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Monday musings on Australian literature: Arnold Haskell on the Arts (1)

November 28, 2016

Arnold Haskell, Waltzing MatildaA couple of months ago I wrote a post on British dance critic Arnold Haskell’s book, Waltzing Matilda: a background to Australia (published in Australia in 1944). I said then that I’d come back to it, so here I am, focusing this time on his chapter on “The Arts”. It comprises 22 pages covering, according to the chapter subtitle, “The theatre – The cinema – Painting – The press – Literature”. Today, I’ll just discuss the theatre and literature.

“a national theatre is not yet born”

He starts with the theatre, and says that although he knows “from experience that Australia has a vast theatre-going public and a fine theatrical tradition … the theatre is unfortunately in decay”. Performances are more likely to be “Gilbert and Sullivan” or English or American musicals or sensational-type plays with imported stars. When an Australian does show ability “he [of course, it’s a “he”] promptly leaves for England or America”. If he stays he’ll “probably starve, both artistically and financially”.

Serious theatre – performing, say, Chekhov or Gogol – mostly occurs in amateur repertory societies and some of these “reach an extraordinarily high standard”. He blames the lack of development of a national theatre on “apathy and the great national inferiority complex” (aka “the cultural cringe” I’ve often mentioned here). However, when it comes to music, ballet and opera things are a little better, particularly in opera where Melba, who had died in 1931, had “dealt a smashing blow to the inferiority complex”.

“still in the formative period”

Haskell spends more of his chapter on painting than on anything else but let’s get to literature. He says, it has “not produced men who are the equals of Streeton, Heysen or Gruner”. Interesting. I might be wrong but I’d say that now Miles Franklin, Katharine Susannah Prichard, and Eleanor Dark are at least as well-known as those three artists.

Anyhow, here is his impression:

Those who could write the great Australian novels, who are neither apathetic nor complacent and who correspond in some way to our Bloomsbury, are unfortunately too busy talking to accomplish more than a poem, a pamphlet or a short story. They are dissatisfied, they hate the squatter, despise the ‘dinkum Aussie’ and are well to the left of his traditional labour. Their thoughts are in Spain or Russia. They have both imagination and compassion, but there is more of bitterness in their make-up… They concentrate on the ideal of some vague revolution just as the masses concentrate on sport.

He argues that the “flourishing school of contemporary American literature was started by such minds as these in their magnificently creative intervals from drinking and posing in Paris.” (Don’t you love it?) He’s referring, I presume, to Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, et al. He sees – quite perspicaciously I’d say – that the problem is that Australians were looking to Europe, were seeing the distance between them and Europe “as a handicap” BUT he says “the differences between Australia and England will produce a national art and literature, not the similarities.” In other words, look to your own. America has recognised this, he writes, “and has made her differences a source of pride”. Our own Nettie Palmer saw it too, and argued strenuously for an Australian literature. She pondered in her 1929 article, “The need for Australian literature”, on what recognition the work of Australians had received. “To what extent, ” she asked, “have their efforts been made barren by the ingratitude and even hostility with which they have been met at the outset.” Cultural cringe again? For Palmer, it is the artist (the writer, in her case) who illuminates, or makes understandable, our lives for us.

Anyhow, Haskell does recommend some Australian authors/works which have become “part of the Australia scene”, which I’ll share as I know we all like lists:

