Reprint: Australian Essays

Ever since the centenary year 1888 Australia has had a legion of verse anthologists, from Douglas Sladen down to Walter Murdoch and Percival Serle, each with his or her bouquet of blooms from the slopes of our Austral Parnassus. Some time ago Nettie Palmer and George Mackaness made an expedition among our Australian short stories, and each brought back rich pillage in a vivid and breezy book of selected stories. But it was not until the end of 1930 that any one ventured to collect a volume of Australian Essays. The reasons for this seeming delay are not far to seek. The essay has always been a late comer in the evolution of a nation's literary self-expression. As a distinct literary form it only arrived in the world when all the other forms had reached their maturity. Montaigne, in his round tower at Perigord, began it in 1580 with his charming egotisms and his tolerant philosophy of life, and though Bacon within twenty years was writing essays in England that will always remain classics for their aphoristic splendour of phrase they long diverted the English essay from its mobile and imaginative Gallic archetype to a ponderous sententiousness and critical gravity from which it needed all the wit of Addison, the good nature of Steele, the delicious satire of Goldsmith, and the whimsical wisdom of Elia to deliver it. Even the essay of the Victorian Age, for all the brilliance of a Macaulay, the tempestuous vigour of a Carlyle, and the lucidity of a Bagehot, had more of the solid construction of a treatise than the tentativeness of the
intellectual sally, as is connoted by the very name of "essay." The modern essay, that is, the typical twentieth century essay, has consciously reverted to the spirit of Montaigne without his garrulity. It has fancy, personality, and, for all its desultory spontaneousness, art.

Australians, encouraged by the daily Press, have been cultivating this elusive art during the last twenty years, and now Dr. George Mackaness, assisted by John D. Holmes, has sampled the vintage in this first volume of "Essays: Imaginative and Critical"; chosen from Australian authors (Angus and Robertson). It Is chiefly due to the foresight of the late George Robertson and his awareness as a publisher that Australia had reached the stage of intellectual development when it asked for essays, that those green volumes began to appear some six years ago in the format he designed, which have secured for the Australian essay an enthusiastic Australian audience. Everybody knows Walter Murdoch's three immensely popular books in this verdant series -- "Speaking Personally," "Saturday Mornings," and "Moreover" - and many readers have been tempted by so persuasive and guileful a practitioner in the art to extend their study to the "Knocking Round" of Le Gay Brereton, "Talking It Over" of Nettie Palmer, "The Magic Carpet" of Elliott Napier, and others. The last four years have witnessed a remarkable renaissance in Australian publishing - the rate of exchange has something to do with it, and the need of philosophy of life in dull times more - and if the cultivation of the essay is a sign of national adulthood, as some, not themselves essayists, aver, well - Australia has come of age, and this volume is the proof of it. With a prefatory grimace the joint-editors say, "For a collection such as this it is customary to provide a preface explaining the method of selection and other mechanical principles. This saves the critic the trouble of reading the rest of the book. In this particular work we reject the time-honoured custom, and suggest that the critic read the essay entitled 'On Being Australian'."

There could have been no neater hint than this sardonic one to our literary critics in a hurry, who might otherwise have scurried to check the nativity of the essayists and say supercilious things about non-Australian themes with the zeal of an Australian Natives' Association. And it is no less salutary a nudge to the weary London critic who, assuming that Australians have no ability to write about other things, those typically Australian, might take exception to Mr. Godsall's fine essay on "The Cornish Coast," Mr. Macgrath's on "Spanish Moonshine," or even the late Professor Strong's essay on "The Devil," as lacking in local flavour. Walter Murdoch, as becomes his Scottish ancestry, has struck a blow for "the liberty of prophesying." Like a sound strategist, he takes the offensive. "Robert Lynd, an Irishman," he says, "writes, a delightful essay on 'The Nutritive Qualities of the Banana'; does any one rebuke him and tell him that the subject has not the true Irish flavour, that he shows no attachment to the Irish environment, that his essay has few native qualities? Do we beseech him to stick for the future to shillelaghs and banshees, and colleens and Kilkenny cats? Nobody says anything so absurd. It is at least equally absurd to ask us Australians to concentrate our interest on the affairs of the parish. We must assert our right to become, if we can, citizens of the world." It remains to be said that this fine selection fortifies that claim, and discounts, if it were worth while, Sir John Squire's admonition to the high-brows of the "London Mercury" to expect nothing from Australia but "Philistinism and frozen meat." Twenty-five writers have been laid under contribution for this interesting and diverse anthology. Marcus Clarke's famous, if disputable, preface to Lindsay Gordon's poems rightly reappears for its sheer glitter of style. In literary criticism Professor Tucker's essay on "The Supreme Literary Gift" would be hard to surpass. In the biographical essay what could be a more discriminating centenary tribute to Flinders than Ernest Scott's? In Alec Chisholm's essays we discover the true disciple of W. H. Hudson, an observer of Nature, who more and more is becoming a master of literary style. In town essays the reader will find Henry Boote's "Our Street" and Nettie Palmer's "The Bus" drenched with humanity; and Mary Gilmore in "Roads of Remembrance" plucks facts entwined with fancies from the wayside of memory as only a poet can. No doubt there are some names omitted, as is inevitable in so small a book, but the editors have included nothing flashy or insincere. It is a book to browse over in these summer days, and it is the first of its kind.

First published in The Courier-Mail, 6 January 1934

Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on October 17, 2008 8:59 AM.

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