Curtin's writings under pen names
'bright flashes of extraordinary delicacy and refinement of sensibility, cohabiting with a powerful realism and bitter irony'
Tom Fitzgerald established – despite his own ‘strong initial doubts’, and to his own exacting standards – that John Curtin wrote numerous articles in the Socialist and the Westralian Worker under the pen-names Vigilant, Marat and M.
Fitzgerald wrote that the articles reveal ‘unexpected, hitherto unknown qualities’ in Curtin. Some of the more surprising insights are:
Curtin’s sensibility to literature
Curtin’s belief in the importance of literature for Labor
Curtin’s attitude to ‘the sex problem’
Awareness and honesty about the tension between idealism and reality
Fitzgerald wrote that he believed the knowledge of the ‘inner’ Curtin revealed in these pen-name articles should be kept in mind when considering the public aspects of Curtin’s life. In the articles, Fitzgerald saw ‘bright flashes’ of ‘extraordinary delicacy and refinement of sensibility, cohabiting with a powerful realism and bitter irony regarding the state of the world’. The articles gave Fitzgerald insight into Curtin’s ‘distinctive mental character’ and would have helped him to see the events of Curtin’s life from Curtin’s own viewpoint.
Extracts from: John Curtin - the opening
People living in the strong warming light of Australian latitudes are not disposed to put on record their private thought and feelings, the inner life which is at times far more intensely experienced…than anything that can be observed by others….
There is a decency, a sense of proportion, in the common reticence.
Very occasionally, though we cannot hope to find evidence of any long sustained sequence of a noteworthy person’s private thinking, we are nevertheless able to detect brief glimpses that offer some idea of the quality and tone of these inner processes.
In the case of a man whose working life was heavily devoted to the use of spoken and written words in advocacy and ex parte debate and exhortation, a part of his thinking is indeed frequently and regularly expressed in public. It would be an elementary mistake to imagine that these utterances express the full man….Even in the case of a politically engaged person such as John Curtin, of extraordinary (rare) innate honesty and punctiliousness in shunning arguments at variance with his knowledge and beliefs, there remained the necessity to refrain from communicating all the complexities and strains and personal differences that engaged his attention.
This book necessarily gives most space to the external aspects of Curtin’s life, including the externalised parts of this thinking because it has to follow the contours provided by the available information. But the great significance of his inner thinking needs to be kept in mind, and any pointers to its character, however fragmentary, deserve to be recognised...
This is one such attempt which seeks, as far as one can, to show the kind of person who found himself in the last few years of his life leading his country in meeting a danger that had been feared and partly expected for the previous forty years. There can, of course, be no definite and complete portrait of the kind of person anyone is. In the case of John Curtin, it is possible to put up occasional suggestions of an inner life and thought, of an intensity of inquiry and self-examination and fervently held values. Mostly, we must do with the exterior person. Most of his recorded speech and writing was of a political, even polemical, not private, character, and so not fully revealing. But the glimpses found here and there of the much more complex interior mind and feeling should be a warning that the surface records are inadequate, and that it would be well if the scraps of information on the person were kept in mind throughout....
The glimpses we can obtain of John Curtin’s inner temperament and thinking about life and human nature are confined to the early part of his life, before he became a national public figure in 1935. Even in those early years, these expressions are a very small fraction of his writings and recorded statements. Yet, once the pursuit of Curtin has come upon these scattered insights into the sensibilities of the private person they naturally bear on his interpretation of his public actions and statements...
John Curtin was a man of action whose working life required an abnormal amount of public and polemical verbalising to achieve his effects….The printed word predominates for long periods until he was approaching fifty years of age. The spoken word predominates in the last decade of his life when he was a national figure….The public nature of his utterances, in print and for the platform precluded him from expressing much of his private feelings, his more personal correspondence was not large, and an appreciable part of it has not survived. But such glimpses as we can get of the thought of the private man indicate/suggest that the intensity of his internal thoughts and feelings was more impressive than anything he expressed for the workaday world. The generalised remarks of a few people who enjoyed a means of conversation with Curtin during the years of his prime ministership confirm this. I believe it can be stated that in public print in the years of his early prime he occasionally expressed his more personal feelings under the guise of pen-names. . . . These are only fragments but the more precious for that, given their quality. The inner person to be seen in these bright flashes has extraordinary delicacy and refinement of sensibility, cohabiting with a powerful realism and bitter irony regarding the state of the world.
