Arthur Morrison 1863–-1945
English novelist, journalist, and short story writer.
Morrison's literary reputation is mostly based on his realistic novels and short stories about slum life in London. In addition, he wrote detective fiction that is openly derivative of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. Possessed with a wide and free-ranging curiosity, Morrison wrote both fiction and nonfiction works on diverse subjects, from Japanese art to occultism, and participated in English literary life well into World War II.
Morrison was born in London's East End slums on November 1, 1863. While he apparently wanted to live down his working-class origins, and never gave any specific accounting of his early years, this never prevented him from displaying his penetrating understanding of slum life in his work. Commentators consider it likely that he was largely, if not entirely self-educated. In 1886 he began working as a clerk for the “People's Palace,” a social-improvement charity organized by novelist and critic Walter Besant. By 1889, Morrison was working as an editor for Besant's Palace Journal, and made a brief appearance on the editorial staff of the Globe as well. His East End sketch, “A Street,” published in Macmillan's Magazine in 1891, garnered some popular and critical attention. His work began appearing in newspapers and periodicals regularly, and a collection of his short stories about London slum life, Tales of Mean Streets, was published in 1894.
By 1910, Morrison had less interest in literature. He acquired a taste for Eastern art, especially Japanese painting and printmaking. He assembled an extensive collection of Japanese and other Eastern art, as well as works by a number of English masters, including William Hogarth, Thomas Gainsborough, John Constable, and J. M. W. Turner. His literary output continued to dwindle, even as he was elected to the Royal Society of Literature. Morrison eventually became a professional art dealer. He died in 1945 at the age of eighty-two.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Morrison's short fiction can be classified into two main categories; realistic East End chronicles and detective stories. His first collection, Tales of Mean Streets, chronicles the plight of the urban poor in London's East End. This collection, along with his subsequent East End novel A Child of the Jago, fed into the ongoing controversy over literary realism, a debate involving such authors as Stephen Crane and Emile Zola. In 1894 Morrison began publishing detective stories in the Strand and Windsor Magazine. The protagonist of these stories, Martin Hewitt, was thought to be a response to the death of Sherlock Holmes, to whom Hewitt is often compared. The Hewitt stories were collected in four volumes: Martin Hewitt, Investigator, Chronicles of Martin Hewitt, Adventures of Martin Hewitt, and The Red Triangle. In addition to his Hewitt stories, Morrison made two other forays into the detective field: The Dorrington Deed-Box, which introduces the quasi-criminal antihero Dorrington; and The Green Eye of Goona, a pastiche of Willkie Collins's The Moon-Stone.
Although he was accused of overemphasizing and exploiting the gloomier and more fatalistic side of East End life, Morrison garnered considerable praise and attention for his collection Tales of Mean Streets. The stories in the collection figured in an ongoing debate about literary realism and were esteemed and criticized for its grimly vivid depictions of the bleakness and the squalor of lower-class existence in London's East End. Morrison's detective fiction suffered by inevitable comparison with Sherlock Holmes, but enjoyed moderate popularity all the same. As far as modern critics are concerned, many have observed that his work has fallen into undeserved obscurity and merits serious reconsideration.