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