An Unsentimental Bloke
The Life and Work of C.J. Dennis
This timely and fascinating biography of Clarence Michael James Dennis, better known as Clarrie, reveals this hugely popular writer as he really was. He deserves to be better known and understood. After all, Dennis was more popular than Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson ever were. On his death the then Prime Minister described him as an Australian Robbie Burns. High praise indeed.
In An Unsentimental Bloke Philip Butterss has shown in great detail that Dennis was far from a sentimental bloke. Instead he shows us that Dennis was a complex man, humorous and lovable who struggled at times, like Lawson, with alcohol, depression, marriage and finances.
At the same time An Unsentimental Bloke traces the personal and literary struggles Dennis experienced as well as his triumphs and profound impact on the ways that Australians see themselves. It covers his early years in rural South Australia, his work in Adelaide and Melbourne, his political adventures, his setbacks and his re-emergence as a much loved elder statesman of Australian letters.
CJ Dennis, he never used his middle name or initial, was born on 7 September 1876 in Auburn, the first son of James Dennis and Katherine Tobin, both Irish Catholics. After migrating to South Australia in 1858 James started working in the Burra mines and visited the Snowy River goldfields. On his return he married his first wife Mary Cronin in 1863 and became publican of the Court House Hotel.
In 1865 James and Mary moved to Auburn where she died in 1874 and was buried at the Undalya Cemetery. A little over a year later James married Kate Tobin. Shortly after his birth Clarrie was baptised by a Jesuit from the nearby Sevenhill Monastery. As his father was a publican his early years were spent in hotels at Auburn, Watervale and Gladstone. He attended school at Laura, Gladstone, Mintaro and Adelaide.
While in Adelaide, and only 13 years old, his mother died. Dennis left school when he was 15 to work as a clerk but was soon sacked for reading during office hours. After this disappointing start he returned to Laura which he long regarded as his home town. It was here that he first aspired to a life as a writer.
His first work was published in 1892. When 21 he had his poem Comin Ome frum Shearin published in the Adelaide Critic. Eight more were to follow. In 1898 he gained employment at the Critic but soon got sick of it and tried his luck at Broken Hill. This turned out a disaster and in 1901 he was back at the Critic where he became editor three years later.
With some friends he established the Gadfly in February 1906 but left in November 1907 to try his hand at freelancing in Melbourne. Regardless of his restless dissatisfaction, his hard-living and drinking, he was still keen to make his mark as a writer. Although always uncertain, he kept striving for artistic recognition and popular success.
Eventually he settled at Toolangi where he produced some very good poems which were published in the Bulletin. They were Dennis at his best, irreverent, egalitarian and affectionately funny. During the next two years he produced some of the best work of his life, including some poems which later became The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, a larrikin expressing his love for his sweetheart.
Around 1912 Dennis swore of drinking and began to work seriously on a book. Backblock Ballads and Other Verses was published in July 1913 and reviews in all states were encouraging, including those from the Bulletin. Sadly though, sales of this book were not so encouraging.
During the war years he often wrote to support the Australian Expeditionary Force and the election of the Labor Party. These years also proved to be his most productive. On 9 October 1915 his book The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke was released by Angus & Robertson. It changed his life forever. The main characters, the Bloke and Doreen have long since become famous in Australian popular culture.
Dennis managed to transform the larrikin from a street thug into a respectable image of Australian identity and at the same time, according to Butterss, shaped the ANZAC legend. It received raving reviews from Australian and oversees newspapers. This time sales were far more encouraging. Within a year 55,000 copies were sold. It had become phenomenally successful. It took more than 20 years for Banjo Patterson’s The Man from Snowy River to reach that figure. By 1932 as many as 134,000 copies had been printed.
Whereas he had started 1915 deep in debt, he finished it as a literary celebrity, adored by the Australian public. Everyone claimed him, especially Melbourne as it now had a writer who could rival Sydney’s Patterson and Lawson. By the end of 1915 his royalties for three months totalled £125. With his daytime job of £3 a week he was sitting on roses. Eventually he would be paid a total of £18,000 for book, film and stage versions.
Still, not everyone was impressed, or even liked his work. Adam Norman Lindsay was so enraged and disgusted by CJ’s book and success that he crucified a copy of it on a cross in his front garden!
