Monday musings on Australian literature: 1950s prose-poets criticised

Randolph Stow, To the islandsSerendipitously, while trawling Trove for something else recently, I came across a fascinating article in the Tribune about the winners of the first two Miles Franklin Awards. The article was written by Jack Beasley in July 1959, and the two winners were Patrick White’s Voss (1957), and Randolph Stow’s To the islands (1958), two books which are now regarded as significant Australian classics. Jack Beasley wouldn’t have agreed!

So, who was Jack Beasley? Born in 1921, he was interested in the arts, was closely associated with the Australasian Book Society, and at one stage had his own publishing company. He wrote several books, including a memoir and a couple of books on Katharine Susannah Prichard. He was also a member, for many years, of the Communist Party of Australia. The Tribune, for those of you who don’t know, was the Party’s official newspaper. This background is relevant to his criticism of White and Stow’s wins.

Patrick White, VossHe commences his article by stating that Randolph Stow’s winning the award has created quite a lot of discussion, particularly since it followed Patrick White’s winning for Voss the year before:

The two authors are the leading exponents of the so-called “prose-poetry” school, very fashionable today in literary circles attached to the big publishing houses.

He quotes Sidney J. Baker, whom he describes as a Sydney Morning Herald authority. Baker

regards their work as a “new type, of novel … distinguished by strength and sincerity and blowing away traditional debris like a cool wind after sizzling heat.” It should be added that among the “traditional debris” blown away are the traditions for which Miles Franklin herself so firmly stood.

Hmm, so the award should only be for writers who write in the same style as Miles Franklin?

Anyhow, Beasley writes that Franklin “believed that literature drew its ideas from life and attachment to native soil, and she wrote with a vigorous, entertaining prose”:

Her major work, ‘”All That Swagger” is notable for Danny Delacy and his “brave Joanna,” Irish immigrants who go through life undaunted by its buffetings and rejoicing in its happinesses.

In sorry contrast are the morbid heroes of Messrs. White and Stow, who flee from life and society in search of some individual haven.

To Beasley, prose-poetry “is a fad of style, a pretentious juggling of words and grammar”. He quotes from both White and Stow to prove his point, and then argues that while this “obscure” style is new in Australia, it “emerged many years ago in bourgeois culture”. He names “Joyce, Proust, Virginia Woolf and the extreme case, Gertrude Stein” as exponents of the style.

“Individual haven” and “Bourgeois culture” give away his leanings. He discusses To the islands:

According to some reviewers, “To the Islands” shows a warm sympathy for the Aborigines. This is partly true, but an even warmer sympathy is shown for the missionaries and whatever might be the personal motivation of individual missionaries, history has shown that the missions have played their part in the destruction of tribal life and the continuing ordeal of the Aboriginal people.

This is of course true, but what becomes increasingly clear is that Beasley’s main criticism is in fact less the style than the content of White and Stow’s work. The criticism focuses very much on the fact that their focus is the “individual” which is not part of Communist ethos. He describes White and Stow as being “closely bound to the capitalist class”, and writes that their protagonists, Voss and Heriot,

are nothing more than the bourgeois intellectuals, or more correctly a personification of the crisis of the intellectuals, desperately reaching for a sanctuary. They feel the sands shifting beneath them but are still unable because of their individualism to accept the new ideas that are emerging.

He believes intellectuals need to grasp new ways of thinking:

Only by coming to the working class and taking their part in the struggles led by this class for a better life, only by ceasing to believe in the omniscience of the lonely individual and learning in life of the inexhaustible strength of collective ideas, can the intellectuals have a future.

The socialist countries show again and again that there is no hostile contradiction there between the intellectuals and the proletariat and the Australian workers have always welcomed those who joined their cause.

Only at the end of his article does he return, somewhat off-handedly, to the style issue:

It is not suggested that Miles Franklin would have supported all of the views stated above [that is, his political views], but both the misanthropic themes and the literary quality of the two prizewinners are at variance with her view of life and literary standard.

It might have ended there but, intriguingly, a few weeks later, a letter in response appeared in the same paper – by author Alan Marshall. He thought the article was the “best analysis” he’d read of this new trend, but he takes issue with a couple of points. One is Beasley’s generalisation about “intellectuals”, his tarring them all with the same brush, but the other is his use of the term of “prose poets”.

Marshall writes:

What is wrong with prose poetry? The works of Katharine Prichard are full of it; Turgenev was a master at it; Gorky often delighted in it; Sholokhov’s works feature it. It can lift prose to its highest level and be an inspiration to mankind. In the hands of the writers I have mentioned it not only appeals to the highest emotions but to the reason as well.

Patrick White and Stow are not Prose Poets.

They are obscurantists juggling words to obscure sense in an effort, to create a sense of profundity. They believe readers have little faith in their judgement; that readers praise what they cannot understand for fear of being regarded as incapable of appreciating good writing.

Ouch … “obscurantists”, not “prose poets”.

I’m leaving it here. I’m sharing this because I like hearing the arguments and ideas of another time, and testing them against our own (with the benefit of time). Marshall’s criticism of authors writing obscurely to create profundity is often trotted out. But, clearly, his and Beasley’s assessments of White and Stow have not stood the test of time, thank goodness.

21 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: 1950s prose-poets criticised

  1. Much as I love literature for the sake of literature I have a lot of sympathy for communists who were attempting to forge art and literature that was readily understandable and which served a purpose, that is to describe the struggle of the proletariat.

    • I love literature that can do both, Bill, that is, literature or art that is fine in itself but that also has a message (particularly if l llke or believe the message is a good one!) Otherwise, it’s didactic and in those cases I can have sympathy but not like it much. I take your point re their desire to produce readily understandable literature that would get their message across, but it’s the nature of revolutionaries, isn’t it, to believe their way is the only way?

  2. *chuckle* This article makes a perfect accompaniment to my reading of John Tesarsch’s Dinner with the Dissidents. HIs book focusses on the personal cost of the Soviet determination to make authors write to their rules, but this article explains what, fundamentally, those rules were on about.
    It’s always amused me that both the Reds and the West banned James Joyce, but for entirely different reasons.

  3. It is interesting to go back upon old reviews and see what folks had to say about books that have so nice garnered fame. The ideological approach, such as that of criticizing books for thier supposed championing of individuality, usually ends up dated and irrelevant.

    At the very least “obscurantists”is a great word 🙂

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