[Editor: This review of The Foundations of Culture in Australia (by P. R. Stephensen) was published in The Daily Telegraph, 4 April 1936.]
Publisher indicts the state of our culture
Mr. P. R. Stephensen, whose courageous flights into book-publishing in Australia have earned him a place in national esteem as well as in the hearts of rising authors and essayists, has set out, in his brochure, “The Foundations of Culture in Australia,” to inculcate a little national self-respect into us. His rat-a-plan upon the drums of literature is just what is necessary to hearten those whose hopes are dying. His “J’accuse” will, perhaps, bring a blush to the brows of the mentally lazy or the financially mean upon whom rest the responsibility for the lag in letters in this country.
He begins with W. C. Wentworth and his second prize Cambridge poem of 1823:—
And O, Britannia, should’st thou cease to ride
Despotic Empress of old Ocean’s tide —
Should thy tamed lion — spent his former might —
No longer roar, the terror of the fight …
May all thy glories in another sphere
Relume, and shine more brightly still than here;
May this, thy last-born infant, then arise
To glad the heart, and greet the parent eyes;
And Australasia float, with flag unfurled,
A new Britannia in another world!
For breath-taking colonial impudence, says Mr. Stephensen, this was the dizzy limit in 1823, “and is still in 1935, with its assumption that the British Islands might some day decline in power, an astounding prophecy or hope of what might then be the future of Australia as a great and responsible nation.”
His closing note is nearly as dramatic. The words are those of the last New Year message of the retiring Governor-General, Sir Isaac Isaacs:—
“Whatever the future may have in store, one thing is certain — no inferiority complex ever found a place in the true Australian creed of life.”
Mr. Stephensen writes as a genuine Australian patriot, who sees in the national spirit something apart from the profit and loss account, and who bitterly regrets the loss of good Australian artists and writers to the more profitable fields beyond the sea. Our convict literature for the most part he discards as English and, in the Australian scene, unreal “England” (he quotes the legendary old Australian lady who won “Tatt.’s”). “No, I don’t want to take a trip to England. That’s where the convicts come from!”
He regrets the excursions into convictism by modern writers such as J. H. M. Abbott and Brian Penton, whose Landtakers he says “wallows in the sensationalism of convictism and flogging.” Nor has he much time for the “cub-edited” daily press (he is a little hard on us, perhaps, in this tolerant age).
Felicitous phrase and sparkling prose lend a strength to an indictment which is already strong in the steel armour of incontrovertible veracity. Mr. Stephensen has done himself proud and if you take a few points off for some theories too enthusiastically fired to be sure of their target, he has done what he set out to do — a service to Australian letters.
The Foundations of Culture, by P. R. Stephensen. Australia. Published by W. J. Miles.
The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW), 4 April 1936, p. 10
[Editor: Changed “Stephenson” to “Stephensen” (in five places) as per the correct spelling of the surname of P. R. Stephensen.]