Monday musings on Australian literature: Ideal books for newcomers, 1965-style

Another treasure from Trove! Just over 50 years ago, on 1 January, 1965, an article appeared in a journal titled The Good Neighbour, which was published from 1950 to 1969 by the then Department of Immigration.

The article is called “Ideal books for newcomers” and opens with:

Following Mary Durack’s articles on “The Old Australia” which appeared in the October and November issues of The Good Neighbour, the author has compiled a list for some suggested reading.

I assume “the author” is Mary Durack? If so, I must say that I’d have written it as ‘Following her articles on “The Old Australia” which appeared in the October and November issues of The Good Neighbour, Mary Durack has …’. Anyhow, the article continues that:

The books named are not necessarily the best or most profound, the author states, but would seem to provide the readiest introduction to Australian literature and history. Many of these books would make useful presents for newcomers to Australia.

So, what does this “author”, let’s presume Mary Durack, recommend? I’m not sure about copyright* on this, so I won’t reproduce it all but the full list is available at the link I’ve provided above. Durack produces her list under headings, such as Australian History, Australian Aborigines, Early Colonial Novels (before 1900), and so on. As you will see, there’s no playing to the lowest common denominator here. The list assumes a good facility with English, and decent concentration levels.

History and culture

Two books are recommended on “Australian Aborigines”. One is AP Elkin’s The Australian Aborigines: how to understand them (Angus and Robertson). An unfortunate subtitle by today’s standards, but this was first published in 1938. A much later edition was a set text for me when I studied Anthropology, Elkin having been Professor of Anthropology at Sydney University. I might be wrong, but I’d be surprised if many Australian citizens had read this book in 1965. Still, in the first edition’s preface, Elkin does suggest that the book has three audiences: the general public, administrative officials and missionaries, and university students and scientists. He suggests that those with a more general interest could skip the chapters detailing relationship systems.

Another category is “Documentary, Travel and Biography”. There’s a strong focus here on the rural, with books about Cobb and Co, the Overland Telegraph, and the Outback (including her own, now classic, Kings in grass castles) being recommended.

Bill Harney, Grief, gaiety and aboriginesWith her outback experience, Mary Durack was familiar with Aboriginal people, and so in this, and other categories, she makes sure to include books about (though not by, given the time we are talking about) indigenous people. I was intrigued by one, unknown to me, Bill Harney’s Grief, gaiety, and the Aborigines. My link here is his Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) entry. He had close connections with indigenous people, and is described by ADB as “gregarious and generous person who regarded everyone as equal”. This ABC News item supports this assessment. It would be interesting to know how he managed the difficult role of government patrol officer and protector of Aborigines, which he did from 1940 to 1947.

The last category I’ll mention in this group is “Critical and Interpretive Studies”. Among the three books listed here is Russell Ward’s classic, ground-breaking history of Australia, The Australian legend. Last year I reviewed his daughter Biff Ward’s memoir, In my mother’s hands. (And, blogger “wadholloway” who regularly comments here has named his blog for this book.)


The lists of novels are divided into three categories: early colonial (before 1900), early colonial and pioneering days (post 1900), and later Australian life.

Only two are recommended in the first group, Henry Kingsley’s The recollections of Geoffrey Hamlyn (on my TBR) and Rolf Boldrewood’s Robbery under arms. Not, I notice Marcus Clarke’s classic For the term of his natural life which would perhaps be the first of the early novels that people would think of today. Was she wanting to avoid the convict stain?

Katharine Susannah Prichard

Katharine Susannah Prichard, by May Moore (Presumed Public Domain, State Library of NSW)

Her next group – her post-1900 date referring, it seems, to the date of publication not of the content of the novels – contains the usual suspects: Joseph Furphy’s Such is life, Miles Franklin’s All that swagger, (not My brilliant career), Henry Handel Richardson’s famous Richard Mahoney trilogy, Eleanor Dark’s The timeless land, Katharine Susannah Prichard’s The Roaring Nineties, Ernestine Hill’s My love must wait, and Patrick White’s Voss. These seem fair enough, though every Australian literature lover would probably tinker with this. She also includes a book unknown to me, Brian Penton’s Landtakers. According to Wikipedia he was a novelist and journalist, and this novel featured pioneering life in Queensland from 1824–64. Given the Durack family’s story (see my review of Brenda Niall’s biography of the Durack sisters, True north) it’s not surprising that she’d recommend a book on this subject. Interestingly, women writers feature well in her list!

