The present status of Australian literature [letter from Grant Hervey, 25 September 1913]

[Editor: A letter from Grant Hervey regarding Australian literature; and mentioning his book of poetry, Australians Yet and Other Verses. Published in The Worker (Brisbane), 25 September 1913.]

The present status of Australian literature.

To the Editor.

Sir, — The time when the makers of Australian literature must become more conscious of their national responsibility, and must render greater because more permanent and more inspiring services to the nation, rapidly advances upon us. As one who has already felt that call and tried to respond to it, will you permit me to say a few words upon the present unsatisfactory status of Australian literature?

Our country at the present day lies under the menace of grave perils from abroad. It is in order to preserve the Commonwealth from that peril, and with no ideas of foreign aggression that we are building a navy and establishing a system of universal military service. That being the case, one would imagine that a note of commensurate courage and invigorating patriotism would be struck in the popular literature of the present day. But let any thinking man or woman take a backward glance over the verse and prose that has been published in book form — I am talking solely of Australian literature, not of imported English or American books — within the last ten or a dozen years, and what, will he find? With the exception of the poetic works of Bernard O’Dowd and the one great novel of this century — Tom Collins’s “Such Is Life,” a wonderful Australian book that is practically unknown — and the earlier and stronger work of Henry Lawson and a few others, he will find nothing but a mass of trash. First, Nat Gould, and then the Patersons and Ogilvies, have given us the meretricious ’Orse in excelsis. The racecourse, in so far as our current literature has been a guide, has been the centre of our national life ; and the worship of Sport — most of it a system of vast, organised robbery and swindle, and therefore unworthy of the name — has been insisted upon with tiresome iteration.

Now, sir, as a young Australian author, coming before the Australian public with my first published book— “Australians Yet,” representing the new gospel of national faith and energy that I have been trying to preach through the weekly and monthly press — as such, I wish to emphatically protest against this degradation of Australian literature. I am no advocate of the opposing cult of “Wowserism,” as it is opprobiously called, but I do most vigorously denounce this attitude of cynical indifference and irresponsibility upon the part of Australian literary men. It is certainly no desire of mine to see the saving grace of humour vanish from our story-writers’ pages. Neither do I ask that the sweet and wholesome spirit of romance be driven out. But what I do urge is that Australian literature should help every Australian man and woman to be proud of Australia and to realise his or her responsibility to the nation. Unless our literature does that, unless our novelists, philosophers, and poets set out with high ideals, and try to implant them in the national heart, then it is useless to expect the salvation of Australia from or by the politicians. For the politician, after all, is only an echo of the nation’s voice — he is not that Voice itself; and the spirit of our politics will only change, when a higher and greater school of Australian writers and thinkers has driven something like a conception of duty and world-regarding dignity into the Australian nation’s soul.

“Australians Yet,” accordingly, is an earnest attempt to drive that conception into the minds of the Australian people. I believe in Australia, and I believe in Australia’s destiny. I therefore urge the young manhood of this nation to resume the work of national development commenced by the pioneers. I call the young men to work. I call them up from idleness and sloth, urging them on to a Big-Australian’s task. Either we have got to make Australia a great and mighty nation, abreast of all that is highest and finest in the civilisation of historic Europe, or else we have got to give it up. There is no third alternative. And I will never be satisfied; no patriotic Australian should ever be satisfied, until this appeal to all that is virile and noble in our Australian manhood, and all that is tender and earned in our Australian womanhood, is voiced in every page of Australian literature. I refuse to accept the theory of an irresponsible, larrikin Australia. And I refuse to accept an irresponsible, larrikin-noted Australian literature. Ours is a great and beautiful country, calling for great and beautiful ideas and strong, reliant men. Let us lift the status of Australian literature, therefore, and so do something towards the creation of that Australia that lives in every patriot’s mind — the glorious, prosperous, and ever-happy because unconquered Commonwealth of the splendid future.

I am, yours for Australia,

Grant Hervey.

The Worker (Brisbane, Qld.), Saturday 25 September 1913, page 19

Also published in:
The Catholic Press (Sydney, NSW), 25 September 1913, p. 25
The Register (Adelaide, SA), Saturday 27 September 1913, page 4
The Bunyip (Gawler, SA), 3 October 1913, p. 4
The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld.), Saturday 4 October 1913, page 3

Editor’s notes:
in excelsis = (Latin) on high

opprobriously = abusively, contemptuously, reproachfully, or scornfully

’orse in excelsis = Grant Hervey used the phrase “’Orse (horse) in excelsis (Latin: “on high”)” in reference to the perception that much of Australian poetry at that time concentrated on horse racing and horse-related stories; “’Orse in excelsis” is a reference to the Latin phrase of “gloria in excelsis”, meaning “glory (to God) on high”, thus referring to a perception of how some people “worshipped” horses and horse-racing

[Editor: Corrected “nation’r soul” to “nation’s soul”.]

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