Founders of Our Literature: J. F. Archibald

No survey of the founders of Australian literature could be complete without mention of J.F. Archibald. Although he did not write himself, except in the way of journalism, he encouraged literary genius and helped it along. That exceptionally rich period in Australian literature beginning at the end of the last century can nearly all be attributed to him.

Archibald was the literary sub-editor in excelsis. In the most ill-written doggerel he sometimes discerned the spark of genius and fanned it into flame. It was the same with prose. If a poor effort could be turned into a good one, Archibald could do it better than anybody else.

As a rule, writers of established reputation dislike intensely any interference with their work by the sub-editorial pencil. It is a tribute to Archibald's particular kind of genius that the greatest writers of his time did not object to his sub-editing. Henry Lawson was such a one. Indeed, it is said that much of the polish in Lawson's writing was the work of Archibald.

He had a high appreciation of literature. Without him Australia would have missed much of that which it is now proud to acclaim. Lawson, Paterson, Will Ogilvie, Victor Daley, Roderic Quinn, Hugh McCrae and a host of others might have gone their ways silently, might never have been able to express themselves but for him. In black and white art it was the same Archibald who as the literary helmsman of the Bulletin found and
fostered them all.

Writing of him, Mrs William Macleod, wife of his partner, says: "Archibald was frail, nervy, mercurial, intellectually arrogant, full of likeable little vanities and a continuous and usually witty and informative talker. He sub-edited others, himself he never sub-edited -- so far, anyhow, as the spoken word went."

And in another place, "He loved fine jewels and wines and delicate dishes, just as he loved fine writing and good pictures."

The same writer credits him with rare qualities as an editor, quite apart from his amazing technique as a condenser and improver in style. "He had the gift of appreciation and the will and capacity to express it. No free-lance, however humble, sent anything of worth to the paper and failed to hear about it from him."

Archibald was a man of great personal charm and of extreme loyalty to the people with whom he worked. He inspired loyalty in his friends.

In his later days Archibald fell on ill-health of a distressing nature, but his great work had been done. All over Australia today people prize collections of verse and stories which his eyes were the first to see and whose writers he was the first and often only one to encourage.

He secured enough of earthly reward to endow the Archibald prize for painting and supply the soldiers' memorial in Hyde Park, Sydney, but his true memorial lies in greater things than these. This man, who began life as an insignificant reporter on a Melbourne newspaper, and who toiled for ideals that were not all literary, actually laid many of the foundations of Australian literature.

People often say, "If Henry Lawson and others came along today with their manuscripts; if Ogilvie had written his bush ballads a generation later; if Paterson were to turn up now with 'Man From Snowy River,' would they get the hearing that they received in their generation?"

The question is impossible to answer. Probably they would, but we have to remember that they wrote in a period that has gone, and that no writer succeeds without a sympathetic editor or publisher. They might find such a one today, but in that period it was Archibald who found them, and archibald who encouraged and published them. Without him to whom could they then have turned?

So the man who wrote nothing fills a big niche in the literary structure and none would acknowledge the debt more readily than the writers themselves.

First published in The Herald, 16 June 1934

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on February 1, 2008 8:51 AM.

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