Section 8 [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.]

§ 8

Birth of a new idea

Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson may be regarded as typical pioneers of indigenous culture in Australia. Whatever their faults, their work has an outstanding quality of being drawn direct from Australian life, and not from a bookish or “literary” idea, in imitation of English poets. Lawson and Paterson were both Australian born, and wrote for Australian readers primarily. Their work is crude enough in parts; it is the raw material of an Australian culture, but it is of high national significance, as being truly indigenous. The poet Kendall, who immediately preceded them, was also Australian-born, but his mind had an “English” cast. His first poems were sent to England to be published; he wanted to please the English. Kendall wrote of Australia, but in a prim English way, not in a robust Australian way.

Adam Lindsay Gordon was English-born, an immigrant to Australia, and never saw Australia except through his English fox-hunting squire’s eyes. He is, therefore, acclaimed, in England, as the typical Australian poet. In Westminster Abbey his bust is placed with the absurd, indeed impertinent description, “Australia’s National Poet.”

From Gordon, the Englishman writing about Australia in an English way, to Kendall, the Australian writing about Australia in an English way; thence to Lawson and Paterson, the Australians writing about Australia in an Australian way, is the evolution of our indigenous culture. This evolution, in a general way, went on, in the works of Australian writers, or writers in Australia, throughout the whole of the nineteenth century, the process of Australian self-definition gradually becoming more clarified, until, with Paterson’s and Lawson’s work, it could be seen plainly that Australian literature proper was beginning to stand on its own feet.

To dissect these two elements, the indigenous and the imported, from Australian literature, is a fascinating task, worthy of a book in itself.

In the broadest sense, Australian literature comprises everything written in Australia, or about Australia, or by Australians — everything from Captain Cook’s log to D. H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo; but this definition would be very wide indeed. Visitors to Australia, in addition to Captain Cook, D. H. Lawrence, Adam Lindsay Gordon, and Professor Cowling, have been numerous and frequently very distinguished. Charles Darwin, Henry Kingsley, Orion Horne, Havelock Ellis are notable visiting Englishmen who have contributed to the literature of Australia in the widest sense of the term. Marcus Clarke is another visiting Englishmen. Can it be presumed that these visitors ever saw Australia through Australian eyes? I think not. They were Englishmen abroad, in foreign parts; England was home to them — Australia was merely an interesting foreign colony. But to Lawson and Paterson Australia was home, the native land. They had no other native land.

Henry Lawson (or Larsen) was of Scandinavian extraction, and to such a man, born in Australia, the European tie is irrevocably severed. Such a man will fight passionately for his Australian nationality. He has no direct sentimental tie with England. Australia is his only motherland and home. Even though his ancestors, of a thousand years ago, may have raped, raided, plundered, colonised, and settled England, Ireland, and Scotland, and put the red-headed spirit of adventure into the British race — even though he be a direct descendant of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes — he has no lively interest in his present-day collateral cousins, no vicarious “home” and “motherland” in the British Islands. Australia is home to him, the only motherland. If Australia is not a nation, then he belongs to no nation. This same feeling arises in the second and third generation of Australian-born, no matter what their ancestry, whether it be English, Irish, Scots, or Chinese. England is “home” to the first-generation English immigrants to Australia, and sometimes by legend to their children. But to their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Australia is the only convincing homeland.

The pretty legend that England is “home” to all Australians arises from a figure of speech, or a habit of speech rather than from any reality of thought.

In denying that England is, in contemporary reality, “home” to the Australian-born, I insist and reiterate that I am not arguing politics, imperial or otherwise. I am seeking a basis for indigenous culture in Australia, for a state of mind from which Australian culture can emerge. One of my model Australians, Banjo Paterson, is, I believe, a convinced imperialist in politics. There is no reason why a good Australian should not consider it expedient for Australia to remain forever in the political-economic-military alliance called the British Empire. England would not try to keep us in by force if we ever wished to secede. This question does not, at the moment, arise. The point is that, on the basis of nationality, of theoretical equality in nationhood with all the other nations of the earth, within or without the British Empire, we must find our own culture and define it; we cannot suck pap forever from the teats of London.

P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, W. J. Miles, Gordon (N.S.W.), 1936, pages 29-32

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