John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of Tom Fitzgerald. John Curtin: - the opening, 1911 - 1988. JCPML00653/280
Extract from Notes re "Vigilant's" identity
Vigilant: the identification exercise: (from one’s own research, this inquirer's own strong initial doubts until overwhelming evidence)
The unexpected quality of the Vigilant items of 1917-18 (mostly in “Bookshelf” columns) compel one to be thorough and careful in assessing the evidence before concluding that Curtin was the author. But once that identification has been established beyond doubt, one can return to consider the initially surprising (even incongruous??) quality of the pieces published, and to inquire what caused Curtin to write in this way. (Also: once established, more need to bring this quality of Curtin for the information of readers.)
A part of the answer seems clearly to be that in the rare and privileged position of editor of a Labor party newspaper, he considered one of his duties to be to instruct or educate that party’s supporters. (And, in so doing, he had to reveal more of his humanistic interests, as spelled out in the “Literature and Labor” piece.) His reasons for regarding this as necessary were spelled out in the “Literature in Labor” article (not by-lined in any way), as well as in some “Bookshelf” items. As teacher, Curtin had to adopt a special (or unusual?) persona, and the use of a pen-name (later, no by-line in “Bookshelf” items) possibly gave him a greater sense of freedom in expressing himself in the role. Thus, the unexpected quality of the Vigilant pieces is a measure of the seriousness of Curtin’s purpose and effort in cultivating his readers’ interests and tastes.
John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of Tom Fitzgerald. Notes re "Vigilant's" identity, 1909-1988. JCPML00653/36/10.
Extract from: Notes re opening for biography, 1914-1921
To write of a man, very different from oneself, because of an interest in some glimpses available of distinctive mental character, and these not generally known.…
He himself wrote no personal accounts or explanations of events in his life. Showed no inclination to do so at any stage, and had not any opportunity at all to reflect even immediately afterwards on the most public and nationally important years of that life, let alone to reconsider them from the longer perspective of subsequent developments. A writer cannot claim to know how he would have described these matters, or how he would have upheld or would, in retrospect, have revised his judgments. He has been the subject of critical, as well as laudatory, writings and statements by others who view the events of his life from various aspects, all different from his own (Hasluck, Horner), and hardly attempting at all to consider what his viewpoint may have been. And, regarding the more disillusioned (cynical) climate of today’s thinking in Australia from which we observe him, he would have striven to the utmost of his powers to prevent or at least moderate that descent.
John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of Tom Fitzgerald. Notes re opening for biography, 1914-1921. JCPML00687/14/2
Extract from Notes re Curtin's pen-names, 1917-1926
It seems reasonable to identify Curtin with three pen-names in the “Westralian
Worker” from references in their use in its pages, as follows:
John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of Tom Fitzgerald. Notes re Curtin's pen-names, 1917-1926. JCPML00653/28/39
Extract from Notes re 'Vigilant', 1911
Arguments for identifying with Curtin? –
John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of Tom Fitzgerald. Notes re "Vigilant", 1911. JCPML00653/28/14
Some key examples of the pen named articles along with Tom Fitzgerald's annotations and interpretations
'The Trojan Women' – by Vigilant, Westralian Worker, 16 February 1917
'Love’s Coming of Age' - by Vigilant, Westralian Worker, 2 March 1917
'The Masque of Anarchy' - by Vigilant, Westralian Worker, 8 June 1917
'The Novel as a Propaganda Agent' - by Vigilant, Westralian Worker, 15 June 1917
'The Evolution of the Drama' – by Vigilant (Four parts) Westralian Worker, 29 June 1917, 3 August 1917, 7 November 1917 and 12 October 1917
'The Lure of the Orient' - by Vigilant, Westralian Worker, 20 July 1917
'A “Bookshelf” holiday' - by Vigilant, Westralian Worker, 26 October 1917
'The Mob' - by Vigilant, Westralian Worker, 9 November 1917
'Literary Midwives of New Russia' - by Vigilant, Westralian Worker, 22 February 1918
'Shelley, the Revolutionist' - by Vigilant, Westralian Worker, 19 April 1918
'Omar Khayyam and Leonardo da Vinci' - by Vigilant, Westralian Worker, 21 June 1918
'Working Class History' - by Vigilant, Westralian Worker, 19 July 1918
'Comments and Clippings: About Parasites, Pharisees and Puritans' - by Vigilant, Westralian Worker, 27 September 1918
'Perfect Humanhood' - by Mina with an introduction by Vigilant, Westralian Worker, 15 November 1918
'Victor Hugo Concerning Shakespeare and Everything' – No by-line (but likely Curtin), Westralian Worker, 20 December 1918
'Victor Hugo’s Analysis of Hamlet' – No by-line (but likely Curtin), Westralian Worker, 10 January 1919
'Frank Hyett' - by Marat, Westralian Worker, 2 May 1919
'The Educated Person' - by Marat, Westralian Worker, 18 March 1921
'The tired radical' - by 'M', Westralian Worker, 26 November 1926