Section 19 [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.]

§ 19

“Archibald, certainly not!”

“The Bulletin,” in the ’eighties and ’nineties, provided a rallying point for Australian literary nationalism. J. F. Archibald gathered under his banner a representative collection of rebels against imported culture, and began to encourage the local article. The Bulletin under Archibald did not encourage fine literature in Australia; it encouraged crude literature. The note was defiance, an aggressive Australian nationalism, an attitude which led in politics to federation of the Commonwealth, the growth of the Labour Party, and a protective tariff for Australian manufacturers.

Viewed in historical retrospect, I think that Archibald’s Bulletin has had a dubious effect on Australian literature, and on culture in Australia. It has presented a larrikin view of Australian life. It has made the larrikin idea paramount, as in an earlier phase convictism was paramount. The larrikin and the convict are not representative citizens, though they are dramatic citizens. Convicts and larrikins in Australian literature have been what redskins and cowboys were to American literature — a fiction travesty of the representative life.

The Bulletin was rude, it was slangy, it was smart, it was naughty (in a ’ninetyish way), it was vigorous and robust, it was, in a larrikin or urchin sense, “Australian,” and it had a tremendous effect, I think on the whole a bad effect, on Australian literary and cultural development. Henry Lawson, for example, had in him the materials for great Australian novels, indigenous novels; but Archibald wanted short stories and sketches and poems for his paper, so Lawson became a writer of fragments, suitable for newspaper rather than for book-publication, and the great works, the sustained works, the ample and leisured works which Lawson might have written, and which Australia required of him, remained unwritten.

Archibald’s cult was the terse. Make it short! Make it snappy, make it crisp, boil it down to a paragraph! Such was Archibald’s advice to writers. As a result, The Bulletin and “Bulletinese” (which is a clipped kind of slangy jargon), diverted Australian literature into the channels of dialect, and laid on local colour, not with a brush, but with a trowel.

Archibald was an Irishman by temperament, an Irish-Australian by birth. It is said that he came of mixed extraction, including French, Scottish, and Jewish strains; but his father was Irish, and, anyway, Archibald had no English in him, and no inherited or acquired love for England. He had no mother country except Australia to call “home,” no vicarious patriotism for England. The Bulletin, under his editorship for twenty years from circa 1880 to 1900, was aggressively anti-English and pro-Australian. It opposed the Boer War, or, more precisely, was pro-Boer in its view of that conflict. This provides a keynote to its general attitude towards England and the Empire. The Bulletin, under Archibald, was pro-colonial, and, therefore, anti-English. It was also radical and rough. It provided an Irishman, in fact, numerous Irishmen and Irish-Australians, with a grand opportunity to express themselves.

The Irish element in Australia, comprising twenty-five per cent. of the population, never loved England, nor had any reason to love England. They provided the basis, if not for an indigenous Australian culture, at least for the weakening of English influences here. It was Peter Lalor, an Irishman, who raised the Flag of Stars at Eureka Stockade, and proclaimed the first Australian Republic. Irishmen are a splendid fighting element in any country, but they suffer when in exile, no less than Englishmen, from an acute and sentimental nostalgia for their homeland. Irishmen of the first, and even of the second migrant generation, are more concerned with Erin than they need be when they become Australian citizens. But to be anti-English is not in itself enough to make one a good Australian.

The word “larrikin” is said to be of Irish origin; it conveys the same meaning as “playboy,” in J. M. Synge’s drama, The Playboy of the Western World. Archibald was the larrikin, or the Irish playboy of the Australian world. The Bulletin was a lark played by a literary larrikin (I cannot avoid the alliteration, for the phrase expresses just what I mean to say). The Bullet-een (as it used to be called) thumbed its nose at England and at respectability. It was irreverent and cheeky, as “quick on the uptake” as any street urchin, smart and pert and vulgar, and rude. Because it proclaimed itself pro-Australian it attracted Australian native genius towards itself. And because Archibald himself was a journalist and a literary larrikin of genius, Australian literature and culture became cast, for a time, at a formative time, in The Bulleteen’s mould.

