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Monday musings on Australian literature: Literary visitors in 1965

May 13, 2019

Last week’s Monday musings surveyed Australian literature in 1965. As I researched that post in Trove, I came across some fascinating newspaper articles from the year, which I thought worth sharing in separate posts. I’ve divided them into two groups – one on overseas visitors (today’s post) and the other local writers (next week’s, probably!)

An American academic

Bruce Sutherland, Professor of English Literature at Pennsylvania State University, visited Australia to research Miles Franklin’s time in America. He is, apparently, credited with establishing and teaching the first exclusively Australian literature course in the USA – in 1942. (He’s interesting, so I might return to him another day.)

Anyhow, speaking on an ABC program, he said (according to The Canberra Times), that Australian literature was more widely read now than at any time since the 1890s, and that, compared with his visit in the early 1950s, now “every Australian university is encouraging Australian studies to some degree”.  Publishers too, he said, were rising to the challenge:

Not only are many of the older books kept in print, but more and more, the works of promising young authors are being published.

He noted the importance of reprints, to students and the general public, saying that “a literature that is not read can hardly be said to exist”. Good point, and one that publishers like Text have taken on board in their Classics series. Prof. Sutherland was particularly interested in the fact that the biggest change since 1951 had been in drama.

However, Australians shouldn’t rest on their laurels, because

Quite frankly, Australian literature has a long way to go before it attains the pedestal reserved for the English and American in the English-speaking world. … But it has made great strides, and is now well beyond the toddling stage.

Hmm … no wonder we suffered from cultural cringe! Still, he was a great proponent of our literature, and as a result, in 1993 at least, Pennsylvania State University had one of the best research collections outside Australia.

A Soviet novelist

Soviet novelist, Daniil Granin (1919-2017) was visiting Australia as guest of the Fellowship of Australian Writers (FAW), reciprocating author Alan Marshall’s visit to the USSR the previous year. His focus was a bit different, as he was interested in what Australian literature was offering Soviet readers. “Australian literature,” he said at a FAW reception, “is the only window Soviet people have on Australian life.” DK, the Tribune article’s writer, tells us that the attendees included novelist Mena Calthorpe (whose realist novel The dyehouse I’ve reviewed), short story writer Dal Stivens, and poet Kath Walker (later, Oodgeroo Noonuccal).

Mena Calthorpe, The dyehouseGranin told the group that interest in Australia had grown “enormously” in the last decade. In 1964, for example, one and a half million copies of Australian authors were printed and sold in the Soviet Union. Amazing. Did you know? Apparently, writes DK in another Tribune article, this interest is because these Aussie writers’ characters are “flesh and blood” people with an “active attitude to reality”.

Anyhow, he also spoke with various Australian literati including Colin Simpson (who wrote Take me to Russia), Roland Robinson (a poet), Leonie Kramer (the first female professor of English in Australia), Clem Christesen (editor of Meanjin), Alan Marshall (whose memoir I can jump puddles is a classic), and Nancy Cato (author of All the rivers run). That’s interesting, but even more interesting are his comments on some significant, and still remembered, Australian writers at the time:

Of Patrick White: “He is a man who feels a great responsibility for his own literary work, and has a genuine interest in contemporary literature. He has achieved for himself a very high standard of literary craftsmanship.”

Of Katharine Susannah Prichard: “She is a human being who uplifts you from your first meeting. She has an indomitable spirit, throws aside all trifles, and gets down to the main issues.”

Of Kath Walker: “I admire her just because she is the first successful Aboriginal poetess writing in English. She has a keen interest in all new Aboriginal writers and a vital concern with problems facing them.”

Note: For copyright reasons, most of the articles available for the 1960s come only from The Canberra Times and the Tribune, because they made an agreement with the NLA to allow digitisation. For other newspapers, the library must wait until they come into the public domain – and then, I guess, wait their time in the digitisation queue!

17 Comments leave one →
  1. May 14, 2019 6:20 am

    I’m away from home and so relying on my dubious memory, but I think your two visitors complement each other. If I remember rightly from that book by Vernay, (and Bill will know more about this than me) modernism had passed Australia by because of our isolation during the war, and so there was indeed a lot of catching up to do. But the Soviet critic was speaking from the Soviet Handbook: they disapproved of modernism, and realist stories about workers were the approved style. And that’s what Australian writers were writing: realism, in what the rest of the world thought was a workers’ paradise. SO yes, he would have loved KSP (she was a communist, after all), and Mena Calthorpe.
    There’s a really sad aspect of Jill Roe’s bio of Miles Franklin where she writes that Miles became very old-fashioned with her stories, because she refused to move on. She puts it down to Miles’ lack of education, but IMO it was more than that because other writers made the transition, and most of the women writers (.e.g. Ruth Park) didn’t have university education either.

