P. R. Stephensen

P. R. Stephensen, circa 1934.
(Click here for a list of his works.)

Percy Reginald Stephensen was an author, poet, editor and publisher. He is regarded as a major figure in the push for Australian cultural nationalism, a reputation especially earned with the publication of his book, The Foundations of Culture in Australia (1936). He commonly signed his articles as “P. R. Stephensen”; although, on the lighter side, he was known to some of his friends as “Inky”.

Stephensen was born in Maryborough, Queensland, on 20 November 1901. He was the eldest son of Christian Julius Stephensen (a wheelwright) and Marie Louise Aimée Stephensen (née Tardent; she was born in Russia to a Swiss father and a Russian mother).

During his time at the University of Queensland, Stephensen edited the student magazine, Galmahra. It was whilst at university that he was bestowed with the nickname “Inky”, not from any involvement in publishing, but from his habit of singing his favourite song “Mademoiselle from Armentieres”, with its repeating line of “Inky pinky parlez-vous”.[1]

Stephensen mixed in radical political circles in Brisbane, and subsequently joined the Communist Party of Australia in 1921. He became a teacher, working in Ipswich during 1922 to 1923.

He was awarded a Rhodes scholarship in 1924 and subsequently went to England, where he attended Queen’s College (part of the University of Oxford). Whilst in England he became heavily involved with the Communist Party, and then with the general strike of 1926; however, he later drifted away from his involvement in radical politics, due to his disillusionment with the union movement.

Like the 1890s Queensland radical William Lane, Stephensen was what could be described as a racial communist. An article he wrote whilst at Oxford outlined his view that world socialism was needed to stop the “rising tide of colour” which threatened white civilisation (in a similar vein, his 1936 book on Australian culture was in favour of a White Australia).[2]

After he left Oxford in 1927, Stephensen ran the Fanfrolico Press in London. He also co-edited, with Jack Lindsay, the London Aphrodite magazine (Jack was the son of the famous artist Norman Lindsay, who later helped PRS with his venture into Australian publishing). Then, in 1929, Stephensen founded his own publishing enterprise, the Mandrake Press, producing various titles, including some of his own works. After the British authorities banned D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Stephensen became friends with the author and printed a secret edition of the novel in London, although Lawrence died before the edition’s appearance. He also commissioned Liam O’Flaherty to write an anti-war novel, The Return of the Brute, which was published by Mandrake Press in 1929.[3]

Along with his wife to be, Winifred Sarah Venus (née Lockyer), Stephensen returned to Australia in October 1932 (the couple were eventually married, but not until 1947, following the death of Winifred’s first husband).

Stephensen, in conjunction with Norman Lindsay, was determined to further the interests of Australian literature with the establishment of a publishing company which would concentrate on publishing the works of Australian authors, with an emphasis on quality production.

Norman Lindsay, with financial backing from The Bulletin company, had laid the groundwork for an Australian publishing venture, and so, when Stephensen arrived back in Sydney in 1932, he was appointed as the founding manager of the Endeavour Press; however, in 1933 he resigned from the company, following some differences with the managing board. He then started his own publishing firm, P. R. Stephensen & Co., but this only lasted until 1935. Whilst his publishing endeavours may have been short-lived, he did produce a number of books by significant Australian authors, such as Banjo Paterson, Eleanor Dark, Henry Handel Richardson, and Miles Franklin.

In July 1935, Stephensen published The Australian Mercury magazine, of which he was the editor, and in which he included the first part of his influential essay, “The Foundations of Culture in Australia: An Essay towards National Self-Respect”. The magazine never went further than its first issue, so the following year he released the three parts of his essay in a book format, which was funded and published by William John Miles, a wealthy businessman who had been impressed with Stephensen’s essay in The Australian Mercury. The book was printed with the co-operation of Hector Ross, who was on the central committee of the Communist Party, and who managed the party’s printing operations.[4]

The publication, in February 1936, of his well-known book, The Foundations of Culture in Australia: An Essay Toward National Self-Respect, was a significant milestone in the development of Australian cultural nationalism. Its publication influenced Rex Ingamells and the Jindyworobak literary movement (founded in 1937). Mark McKenna, in his biography of the historian Manning Clark, noted P. R. Stephensen’s influence upon Clark, as well as upon academics and thinkers throughout Australia, stating that “his writings had encouraged a generation of intellectuals to think differently about the creation of a distinctively Australian culture”. Professor Christopher Lee has described Stephensen’s book as “an influential cultural manifesto for Australian nationalism”.[5]

Stephensen became closely involved with W. J. Miles, and assisted him to launch The Publicist magazine in July 1936, and was instrumental in its ongoing production. Miles was the editor of the publication; although, due to his health problems (which later proved fatal), he handed the editorship over to Stephensen, who, as things turned out, was editor for only the final three issues (January to March 1942).[6] Craig Munro, Stephensen’s biographer, wrote that “the monthly Publicist . . . had a strongly anti-British, anti-Semitic and anti-democratic flavour by 1938 and was criticized for its overt Fascism”.[7] When Stephensen wrote The Foundations of Culture in Australia in 1935-1936 he was certainly not a fascist; in fact, he attacked fascism in a number of places in his book.[8] Whether Stephensen later became a fascist, or a quasi-fascist, may be a matter for debate, although the evidence certainly indicates that, by the 1940s, he had leanings in that direction.[9] However, what is not debatable is the fact that, with the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 between the Allied (democratic) powers and the Axis (fascist) powers, being considered a fascist was a poor reputation to have, and he suffered as a consequence.