  • Marcus Clarke’s For the term of his natural life: Haskell writes beautifully about this book and how Kensignton-born Clarke used his two years’ bush experience to make himself “an Australian writer”. He argues that Clarke’s characters “have a humanity not unworthy of Dostoievsky” and compares him favourably against Henry Kingsley’s Geoffrey Hamlyn which he describes as “stilted and old-fashioned” and Rolf Boldrewood’s Robbery under arms which is just “a typical boy’s yarn”.
  • Henry Lawson’s While the billy boils, and other works: Haskell says Lawson’s work is universally seen as “honest Australian” and that “no interested tourist should omit reading these sketches of the Australian character”.
  • Vance Palmer and Brian Penton “depict the Australian scene with skill and conviction”, and Mrs Aeneas Gunn’s The little black princess “gives a particularly delightful picture of the aboriginal mind and was highly recommended to me by a distinguished anthropologist”. (Oh dear, but these were different times.)
  • Ion Idriess, who covers “the more adventurous sides of Australian life”, is “not a polished writer” but tells “magnificent” stories from his own experience.
  • Katherine [sic] Susannah Prichard, Helen Simpson and Henry Handel Richardson “are so well known in England that they are accepted as English writers”! What does this mean? And interesting that these are all women writers who are described this way. He says that The fortunes of Richard Mahoney “gives a gloomy picture of Australia but it is surely the greatest contemporary work of Australian fiction”.

Haskell also mentions several poets – Adam Lindsay Gordon, Henry Kendall, CJ Dennis and ‘Banjo’ Patterson [sic] – as worth reading. I’m just going to share, though, what he says about Paterson because Paterson, himself, felt he was just a ‘verse-maker’ not a poet. Here is Haskell:

Patterson, a bigger figure [than Dennis], might be called Australia’s Kipling, though there is little actual resemblance. It might be very easy to dismiss this very hearty verse as being of little account, easy but superficial. When one knows Australia this is altogether impossible. It has a quality of greatness because Patterson has written folk-songs and ballads of Australia. His verse has an extraordinary quality of spontaneity. It is truly indigenous.

Dennis, he writes, “is famous for his amusing doggerel in the Australian vernacular” and “has left behind some humorous journalism. It is more deliberate and sophisticated; it is a tour de force and not a cri de coeur.”

Haskell admits that there are other names he could share. However, his aim has not been, he says, to produce “a study of Australian literature” but rather a “personal account” of his “journey” because his prime goal has been to “see Australia at first hand and not through literature”. I understand that …

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24 Comments leave one →
  1. November 29, 2016 12:07 am

    Hey, Monday Musings just scraped in before midnight again! I don’t mind his list, it seems to cover those Australian writers who ‘most people’ read. I would have thought both Miles Franklin and Brent of Bin Bin might have rated a mention on this count. We, of course would include Christina Stead, but I don’t think ‘most Australians’ realised she was Australian until the 1970s. I like too his analysis of Paterson – as he himself acknowledged, it’s not poetry, but the ballads are well written and convey very well that sense of being a man in the bush.

    • November 29, 2016 9:03 am

      Haha Bill, of I do a post on Sunday I schedule MM a little before midnight AEDST. For some parts of the world of course this is way before midnight but you West Australians are usually the first Aussies to comment.

      Yes I thought his list wasn’t bad for the time.

  2. carmelbird permalink
    November 29, 2016 7:44 am

    I am always amazed at how much you read, and delighted by your careful analysis. Thank you for these comments on Waltzing Matilda.

    • November 29, 2016 9:06 am

      Thanks Carmel. I was hoping people would enjoy heading some of his reflections. It’s always interesting I think to hear an outsider’s perspective.

  3. November 29, 2016 8:09 am

    I wonder how this bloke’s opinions were regarded at the time…

    • November 29, 2016 9:11 am

      Yes good question, Lisa. Interestingly Nettie Palmer mentions him in her Fourteen Years but regarding his ballet visit in 1936. She saw him as a specialist though recognised he could write more widely on the arts. His Waltzing Matilda book went fairly quickly into multiple editions.

      • November 29, 2016 12:17 pm

        Perhaps it was regarded as a sort of wake-up call, like The Lucky Country…

        • November 29, 2016 2:16 pm

          Maybe, though I think he was more interested in telling Brits about Australia (for travel and/or migration). He wrote it just before the war, but the first edition in England was 1940, so it’s interesting that it went to a fifth edition in England in 1942, though it wasn’t published in Australia until 1944 – though presumably those English editions were bought out and sold her by Australian booksellers.