The final group focuses on “later Australian life” – in other words, they’re mostly about life in the 1930s to 1960s. It contains many books I know, some authors I know but not the particular book, and some I’ve never heard of:

  • Katharine Susannah Prichard: Coonardoo
  • Louis Stone: Jonah
  • Xavier Herbert: Capricornia
  • Kylie Tennant: The battlers
  • Patrick White: Riders in the chariot
  • A. G. Hungerford: Riverslake
  • Donald Stuart: The driven
  • Tom Ronan: Moleskin Midas
  • Frank Dalby Davison: Man Shy
  • B. Vickers: First place to the stranger
  • Judah Waten: Alien son
  • Gavin Casey: Snowball
  • Randolph Stowe: To the islands
  • Elizabeth Harrower: The long prospect
  • Nene Gare: The fringe dwellers
  • Eve Langley: The pea pickers (my review)

An interesting and probably reasonable list, given the 1965 date. I’m impressed to see Elizabeth Harrower’s second novel, The long prospect, here. It suggests the regard in which she was held at the time she was being published. An obvious omission is George Johnston’s now classic My brother Jack. However, it was only published in 1964, and perhaps Durack didn’t know it.

Again, there are a few authors I don’t know at all: Donald Stuart, Tom Ronan (who appears in other categories too), B. Vickers, and Gavin Casey (who also appears in other categories). That’s 25% of the list! Stuart, Wikipedia says, “attempts to view the world from the aboriginal point of view, making him one of the few Australian writers, along with anthropologists … to even attempt to come close to a personal knowledge of the aborigines”. It would be interesting to read him now – such as his first novel, Yandy – given current thinking on this..

Overall, these books, as in the non-fiction categories, tend to be country rather than urban based. This probably partly reflects what novelists at that time were writing about, but could also reflect Durack’s background and interests. Would this focus have addressed the likely interests of newcomers?

Durack also recommends some verse and short stories, but you can read them at the link.

Meanwhile, I’d love to know what you think about this list (from any point of view you choose!)

* If the government holds copyright on the article, then it is now, just, out of copyright I believe.

12 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Ideal books for newcomers, 1965-style

  1. Thanks for the link. I really must review Ward one day, rather than just make comments from time to time. I like Durack’s list and I don’t know the writers you don’t know. I can see why Durack would choose All that Swagger for MF although by 1965 My Brilliant Career might finally have been republished (was MF’s ban for her lifetime and 10 years after her death, in 1954?).
    I love that Durack included the Pea Pickers, but might have chosen The Great Australian Loneliness for Ernestine Hill.Interesting Lawson’s Joe Wilson’s Mates is not in nor Rudd’s On Our Selection. And I suppose Praed, Cambridge, Tasma and Catherine Martin were all too far out of date to be included, which is sad, and I hope they would be today.

    • Yes, good point , Bill, re those older writers. They’d still not appear! Prichard appears twice but not Barnard Eldershaw. Lawson does appear in short stories, but perhaps CJ Dennis’use of vernacular disqualified him?

  2. A very interesting article. Neither have I heard of or read the authors you mentioned. I also don’t know Elkin’s or Garney’s books. I was surprised that Banjo Paterson wasn’t nominated in the verse category. I wonder who would and what books they would choose today for newcomers.

    • Yes, Meg, the very short verse category was interesting. Perhaps not an area she was particularly comfortable with?

      I did mean to mention the absence of Ruth Park’s Harp in the South. Perhaps she thought it was too gritty, being about slums, and might discourage newcomers?

      What do you think you’d recommend? For history I think Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with strangers could be a good, readable work.

      • Very interesting indeed, rather like the book lists you find in the Rough Guides, interesting and useful if a little patchy. I have a copy of The Australian Legend so I think I’m going to read it quite soon.

        • I also discovered in one of my IMBS (it must be somewhere) piles a one volume encyclopedia of Australia published in the early 60s. Haven’t had the time to investigate it but will try and infiltrate titbits from it in my replies to your posts!

  3. Hi Sue, not a fair question. I couldn’t recommend just one or two books for any of the subject matters. There are so many good Australian fiction and non fictions books out there to be read. I agree with your choice, Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers for history. Also, The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes, and Stan Grant’s Talking to My coulntry would both be excellent for newcomers. For poetry, I would add Les Murray to the list. General fiction, I would have Helen Garner, Tim Winton, Christos Tsiolkas, and so many more.

    • You’ve done well for not a fair question. Of course Hughes, and Stan Grant is a great suggestion too (though I haven’t managed to read that yet.) I can’t argue with your modern fiction ones either.

  4. Pingback: Books in the boundary-rider’s hut: a KSP treasure from Trove | A Biographer in Perth

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