Section 16 [The Foundations of Culture in Australia, by P. R. Stephensen, 1936]

[Editor: This is a chapter from The Foundations of Culture in Australia (1936) by P. R. Stephensen.]

§ 16

Where are the antipodes?

The effect of English culture upon Australian culture during the nineteenth century is well worth attempting to trace. I showed, in the quotations from Praed and Wentworth respectively, in their poems on Australasia, that there were two contrasting views of this country as a theme for literature — the Englishman’s and the Australian’s. The Englishman regarded Australia as a barbarous, uncultured, convict settlement and colony. The Australian regarded Australia as home, native soil, a potentially great nation.

From Praed to Marcus Clarke, Rolf Boldrewood, A. L. Gordon, Kendall, Price Warung, and other melancholies is one line of succession in Australian literature, based on the idea of Australia as a permanent colony.

From Wentworth to Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson, Tom Collins (in Such is Life), young Miles Franklin (in My Brilliant Career), Steele Rudd (in On Our Selection), and the whole of The Bulletin school under Archibald in the ’eighties and ’nineties, is the other line of succession; optimistic and humorous about Australia, based on the idea of Australia as a Nation which led to Federation of the Commonwealth in 1900.

Developments of Australian culture during the twentieth century have been rather more complex, and will be dealt with in a subsequent section of this essay. At the present it is sufficient to indicate these two nineteenth-century streams in Australian literature and idea, the imported and the indigenous cultures existing side by side. The two tendencies still exist, and will continue to exist in our culture as long as there are immigrants from overseas and native-born living side by side in the country, and both writing about it.

This is the place for another reminder that differences do not necessarily imply antagonisms. In the relationships between Australians and Englishmen, whether in Australia or in England, there is a good deal of cousinly chaff. “Spawn of convicts!” is the Englishman’s none-too-polite but not necessarily unforgivable epithet of cousinly abuse of the Antipodean. “Newchum!” or “Pommy!” retorts the Australian. These pleasant exercises in vulgar banter mark a difference in point of view, but not necessarily a profound antagonism.

Yet the difference is there, the difference in point of view, and it finds its expression in serious literature.

No critique of Australian literature, or of the foundations of a national culture, can overlook the differences and distinctions between the two contrasting Antipodean points of view. To the Australian, it is London of course which is in the Antipodes — this suggestion an Englishman tends to repudiate with scorn.

It will be as well to note, also that in literature no hard-and-fast or absolute criterion can be found in the mere fact of birthplace. In general, the Australian-born are Australian-minded, and the English-born are English-minded; but there are many exceptions to the rule. Kendall, the Australian native, was as melancholy and English-minded as anyone English-born, in his attitude towards Australia. Louis Stone, an Englishman, in his study of Sydney larrikins in Jonah, showed himself to have almost instinctive Australian literary sympathies. The British genius for colonisation consists in a quick adaptability to a new environment. Hundreds of thousands of Englishmen and other Europeans have become good Australians within a very short while after landing on these shores. These notable exceptions do not destroy the general rule, which is that immigrants tend to take a different view of Australia from that taken by the Australian-born.

Immigrants come to Australia with a preconceived idea, which they cannot easily lose. They look for those features in Australian life which will support their preconceived notion. The Australian-born, on the other hand, come into the country at least without preconceived ideas about it.

P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, W. J. Miles, Gordon (N.S.W.), 1936, pages 57-59

[Editor: Corrected “consist” to “consists”.]

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