Michael Sharkey, ‘Apollo in George Street’ launch by Julian Croft

Julian Croft launches Apollo in George Street at Armidale-Dumaresq Memorial Library, Armidale 10 October 2010

Michael Sharkey: Apollo in George Street: The Life of David McKee Wright

A recent reviewer of Apollo in George Street  (Geoff Page, Australian Book Review, 345, October 2012) concluded his judgement with the minatory warning

It is not easy to identify the likely audience for this lively and well-written book. Certainly, scholars of Australian literature will read it, and be relieved to see it thoroughly footnoted. Australian poets may be tempted, but at 439 pages it is not a casual read, and Wright’s fate may seem chastening. Historians wanting more on Australian intellectual trends in the pre- and post-World War I period will also find it absorbing. Whether Wright deserves such extensive treatment is debatable, but I for one am glad that he has received it.

‘Not a casual read’ – is the implication that it’s a distinct labour? Well if it is, don’t believe it! I read the book in two sittings. I couldn’t leave it alone, and that’s not because Michael is a friend, but because it is so well-written, with such a strong story with really interesting characters, and a fascinating conundrum to solve—how does a decently married New Zealand Congregationalist Minister renowned for stinging sermons against the demon drink end up a boozy literary journalist in Sydney with two de facto relationships and a tribe of illegitimate kids?

But that’s not the only attraction. If you want to know how people lived, felt, and imagined in the South Island of New Zealand and Sydney in the last decade of the 19th century and the first decades of the twentieth, this is a wonderful resource. The great thing about literary biography, as distinct from biographies of non-writers, is that because of the accompanying body of creative writing, it offers greater insights into the emotional, intellectual and imaginative lives of its subjects. Because writers create in a the social and cultural milieux of their time, and leave records on their imaginative transformations of those times’ anxieties and experiences, we are allowed to see into the inner most recesses of that historical period. It takes the really skilled biographer to bring all this to the surface, and Michael is just that. This book is one of the important works to come out of the scholarly flowering of Australian empirical literary studies that started in the early 1980s. It has been a labour of many years, and of scrupulous primary research carried out in Ireland, New Zealand, and Australia. What makes it particularly impressive are the rare qualities he brings to the work. His deep knowledge of both New Zealand and Australian literatures, a knowledge surprisingly not widely spread in Australia, is immediately obvious. Another, and I must stress not in a showy or pedestrian way, is the quality of his scholarship. He has the depth and breadth of the traditional scholar: intimate knowledge of the English and Classical languages literary canons (as did his subject), and a wide acquaintance with both Germanic and Romance literary traditions with the discipline to wear it lightly. And if all that sounds if it might be too dull, don’t believe it either: Michael writes with wit and verve, with an acute sense of the folly and ludicrousness of human affairs. McKee’s death scene is both high tragedy and low farce.

Perhaps I am not the best person to be objective about this book. My own interests overlap it in many ways. I met a lot of old friends and familiar names from my own researches in late nineteenth and early and mid twentieth-century Australian literature. Mick Paul, the one-eyed artist and part of Wright’s circle who plays a significant part in the story, was the artist of a small study of gums at Narrabeen which has hung on my mother’s walls since before I was born. Many of the names of the contributors to the Bulletin in the 1920s were known to me from stories (gossip I suppose) told to me by the poet R D FitzGerald in the 1980s. In the Australian section of the book I was suddenly back in a period I know well and eager to hear and see it from fresh angles. And what stories they are! As well, the section on Northern Ireland was also faintly familiar from my own researches there into the family of Joseph Furphy. New Zealand though, was all new to me. (It’s a disgraceful thought for an Australian, but until my late thirties I knew Burkina Fasso better than I did the Shakey Isles.) The other great attraction for me was that I had heard long ago stories about the poet Zora Cross, and run a very attractive picture of her as a young woman on the cover of a magazine I once co-edited. But what was the background to the story of her long relationship with a much older married man and the bohemian domestic situation in their house in the Blue Mountains which often accommodated her children and those of the other woman he had lived with and left for Zora? Now I know. And again what a story that is. Zora saw her destiny from an early age as a poet and David a fellow soul-mate and great poet as well. Theirs would be a relationship of great souls and great art – and several children. She kept at it despite all the difficulties and was left with the kids when David died at the early age of 58 his own literary reputation unsecured. Zora then spent the rest of her life hoping to make sure he was not forgotten.

The review I quoted at the beginning expresses the fear that Wright was not a great poet, and wondering whether 438 pages of detailed treatment was justified. Well, perhaps David McKee Wright was not a great poet—there weren’t many of them in the Antipodes just over a hundred years ago, in fact not many in the Metropolitan centre either in the first decade of the twentieth century if you think about the eclipsed (perhaps unjustly) reputations of the Georgian and Edwardian poets in the home islands: the late Victorians had gone, Yeats was yet to fully arrive, the Modernists still confined to France. McKee Wright’s poetry, sonorous, metrical, crepuscularly Celtic, occasional, light, witty, and too numerous for even this dedicated scholar to fully collect, is not widely represented in anthologies of Australian poetry, so it would seem he is seen now as a good but minor poet. Yet for more than twenty years he was a major force in Australian poetry, voluminous contributor and reviewer to many Australian papers and magazines, and ten years as editor of the Bulletin’s Red Page.

The point about this is that McKee Wright’s reputation rests not solely with his poetry, but with his position in the intellectual and artistic life of New Zealand and Australia in a formative period of their cultural development. That is why this is an important biography, It is a source of insight not just for those interested in literary matters, but for social historians. The lives of Wright and his three wives and many children show us that people a hundred years ago were just as subject to human passions and their consequences as we in these supposedly less repressive times are. The way society views those passions may change, but the passions do not.

So thank you Michael for persevering with this wonderful piece of scholarship and narrative and giving us this tribute to the generation of our grandmothers and fathers (though for some of you it will be great grand parents) and their belief in poetry, art, and love. It gives the lie to what an impoverished society Australia was over 100 years ago. David McKee Wright fed that tribe of children and his wives by his writing—people wanted to read it, publishers wanted to publish it, and all over the country it was passed from hand to hand in the red wrapper of the Bulletin. And that made me think of how impoverished our times have become. This book forty years ago would have been published by a University Press. Now the university presses are dedicatedly competing with commercial publishers in publishing political hack work and books of instant sensation. Instead, Puncher & Wattmann, God bless them, have taken up the challenge and produced an elegant, beautifully produced scholarly biography. Without that dedication and Michael’s labours over several decades we would be the poorer for our understanding of how we were and where we came from. 

Julian Croft