[Editor: This is a chapter from The Foundations of Culture in Australia (1936) by P. R. Stephensen.]
Preservation of lore
And so, if even the Great War of 1914-18 is being forgotten, save by those cheerful Old Kaspars, the surviving “Diggers” of the period (fast greying now, alas, most of them) — or more precisely, if the Great War never was a reality to hundreds of thousands of now newly-adult Australians who were simply not born, or were infants in arms when the guns thundered, how much more so is our history preceding 1914 a blank to the oncoming Australians of to-day?
Seven decades of tremendous Australian events, from 1850 to 1920, are remembered, more or less as personal experience, by the old and the middle-aged; but can now never be made known or told to the young or to future generations of Australians — except through the printed word, the literary word: the development of Australian literature, which is the sine qua non of Australia’s nationality.
The balladists of the ’eighties and ’nineties caught and branded the contemporary phase of life, the phase of the shearing-sheds, of the sunlit plains extended, of the sundowners, of the Champion Ringers, and they sang the epics of the nomadic age so liltingly and truly that their songs were immediately learned for recitation in every shearing-shed and swagman’s camp throughout the Six Colonies. But this was a phase, the phase of the horse epoch, and it has passed.
Steele Rudd, too, caught and parodied the cocky farmer, the pioneer of the small-holding, so truly that his books were sold in millions. They were distinctively Australian, and so was C. J. Dennis’ The Sentimental Bloke, with its picture of the dirty larrikin, popularising Louis Stone’s Jonah in glib rhymed verse. The picture of Australia presented by the balladists, by Steele Rudd, by C. J. Dennis, fixed an image of a “rough” type of Australian who was indeed characteristic at that time, a spontaneously generated type.
Our newspaper cartoonists and comedians have been drawing their sustenance from these types, repeating them again and again, right into these nineteen thirties, as though Australian life had not at all changed from the pioneering days. Such is the lore put forth as Dinkum Australian, to the understandable disgust of a newer generation, and to the amazement of people overseas.
The literature of the newer phase, of modern Australia, has still to make its way. If written, it remains unpublished; or if published (usually in England) it is not adequately distributed here. The immense sweep of the pioneering saga, as faithfully presented in the novels of Brent of Bin Bin, is but an indication of what can be done with the Australian theme. Our lore is much more weighty than the “Bloke” and “Dad” stuff. Even on the level of the outback theme, it seems preposterous that we have not had an Australian Zane Grey to depict the romantic Australian horsemanship of our West. It seems preposterous that Australians, who are the finest horsemen and cattle-stealers in the world, should be obliged to go to Texas for their cowboy lore. We are not living here mentally, it would seem. We are merely living here physically.
But, apart from landscape literary art and the crude distortions and parodies of Convict, Shearer, Cocky, Bloke, and even “Digger” lore, there is surely as much scope for faithful literary portraiture in this Commonwealth as anywhere else. Hath not an Australian eyes? Hath not an Australian hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die?
The substantial metropolises of Sydney and Melbourne offer as much scope for literary portrayal as any other metropolis in the world — more so, being practically virgin fields. All the ingredients of fiction — for example, love, hate, greed, sex, death, conflict — are as frequent in Sydney or Melbourne as in New York, Paris, or London.
As for Professor Cowling’s contention that “we might have one Australian Sinclair Lewis, but not many more,” that is, to use an appropriate Americanism, bunk. The Australian businessman, the Australian Babbitt, provides an inexhaustible fund of material for the satirical novelist who can rise to the opportunity. We have our Australian Main Streets, and our Elmer Gantrys too: a sufficient supply of them for a dozen Sinclair Lewises. The debunking of Australian contemporary life can provide, in full measure, for an entire school of debunkers, when these arrive (may it be soon!).
The first thing to debunk is the Lag Tradition, and then the Dave Tradition, and then the Bloke Tradition so dear to the Australian stylists who spell “you” as “yer” and “to” as “ter” in an attempt to introduce the local colour. In addition, our debunkers might then turn their attention to the de-Pomification and un-Yankeefying of Australian literature and life.
Our own lore, our fair-dinkum lore, might then begin to emerge, together with a truer concept of our national history.
Who will write an Australian Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to arouse a salutary indignation against the monstrous treatment and enslavement of our expropriated blackfellows?
P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, W. J. Miles, Gordon (N.S.W.), 1936, pages 95-98
sine qua non = (Latin) literally, “without which not”, a phrase used to denote something which is absolutely indispensable
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