coleman

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

John Morrison, by Alec Bolton, 1986

John Morrison, by Alec Bolton, 1986

National Library of Australia, 14469303

John Gordon Morrison (1904–1998), novelist, essayist, and short-story writer, was born on 29 January 1904 at Sunderland, England, second of four children of Scottish-born John Morrison, telegraphist, and his wife Mary, née Turnbull. Raised in a strict Presbyterian household, he was later to conclude that the boredom induced by Sunday evening chapel laid the foundations for his ultimate agnosticism. After leaving school at fourteen, Morrison worked for two years as an assistant in the local museum, where he developed a lifelong passion for natural history, and then as a gardener. He read widely from French and Russian authors in translation, but the writer who was to have the most profound influence on his work was Joseph Conrad who, along with Somerset Maugham, he considered to be a master of the short story.

In 1923 Morrison travelled to Australia as an assisted immigrant. Employed as a labourer in rural New South Wales, Queensland, and Victoria, he fell in love with his adopted country, which he recalled ‘went to my head like wine’ (Morrison 1987, 83). A younger brother’s infantile paralysis prompted his return to England in 1927, but the next year he worked his way back to Australia as a ship’s steward. On the voyage he met an Irish-born maid, Frances Rosina Jones, whom he married on 1 September 1928 at Sacred Heart Church, Kew, Melbourne.

Settling in Melbourne, Morrison worked as a gardener and, for a decade from the late 1930s, as a wharf labourer, occupations that were to figure prominently in his books. He would write for two hours each evening after work. Although he was fortunate enough to be employed throughout the Depression, it kindled what he later described as an ‘awakening,’ which caused him to write stories of ‘deliberate social content’ (Reid 1979, 42). His short stories were initially published in trade-union journals and the Communist Review. He subsequently contributed regularly to the literary journals Meanjin (from the late 1940s) and Overland (from 1954).

Like his friends and contemporaries Alan Marshall, Frank Hardy, Judah Waten, and Dorothy Hewett, Morrison was a member of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). He was active in the Fellowship of Australian Writers, serving as its honorary secretary in the 1950s, and was also one of the authors most commonly associated with the Melbourne Realist Writers’ Group in the 1950s. Though his work has been described as socialist realism, he resisted didacticism and remained sceptical about dogmatic approaches to the craft. He had ‘courtly manners and a sweet nature,’ but also ‘possessed the ruthlessness of the artist, his wife and children often suffering his rigidity and his egotism’ (Jones 1998, 16).

With the assistance of grants (1946, 1949) from the Commonwealth Literary Fund, Morrison wrote two novels, The Creeping City (1949) and Port of Call (1950). Between 1947 and 1988 he published eight collections of short stories and two collections of essays, though much of the material is reproduced in the later volumes. He is best known for Black Cargo and Other Stories (1955); Twenty-Three Stories (1962), which was awarded the Australian Literature Society’s gold medal; and Stories of the Waterfront (1984). Mainly set in and around Melbourne, these stories focus on exploitation, avarice and power structures, camaraderie, and the dignity of work.

Later in life Morrison garnered a number of honours, including the Patrick White award (1986) and an emeritus award (1987) from the literature board of the Australia Council. He was appointed AM in 1989. His stories were widely anthologised and translated into more than a dozen languages, including Russian, Chinese, Polish, Czech, and Italian. Stephen Murray-Smith stated that Morrison’s work was ‘likely to be part of the small proportion of the writing of its time that will survive indefinitely’ (Morrison 1988, ix), but others have criticised his simplistic and often unsympathetic portrayals of employers and women. By the early twenty-first century his works were out of print and drew little critical attention, though Paul Galimond has argued that ‘Morrison’s writing strengthened Australia’s socialist realist tradition’ (Galimond 2015).

Widowed in 1967, Morrison married Rachela Anders (Amdurski), née Gordon, a Russian-born widow and dress shop manager, in 1969. She had arrived in Australia in 1939, and Morrison proudly claimed she could read his translated works in five European languages. Having retired from gardening and no longer travelling on public transport, he felt ‘cut off from the vernacular’ (McLaren 2001, 19), which had energised his stories, and wrote little. He continued to believe in the goodness of the communist state and was distressed by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the CPA in 1991. Predeceased by his wife (d. 1997) and survived by the son and daughter of his first marriage, he died on 11 May 1998 at Windsor and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Cranston, C. A. ‘Morrison, John (1904–98).’ In Encyclopedia of Post-Colonial Literatures in English, 2nd ed., edited by Eugene Benson and L. W. Conolly, 1044. Abingdon, England: Routledge, 2005
  • Galimond, Paul. ‘John Morrison: Writer of Proletarian Life.’ Sydney Review of Books, 15 August 2015. https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/essay/john-morrison-writer-of-proletarian-life. Copy held on ADB file
  • Indyk, Ivor. ‘The Economics of Realism: John Morrison.’ Meanjin 46, no. 4 (December 1987): 502–12
  • Jones, Philip. ‘John Gordon Morrison, Author.’ Age (Melbourne), 22 May 1998, 16
  • Loh, Morag. ‘John Morrison: Writer at Work.’ Meanjin 46, no. 4 (December 1987): 496–501. Martin, David. ‘Three Realists in Search of Reality.’ Meanjin 18, no. 3 (January 1959): 305–22
  • McLaren, John. ‘John Morrison: Memories, Reminiscences and Some Judgements.’ Southerly 61, no. 3 (2001): 15–22
  • Morrison, John. The Best Stories of John Morrison. Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin Books, 1988
  • Morrison, John. The Happy Warrior. Fairfield, Vic.: Pascoe Publishing, 1987
  • Morrison, John. Interview by Hazel de Berg, 21 December 1969. Transcript. Hazel de Berg collection. National Library of Australia
  • Phillips, A. A. ‘The Short Stories of John Morrison.’ Overland 58 (1974): 31–35
  • Reid, Ian. Fiction and the Great Depression: Australia and New Zealand 1930–1950. Melbourne: Edward Arnold, 1979

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Aidan Coleman, 'Morrison, John Gordon (Jack) (1904–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/morrison-john-gordon-jack-31466/text38921, accessed 28 May 2022.

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