Archibald Joseph Cronin (KROH-nuhn), the Scottish physician who became for several decades one of the most popular writers in the English-speaking world, gave up a profitable London practice in 1931 to become a full-time novelist. Among the eighteen novels that he produced during the next half century, four were best-sellers. His work became known for its direct, simple style, unstinting social criticism, and Roman Catholic outlook. Cronin achieved a critical reputation as well for combining a concern for enduring values with melodramatic action and for fusing realism with a romantic flair.
The son of Patrick and Jessie (Montgomerie) Cronin, A. J. Cronin was educated at the University of Glasgow, where he received his M.D. He served as a surgeon in the Royal Navy during World War I and then practiced medicine in New South Wales from 1921 to 1924. Later, he served as a medical inspector of mines investigating occupational diseases in the coal industry, thereby unwittingly gathering material for at least two subsequent novels.
In 1926, Cronin opened a medical practice in London’s fashionable West End, but soon after ill health forced him to take a leave of absence. In the summer of 1930, while convalescing from gastric ulcers on a lonely farm in the Highlands, Cronin began to write a novel to while away the hours. The result was Hatter’s Castle, the story of James Brodie, a Scottish hatmaker obsessed with and ultimately ruined by the idea of his noble birth. The novel was accepted by the first publisher to whom Cronin submitted it and became an immediate best-seller in England. Although some faulted Cronin’s style as too dependent on nineteenth century novelistic techniques, critics on both sides of the Atlantic hailed him as an important new novelist.
His next two novels, Three Loves and The Grand Canary, disappointed critical expectations, but in 1935 The Stars Look Down was unanimously judged to fulfill the promise of the first novel. Set in a North England mining town, The Stars Look Down secured Cronin an international readership.
In 1937, Cronin again drew on his own experiences for the most controversial of his novels, The Citadel, the tale of a doctor who exchanges his work in a Welsh mining village for a fashionable London practice only to realize the value of the life he had abandoned. Critics praised Cronin’s sense of social responsibility in exposing the corrupting influences to which medical professionals who attempt to succeed financially and socially are vulnerable.
During the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, Cronin’s popularity as a novelist led to even greater commercial success through film adaptations of his works. The Citadel was filmed in 1938, and by 1941, two other novels, The Stars Look Down and Hatter’s Castle, had also been made into successful films, as was the play Jupiter Laughs, whose film version was renamed Shining Victory.
The 1941 publication of The Keys of the Kingdom, the story of a self-sacrificing Roman Catholic priest sent by his superiors as a missionary to China, where he learns the value of tolerance and patience, marked the height of Cronin’s popularity. The novel passed the half-million mark in sales and was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. Although some critics found the central character unbelievable and the story relying too much on trite doctrine, others praised the book for portraying eternal and redemptive values, especially at a time when the world was caught up in the tragedy of another world war. The film version of the novel became an enormous box-office success in 1944.
Cronin turned again to personal experience in the novel The Green Years and its sequel, Shannon’s Way, stories of an Irish boy reared in Scotland, and in his autobiography, Adventures in Two Worlds. Cronin married another physician, Agnes Mary Gibson, in 1921, and they had three sons—including Vincent, who also became a novelist. After World War II ended, Cronin became a citizen of the United States, where for a time he made his home in Blue Hills, Maine, and later in Greenwich and New Canaan, Connecticut. He spent the final twenty-five years of his life in Switzerland. He continued to write well into the 1970’s, though his popularity had begun to wane by the 1950’s. Late in life, Cronin again used his medical background to create Dr. Finlay’s Casebook, one of Britain’s longest-running television series.
Cronin’s contribution to twentieth century letters can be considered to lie in the communal values he espoused in his fiction. In 1958, Cronin remarked of contemporary novelists, “They don’t seem to have the stimulation of—I won’t say the Christian ethic—but they seem to have no light to guide them.” Cronin had deeply felt ethical beliefs, and he was able to transmit them compellingly through his writing, setting the standard for such a literature in his time.