    • May 14, 2019 8:11 am

      Thanks Lisa. I thought about adding more commentary about his choices and preferences, as they were leftist writers, if not communist. And of course the Tribune which reported them was communist.

      I like your point about the two visitors complementing each other.

  2. May 14, 2019 6:29 am

    Ooops, that’s Jill Roe, not Jill Joe…

  3. May 14, 2019 7:40 am

    Digging through these old articles is fascinating stuff. Looking back at someone like Sutherland, I wonder what he would of someone fifty plus years into the future writing about him and his Australian trip.

    • May 14, 2019 8:26 am

      Ha ha Brian. I hope he would have loved the idea! I’m going to do more about him if I can.

  4. May 14, 2019 9:41 am

    *Of Patrick White: “He is a man who feels a great responsibility for his own literary work, and has a genuine interest in contemporary literature. He has achieved for himself a very high standard of literary craftsmanship.”*
    Hmm. I don’t think our Patrick to’ve been one of his favourite people …

  5. May 14, 2019 10:43 am

    You have given me some reading to do. First, Roe references Sutherland half a dozen times. He was in Australia on a Fullbright Scholarship in 1951 when he and Miles both spoke at an ‘Eng.Ass.’ (MF’s diary presumably) dinner in November. I can’t find (yet) anything he wrote and the only book I know on MF’s American years is Verna Coleman’s.

    After a number of Sutherland Shire references, Google gave me a Japanese scholar’s MA thesis at U.Tas “Women and Writing: A Comparative Study of Some Texts by Miles Franklin and Higuchi Ichiyo”. I’ll read it soon if I have time and my even subject you to a review.

    Lisa is too kind to me in her comment. I agree with her about the Soviet commitment to socialist realism in writing, which I think bogged KSP down a bit. Modernism came to Australia with Such is Life, but wasn’t taken up with any enthusiasm except by the great Christina Stead whom of course we were very slow to recognise.

    • May 14, 2019 12:50 pm

      I’m meant to be doing the last month’s invoices … Roe says Sutherland took the only known colour photo of MF, in 1952. And MF and Sutherland corresponded – in 1954 she thanks him for Atlantic Monthly, he must have left her a subscription, and writes she can’t send him any books but of course “Colin can and for free”, ie Colin Roderick, due to his position at A&R.

      Sutherland doesn’t come up in Verna Coleman’s index.

      More research: Bruce Sutherland papers, 1940-1967.
      https://www.worldcat.org/title/bruce-sutherland-papers-1940-1967/oclc/613377835
      “The collection details Penn State professor Bruce Sutherland’s academic interest in Australian literature. It contains correspondence with fellow professor and writer Colin Roderick, and numerous Australian librarians regarding the intent to establish a course in Australian literature at Penn State. The collection also contains materials on noted Australian books, authors, and scholars

    • May 14, 2019 4:48 pm

      Thanks very much Bill for checking all this. I didn’t know that about the colour photograph. I saw that World Cat papers entry when I was checking out who he was, and also found out that his first visit was a Fulbright scholarship. I don’t have Roe but I have Franklin’s letters so will check those out, as I plan to do an post on him – hopefully soon, because he’s an interesting chap. It’s great to know about “foreign” interest in one’s own literature, isn’t it?

      Now, get to those invoices!! Lucky you!

  6. May 14, 2019 2:34 pm

    See, I was right, you do know more about it than me!

    • May 14, 2019 4:49 pm

      Haha Lisa!

      • ian darling permalink
        May 14, 2019 11:47 pm

        Interesting insights. I am wondering if literary modernism might have had more room in Australian poetry? I guess that some mid century Scottish fiction had something of that kinship to social/socialist realism (the most popular serious Scottish novel of the 20th century was probably Lewis Grassic Gibbons). A poet like Hugh MacDiarmid was much less of a literary conservative.

        • May 15, 2019 8:01 am

          That’s a good question Ian. I’m not an expert in Australian poetry but you could be right.

          I haven’t heard of Lewis Grassic Gibbons at all, but do know the name Hugh MacDiarmid. Any relation to Val, btw?

  7. ian darling permalink
    May 16, 2019 10:55 pm

    I don’t think so! He came from the small village of Langholm near where I was born. A maddening but remarkable character!

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