Section 5 [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.]

§ 5

An Englishman’s view

An Englishman resident in Australia, Professor G. H. Cowling, who is Professor of English Literature at the University of Melbourne, recently ventured from his own field to criticise Australian literature. In an article published in The Age newspaper of 16th February, 1935, the learned Professor made several statements expressing doubt concerning the possibilities of Australian literature. Catalogued, his more provocative remarks were as follows:

(1) “Australia is not yet in the centre of the globe, and it has no London.”

(2) “The rewards of literature in Australia are not good enough to make it attract the best minds.”

(3) “Book production (in Australia) is, on the average, poor.”

(4) “In spite of what the native-born say about gum trees, I cannot help feeling that our countryside is ‘thin’ and lacking in tradition.”

(5) “There are no ancient churches, castles, ruins — the memorials of generations departed. You need no Baedecker in Australia. From the point of view of literature this means that we can never hope to have a Scott, a Balzac, a Dumas . . . nor a poetry which reflects past glories.”

(6) “What scope is there for Australian biography? Little, I should say.”

(7) “What scope is there for Australian books on travel? Little, I think.”

(8) “Good Australian novels which are entirely Australian are bound to be few . . . Australian life is too lacking in tradition, and too confused, to make many first-class novels.”

(9) “We might have one Australian Sinclair Lewis but not many more.”

(10) “Literary culture is not indigenous, like the gum tree, but is from a European source.”

A certain amount of indignant controversy followed the well-meaning Professor’s pessimistic analysis of the situation. Nobody thanked him, as he ought to have been thanked, for putting the Unteachable Englishman’s point of view so succinctly on record. There is as yet no chair of Australian Literature at Melbourne University, nor at any other Australian University, and the Professor is to that extent quite correct in saying that literary culture is not indigenous, but is from a European source. With his unteachability we cannot here argue; it is of the same brand as that which lost England the American colonies. Substitute the word “America” for the word “Australia” in each of Professor Cowling’s remarks, and you have the kind of “criticism” which Americans had to put up with from generations of learned Englishmen; even while American literature was developing so strongly that to-day — despite a lack of ancient churches, castles and ruins — American literature is at least as strong as contemporary English literature, and some think it is stronger.

The Empire is in greater danger from patronising Englishmen than from insurgent colonials. Professor Cowling’s critique is a wet blanket applied to the fire of Australian literary creativeness. It can be read in no other way than as an attempt to throw cold water on our nationalistic literary ardour. His attitude is precisely that of the Latinists who, perceiving Wycliffe and Chaucer writing books in the English vernacular, sniffed (no doubt) at the very idea of literature in English. Here we are on the threshold of Australian self-consciousness, at the point of developing Australian nationality, and with it Australian culture, we are in our Chaucerian phase, and this Professor cannot begin to perceive the excitement of it, overlooks his grand opportunity of studying and recording for posterity this birth-phase of a new literature in formation under his very nose — and directs our vision, if he could, towards old churches, castles, and ruins in Europe!

The academic mind, by timorous instinct, rarely concerns itself with the present or future; the past is safer.

Some day there will be learned Professors to write text-books on the developments of literature in Australia during the nineteen-twenties and nineteen-thirties. They will soak themselves in the period, and attempt to reconstruct it for their students. They will find Cowling’s article and quote it to show some of the difficulties which literature in Australian had to contend against at that time — the discouragements, the gratuitous insults of the learned, the Unteachability of the already-too-well-taught. They may go on to record that, as a result of Professor Cowling’s demonstration of hostility towards Australian culture, a Chair of Australian Literature was ultimately endowed at Melbourne University and at six other Australian Universities (including Canberra), to supplement the traditional teaching in English, French, German, and other European literatures; and that thus Professor Cowling’s excursus into journalism indirectly helped to establish Australian literature in a way which he did not intend.

Is this all too fanciful? I, at any rate, have to thank Professor Cowling for his venture into controversy. He provides me with a contemporary example to illustrate my present thesis. Instead of blaming him for blanketing the flame, I at least can thank him for inadvertently fanning it. His arguments are all cogent, from his point of view. From an Australian point of view they are, by provocation, equally cogent. I shall have occasion to refer to them, more than once, as my own argument here develops.

P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, W. J. Miles, Gordon (N.S.W.), 1936, pages 20-23

Editor’s notes:
Baedecker = travel guide books published by the company of Verlag Karl Baedeker were known as “Baedeckers”

excursus = an digression from the main topic or main narrative; a detailed discussion on an incidental issue, such as an appendix at the end of a book

Sinclair Lewis = Harry Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) was an American author

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