Willa McDonald, Warrior for Peace: Dorothy Auchterlonie Green.
When researching this biography of Australian writer and peace activist Dorothy Auchterlonie Green, Willa McDonald initially had access to Green's papers held at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA), Canberra, but access has since been restricted. The book does not explain why this happened. Within that and other limitations, and drawing on some papers and photographs made available by Green's family, McDonald has taken us a step forward in understanding the life and work of an important literary critic of twentieth-century capitalist Australia. McDonald has fulfilled her modest but worthwhile aim of 'bringing something of Dorothy Green to life for readers' while providing material for another researcher 'to take this work further'. (Since the subject of this biography used two names, Dorothy Auchterlonie and Dorothy Green, in her public life, I will call her Dorothy in this review to avoid confusion.)
The 17 chapters of this book are, in general, chronological with the bulk concentrating on Dorothy's work in the peace movement from her fifties until her death at 75 in 1991. While the movement against conscription and the Vietnam War is covered, McDonald's emphasis is on the anti-nuclear and anti-uranium mining movements of the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, the author has taken Dorothy's life as a thread to offer some insights into a neglected aspect of peace movement history.
Born in England in 1915 of an Australian-born mother and an English father who died in 1920 during the influenza epidemic, Dorothy came to Australia with her mother and stepfather in 1927. Bright at school, she delayed entry to university to spend a year with her dying mother. McDonald's chapter on Dorothy's first twenty years has some gaps that do not seem to be due to ADFA's restricted access. For example, we are not given her mother Marguerita's family name, something available from the public record, and there is no explanation of how a child whose early years were, we read, 'scarred by poverty and war' went to a selective high school in Sydney and joined the tiny minority of women of her generation who attended university. In a careless passage, caning at school is described as 'capital punishment'.
Major aspects of Dorothy's life are covered in summary form: love of music; work for the Australian Broadcasting Commission; transmitting General Douglas MacArthur's war communiques; falling in love with, and marrying Harry Green, a scholar and mentor forty years her senior; ten years in the Blue Mountains; five years as co-principal of a Presbyterian school in Queensland; raising two children; seeing Leonie Kramer preferred to herself for the chair of Australian literature in Sydney; lecturing in Australian literature at Australian National University, Monash University and then ADFA, Canberra. An early chapter gives a confusing account of Green's confused remarks about how she, who opposed divorce, became a party to breaking up a marriage.
While chapter six deals with Dorothy's revised edition of Harry Green's two- volume History of Australian Literature: Pure and Applied, the rest of her major literary achievements are woven into chapters on other topics. Her poems, works of criticism and her study of Henry Handel Richardson, entitled Ulysses Unbound, come to the reader's attention, as it were, in passing. McDonald's tendency to introduce important matters obliquely is a puzzling feature of this book, and extends to Dorothy's personal life including her move to Queensland, her marriage, the death of her husband and her subsequent nervous breakdown.
In regards to the book's major theme, the author judges that Dorothy's main achievement was her role in founding Writers Against Nuclear Arms (WANA). Having ADFA host a critical conference on the role of writers and the threat of nuclear war, as WANA did, was a notable achievement. Dorothy's criticism of US military ambitions and practice is a couple of times described as 'strident' without supporting evidence. Perhaps the author was communicating in an oblique way that she disagreed with Dorothy's opposition to US policies. McDonald's judgement that the organisation, Australians for Armed Neutrality, led by David Martin, which Dorothy supported, simply 'petered out' is not supported by evidence. That group foundered, and was wrecked, in 1991 when Martin and others supported the American invasion of Iraq.
That Dorothy had 'a shining intellect and a big heart' is established in various ways. Although initially depicting Sydney philosopher, John Anderson, as a major formative intellectual influence on Dorothy, McDonald later points out that Dorothy was a practising Christian who drew on the gospel stories of Jesus and writers such as John Henry Newman, Paul Tillich and Thomas Merton. Such sources enkindled her opposition to a society based on the profit motive and her stand against nuclear war. Further exploration may show that Dorothy can be better understood when seen as part of an Australian Anglican left, of whom Bishop Ernest Burgmann and journalist Francis James are among the better known.
Regardless of the problems of access to sources, the author or the publisher could have improved this text with appropriate editing; for example, by cutting back the number of times we have to read that 'Dorothy must have' done something, or 'perhaps Dorothy' thought something. Towards the end, McDonald comments on Dorothy's view of Britain as the motherland for Australians. In that context, is McDonald's description of 'Danny Boy' as an 'English folk song' a considered view or a slip? Although an Englishman wrote the lyrics, it is sung to 'Londonderry Air' and has become a signature tune for Irish communities. Moreover, in the generally well-informed footnotes, readers may find off-putting the use of surnames first for authors, as well as inelegant typesetting of footnotes that list multiple references.
On a personal note, I enjoyed learning from McDonald that Dorothy and I have common ground in regard to drawing on the work of scholar and anti-war activist, Alex Carey. Among Dorothy's papers was a bundle of Carey's published and unpublished writings on industrial psychology, democracy, Vietnam and US propaganda techniques. I have kept a similar bundle. McDonald has therefore given Carey a rightful place of importance in the history of the peace movement. More broadly, all those interested in the history of the peace movement, Australian literature, and the Christian critique of capitalism will benefit from reading this book.
University of Melbourne
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|Publication:||Labour History: A Journal of Labour and Social History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2010|
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