Section 9 [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.]

§ 9

Sentimental exiles

Throughout the nineteenth century in Australia, from the earliest writers, whether they were convict gentlemen or military gentlemen, or black sheep sent out to the colonies with a remittance, or merely colonial gentlemen dabbling in “letters,” there was a pronounced note in “Australian” literature of regret at the colonial lack of culture. These sentimental exiles, no less than Professor Cowling, regretted the lack of castles and ruins here, regretted that Australia was not like England. Their state of mind, nostalgia for the homeland, is common to all exiles. In Australia, owing frequently to the circumstances of the exile, nostalgia took an acute form.

The country of one’s birth is almost of necessity the country of one’s youth. The longing of an exile to return to his native land is only too frequently the longing of a middle-aged man to be young again. A migrant’s discontent with his new environment is often enough a discontent with middle-age. Beyond this there is a real link with one’s birthplace, a real aversion to unfamiliar new environments.

Breathes there a man with soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said
This is my own, my native land?
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burned
As home his footsteps he hath turned
From wandering on a foreign strand?

Probably not! As an Australian who spent eight years in England I know how powerful is the yearning to be home in the native land, which in my case meant the yearning to be in a country without any castles or ruins, to be at liberty in a country in which there were thousands of square miles of ground not staled by history and tradition. Because of this experience, I can sympathise with Englishmen in Australia who feel a pull in the reverse direction. Australia is different from England, of course it is different from England! It can never become like England; but does this difference imply an inferiority either way? A black swan is different from a white swan, a gum-tree is different from an oak, the differences are charming. There is a difference between a primitive country and a castellated country, a profound difference — but what an impertinence for a denizen of the castellated country to decry the other country when he is visiting it; what bad manners, what an example of castellated culture!

International bad manners are an inevitable concomitant of tourist travel. The tourist compares every country with his own, to the advantage of his own. Englishmen abroad are notorious for this trait; but Americans and Frenchmen are just as bad. American bad manners found a retort to English bad manners when Mark Twain guyed the castellated culture in his A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur. It was heavy and clumsy humour; he should have written about his own country, about the Mississippi, which he knew. But, more recently still, the Americans have had to put up with polite cynicism, the assumption of an effortless superiority, from a horde of English visitors, such as G. K. Chesterton and St. John Irvine, who lectured them (for immense fees) on their “cultural” shortcomings; unaware of the fact, or ignoring the fact, that American writers, such as Dreiser, Cabell, Hergesheimer, Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, Thornton Wilder, and a host of others were doing work, man for man, as good as the best English contemporary work; unaware of the fact, or ignoring the fact, that the Grand Opera Houses in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston, are among the world’s best, and that music is patronised in the United States a thousand times more than in Britain, where there is not even one permanent opera, but only “seasons”; unaware of the fact, or ignoring the fact, that Manhattan Island contains more art treasures than any other similar area in the world, not excluding Rome, Paris, and London, that in science and industry the United States is second to none; that education and criticism are alive in America; that the Carnegie Corporation has provided twelve million dollars actually to establish libraries in Britain, after having established the best public libraries in the world throughout America!

What then becomes of the “effortless superiority” of the Englishman vis-à-vis the American? Is the Englishman not resting on his oars, on the great achievements of his forbears, rather than actively leading the modern world of thought and culture, science, art, and industry? I am not going to take sides in such a futile dispute. I merely point out that such international arguments do exist, and that there is invariably much to be said on both sides. It is natural enough to exalt one’s own country in such a dispute, because in exalting one’s country one exalts oneself. I could, without difficulty, devise arguments to show that life in Australia is preferable to life in England, for the general mass of the people, castles or no castles, but I forbear. In any dispute between Poland and Czecho-Slovakia I could arbitrate impartially, but in any dispute between Australia and England I confess to prejudice in favour of my own country.

The two elements in Australian culture, the imported and the indigenous elements, have existed side by side from the time when the first white child was born in Australia of immigrant parents and walked upon this soil as his native soil. As the white population has grown, from zero to six millions by the two methods of increase, immigration from abroad and birth here, so the two tendencies have developed side by side. They are differing elements, not hostile elements; they can develop harmoniously side by side. I would deplore the bad-mannered “Australianism” of anyone needlessly decrying English culture as much as I deplore Professor Cowling’s denigration of the local culture. Let nothing I say here be taken as hostile to English culture, on its own soil, or to the reasoned absorption of English culture, by us here, on our soil! I regard imported English culture as a fertiliser of our indigenous culture, but I will not have our indigenous culture swamped and choked with fertiliser, in such a way that it cannot grow at all.

I want to find the differences, however subtle, between the two cultures; to see what we can learn from England and from every other country overseas; what we can learn and digest and apply here. I do not care to be a spectator, or a passive admirer, of English or any other literature from a distance. I want these literatures absorbed into our own, to stimulate, not to kill, our own.

P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, W. J. Miles, Gordon (N.S.W.), 1936, pages 32-36

Editor’s notes:
concomitant = existing or occurring at the same time

guyed = to good-humoredly annoy, or make fun of

A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur = A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), a novel by Mark Twain (USA), was originally entitled A Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, although some early editions were published as A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur

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