His success enabled Dennis to get a better job as well. In February 1916 he was appointed private secretary to Senator Edward Russell. With Labor in turmoil over the conscription issue it turned out an eventful year. Between his daytime job and visits to Toolangi he started work on a sequel which became The Moods of Ginger Mick.
It was released exactly one year to the date of The Songs in 1916. With an astonishing first print run of 40,000 copies. Book Lover commanded its readers ‘Get this book and keep it, for it is worthy of a place in every Australian home’. Lindsay loathed it as much as The Songs. Regardless of his opinion, 63,000 copies had been printed by the end of 1917.
Dennis pronounced his book a memorial to the Anzacs by dating its introduction 25 April 1916 and by dedicating it ‘to the boys who took the count’. It established Mick as an archetypal Anzac hero. Although hugely successful its sales figure did not come anywhere near Bean’s Anzac Book which had sold over 100,000 copies by September 1916.
However The Moods of Ginger Mick was the first and most popular of the mythologizing accounts of Gallipoli. It was also read vastly more often. For its initial audience in Australia, The Moods also helped dealing with grief. Of the 420,000 Australians who enlisted over 60,000 were killed and more than 150,000 wounded, gassed or taken prisoner.
On 28 June 1917 Dennis married Olive Harriet (Biddy) in a private ceremony after her divorce from Richard Thelford Price. During their honeymoon he managed to finish a 24 page booklet Doreen. Reviewers found it delightful and charming and Angus & Robertson printed 100,000 copies.
His Glugs of Gosh, also finished during the honeymoon was released at the same time, dedicated to his wife. Although not a run-away success, it still sold 40,000 copies, including 2,000 in Scotland.
Early in 1918 Dennis secured £1000 for the film rights of the Sentimental Bloke. This was five times more than Lawson got for his books and eight times the amount Patterson got for his Man from Snowy River. During all this time Dennis also contributed work to several other newspaper columns and in September Backblock Ballads and Later Verses came off the press.
As if all this was not enough he also began work on Digger Smith, dedicated to the AIF. It was released a few days after the armistice was signed, ending WWI. November 1918 saw the first screening, in Adelaide, of The Sentimental Bloke, with a general release in Australia and England in 1919. It was a huge success.
During the early 1920s Australian tastes were changing. Slang, dialect and the light topical verse were on the way out. The kind of poetry Dennis had been writing for so long was on the way out too. But enough royalties kept coming in for him and Biddy to live happily, for the time being, in their enchanted sanctuary at Toolangi.
Continuous heavy spending, entertainment, renovations, drinking and declining royalties resulted in large debts by 1922. He once again had to look for a job to make ends meet. He was offered one at Murdock’s Herald newspaper which meant moving to Melbourne. The workload was heavy and demanding. Heavy drinking became a problem and his work suffered. Fewer pieces were written and often of poor quality.
Two years later he left and returned to writing books again. Unfortunately it did not last and in 1927 he was back at his newspaper job, leaving his wife in Toolangi. While still drinking heavily he was able to produce regular copy for several newspapers on any current news item. His lucky day came in 1931 when he signed a contract with film producer Frank Thring worth £2,000.
Dennis kept up with his writing but none of it was as good as his earlier work. His last book The Singing Garden was produced in 1935. On 8 June 1938 he published the last of his more than 3000 poems. Two weeks later he died on 22 June. A requiem mass was celebrated in St Thomas Aquinas church, South Yarra after which he was buried at the Box Hill Cemetery. The Herald paid for the funeral.
Having told this most remarkable story Butterss then goes on to evaluate it and the importance of its contribution to Australia and Australians today. No doubt this well written account of An Unsentimental Bloke will not only result in many people wanting to read it but also in a renewed interest in reading or re-reading the works of CJ Dennis.
Review by Nic Klaassen
Telephone 08 8352 4455
Philip Butterss was awarded the National Biography Award of $25,000 on 3 August 2015. According to the judges An Unsentimental Bloke was a forensic work of recovery that resurrected the life and works of far and away the most popular of all Australian poets.
An Unsentimental Bloke by Philip Butterss,
PB, 296 pp, with extensive notes, bibliography,
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