Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Arts, mid-1960s style
Last week’s Monday Musings discussed my high school history book, Nation and people, published in 1967. I don’t plan to labour this book, but I would like to share its chapter on the Arts.
The authors, Brian Hodge and Allen Whitehurst, dedicate 8 pages to “The Arts” which is pretty good, I think, for a school history book. The chapter is divided into sections: Slow growth of Australian culture; Poetry; Drama; The novel; Music; and Painting. There are gaps here – nothing on film or sculpture, for example – but what can you do in 8 pages after all!
They start by arguing that “a distinctive Australian cultural tradition has been slow to grow”. Now, before you jump at me and say “But, but, but, what about indigenous culture?”, they do mention this, albeit with the paternalism that was typical of the time:
True culture is probably the product of a deep and intimate relationship with one’s country, something that occurs over centuries. The original owners of the land, the aborigines, certainly evolved an individual culture that was part of the spiritual core of their existence. Although nothing was written they formulated their legends to explain to the young the marvels of the universe, they composed and sang their simple and sometimes haunting melodies, they carved in primitive fashion, they danced superbly.
There’s a lot that’s wrong with this statement from our 21st century eyes, but at least they recognise the “original owners” and the fact that culture comes from “a deep and intimate relationship with one’s country”. They then go on to describe how the early settlers tended to rely on “the old culture” and that even the balladists telling stories about the new land used “the tunes of their forefathers”. However, they say, “a vigorous development in all the arts” happened after the second world war “coinciding with remarkable economic progress”. Government increased its patronage of the arts, and “in Sydney”, they write, “there is being constructed an Opera House which architectural histories describe as a major achievement of architecture in the twentieth century”. It sure was.
I’m just going to briefly share their points on poetry and the novel, given these are the topics most relevant to my blog. Regarding poetry, they point particularly to Judith Wright and AD Hope whose poetry “has been distinguished by a vigour and their imagery noted for its immediacy of impact”. How I wish I could be so succinct! Seriously though, I like their assessment of Wright, that she has “perhaps more poignantly than any other poet”
expressed the nation’s new-found spiritual awareness of its past … Her poetry is the deep expression of the feelings of women: to love, to old age, to decay, to the past, to war, to the future. JB Priestley, prominent English novelist, dramatist and critic, has claimed that Judith Wright is one of the best poets writing in English today.
How fabulous, even though their reference to “the feelings of women” does sound a little reductive?
As for AD Hope, he too, they say, has “been highly acclaimed by overseas critics”. See that cultural cringe? Clearly, the fact that overseas critics praise Wright and Hope proves their worth! Anyhow, they describe him as “a satirist concerned with Man and his frailties.” (Note the uppercase Man to imply both genders but they can’t avoid the “his”). They quote Hope as describing “Australia as a place ‘where second-hand Europeans pullulate timidly on the edge of alien shores’.” They also say:
In no way does he resemble Wright. Rather he has consciously tried to lead Australian poetry away from a preoccupation with its environment, a savage reaction to the school of Australian poetry that concentrated on gum trees, koalas, kookaburras, kangaroos and boomerangs. His satire has an acidity, a near tragic note and a technical mastery new to Australian poetry.
They name a few other poets, including Douglas Stewart (a favourite from my schooldays), David Campbell, and Gwen Harwood whom they describe as “perhaps one of the most promising contemporaries … whose poetry is deeply personal, with original and compelling imagery”. They were right. She did become important, and one of Australia’s most significant poetry prizes is named for her.
I’d like to talk about drama, music and painting, but I don’t have the time and energy for that right now, so I’ll move onto “the novel”, which, interestingly, receives far less space than poetry and drama.
They start by saying that “during the 1930s Australian novelists tended to concentrate on the family saga, digging into Australia’s past to reveal the rise of egalitarianism.” They name Miles Franklin’s All that swagger (1933) and the unknown-to-me Landtakers (1934) by Brian Penton. They say that their novels are about pioneers who, as they “gained wealth … seemed to die spiritually.” We can read Landtakers at Project Gutenberg Australia. I’m surprised that they don’t mention works by Katharine Susannah Prichard, M. Barnard Eldershaw, and the other women who made quite a splash in the 1920s-40s. Some of their work was in this “pioneer” mould, but some also turned to the urban landscape, particularly Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw.
Anyhow, they go on to say that “the writing of historical novels of this pattern continued in the 1940s” but that developments occurred in the 1950s, heralded particularly by Patrick White’s Voss in 1957. They quote an unnamed critic saying:
White has opened up in a startling way the range of Australian fiction, not only by his experiments in form and language (which are sufficiently striking in themselves) but by conceiving and acting out the dramas of his characters in an imaginative world with one more dimension than our novelists have genuinely recognised as existing.
Fascinating, but a little mystifying. “One more dimension”. Is that the telepathic communication experience between Voss and Laura? And “genuinely recognised”? What does that exactly mean? However, I do like their suggestion that the result has been “a turning away from the violence of nature to a deeper study of man himself, with his depths of hidden passion and violence”. They quote Xavier Herbert, Morris West and Hal Porter as writing books reflecting this development.
Points to ponder
At the end of each chapter, Hodge and Whitehurst include some discussion questions. I can’t resist sharing those for this chapter:
Do you consider the Arts important for man? Why?
Do you think the Arts could be an important source for historians? Why?
Which of the Arts are most important in your family?
Do you believe future generations of Australians will regret the enormous expense of the Sydney Opera House?
Do you think Australians yet regard culture as an integral part of their existence
You don’t have to answer them all!