[Editor: This untitled article views the organic development of Australian literature as an indication of a growing Australian consciousness. Published in The Argus, 25 October 1890.]
[A growing Australian consciousness]
Saturday, October 25, 1890.
The federation movement is not the only indication of a growing Australian consciousness. Australian literature is developing with it, and it is no paradox to maintain that our true right to claim importance among civilised communities is to be judged rather by the latter movement than by the former. To aspire to be a nation is not to prove maturity for it. But so soon as a people can produce in adequate quantity, and with reasonable consistency, a body of art and literature specially its own; so soon as that art and literature prove not inferior to the best contemporary productions of old established nations; and so soon as whatever peculiar characteristics such art and literature possess are the spontaneous outcome, not of an aggressive ostentation of independence, but of a special social environment naturally and gradually evolved; so soon have we an infallible token that such a people is pervaded with a sentiment properly national, and that it has at the same time culture enough to fit it for a nation. To take rank among nations a people must be strong enough, cultured enough, and sufficiently homogeneous in sentiment. Federation may provide the strength, and education the culture, but it is only time which can specialise and ingrain the sentiment. And literature offers the best test of the extent to which this has been done at a given moment. If there is no home-made literature worth speaking of, it is certain that population, culture, and national sentiment are all alike wanting. If there is abundance of literary production, but all marked by an air of diffidence and imitativeness, it is manifest that the people is still too crude for nationality; it either lacks anything specially distinctive in its feeling, or else the self-reliance to give it expression.
Australian literature is developing. There is not, indeed, and there cannot be, in tranquil times, any great and sudden outburst of remarkable production, but in such work as does appear in our midst it is easy to perceive both more solidity and more unconscious, and therefore unaggressive, local character. Our attempts at magazines and similar serials have, it is true, been mostly failures, simply because they had nothing to say which could not be equally well and more cheaply said in England. Yet ever and anon they re-appear with a modification of character and a prolonged existence, in poetry we have made our début. We are now in the stage of producing the Australian novel. Rolf Boldrewood and the author of An Australian Girl are showing that Australian life can afford matter for fiction of its own, and that Australian culture is competent to handle it. The Australian writer and the Australian subject enjoy the glories of London publication and three-volume dignity side by side with Mr. Besant and Mr. Henry James. And they do so without sacrificing, or rather precisely because they do not sacrifice, local truth. It is in books like An Australian Girl that we notice in particular the dawnings of a certain more or less unconscious tone and feeling which may be regarded as a special outcome of the life of this island-continent. Heretofore we have either had no truly Australian writers in this kind, or else they have been afraid to be themselves, lest they should betray some terrible “note of provinciality,” which would only show how lamentably we are cut off from the metropolitan grand monde of the world of letters. The cut of our literature, like the cut of our clothes, had to come from London. The tone of our prose literature, at least, must be as English as if it were the product of Devon or Lancashire. How much of this may be due to the fact that much so-called Australian literature has been the literature of Europeans who have migrated to Australia, we need not now inquire. Such persons of course coelum non animum mutant. The fact none the less remains that we have been diffident, imitative, conventional, and therefore artificial. And the fact is also apparent that we are “getting over it.” We are recognising that, though good art is good art everywhere, and good English equally good in England, America, or Australia, yet the only salt which savoureth literature is spontaneousness of spirit, or to use a word which is becoming rather slippery, inspiration.
