Section 39 [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.]

§ 39

Talismanic books

Our destiny, and our history; the terms are inseparable. If we really had no history (as the Europe-minded think), we should have to invent some: but it is there, surely enough; we have merely to seek it out — our own lore, legend, and tradition. This is work for our writers, a national work of the utmost importance: the most important work now to be done in Australia.

From the body of Australian books already written and published (available if not easily accessible) it should be possible to select the books which are significant, the talismanic works which endow us with a national idea, and thus embody the national soul.

Amongst all the books written in Australia, by Australians, or about Australia, there are to my knowledge more than a hundred first-class books, and there are ten and more great books, which could well be prescribed, for example, for a study-course in our Australian universities and schools: as national talismans.

Some or most of these books are out of print; few of them are known, even by name, to the generality of Australians: this is where we have slipped so badly.

The imported professors of literature, of course, will do precisely nothing to seek out and establish values in our Australian literature. Disappointed at not securing professional posts in their own country, they come here disgruntled, to take the rank of Corporal in the English Garrison; and they hope to rise, by sedulous endeavour, to be Sergeant-majors in that corps — farther than that their ambition could not extend.

An Australian-born professor (of Psychology, not of Literature) who, as a hobby, is preparing a bibliography of Australian fiction, informs me that he has read more than two thousand Australian novels, and that he is astonished by the high quality of many of them which are quite unknown and almost unprocurable. He is doing the kind of work which Australia needs most of all: research into our own lore. From research work such as he is now doing, in which we should all in our various ways assist, the idea and the critique of Australian literature, as a thing-in-itself, will robustly emerge. Australian literature, Australian national and free life, the linking of brain with brawn in our Commonwealth, will never be forwarded by the Europe-minded, nor by any form of patronage from on high or from abroad.

We must establish our own national culture and self-respect by our own efforts, by our own virtue and native instinct of patriotism; to meet our own national need.

P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, W. J. Miles, Gordon (N.S.W.), 1936, pages 135-136

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