[Editor: This article by P. R. Stephensen was published in the “Forum” section of The Bulletin (Sydney, NSW), 16 June 1962.]
Colonialism in our literature
My thirty years’ war
By P. R. Stephensen
This is an abridgment of a Commonwealth Literary Fund Lecture which Mr P. R. Stephensen delivered at the University of Queensland earlier this month. We are pleased to publish it in the Forum section of The Bulletin which is reserved for opinions or polemics that may be of general interest but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Bulletin.
It is a special privilege for me to have returned to the arms of my Alma Mater — shall I say as a Prodigal Son? Forty years ago I graduated from the old Government House in the Domain. At that time we had only three faculties — Arts, Science, and Engineering. We had five professors, a dozen or so lecturers, and less than 300 students. Our motto was, as it remains here today, “SEMPER FLOREAT — pass the torch eternal — burst the bars”.
Thirty-eight years ago, I was sent away from Queensland to Oxford, to see if I could learn more there than I had learned here. That was one way of getting rid of me. This is the first time that I have returned to my academic cradle. I find it enlarged so greatly that there is now a student enrolment here equal to, or greater than, that of Oxford. Almost everything can now be learned here, with an exception that I shall be mentioning presently.
After you have heard me, you may consider that I should have stayed away longer than thirty-eight years, or until I learned to speak more comfortable words than I shall have to offer you; but you may excuse me, for this personal preamble, and for speaking unequivocally, if I remind you that most of my working life has been spent, not in the academic teaching of literature, but in the rough-and-tumble of the market-place, where books are actually written, manufactured and sold as commodities to the general public.
Thirty years ago, I returned from Britain to my homeland, Australia. Since then I have lived in the southern States, where there was more scope than in Queensland for the difficult career of an professional man of letters, who relies only on the patronage of the book-buying public, without governmental or institutional support. Sydney was the original citadel of colonialism in Australia, but was also the place where Australian nationalism had attempted, from time to time, to find a literary expression.
In the 1930s, the continent of Australia was regarded as a permanent colonial dependency of Britain. I am not speaking politically, but of the attitude of most of the educated Australians of that time in looking to London for leadership and guidance in intellectual and cultural activities, and especially in literary judgments. This attitude defined Australia as a second-rate community, province, or colony, in which ideas could not be originated, but only imitated.
I found myself engaged in what could be called a Thirty Years’ War for the defence of Australian Literature against the many attempts that were being made, and are still being made to some extent, to undermine it. The opposition, I regret to say, was entrenched chiefly in the colonially-based traditions of the teaching of literature in Australian universities. It was as though, when the last British imperial redcoat military garrison was withdrawn from Australia in 1870 — leaving us to undertake our own military defence — a black-gowned rearguard was left in the universities.
There have been many indications, in recent years, of a change for the better, but vestiges of colonialism remain in Australian citadels of learning and propaganda and will remain there until the diehards die out.
We should guard against an estrangement between university life and the life of the people. Australian literature, like that of any other country, is an expression of the life of all the people, and not only of university cliques, who make a living by following foreign fashions, and taking in one another’s washing. The main body of Australian literature has therefore been built up, and will continue to be built up, by writers with that non-academic, professional outlook, whose first aim is to supply reading-matter to please the average or ordinary Australian readers of books. These professional writers are unique among workers in our community. They have no benefit of governmental protection for their industry by tariffs, subsidies, or anything of that kind. They have no Arbitration Court awards or Basic Wage. They must write books which can be commercially published, and sold in large quantities, to yield an income from royalties on those sales; or, if that fails, they must starve, or go into exile, or cease writing books.
To make matters worse, Australian professional writers have access to only ten per cent. of the market for books in Australia. A research, recently completed by the Victorian Institute of Public Affairs, indicates that in 1959 Australians paid £18 million for reading-matter, and that 90 per cent. of the books sold in Australia were imported, chiefly from Britain and the U.S.A.
It is not surprising, then, that many Australian professional writers have gone away to live in Britain or America, and others who continue to live here have been impelled to write for publication abroad, studying the market demands, not of their own people, but of book-readers in those faraway countries. This frustration of Australian literary talent has been made worse in recent years by the tendency of Australian publishing houses to devote an increasing proportion of their time and effort to supplying examination textbooks for universities and schools. That leaves the field of general literature, the supply of books for adult reading, more widely open to British and American publishers.