Stephensen played a pivotal role in the launching of the Australia First Movement. At a meeting in Sydney on 20 October 1941, at which the organisation was formally constituted, he was elected as its president.[10] It was just a few months afterwards, in January 1942, that Miles appointed him as editor of The Publicist. However, the strident nature of the Australia First Movement and The Publicist magazine made powerful enemies for those involved, which led to severe consequences for Stephensen and a number of other AFM members.

In Western Australia several sympathisers of the Australia First Movement were contacted by a police spy (who has also been characterized as an agent provocateur), who urged them to set up an Australia First group in that state, encouraged them to make extremist statements (and allegedly falsified reports to make them appear as extremists), and then accused them of making pro-Japanese statements. Members of the WA group were subsequently arrested and accused of planning to help the enemy, in what was later described as a “police frame-up”. Despite a lack of connection between the group based in Western Australia and the group based in New South Wales, in March 1942 Stephensen and various other Australia First members were rounded up and put into internment camps, where Stephensen was to remain, without a trial, until August 1945.[11]

After the war, Stephensen made a living by ghostwriting books for Frank Clune, the popular author. He once again became involved in Australia’s literary scene, and was a foundation member of the Australian Society of Authors.

On 28 May 1965 Stephensen attended the annual Australian literature night at the Savage Club in Sydney, a private gentlemen’s club with an interest in literature and the arts, where he gave a speech on book censorship, which received a standing ovation. He stood and thanked the audience, and then keeled over and died.[12]

P. R. Stephensen had a significant impact upon Australian culture. He advocated a form of cultural nationalism, which promoted local culture against the influence of world-dominating cultures; and he also encouraged the principle of publishing and promoting Australian writers, rather than the practice of relying upon imported British and American literature. However, Stephensen’s major contribution to Australia was his writing of The Foundations of Culture in Australia, which had a widespread and wide-ranging influence. He was a controversial man with controversial ideas, but he provided a much-needed spark to light the fire of cultural nationalism in Australia, adding to the development and growth of Australian culture.

Books and other works by P. R. Stephensen:
Works of P. R. Stephensen

Articles about P. R. Stephensen:
Australian literature: Publishing company to be formed [5 October 1932]
A report on the intention of P. R. Stephensen to establish a publishing company in Australia.
Publisher indicts the state of our culture [4 April 1936]
A review of P. R. Stephensen’s book The Foundations of Culture in Australia, published in The Daily Telegraph.
Culture in Australia [11 April 1936]
A review of P. R. Stephensen’s book The Foundations of Culture in Australia, published in The Sydney Morning Herald.
Book Talk: Publicist for Australia [20 February 1937]
An article highly critical of P. R. Stephensen and The Publicist, saying that their promotion of their brand of Australianism is carried out in such an abusive and spiteful manner that it is difficult to take their advocacy seriously.
Australianists [4 January 1941]
A review of Jindyworobak poetry which mentions that several of Ian Mudie’s poems had been published by P. R. Stephensen in The Publicist, as well as by Rex Ingamells in the Jindyworobak Anthology.
P. R. Stephensen [5 June 1965]
An obituary of P. R. Stephensen.

Craig Munro, “Stephensen, Percy Reginald (1901–1965)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University (accessed 18 April 2014)
P. R. Stephensen”, AustLit (accessed 18 April 2014)

[1] Craig Munro, Inky Stephensen: Wild Man of Letters, St Lucia (Queensland): University of Queensland Press, 1992, p. 13
[2] Craig Munro, Inky Stephensen: Wild Man of Letters, p. 39
P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia: An Essay towards National Self-Respect, Gordon (NSW): W. J. Miles, pp. 149, 157, 163, 188, 190
[3] Craig Munro, Inky Stephensen: Wild Man of Letters, pp. 82, 91
[4] Craig Munro, Inky Stephensen: Wild Man of Letters, pp. 164-165
[5] Christopher Lee, “The London Aphrodite: Australia’s vitalist assault on English modernism, Edwardian wowsers and the British system of class”, Academia.edu, 31 October 2003, page 4
Mark McKenna, An Eye For Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark, Miegunyah Press (Melbourne University), Carlton, 2011, p. 227
Craig Munro, Inky Stephensen: Wild Man of Letters, p. 165
[6] Bruce Muirden, The Puzzled Patriots, Carlton (Victoria): Melbourne University Press, 1968, pp. 29, 53
[7] Craig Munro, “Stephensen, Percy Reginald (1901–1965)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University (accessed 18 April 2014)
[8] P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia: An Essay towards National Self-Respect, Gordon (NSW): W. J. Miles, pp. 25, 50, 70, 126-128, 132, 155, 162
[9] Craig Munro, Inky Stephensen: Wild Man of Letters, pp. 205, 209
[10] Bruce Muirden, The Puzzled Patriots, pp. 59, 61
[11] Bruce Muirden, The Puzzled Patriots, pp. 77, 81, 85
Craig Munro, Inky Stephensen: Wild Man of Letters, pp. 223-227, 231, 233-235, 247
[12] Craig Munro, Inky Stephensen: Wild Man of Letters, p. 270

Speak Your Mind