23 April, 2009

Sir Walter Murdoch

Sir Walter Logie Forbes Murdoch was a prominent Australian academic and essayist famous for his intelligence, wit, and humanity. He was a Founding Professor of English and former Chancellor of University of Western Australia in Perth. Murdoch University, also in Perth is named after him. There is a walk dedicated to him on South Wing Level 2 of the Murdoch campus library.

Walter Murdoch was born on 17 September 1874 at Rosehearty to Rev. James Murdoch, minister of the Free Church of Scotland, and his wife Helen, née Garden, and he was the youngest of their 14 children. He spent his first decade at Rosehearty and in England and France, and Walter arrived with his family in Melbourne in 1884. He attended Camberwell Grammar School and Scotch College. At the University of Melbourne, as a member of Ormond College, he won first-class honors in logic and philosophy.

After teaching experience, country and suburban, to the end of 1903, Murdoch's academic career began with appointment as a Melbourne University assistant lecturer in English. This was in what had virtually become a combined department under the classics professor T. G. Tucker. Murdoch published his first essay, 'The new school of Australian poets', in 1899, and he continued writing for the Melbourne Argus, under the pen-name of 'Elzevir', in a column which appeared weekly from 1905 titled 'Books and Men'. On 22 December 1897 at Hawthorn, Melbourne, Murdoch had married Violet Catherine Hughston, a teacher.

1911 marked a turning-point in Murdoch's life. Passed over in favor of an overseas applicant, (Sir) Robert Wallace, for the re-created independent chair of English at Melbourne University, he spent the next year as a full-time member of the Argus's literary staff. He was then selected as a founding professor of the University of Western Australia, where in 1913 lectures began, and continued for many years, in tin sheds in the heart of Perth.

The literary and other friendships formed in Melbourne still exerted a strong nostalgic influence upon the middle-aged Murdoch. This has been established by his warmly sympathetic, but not uncritical, biographer John La Nauze; but the fact that he felt deeply his geographical and intellectual isolation in Perth was not evident to even his close associates there. Through the inter-war years, Murdoch broadened his influence upon Australian life—most noticeably within the western State but extending throughout the Commonwealth.

On the young campus he had a considerable following outside his own department and his immediate academic colleagues. In addition to the appeal of his wide-ranging and often informal literary lectures, of his sardonic wit and his ready debunking of the pompous and ultra-respectable, Murdoch was known for his help to students and junior colleagues in difficulties.

Sympathy for underdogs and a willingness to champion lost causes extended beyond Murdoch's academic environment. It colored his second major contribution to Western Australian life: his association with several other members of the foundation professoriate in building closer links between the university and the community. His most effective medium was the column he contributed to the 'Life and Letters' page of the West Australian on alternate Saturday mornings. Combined from 1933 with occasional day and evening talks on radio—he was to prove a very effective broadcaster—and appearances on public platforms, frequently in the chair, it brought Murdoch a wide and varied local following. Simple language, challenging titles, erudite literary allusions, subtle or open criticisms of popularly accepted practices or beliefs, served to attract, in his biographer's words, varying types of people 'who read him, all with interest, most with pleasure, some with disapproval, over many years'. 'No other writer in the history of Australian letters has built so wide a reputation on the basis of the essay as a form of communication.'

These essays should be judged in the first instance as part of the community activities of the University of Western Australia. They were directed at the widespread literate, but by no means academic, population of the still very isolated State. But Murdoch's audience did not stop there. Indeed, the 'Elzevir' articles had begun to reappear in the Argus in 1919, and the essays in varying forms found an all-Australian market when Murdoch succumbed to the persuasion of his flamboyant nephew Sir Keith Murdoch, and his writings were syndicated on the Melbourne Herald network. Walter Murdoch's essays came to be read by others, then and much later, through collection and book form, from Speaking Personally (1930) onward. Moreover, in old age, for nearly twenty years from 1945, he conducted a weekly 'Answers' column, 'little essays' on any and every question, syndicated throughout most States and New Zealand and read by a huge public.

It is perhaps fortunate that Murdoch did not in his best creative years allow himself the leisure to write more ambitious works than his essays and some early textbooks. What he described as his one 'real book', Alfred Deakin: A Sketch (1923), was the result of work done in a year's leave in and around Melbourne. It was not successful financially, or as an introduction either to a larger joint biography (later abandoned) or to La Nauze's definitive two-volume Alfred Deakin: a Biography (1965).

Murdoch's limited interest, in his middle and later years, in Australian writing has often been criticized. However, in 1918 he published the Oxford Book of Australasian Verse (revised, 1923, 1945) and in 1951, after many years delay, with Henrietta Drake-Brockman, Australian Short Stories which was much better received than the verse anthology.

In addition to his academic teaching and the benefits which the young university obtained from his extramural activities, Murdoch was to remain a member of its governing body after he resigned from his chair in 1939. Chancellor in 1943-48, he was appointed C.M.G. in 1939 and K.C.M.G. in 1964; the university awarded him an honorary D.Litt. in 1948. He had been president of the local League of Nations Union from its foundation in the early 1920s until 1936, was president of the Kindergarten Union in 1933-36, and supported movements for women's rights.

A depression at the time did not stop his actively opposing the idea of secession from the Commonwealth as a solution to Western Australia's economic ills. Much later, in 1950-51, he vehemently and stalwartly fought the attempt to outlaw the Communist Party.

Though the last years of Murdoch's long life were spent more or less as a recluse, with increasing deafness and declining eyesight, he remained mentally alert to the end. In 1964 he paid the last of several visits to his beloved Italy. When in the month of his death he was given a bedside message from the premier that the State government was to name its second university after him, he was able to send an appreciative acceptance. He added, sotto voce, 'It had better be a good one!'

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