Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Alexander King (1904–1970)

by John Hay

This article was published:

Alexander King (1904-1970), professor of English, was born on 22 May 1904 at Sherborne, Dorset, England, second son of Rev. Henry Robinson King, a master at Sherborne School, and his wife Emily Constance, née Gray, a schoolteacher. Educated at Sherborne School and New College, Oxford, Alec obtained third-class honours in classics (B.A., 1928; M.A., 1931). He decided to become a schoolteacher and enrolled at the London Day Training College (Dip.Ed., 1928). There he met Catherine Helen, daughter of (Sir) Walter Murdoch. He followed her to Western Australia. They were married with Anglican rites on 17 December 1929 at Perth College chapel. King taught French and classics for two years at Guildford Grammar School, but was retrenched during the Depression.

In 1933 he joined Murdoch's department of English at the University of Western Australia as a part-time assistant-lecturer. King progressed to lecturer (1941), senior lecturer (1946) and reader (1952). His principal publications included a school text, co-authored with Martin Ketley, The Control of Language (London, 1939); a children's book, Australian Holiday (Melbourne, 1945), which King wrote with his wife; Wordsworth and the Artist's Vision (London, 1966); and a collection of essays, edited and subsequently published by his son Francis, The Unprosaic Imagination (Perth, 1975). King's major writings reflected his preoccupation with the importance of the creative imagination, with the interrelated literary, spiritual and secular significance of poetry, and, above all, with the vital importance of 'the life of the mind', a phrase that recurred in his conversation.

The influence of Wordsworth and the English Romantics were equally discernible in his teaching of literature, for which he was celebrated and best remembered. His was a quiet and wise voice, dedicated to nourishing and affirming the essentially interpretative function of reading and criticism. In an English department which moved from the belletristic approach of his father-in-law to the Leavisite practices of Professor W. A. Edwards, King's voice provided a subtly different and alternative discourse.

Edwards's enthusiasms for Freud were matched by King's more Jungian notions; the Leavisite's idea of the self-sufficiency of the literary text was counterpointed by King's reluctance to embrace ideology or theory. He preferred to deal with seamless linkings of poetry, the visual arts and music. Beyond the tutor's study, he was a fine violinist, president of the university's orchestral society, and a member of its choral and Bach societies. With Catherine established as a leading radio broadcaster and Alec a regular contributor to the city's cultural life, they turned their Claremont home into a vital and often crowded meeting-place for visiting and local artists, performers and community leaders. For many of Alec's colleagues and honours students, his home came to embody the idea of that fusion of literature, life and creative imagination which informed his teaching. Louis Kahan's sketch (1942) of King caught precisely the quietly contemplative demeanour of an inspiring teacher and scholar.

In 1966 King took up the second chair of English at Monash University, Melbourne. Ill health marred his tenure. Survived by his wife, daughter and two sons, he died of cancer on 7 March 1970 at Canterbury and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Gazette of University of Western Australia, 16, no 1, 1966
  • Monash University Gazette, 7, no 7, 1970
  • West Australian, 18 Jan 1966, 14 Mar 1970
  • University of Western Australia Archives.

Citation details

John Hay, 'King, Alexander (1904–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


22 May, 1904
Sherborne, Dorset, England


7 March, 1970 (aged 65)
Canterbury, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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