A further impediment to the work of Australian professional and non-academic writers is the attitude of disparagement adopted by book-reviewers. Many of the literary critics in Australia have a university background, and consequently a colonial and not a national attitude in appraising Australian books. Probably not more than one-tenth of the books published in Australia, or by Australian authors, are reviewed, or even mentioned, in the literary pages of Australian newspapers and magazines, and those which are reviewed are usually disparaged, subtly or crudely, by reviewers who have never themselves been able to write books for successful publication.
Despite all these formidable difficulties, Australian literature is a hardy plant, which has survived drought and bushfires. Australian authors have refused to lie down and die, or to accept the old colonial idea that he who takes up the typewriter shall perish by the typewriter. I quote as an example that romantic and delicate novel of innocent girlhood in the Queensland bush, entitled Morning in Queensland, by Margaret Trist, who was born at Dalby. This novel did not find a publisher in Australia when it was offered in time for Queensland’s centenary year of restricted colonial self-government. It was sent to New York and published there, in 1959, so successfully that it was then accepted by an English publisher, and in that roundabout way reached Australia, and eventually arrived in Queensland, after most of the centenary celebrations had ended.
The active fostering of the Australian national spirit, by means of its expression in a living literature, has in these ways devolved chiefly upon writers who have not been colonially conditioned, or otherwise handicapped, by a university training. The development of a national spirit, on which the survival of any community depends, is instinctive in the life of the people. It should be encouraged in every possible way at Australian Universities.
My suggestion, then, is that this now big University of Queensland, which has an enrolment as large as that of Oxford, should establish a professional Chair of Australian Literature, with a major place in the curriculum.
To make that Department effective, the collection of Australian books and other Australian documents in the University Library here would need to be extended to at least 100,000 items, adequately housed — and that quantity of material for study is actually available. Scarce items could be obtained from other libraries as photographic replicas.
In conjunction with these studies, the Queensland University Press could enlarge its present scope with an extensive programme of publishing Australian books, especially reprints of the very large number of books of Australian value which have been allowed to go out of print in bygone years, but also including new works, of popular and not only of academic appeal.
Books are the repositories of knowledge and the messengers of ideas. There is no substitute for books. A nation which does not produce enough books to proclaim and define its existence on a civilised level cannot compel respect, no matter how many bales of wool it might export.
This could mean that Australian governments would think themselves justified in refusing or in curtailing subsidies to any Australian university in which there is no Chair of Australian Literature.
Having made this practical suggestion, or prediction, I may now briefly define the difference between the colonial and national trends in our literature.
The systematic study of Australian Literature requires that each and every book or other document, among the 100,000 or more items of source-material, should be appraised and classified in one or the other of these two classes: Colonial and National. Does this or that book help, or does it retard, the idea of Australia as a homeland? That is the question.
To put this concretely, I may suggest that there have been ten major phases of Australian historical development. Each of these phases has made a distinctive contribution to the Australian character, as reflected in Australian literature, within the two parallel classes of colonial and national writings.
1. THE DREAM TIMES: (That is, Aboriginal or Primitive Australia, as it was in any district before European settlers arrived.) The Aborigines had no written literature, but they did have sung corroborees, in which they preserved their lore. Very few, if any, Aborigines were given a sufficient school education to enable them to make contributions to Australian literature in the English language. We have therefore no contemporary documentation of the Dream Times; but there has been a great deal of writing by white men on the Aborigines. The colonial attitude was that the Aborigines were an inferior race, and a dying race, who should be helped to die out. The contrasting national attitude was that they were an intelligent but culturally retarded people, who should be helped to survive. I mention, as an example of the national attitude, the “Jindyworobak” movement in poetry in the 1930s, which attempted, better late than never, to bring the Aboriginal theme into Australian literature.
2. EXPLORATION BY SEA: Australia was not discovered by Captain Cook. It was discovered by the Aborigines, in the Dream Times. A long time after that, it was discovered by a great number of European sea-captains, of whom Captain Cook was one. What these Europeans discovered was their own previous ignorance of this continent and its surrounding oceans. Those discoveries or revelations were made over a period within four centuries — say, from 1520 A.D. to 1840 A.D. — in a large number of voyages by navigators of many European nations: Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French, and English. Their narratives belong to European literature, but also to Australian literature. They are the Odysseys of our Homeric Age.
