[Editor: This is the preface from Because Men Went Hungry: An Essay on the Uncertainty of Australian Prestige (1951) by Rex Ingamells.]
Ever since its shores began to emerge from mystery into the knowledge of literate men, Australia has been the object of extremes in definition. To the Japanese, its North was celebrated as the Coral Land to South, the Southern Land of Pearls; to the Dutch and to Dampier, New Holland was utterly arid and forbidding; to Cook and Banks, the East was a land of promise.
For the period of British occupation, recorded opinion about Australia is abundant. There is need to investigate the great body of it — to learn, for instance, in what way ideas that are regionally true are false in continental application; to what extent confused representation has produced uncertainty in popular thought about the land as an entity; and how far peculiarities of individual temperament and situation explain opposite definitions applied to the same region at the same time. For the present purpose, it is enough to indicate such a field of enquiry before proceeding to a special problem.
This is the problem of the uncertainty of Australian prestige. These words summarize a situation of national weakness concomitant with whatever there may be of virtue in us as a people.
The world is aware of our superlative record in wool, in gold, in war, in social legislation — the list could be extended considerably; and the world knows that Melba, Monash, Mawson, Ross and Keith Smith, Bradman, Florey are names of Australians — and our list of famous and celebrated could be extended considerably also. Our sum of achievement is no mean one for a nation founded less than two hundred years ago. At the present time, moreover, following the Second World War, Australian prestige stands higher than ever before.
But it would be useless to deny that, despite all we Australians hold to our credit, we have been, in very large measure, and still are, to a lessening extent, fashionably regarded, both here and overseas, in a light far from complimentary. An aura of cultural no-account has too long and too often been associated with Australians and their country for us to deceive ourselves that we are as universally admired as we should like to be. Men like Bernard Shaw and Norman Douglas have made mock of our country and us. Too many Australians have become expatriates, in order to find the artistic encouragement, gentility of surroundings, or worldly success, for which they craved. Too many Australians are inclined to apologize for their native land, even to decry it; and, although not typical of the people, they are a bad advertisement. Australian sycophantism is a disease clearly observable overseas. At the other extreme, a brand of Australian larrikinism has been too well known abroad. The courage and resource of our fighting men are justly admired, but Aussie rowdies have sometimes left unpleasant memories among other communities.
There is a plethora of confusion in Australian self-awareness and Australian reputation. The more I have considered the problem of our national prestige, the more firmly convinced I have become that it is a special problem requiring elucidation in the light of our past. I began to look for elucidation in such factors as Convictism, British Opinion, British Immigration and its character, and so forth. The relevance of such factors is easily demonstrable, and largely self-evident; but I soon found that, with them all, something was yet wanting to explain a specialized operation of them. I was tantalized by a sense of some elusive circumstance in our history which, over and beyond such factors, has intensified into unreasonable longevity certain immaturities and inhibitions in our community. Elusive but by no means illusory, that key to our social history was dropped in the sandy soil at Sydney Cove, in 1788. There I have found it. In the present study, I have concentrated upon removing the rust and turning that key in the most obvious locks.
18th September, 1950
Rex Ingamells, Because Men Went Hungry: An Essay on the Uncertainty of Australian Prestige, Jindyworobak, Melbourne, 1951, pages 1-3
proem = an introduction, preamble, preface, or preliminary remarks, especially for a literary work or a speech