The big men of The Bully (to use another slang abbreviation of its title) were Archibald, Edmond, Macleod, and Hopkins — an Irishman (paramount), a rebel from Glasgae, a staider Scotsman, and an American — strange combination! As a supernumerary, A. G. Stephens, Celtic-Australian literary critic of genius, the greatest and almost the only Australian critic, established the “Red Page” literary column, and performed one of the most truly distinctive feats in Australian literary history by publishing Tom Collins’ Such is Life in book form, before he left The Bulletin — in a huff, as a result of some minor dispute, or merely from incompatibility of temperament. But he had shown, in his Red Page, what literary criticism really could he in Australia. May the saints reward him, for Australia didn’t. He struggled in penury for thirty years after leaving The Bully, and never got the audience he deserved.

One of the biggest elements in The Bulletin’s success was its pictures. Archibald imported to Australia the first half-tone process engraving plant. It can be imagined what this meant, as all newspaper illustrations before this event had been by the slow method of hand-engraving on steel or wood. It meant that The Bulletin could “say it with pictures” — its jokes, its gags, its political cartoons became world-famous. Hopkins, Phil May, Norman Lindsay, D. H. Souter, and, later, David Low, were redoubtable caricaturists, cartoonists, joke-illustrators — a whole school of Bulletin black-and-white artists was evolved, the best of its kind in the world.

What an instrument of power to ridicule, satirise, and give “cheek” was placed in Archibald’s hands! Besides using the new method of zinc-block pictures, he could cast his net all over Australia and the Pacific Islands, to draw in literary men of genius and talent such as Louis Becke, Price Warung, E. J. Brady, Randolph Bedford, Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson, Steele Rudd — and ten thousand paragraphists and poets from every shearing-shed, drovers’ camp, and human outpost in the continent. Thus, an indigenous Australian literature was brought to growth — and trained in flippancy, vulgarity, smartness, terseness, and irreverence; taught to express itself in a slick vernacular, an idiom presumed by the editors of The Bulletin to be typically Australian, which was no more typically Australian than the argot of Paris urchins is typically French.

Thus Archibald’s Bulletin, if it provided an antidote to imported culture of the “haw-haw” kind, did little more for the real development of Australian culture than to substitute larrikinism for convictism, as a theme, or more precisely, as an attitude, in the Australian idea. What The Bulletin has become since Archibald’s day, what the Red Page became under Cecil Mann and John Dalley, what the whole paper became under S. H. Prior, need not detain us long, for The Bulletin of to-day is not paramount in Australian culture. The one-time radical ragamuffin became respectable and conservative in its political attitude, and became jingo-imperialistic during the War. It proved itself politically at variance with the mass of the Australian people by plumping for conscription in the two referenda which were defeated by popular vote, including the votes of the troops at the Front. Nowadays The Bulletin is violently and hysterically anti-radical and anti-labour in politics, with a tendency to a Fascist outlook. The merry larrikin rudeness of its youth has decayed into the crusted spleen of senility. A flippancy that sat comically upon the features of the bright youngster has become grotesque in the face of the conservative old man. A slang idiom that was interesting at least by its novelty has nowadays become stereotyped and merely tiresome. Slang to be vivid must be used as the Americans use it, continually created anew. The incongruity of all this stereotyped flippancy with The Bulletin’s present-day conservative line in politics sets up a contradiction which could be resolved only by dropping either the flippancy or the conservative line. As for the criticism on the present-day Red Page, its writers know better how to sneer than to criticise. English, no less than Australian, authors are lectured in the manner of the “Answers to Correspondents” column, as though they were tyros composing paragraphs written by campfires on the back of jam-tin labels to submit to an editorial omniscience. The attitude is very much like that of the small-town Tasmanian editor who, during the Russo-Japanese War of the ’nineties, began his leading article with the portentous words: “We warn the Czar . . .” It may be presumed that overseas authors of to-day are not profoundly dismayed by The Bulletin’s rebukes and sneers, if they ever read them. If Australian authors, nearer at hand, have sometimes been discouraged by these rebukes and sneers, our literature has, to that extent, been kept back. Australian literature and culture, if it is ever to become more mature than it was in the ’nineties, will need to be emancipated from the tutelage of the Archibald tradition in these days of its atrophy.

P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, W. J. Miles, Gordon (N.S.W.), 1936, pages 66-71

Editor’s notes:
Australian Republic = a Republic of Victoria was apparently desired by an element of the rebel forces at Ballarat in 1854 (there was an unsubstantiated rumour that a declaration of independence had been drawn up), but a Republic of Victoria was not proclaimed by Peter Lalor and the rebels at Eureka

The Bully = The Bulletin magazine (published in Sydney, NSW) was known colloquially as “The Bully”

Erin = Ireland

Glasgae = Glasgow, a city in Scotland

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