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C. J. Dennis

( Clarence Michael James Dennis )
1876 - 1938

Australian writer

Clarence Michael James Dennis was born on 7 September 1876 in Auburn, South Australia. (He never used his second name, Michael.) He was the son of James Dennis, a retired sea captain who kept a hotel, and his wife Catherine Tobin.

He was educated at Laura and at the Christian Brothers College at Adelaide, where with three others he produced a school paper The Weary Weekly. On leaving school he became a junior clerk in an office, but was shortly afterwards discharged because he found Rider Haggard's novels more interesting than office work.

After working for his father for some time he began sending verses to the Critic, an Adelaide paper. He joined its staff when he was 22, but soon after went to Broken Hill, where he worked successively as miner, carpenter, labourer and canvasser. It was difficult to make even a bare living at any of these occupations, but his experiences widened his knowledge of human nature.

He returned to Adelaide, took up journalism again, and in 1906 founded The Gadfly, a bright publication started with scarcely any capital, which survived for 18 months. Among its contributors was Will Dyson who later established a world-wide reputation as a cartoonist.

Towards the end of 1907 Dennis went to Melbourne, established himself at Toolangi, a rural township 52 kilometres north-east of Melbourne in the hills, and worked as a free-lance journalist on the Bulletin and other papers. In 1913 he published his first volume Backblock Ballads and Other Verses by "Den" (C. J. Dennis). This had but a moderate success, though it contained four of the poems in his next book The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, which made his reputation. It was published in 1915, and over 50,000 copies were sold in Australia within a year. Editions were also issued in Canada and the United States, and before the end of 1919 over 100,000 copies has been issued. Before its first publication Dennis had been working in the attorney-general's department of the Commonwealth government, and was for a time private secretary to Senator Russell. The success of his book enabled him to go to the country again, and he made himself a very pleasant home at Toolangi.

Other books followed in quick succession, The Moods of Ginger Mick (1916), The Glugs of Gosh (satire) (1917), Backblock Ballads re-issued with later verses added (1918), and Digger Smith in the same year. In 1919 Jim of the Hills, a Story in Rhyme was published, and in 1921 A Book for Kids (in prose and verse) reissued under the title of Roundabout in 1935. In 1922 Dennis joined the staff of the Herald, Melbourne, and during the next 15 years did a large amount of writing including much verse on topics of the time. Rose of Spadgers, a sequel to Ginger Mick, was published in 1924, and in 1935 The Singing Garden, mostly a selection from prose and verse contributed to the Herald, appeared.

He died at Melbourne on 21 June 1938. He married in 1917, Olive Herron, who survived him. There were no children.

The great success of Dennis was due to his humour and pathos, his healthy sentiment, and his kindly view of human nature. If his sentiment at times tended to slop over into sentimentality, it was to some extent concealed by his humorous use of slang, of which a glossary was provided at the end of most of the volumes. He wrote verse that could be read with pleasure both by uneducated people and by intellectuals. He was an excellent journalist, a first-rate literary craftsman, and he wrote some of the best popular poetry that has appeared in Australia. Personally he was a good companion much liked by his many friends.

Dictionary of Australian Biography, Angus and Robertson, 1949

Dennis' works include:

  • 1913  Backblock Ballads and Other Verses
  • 1915  The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke
  • 1916  The Moods of Ginger Mick
  • 1917  The Glugs of Gosh (satire)
  • 1918  Backblock Ballads re-issued with later verses added
  • 1918  Digger Smith
  • 1919  Jim of the Hills, a Story in Rhyme
  • 1921  A Book for Kids (reissued 1935 as Roundabout)
  • 1924  Rose of Spadgers (sequel to Ginger Mick)
  • 1935  The Singing Garden

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