[Editor: This article was published in the “Books of the Day” column in The Age (Melbourne, Vic.), 15 June 1946.]
The tragic note in Australian literature
The complaint is often heard that Australian literature is pessimistic, that our writers have been over-concerned with portraying the tragedy of bush life. These complainants perhaps forget that our young literature is so far mainly a record of up-country, frontier life, harsh, grim, often tragic; and even to-day life in the bush invariably means an unremitting struggle between man and Nature.
One object which literature generally recognised as great has achieved throughout history is the presentation of aspects of human experience in such a way as to produce a pattern out of the seeming chaos of human life. The whole concern of literature is with life as it is lived by human beings.
Australian writers have not failed in this regard. They have presented, the best of them, the emotions of their fellow men, shown us character acting and reacting, in an endeavor to give us a sense of reality, a concentrated essence of physical and psychological facts as they occur in the lives of their contemporaries.
Our short story writers — the corvettes and light craft of our literary navy — have been most successful in interpreting the country and the life of the people, endowing, enriching their existence with meaning and significance. The Australian short story, bush bred, is primarily a social product, notable for its militant democracy, objective rather than subjective. From our short stories we can obtain a fairly accurate conception of the life of the Australian people, their patterns of thought and behavior.
Tragedy and struggle
Readers of “Twenty Great Australian Stories” (Dolphin Publications, Melbourne; 4/) may perhaps be disconcerted by the seeming atmosphere of tragedy which pervades the book. It is unlikely that the compilers, Messrs. J. L. Waten and V. O’Connor, wished to stress that unhappy quality only. Rather, their aim was to present a selection of “great” stories which underlined indomitable courage in the teeth of adversity. More than that, they seem to have chosen stories which, besides being “characteristically Australian,” exposed the evils and ugliness of a diseased social structure. “We have tried to show how the great writers of our country have faithfully recorded the democratic hopes of the people; how they have striven to disclose the evils and horrors that have stood in the way of the realisation of their hopes.” To a certain extent their aim has been realised. Certainly the “struggle element” is predominant in this collection, the struggle born of desperation; of people vulnerable but indestructible. However, while most of the stories deal with some aspect of bush experience, they are not all within that category.
Here the reader will find Marcus Clarke’s excellent but rather journalistic sketch, Colonial Experience. Young, energetic, holding high hopes of quickly returning to England with his fortunes repaired, he could afford to make light of the hard life on an outback station; it was mainly in the nature of a holiday adventure. Joseph Furphy’s two stories, The Discovery of Christmas Reef and the rather tedious A Vignette of Port Phillip, possess a distinctive Australian quality which Marcus Clarke’s writings were never able to achieve.
A typically macabre piece by Price Warung, John Price’s Bar of Steel, reads almost like a bedtime story when compared with Barbara Baynton’s Hogarthian horror, Billy Skywonkie. Crows, and the sardonic Ta-Ta Woman, by Dowell O’Reilly, and the three stories by Henry Lawson, An Old Mate of Your Father’s, A Child in the Dark and A Visit of Condolence (not among Lawson’s best), also deal with personal tragedy and frustration. The despair and loneliness of Dorrington’s A Bush Tanqueray is redeemed by a flash of loving kindness.
Basis of Selection
A true piece of folk-writing is Lance Skuthorpe’s The Champion Bullock-Driver — the only story he ever wrote. So vividly written is this tightly wrought piece of fantasy that the reader surely cannot fail to see the panel of split-rail fence, actually lurch into action at the command of this champion of all bullock-drivers! The Cooboo, from the “electric pen” of Katharine Prichard, is one of Australia’s finest short stories.
Vance Palmer is represented by Father and Son and Ancestors, both well written, quietly satisfying. Frank Dalby Davison’s The Woman at the Mill is an authentic, carefully constructed psychological study, while Further West has an underlying strength in harmony with this domestic tragedy. Gavin Casey contributes one of his familiar gold fields yarns, Compensation, and the collection closes with Alan Marshall’s Trees Can Speak and Tell Us About the Turkey, Jo — which seems to have been included by mistake.
Twenty stories by 12 writers, covering a wide range of outback experience rooted in the native tradition. As the editors confess, they could have chosen 20 other stories just as good. In this collection no “discoveries” have been unearthed; all have been previously published. For the first time “social consciousness” has been applied as a basis of selection. The overall impression is of struggle but not of defeat. The characters may be thrown down by fate and circumstance, but they survive in themselves. None of these stories could be termed “great” when judged by world standards, but most of them are excellent of their kind. It is to be hoped that when the second edition is being prepared the collection will receive a more deserving format and choice of type face.
The Age (Melbourne, Vic.), 15 June 1946, p. 25