Arthur Morrison 1863-1945
English novelist, journalist, and short story writer.
Morrison's literary reputation is for the most part based on his realistic novels and short stories about London slum life, of which the most prominent was A Child of the Jago. In addition, much of his body of work is detective fiction that is openly derivative of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. Possessed of a wide and free-ranging curiosity, Morrison wrote both fiction and nonfiction works on diverse subjects, from Japanese art to occultism, and participated in the life of English belles lettres well into the Second World War.
Morrison was born in London's East End slums on 1 November 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 and thorough under-standing of slum life in his work. Commentators consider it likely that he was largely, if not entirely self-educated. In 1886, at the age of twenty-three, Morrison 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 die Globe as well. His East En d sketch, "A Street," published in Macmillan's Magazine in 1891, brought him some popular attention and the interest of William Ernest Henley, editor of the National Observer. Through Henley, Morrison met Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stevenson, J. M. Barrie, and other literary figures of the time, and his work began to appear in the Observer regularly, with a collection of his short stories about London slum life, Tales of Mean Streets, appearing in 1894. In that same year, at a time when Conan Doyle had apparently ceased writing Sherlock Holmes stories, Morrison inaugurated a detective series of his own. The stories appeared in the Strand and Windsor and were collected in four volumes over the next few years. Morrison's career as a noted author who was engaged with the literary, trends of his time was founded on his 1896 novel, A Child of the Jago, the first of three novels based on East End slum life. By 1910, Morrison's interest in literature had fallen off. Through Henley, he acquired a taste for Eastern art, especially Japanese painting and printmaking. Morrison 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 and went on to serve on its council for a time, and Morrison eventually became a professional art dealer. He died in 1945 at the age of eighty-two.
Morrison's works are best understood as falling into three main categories: realistic East End chronicles, detective stories, and nonfiction studies on various subjects. Morrison's first fiction collection, Tales of Mean Streets, brought him to the attention of Reverend A. Osborne Jay, a priest who invited him to visit his East End parish and witness the conditions there for himself. Out of this series of visits Morrison produced his most famous and best-received novel, the unsentimental A Child of the Jago, a bleak account of the plight of the urban poor trapped in crime-ridden slums by social forces beyond their control or understanding. Its appearance fed into the ongoing controversy over literary realism, a debate involving such authors as Stephen Crane and Emile Zola. Morrison went on to produce two more East End novels: To London Town, about middle-class life on the outskirts of London, and the much-praised The Hole in the Wall, set in a public house on the lawless Radliffe Highway. The next major category of Morrison's works, his detective fiction, began in 1894, when Morrison responded to the death of Sherlock Holmes (in Conan Doyle's story "The Final Problem") with a sleuth of his own, the private investigator Martin Hewitt, whose various adventures were published in the Strand (occasionally with illustrations by Sidney Paget, illustrator for Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories) and in Windsor Magazine. The Hewitt stories were collected in four volumes: Martin Hewitt, Investigator, Chronicles of Martin Hewitt, Adventures of Martin Hewitt, and The Red Triangle . Hewitt, while as perceptive, reserved, unsentimental, and eclectically erudite as Holmes, was much more a man of the crowd, average in appearance, temperament, and demeanor, a former solicitor's clerk who found his personality and inclination better suited to private investigation. Nonetheless, Hewitt's cases were just as bizarre and exotic as any of Holmes's: Hewitt hunts up clues underwater in a diving suit in "The Nicobar Bullion Case"; solves "The Case of the Lost Foreigner," in which anarchists are out to destroy civilization with bombs concealed in loaves of bread, by interpreting the doodles of an aphasie and agraphic character; and, in "The Case of the Missing Hand," puts his knowledge of Romany, the language of the Gypsies, to good use. Morrison made two other forays into the detective field, the first: The Dorrington Deed-Box, which introduces the quasi-criminal antihero Dorrington, and The Green Eye of Goona, a pastiche of Wilkie Collins's The Moon-Stone (1868). The third main category of Morrison's works comprise a series of non-fiction works, several of which reflected his growing interest in Japanese art, including Exhibition of Japanese Screens Painted by the Old Masters, The Painters of Japan, and Guide to an Exhibition of Japanese and Chinese Paintings. Of these, his two-volume Painters of Japan was a primary reference work for decades to follow.
Although he was accused of morbidly overemphasizing the gloomier and more fatalistic side of East End life, Morrison received considerable praise and attention for his collection Tales of Mean Streets, considering how little-known was his previous work. Similarly, A Child of the Jago figured significantly in an ongoing debate about literary realism and was both esteemed and criticized for its grimly vivid depictions of the bleakness and the squalor of his characters' lives. Of all his realistic novels, only The Hole in the Wall received unreserved critical approval, which was matched by popular success. 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 Morrison's work has fallen into undeserved obscurity and merits serious reconsideration.