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‘The secret life of John Curtin’

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John Curtin probably wrote under the pen-name Vigilant – providing important insights into his temperament – according to a study of the wartime prime minister after whom Curtin University is named.

Lesley Wallace is the Manager, Research Services, at Curtin University Library and manages the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. She co-authored What’s in a name – was John Curtin ‘Vigilant’?.

The study combined Mrs Wallace’s probe of papers by economist and journalist Tom Fitzgerald with a comparison by University of Newcastle researchers Alexis Antonia and Hugh Craig of distinctive words used by both Curtin and Vigilant.

Before his death in 1993, John Curtin researcher Tom Fitzgerald amassed a wealth of evidence that Curtin had written as Vigilant while editing the Westralian Worker before he entered Federal Parliament.

“Curtin’s editorials, later writings on economics, and parliamentary speeches have been widely studied, but no published biographies have considered the pen-named material,” Mrs Wallace said.

At the time of his death, Fitzgerald had researched Vigilant’s writing for his incomplete biography of Curtin.

Mrs Wallace said that more than 40 articles attributed to Vigilant were likely to have been penned by Curtin.

“The views expressed were views Curtin held strongly and the articles reveal knowledge of people, places, events and literature that he knew well,” she said.

“The columns – on subjects not addressed in the known Curtin writings – reveal much about Vigilant’s views and the writings and people influential in forming his thinking.”

For example, in reviewing a book on ‘the sex problem in its every aspect’, Vigilant wrote about the place of women in society and the nature of sex and marriage.

Taking the socialist line, he stated that ‘the only ultimate complete solution of the sex-problem, bound up as it is with the economic dependence of woman, lies in the emancipation of society’.

Vigilant challenged his readers to examine their own relationships to see if they were free of the ‘exercise of physical or economic advantage by the man’ or ‘the exploitation of sex-charm on the part of the woman’.

The recent study noted many parallels between the lives of Vigilant and Curtin.

For instance, in a lament expressed by many newcomers since, Vigilant expresses a poor opinion of Perth’s intellectual life compared with that of the eastern capitals.

He sees an urgent need for elevating that life, especially with a repertory theatre, writing that ‘the West hasn’t been furiously progressive in the world of ideas of late’.

“If Curtin were Vigilant, it would help us see the events of Curtin’s life from his own viewpoint,” Mrs Wallace said.

The two University of Newcastle researchers compared several distinctive words by Curtin with words employed by Vigilant.

“Based on these comparisons a good case for Curtin’s authorship of at least some of the Vigilant articles can be made,” Mrs Wallace said.

However, the results suggest Curtin did not write all of Vigilant’s pieces.

“If Curtin did write all the articles, then he clearly varied his style, in some cases carrying over few habitual preferences from his political writing to these essays in literary history and evaluation,” Mrs Wallace said.

Dr Antonia said the failure of the linguistic analysis to attribute some of the articles to Curtin might be due to him having consciously chosen to use a set of stylistic words conventionally considered suitable to the literary and personal themes that Vigilant tackled.

“The extent to which different authors adopt this subject-specific focus or not can explain why the articles of some authors seem uniform while those of others display marked variability,” Dr Antonia said.

“Further tests with a large number of Curtin articles would be needed to confirm this hypothesis.”

Photography: Sam Proctor

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