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Monday musings on Australian literature: The little Aussie battler

April 1, 2013

Australian public intellectual and ethicist, Clive Hamilton, wrote in his 2005 book Affluenza (excerpted in The invisible thread) that

Politicians love to identify with the Aussie battler, that stoic, resilient character who has little and complains less. Fifty years ago Australia was full of battlers, people hardened by the rigours of depression and war and, if not proud of their penury, certainly not ashamed of it. The Aussie battler is the central icon of Australian political folklore, and the image persists despite the fact that, as a result of sustained economic growth in the past five decades, the number of people who truly struggle has shrunk to a small proportion of the population.

My plan here, though, is not to discuss the political use (about which Hamilton makes a lot of sense) but the literary one, because reading this excerpt of course made me think about what part this “motif” or “myth” has played in Australian literature. I’ve written a few Monday musings to date on “themes” (such as the lost child, the beach, the gum tree, even sheep). The little Aussie battler is worthy, I think, of similar, albeit introductory, exploration. Is this icon (or stereotype) that is so popular with politicians, also reflected in Australian literature?

Who then is the “little Aussie battler”? My understanding of the term is that it refers to men (or more broadly families) who are working class, urban or rural, who struggle (battle) to make a living.  Historically, they had few pretensions to upward mobility, except perhaps for their children. There’s a discussion of the word’s meaning on the Australian National University website, which includes the following definition of the “battler” as:

the person with few natural advantages, who works doggedly and with little reward, who struggles hard for a livelihood, and who displays enormous courage in so doing.

The notion of “the battler” probably originates in Australia’s convict heritage of the late 18th century and the battle to survive, but the early “battlers” in Australian literature were the itinerants and the struggling rural workers of the late 19th century, as glorified by writers like Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson. They could be employed, irregularly employed, or unemployed. By the early to mid twentieth century, the “battlers” were often urban, though the country battler survived.

In fact, the iconic “battlers” of early 20th century literature were Steele Rudd‘s Dad and Dave, the struggling settler farmers who are often described as “the original Aussie battlers”. The first Dad and Dave book, On our Selection, was written in 1899, but the characters and their struggles became popularly known through plays, film and radio in the first decades of the 20th century. My favourite battlers, though, are those of Ruth Park. Her Harp in the south trilogy and her Miles Franklin Award winning Swords and crowns and rings are quintessential battler stories. New Zealand born Park got down pat the mid-twentieth century battler, the often flawed characters with big hearts and a desire to provide for their families and care for their mates. George Johnston’s My brother Jack is another example of a great battler of Aussie literature, as is Kylie Tennant‘s unfortunately lesser known novel The battlers. These mid-20th century battlers had usually experienced the Great Depression and/or the world wars. Life was difficult.

Jordan's Nine Days

Book cover (Courtesy: Text Publising)

Current writers like Joan London (Gilgamesh) and Toni Jordan (Nine days) have also written about these historic battlers, as has, most famously, Tim Winton in Cloudstreet. What does it say, I wonder, that the book which most often wins surveys seeking our favourite or best Australian novel is this one about Aussie battlers?

But what about late 20th or early 21st century battlers? Do they still exist (outside the politicians’ minds?). Are Tim Winton’s more contemporary-focused books, like The turning, also about “Aussie battlers”? If they are, they are written with a more realistic, less affectionate eye, I think, than the earlier books I’ve mentioned. Is the old definition of “battler” – essentially, a working class white Australian male – still reflective of contemporary Australian society, with its multicultural and increasingly middle-class make-up? Certainly, when I think about recent Australian literature that is set in current times, the “battler” theme, or even character really, does not come to the fore – and yet, if I Google, “aussie battler”, the idea is alive and well. It seems, perhaps, that literature has turned its eye to more complex notions of the Australian character while politicians and the media stick to a romanticised version of “the battler”. I’d love to know what other readers of Aussie literature think.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. Meg permalink
    April 2, 2013 9:33 am

    I did read Clive Hamilton’s, “Affluenza,” In the Invisible Thread, and thought it was quite good. The definition of the “true Aussie battler” has changed over the years. I find it difficult to think of a modern Australian novel about the ‘Ausssie battler’. I agree with you about Ruth Park, and would add Thea Astley to the list of writers from the past who wrote about the Aussie battler”. I used to be sexist in thinking of the ‘Aussie battler’ being a man rather than a woman. However, especially in today’s world, there are many women who would also be classed as the ‘Aussie battler’. I now consider the ‘Aussie battler’ in Australia as a person who is on their own or in a family trying to survive on limited income.

    • April 2, 2013 10:34 am

      Great Meg … I was thinking too about the gender aspect … and I think that Ruth Park saw the battler as the family, particularly Mama who held that family together … and yet I think popular consciousness had “the battler” as male. The traditional battler, if I can call it that, has a certain heroic/courageous quality to their “battle”. I wonder if that is still there – or is today’s battler purely about economic survival with no sense of character/resilience/strength.

  2. April 2, 2013 11:38 am

    Harp in the South and Cloudstreet were what immediately came to mind for me. Oh, that and Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. I mean, gosh, those Banksia Men! 😉

  3. April 2, 2013 11:51 am

    I have a contemporary one for you: The Fine Colour of Rust by P A (Paddy) O’Reilly. (See http://wp.me/phTIP-5a8) It’s just been shortlisted for the ALS Gold Medal. Lovely book!

    • April 2, 2013 3:10 pm

      Thanks Lisa … that does sound like a good contemporary example. I’ve been meaning to read it … and will certainly try to get to it now you’ve told me this.

  4. April 4, 2013 4:55 am

    How fascinating this character type has a name! We have the same sort of character type in the US too but I have never heard it called anything. Watch though, after I hit post comment I will remember that we do call it something!

  5. April 5, 2013 5:22 pm

    The idea of the battler is certainly one I know well from Henry Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife to the stories set in the depression of the 30s and soldier settler farms. I would include the works of Katherine Susannah Prichard such as Bullocky and The Pioneers.

    More modern what about Digger in David Malouf’s Great World?

    It is also the subjects a folk music such as that of Ted Egan and Kevin Carmody. .

    • April 5, 2013 5:32 pm

      Ah yes, Prichard’s The pioneers is a good one, bmpermie. I was thinking of Malouf as I wrote the post but it didn’t seem to fit the books of his that I’ve read. The great world is one I haven’t read so thanks for that suggestion.

  6. April 7, 2013 6:19 pm

    Interesting thoughts and my idea of the Aussie Battler reflects tales handed down from my grandfather about working in the power station in Pyrmont during the depression or (other grandad) working the railways in Western Queensland. I do think it’s an historical term now and cannot truly represent what is contemporary, mixed Australia. Having just read ‘Tall Man’ and now reading ‘Carpentaria’ I feel there are many more battles going on – perhaps of an uneven and ongoing nature!

    • April 7, 2013 7:04 pm

      I totally agree Catherine … I think there is probably still an element of the traditional Aussie battler in our society, but I think there are many more battles going on (and probably were going on) and we ignore them at our peril. Did you enjoy Tall man? I read it, as I recollect, only weeks before I started this blog. It’s not easily forgotten.

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