We do not, however, encourage any absurd clamouring for the immediate realisation of some fantastic form of art or style of literature which shall dub itself Australian. No success can possibly attend a conscious resolve to be peculiar. The hobbledehoy “Australian Native” in “Association” assembled, and the ambitious but not wholly competent neophyte in art, may yearn for something all their very own; but it would be well for them to learn that neither literature nor art can ever become both “Australian” and successful, until it is quite unconsciously and spontaneously informed with its distinct quality, a quality which the writer or artist does not compass, but which is the inevitable result of the milieu in which he lives and works. English and French writing are palpably distinct: they are equally successful in their kind: but no writer of the one nation sits down and says, “Lo, I will be resolutely British” nor does any writer of the other strike his determined breast and say, “See, I will be full of the genuine esprit Gaulois.” The one is so thoroughly English and the other so thoroughly French merely because he cannot help it. He has imbibed and inhaled and assimilated the national spirit from all the surrounding nature, society, and traditions. The truly literary and artistic mind is a receptive and impressionable mind. It is therefore largely moulded by its environment. The familiar fauna and flora, the wonted aspects of earth and sky, the character and customs of daily life, the constitution and behaviour of society in all its grades, the political grandeur or otherwise of the country, the national culture, traditions, and ideals, the density or sparsity of population — all these go to determine the character of an artist’s or a writer’s work. In a new land, as generations pass and leave traditions, as society evolves in its necessary direction, as nature animate and inanimate imprints its reflection on the minds of millions who have grown up in its midst and its alone, a distinctive literature and art will evolve themselves accordingly. When the day comes on which writers produce their best thoughts and imaginations without consciousness of any quasi-provincial inferiority, serenely truthful to themselves, and serenely reproducing the things amid which they live and move and have their being, on that day may a nation consider itself fully fashioned and matured. And on that day will its literature become profoundly interesting to other peoples. American literature, even after the separation, was for a long time “colonial,” even when it was not, as so much of it was, purely parochial. It was a pale copy of the British. With the growth of the nation grew its literary power and distinctiveness, and with the distinctiveness grew the universal interest of its productions. Its special history and traditions gave us Evangeline; its peculiar phenomena of society gave us the Western humourists Bret Harte, Mark Twain, and the rest; its vastness of democratic life gave us Whitman; its social, religious, and political freedom gave us Emerson, Lowell, Holmes, and their like. The steps in American literature seem the same as those which Australia must complete, to wit, nothingness, diffident provincialism, somewhat tentative and aggressive independence, and finally serene and spontaneous production of work both nationally true and dignified. We have perhaps passed the second stage. The third is probably inevitable — we wish it may be short-lived. Meanwhile it is for critics and others who help to determine artistic and literary tone to keep their eyes impartially open, and to apply no overstrained conventional and undiscriminating European criticism to Antipodean efforts.
The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.), Saturday 25 October 1890, page 9
Also published in:
The Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton, Qld.), Tuesday 11 November 1890, page 3 (under the title of “Australian Federation”)
coelum non animum mutant = (Latin) a reference to the quote “Caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt” (“they change the sky, not their soul, who run across the sea”); from “Epistles”, book 1 (section 12, line 27), by Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus, 65 BC – 8 BC)
See: 1) Jon R. Stone, The Routledge Dictionary of Latin Quotations, New York: Routledge, 2005, page 14 [“caelum (or coelum) non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt”] (accessed 1 March 2013)
2) “Q. Horati Flacci Epistvlarvm Liber Primvs”, The Latin Library [“caelum, non animum mutant, qui trans mare currunt”] (accessed 1 March 2013)
esprit Gaulois = (French) “French spirit” or “spirit of France”
Evangeline = “Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie”, is an epic poem (published in 1847) written by the American author Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 – 1882) [See: “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie”, Maine Historical Society (accessed 1 March 2013); “Evangeline”, Wikipedia (accessed 1 March 2013)]
grand monde = (French) “fashionable society” or “high society” (literally “great world”) [See: Marv Rubinstein. 21st Century American English Compendium: A Portable Guide to the Idiosyncrasies, Subtleties, Technical Lingo, and Conventional Wisdom of American English (third revised edition), Schreiber Publishing, Rockville (Maryland, USA), 2006, page 313 (accessed 1 March 2013); Webster’s II New College Dictionary (third edition), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston (Massachusetts), 2005, page 1476 (accessed 1 March 2013)]
milieu = a physical or social setting, especially of a social or cultural nature
[Editor: The style of the newspaper was to begin each line of a quoted sentence with its own quote mark, this has been altered here, so as to avoid confusion; for example “getting over “it.” has been changed to “getting over it.” and “Associa- “tion” has been changed to “Association”.]