The colonial attitude is in emphasising the British voyages, and in ignoring the others. There are more than 100 of these enthralling true sea-stories awaiting a reprinting in popular form by the Queensland University Press. Australian writers have not dealt extensively, in fiction and poetry, with this great theme of exploration by sea. Exceptions are My Love Must Wait, a novel by Ernestine Hill. based on the life of Flinders; and Heemskerck Shoals, an excellent poem by Robert Fitzgerald, based on an incident in Tasman’s voyages.
3. EXPLORATION BY LAND: The unveiling of Terra Australis Incognita began in 1788 with the first British settlement at Sydney, and was completed on the mainland in about eighty years, but continued in New Guinea until the 1950s. There are more than 100 journals of explorers awaiting reprinting. They are documents of true experience, of fascinating interest to Australians. The colonial attitude has been expressed in an emphasis on the unsuccessful expeditions, such as those of Sturt and Eyre to Central Australia, or Burke and Wills, conveying the impression that Australia is a desert “out where the dead men lie” and in minimising the explorations of native-born Australians, such as Hamilton Hume, or of foreigners such as Leichhardt and Strzelecki. A recent example of the colonial attitude is in Mr Patrick White’s Voss, a fictionalised study of Leichhardt, which ignored that explorer’s magnificent overland expedition from Moreton Bay to Port Essington in 1844 — the virtual discovery of the interior of Queensland — and concentrated attention on his failure in 1848 to cross the continent through the centre. With this Mr White gives the German explorer a perfectly unwarranted character as a man incompetent in making love to a woman.
4. THE IMPERIAL CONVICT SYSTEM: This vile system of colonisation lasted in New South Wales (including the regions later separated as Victoria and Queensland) for only 53 years, from 1788 to 1841. It is the least important period in our history, from the demographic point of view, as the convicts were soon outnumbered by free settlers. They became a minority of less than one per cent. after the inflow of one million free and adventurous fortune-seekers during the Gold Rushes of the 1850s.
The colonial attitude to the literary treatment of the Imperial Convict System has been expressed in an immense amount of contemporary official documentation, and by later imaginative and morbid treatments in imitation of For the Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke. He was a Londoner who landed in Melbourne in 1863, with a capital of £800. He ignored the vibrant life of Australian expansion during the gold rushes, and concentrated his attention on sordid incidents of the convict system in Van Diemen’s Land of some fifty years previously. He died of drink and melancholia at Melbourne in 1881.
The national attitude to the Convict System was expressed in the very first poem of Australia, Visit of Hope to Sydney Cove, by Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles Darwin). This was printed as epigraph to Governor Phillip’s Voyage to Botany Bay, which was published in London in 1789. The truth was that the majority of the convicts became emancipated in Australia, and settled in well. Only the hard cases were flogged or put into the iron gangs, or sent to Moreton Bay and otherwise punished for new offences committed in the colony. Any literary treatment of the convict theme which exaggerates its sordid aspects could be regarded as neurotic, as Marcus Clarke’s treatment of it was; or alternatively as a colonial attempt to disparage Australia by fostering the ridiculous illusion that Australians are “descended from convicts”.
5. PASTORAL DEVELOPMENT. Throughout the Nineteenth Century, and continuing to a large extent today, the pastoral industry made this continent into a vast grazing paddock, producing chiefly wool for export to England, and later to other countries. The squatters were in many cases immigrants, who had brought with them some capital, and intended to return to England after putting up with colonial life long enough to make a fortune. Some did that, but others remained, and founded Australian families. Some of the squatters also were Australian-born, for example Tyson and Kidman. There is an immense contemporary documentation of the pastoral life, in books such as Henry Stuart Russel’s Genesis of Queensland, or Gordon Buchanan’s Packhorse and Waterhole. Practically all these works have been allowed to go out of print, and there are hundreds of manuscript memoirs of pastoral pioneers still awaiting publication.
The literary or imaginative treatment of pastoral life has also been extensive. The colonial attitude in poetry is exemplified by the poems of Adam Lindsay Gordon, a “remittance man”, who, suffering from melancholia of the exile, committed suicide in Melbourne in 1870, aged 37. The national attitude is expressed in the poems of A. B. Paterson (“The Banjo”), an Australian-born balladist who lived to the grand old age of 77, and died in Sydney in 1941.
