Arthur Morrison

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Introduction

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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...

(The entire section is 40,033 words.)