Reprint: Tendencies of Australian Literature


If an intelligent and industrious Englishman, with no previous knowledge of Australia, set himself to a careful study of its literature, with the object of learning something of the habits and customs, the thought, and the ideals of this newest of the nations, he would land himself in very strange places. If he took the resolution of visiting Australia, and of living among the people for some years, he would discover that his industry and his intelligence had combined to mislead him utterly, and that his studies had taken him altogether away from even an approximately correct apprehension of Australian life, in its smaller as well as in its greater aspects. The total output of Australian literature -- leaving out journalism -- is considerable in quantity. It may be divided into two sections. The first comprises poems and fiction on the English model; the second is made up of books whose inspiration and colouring are Australian. The first section belonged particularly to a period when the standard of general education in Australia was not high, and when the educated portion of the community still thought of themselves as in exile, and spoke of England as "Home." How persistent was that tradition will be apparent when we remember that even a few years ago Australians of the second and third generations invariably spoke of a visit to England as "a trip Home." There were no Australian publishers willing to take big risks of the narrow local market, and they had no means of access to the English book circles. Teaching, too, in the Universities and in schools, was for a long time invariably on the English model, with no attempt to meet and cope with local needs, and separate ideals. Such novelists as Henry Kingsley and Miss Ada Cambridge, to name two who had some vogue, used Australia merely as a setting; their characters in thought and in action were entirely English. That cult persists even today, although not so marked, and the writers who follow it have their market in England rather than in Australia. Even Kendall, whose reputation will be revived some day when the babel noises of present day jingle are subdued, used the Australian bush rather as a convenience than as an inspiration. Were he alive to-day, when there is a community life, and some independence of thought and culture, he might have initiated a school of Australian poetry of high distinction. Of other Australian poets Brunton Stephens, and, on occasion, Essex Evans, were close to Kendall, and Victor Daley, who failed, had both inspiration and the gift of poetic language which, unhappily, were suppressed by the conditions of his living, and emerged only in flashes. He might have been the most distinctive of Australian poets, but produced little which will find a place in any carefully compiled anthology.

Two men among the earlier writers -- and one was a Scotchman -- left their mark, not so much by the excellence of their work as by the influence which they have exerted on popular taste, and on the men who cater for it. Gordon introduced the song of the bushman and his horse; Marcus Clarke popularised the convict and the bushranger. Gordon loved bush life and horses, and the most popular of his poems have all the freshness of open air life. Then came a period of idleness on the part of the muse, which was broken, when Mr. A. B. Patterson caught the popular ear with "The Man from Snowy River." The note was taken up, and an infinite number of tunes have been written on it. A few of the versifiers, like Gordon and Mr. Patterson, have been men acquainted with the bush and with horses; others, living in the cities, have exploited the theme for all and more than it is worth. Their readers, most of whom live in England or in Australian cities, are satisfied, and so the jingle passes current as poetry, and we have pictures of the bush and its life which are not recognisable by those who know it, and which find their inspiration in some imagined ever-pending gloom, and ignore the real beauty which belongs even to the sunlit plains. Following the lead of Marcus Clarke, a host of writers dived into old records, or used their imaginations, and so for a considerable period it was almost impossible to find a work of fiction dealing with Australian life which had not as its centre of interest some dreadful story of the convict system, or some highly-coloured account of a bushranger. "Rolfe Boldrewood" reached high-water mark with his romantic "Robbery Under Arms," and lent some glamour to the drab and dismal reality of bushranging. But no other writer came near to that achievement, and probably not one of their books will survive, except an a curiosity of literature. "Rolf Boldrewood" made two other notable contributions, which might have set a fair standard for a distinctively Australian school of fiction. "The Miner's Right" and "The Squatter's Dream" were careful and faithful accounts, in the guise of fiction, of critical periods of Australian history, written by a man who had an extensive first-hand knowledge, derived from his experiences as a pastoralist and a magistrate. Both have fallen into undeserved neglect, and might with advantage, and even profit, be revived.

The latest discovered tendency in Australian literature is one which might make us despair of its future. A group of writers in verse and in prose has taken up the larrikin of Sydney and Melbourne, and has found him a gold mine. The most notable is Mr. C. J. Dennis, whose "Sentimental Bloke" and "Ginger Mick" have achieved a success as extraordinary as it is undoubted. The "larrikin" and his female compeer are not at all admirable persons, and the conditions of their lives are such as to beget sorrow for their degradation rather than to call for its exaltation. But, worst of all is the fact that their doings and their thoughts and their living are made visible by the vehicle of a language as degraded as their lives. It is a sad commentary on the educational system of Australia that books written in the most villainous slang of the dregs of the city populations are to-day easily ahead of all others as "best sellers." Amidst all this noise we do, it is true, catch murmurs of sweeter and nobler singing, and the contributions of Miss Ida Rentoul as artist, and her sister as a writer of verse, are representative of the real Australia and of the true beauty and romance of the bush. But the prevailing tendency of Australian literature is downward.

First published in The Mercury, 15 June 1918

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

Notes: I just love the condescending attitude of the writer here. The essay starts with a barely disguised lament that certain poets didn't live long enough to gain an audience in England - and thereby gain a level of approval - and ends with a frontal assault on any literature deemed to be about the "villainous slang of the dregs of the city populations". Come on, people, literature should be all sweetness and light, uplifting and wholesome, and concern "admirable persons". Got that?


Do you know who the author is, Perry? It sounds like ramblings from 'Crusty Old Gent' or similar...

This article appeared on what would later be called the editorial pages of the paper: after the classified ads and sport and before the seemingly endless war news. It doesn't carry a by-line, and that was pretty common at the time. "Crusty" or "Grumpy" would tend to describe it quite well.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on September 25, 2009 8:37 AM.

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