        • November 29, 2016 2:20 pm

          I think I’ve read something somewhere about the difficulties of getting anything published during the war years… *chuckle* perhaps that could be a Monday Musings for you?

        • November 29, 2016 2:37 pm

          Oh thanks Lisa!! You want me to do your dirty work!! Still, you never know – the spirit might move me one day.

  4. November 29, 2016 10:49 am

    As you suggest, the operative word is “men” of the calibre of the painters! He sounds like he underestimated the significance of women novelists of the mid century. To regard KSP as an honorary English writer really is for him to misunderstand her.

    • November 29, 2016 11:00 am

      Thanks Nathan, I’d love to know what he meant by that. When you think of Coonardoo and The pioneers, the two I’ve read, they don’t seem very English. Does he just mean in terms of acceptance? It’s such a strange thing to say.

      (Apologies if you read the half-baked version of this reply, Nathan … the WordPress App got me again)

  5. November 29, 2016 10:53 am

    I think part of the reason is in decay is because the price of the tickets and needing to attact younger crowds. I have seen quite a bit of Australian original theatre. no Gilbert and Sullivan. I go to approximately 12 performances a year and would disagree about what is shown at Theatre Royal (oldest theatre in Australia with a fine record ) and Sydney theatre company that does a bit of experimental Australian things. Maybe he is referring to the big programs in Melbourne which seem to be musically based. Interesting things to think about. I think he needs to get out into some of the regional areas away from the big city of commercial theatre.

    • November 29, 2016 11:52 am

      Oh Pam, thanks for this. You are clearly well across Australian theatre. However, I should have made it more obvious. He was talking about the late 1930s-early 1940s. I agree that things have changed now.

      • ian darling permalink
        November 29, 2016 9:07 pm

        Very interesting post. Haskell seems to provide a reasonable survey of Australian literature as it seemed at that time. Odd how he says that HHR is seen as an English writer but perhaps it would be fairer to have seen her as an Australian and cosmopolitan writer (Maurice Guest). That showed that Australian writing need not be narrowly nationalist. His observations about Banjo Patterson and Dennis are interesting and make me want to read them.

        • November 30, 2016 4:02 am

          Yes, Ian, I suspect that’s what he meant, ie that their writing was accepted more widely than just within Australia. Cosmopolitan is a better word to convey that.

          And yes I think it’s a pretty good survey for the time.

      • November 30, 2016 8:56 am

        Whoops, I didn’t notice that. Oh well, always good to have a mini rant. Cheers

  6. November 30, 2016 4:34 am

    Well you Aussies sure seem to have come a long way from the bleak 30s and 40s 😉 I find it so interesting how England is always held up as somehow being the pinnacle of theater, art and literature. Is it just because of the language? Oh I suppose there is the whole colonial thing too. Still, England had hundreds of years to develop arts culture so it isn’t really a fair comparison. I hope the inferiority complex has dwindled to nothing these days.

    • November 30, 2016 5:03 am

      Yes it’s mainly the colonial thing Stefanie, rather than the language. Even in the 1950s, people who’d never been in England would talk of going home! That’s gone now. And yes I think the inferiority complex has pretty much gone though it still rears its head every now and then.

  7. Meg permalink
    November 30, 2016 10:05 am

    I agree it was the colonial thing that meant Australia didn’t have their writers recognised as Australian. They were part of the ‘British Empire’, and of course of English making! I do like Haskell ‘s quote “the differences between Australia and England will produce a national art and literature, not the similarities.” Australia has now proven him to be correct. Haskell liked Australia and its differences.

    • November 30, 2016 10:14 am

      Many Australian writers wrote for the English market and/or were published in England or Scotland. They even got lower royalties for Australian sales. That’s why Nettie Palmer (and the Bulletin) was so vehement in advocating for Aust literary independence.

    • November 30, 2016 2:02 pm

      Yes, I loved that quote too Meg – obviously I suppose, since I shared It! I like the fact that he noticed it too and saw the value and importance of a national literature.

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