As examples of colonial pastoral novels, Geoffry Hamlyn, by Charles Kingsley, is typical. He was an Englishman who visited Australia for five years, in the 1850s, and then went back to England and wrote a novel of his colonial experiences, which is deservedly a classic of its kind.
In contrast, the national attitude is expressed in All That Swagger, by Miles Franklin, and in Such Is Life by “Tom Collins” (Joseph Furphy), who declared that his work was “offensively Australian”.
6. THE GOLD RUSHES AND LATER MINERAL DEVELOPMENT. Strangely enough, there has not been very much national treatment of the great gold rush theme and of later developments of mining. Literary emphasis has been placed on the bushrangers, who occasionally robbed the diggers. The outstanding novel was Rolf Boldrewood’s Robbery Under Arms, which gave worldwide publicity to the idea that Australia is inhabited by criminals. Despite this, it is a masterly novel, in which the adventurous rather than the sordid is emphasised. It is a valid work, but there is scope for a much wider treatment of the more normal aspects of the life of miners, continuing to the present day.
Henry Handel Richardson’s novel, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, could be considered as a literary treatment of the Gold Rush theme. It tells of an unsuccessful digger, who became so discontented with Australia that his mind disintegrated to insanity. Written on a downward curve of emotion, this novel is in no sense typically Australian, except of the colonial approach to the Australian theme, a study of maladjustment.
7. QUEENSLAND DEVELOPMENT. By this I mean the development of “closer settlement” for farming, by the subdivision of some of the old-time pastoral stations. The national attitude is exemplified in Steele Rudd’s On Our Selection, in which the life of the “selectors” was described with robust humor. The colonial attitude was reflected in Barbara Baynton’s Bush Studies and Human Toll, and in some of the more morbid stories of bush life by Henry Lawson, works filled with whining at the hardships of this kind of pioneering life. Steele Rudd’s attitude was far more typically Australian.
8. URBANISATION AND LIGHT INDUSTRY. City life was depicted in novels such as Jonah, by Louis Stone, and poems such as The Sentimental Bloke, by C. J. Dennis. Those works are essentially Australian, but they deal only with one aspect of city life, the larrikins, who had their own vernacular. The most important aspect of urbanisation was in the development of book publishing, especially in the “New South Wales Bookstall” series, in which some 200 novels, by seventy different authors, were published at Sydney as paperbacks within twenty-one years (1899 to 1920). That was an effect of what was called “the Nationalism of the ’Nineties”.
Urbanisation brought increased sophistication, expressed for example in the poems of Christopher Brennan, Hugh McCrae, Bernard O’Dowd, John Shaw Nielson, and William Baylebridge — major poets all of them, but in attempting to get away from the traditions of the “bush balladists”, they sometimes strove to be as non-Australian as possible. That was a colonial attitude.
9. AUSTRALIANS IN WARS ABROAD. Despite the immense sacrifices by Australians, in blood and treasure, in wars abroad, the literary treatment of this theme has not been commensurate with the extent of those sacrifices. There are many Australian war books, but most of them have gone out of print. I may mention William Baylebridge’s An Anzac Muster, and Harley Matthews’ poems, Vintage of Anzac, as examples of books in this field which have been neglected. These works are of national significance, but the neglect of them is a colonial phenomenon.
10. HEAVY INDUSTRY AND THE MODERN AGE. With the development of the Australian iron and steel industry, during the 1914-18 war, Australia has moved forward to its present-day status as a fully-industrialised country, in which three-quarters of the population are city dwellers. The characteristic of city-life is supposed to be sophistication. This has unfortunately been taken, by most of our poets and many of our novelists, to mean that they should imitate the literary fashions of London or New York. Such an attitude is not sophisticated. It is colonial and second-rate. It is a carry-over of the old colonial idea that Australians have only to follow a far-distant lead.
Writers who can convey that atmosphere of self-confidence to the Australian people will take rank as nation-builders. The others — the disparagers, the pessimists, the colonial imitators of faraway fashions — having no roots in our soil, will fade away, and no one will be sorry to see them disappear.
The Bulletin (Sydney, NSW) 16 June 1962, pp. 27-29
The original article printed the introductory paragraph in bold text, and the first two paragraphs of the speech in italics.
[Editor: Changed “examplified” to “exemplified”.]