Monday musings on Australian literature: American apologist for Australian literature

If you read my 1965 series Monday Musings post on literary visitors, you will know the subject of this post. It’s Professor Bruce Sutherland, who was credited with establishing one of the first university courses on Australian literature in the USA (at Pennsylvania State University, in 1942) and who became the first American Professor of Australian Writing in 1950. He was regarded as a pioneer in promoting the study of “Commonwealth literature.”

Tischler, writing about Sutherland in Antipodes, says that, originally a medievalist, he was converted, saying that “Nowadays, I prefer to feel the keen wind of the contemporary world blowing through my study windows.”

Hume Mystery of a Hansom CabSo, he offered his course for the first time in 1942, just after Pearl Harbor was attacked. Australian books were hard come by in the American market, and with the war, they became “almost impossible to import”. Tischler says that at the time he started the course there were four Australian titles in the Penn. State Library:

  • John Boyle O’Reilly’s Life … with complete poems
  • Henry Handel Richardson’s The fortunes of Richard Mahony
  • E.W. Horning’s Stingaree 
  • Fergus Hume’s The mystery of a hansom cab (my review)

I wonder how many Aussies know all these? I’ve only vaguely heard of two of them: O’Reilly and Hornung. Anyhow, Sutherland began collecting Australian literature, resulting in Penn. State having “one of the best research collections outside Australia”. Carter and Osborne write that Sutherland’s teaching and his collection of Australian books “became a touchstone for the organised study of Australian literature in America”.

His first courses, Tischler says, relied heavily on a Henry Lawson short story collection, a poetry collection, Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Moon of desire, Richardson’s The fortunes of Richard Mahony, Miles Franklin’s All that swagger, and Kylie Tennant’s Battlers. She praises this selection for its “openness” and “willingness to include women as well as men, popular and classically shaped pieces, modern and nineteenth-century titles.”

In 1945, Sutherland wrote an article titled “Australian books and American readers” for America’s The Library Quarterly. He listed some of his favorites, says Tischler,

noting that Richardson was “perhaps the greatest living Australian novelist”. Others, whose works he cites are Marcus Clarke, Lawson, Joseph Furphy, Prichard, Christina Stead, Tennant, Eleanor Dark, Edith Littleton [sic], and Xavier Herbert.

Edith Littleton? Ah, it’s Edith Lyttleton, who wrote as GB Lancaster. She won the ALS Gold Medal in 1933, but seems to have lived mostly in New Zealand.

In a Meanjin article in 1950, Sutherland described his course, explaining that he examined the general movements in Australian literature, using materials, writes Tischler, “covering history, geography, explorations, flora and fauna, customs and manners, travel, biography, and literary criticism”. He included all the major forms – novels, short stories, poetry, plays, and essays. Tischler suggests he was teaching at a good time, being before the explosion in opposing ideas about literary criticism. He could, she writes, “simply bring his interest in social, historical, and biographical criticism to bear on his criticism, rather than limiting himself to the text as the “New Critics” might have done, or questioning the text and its voice as the “Deconstructionists” might have done later on.”

Sutherland did visit Australia, as we know from my Monday Musings. His first trip, though, was not 1965, but 1951 on a Fulbright scholarship to study A.G. Stephens, that long-term editor of The Bulletin “whom he considered Australia’s foremost literary critic.” Sutherland was apparently an affable man who could get on with all sorts of people. Tischler quotes the Sydney Telegraph as saying that he looks like “the young Abe Lincoln, speaks like a college educated Gary Cooper, and has the homespun simplicity of Will Rogers.” He became good friends with Miles Franklin.

“There is more to Australian literature than most Australians realise” (Sutherland, 1952)

He also – and many of us won’t be surprised by this – found that Australia’s university students back then were mainly interested in “a classical, academic course of study” which limited their engagement with their own literature and culture. Sutherland’s response was to take “on the role of apologist and critic” for our literature! Nice that someone did, eh?

Things did improve, he noticed, over time. Nonetheless, in the second issue of Australian Literary Studies, in 1963, he noted that although there is literary criticism in Australia “no Australian author is in danger of being smothered under an avalanche of critical commentary”. Hmm …

In his Meanjin article “An American looks at Australian literature”, Sutherland, Tischler explains, said he was looking for an “indigenous” literature, “an honest and sincere attempt at self-expression in Australia”. Australia had “no Emerson, no Hawthorne, no Melville, no Poe, no Whitman” all of whom “combined a knowledge of old world culture with new world conditions”. But, it did have, he said, Shaw Neilson and Christopher Brennan. Also, Henry Kingsley was “a rough Australian equivalent to Fenimore Cooper”; and “in For the term of his natural life” could be found, he said, some of the moral indignation that produced Uncle Tom’s cabin”. He believed that there were many other parallels “among local colour and regional writers of both countries”. Indeed, he said, “Tom Collins could well have been an Australian Mark Twain had he been recognized soon enough and given the backing and encouragement that Twain received from the common man in America.” Darn it, eh!

Book coverI hope you’ve enjoyed this little portrait. I’ve loved discovering this American enthusiast for our literature. I’ll finish with comments he made about one of his favourite Australian authors, Henry Handel Richardson, after her death. He said (reported The Argus in 1946) that she’d been “snubbed by her old school and ignored for many years by the [Australian] reading public” but that “she nonetheless regarded herself as Australian” which was demonstrated by “her choice of Australia as the background for most of her work.” Of The fortunes of Richard Mahony, he wrote

in this family chronicle she reached her highest peak as a writer, as an analyst of character, and as a proponent of tragedy that is Shakespearian.

Oh, to have such a supporter, eh?


  • Book news: American Tribute (1946, July 27). The Argus. p. 15.
  • Carter, David and Bruce Osborne. Australian books and authors in the American marketplace 1840s–1940s. Sydney University Press, 2018. p. 338.
  • Praise for Australian literature (1952, June 17). The Age. p. 2.
  • Sutherland, Bruce. ‘Review by Bruce Sutherland.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 1, no. 2, 1963.
  • Tischler, Nancy. ‘Bruce Sutherland and images of Australia.’ Antipodes, vol. 7, no. 2, Dec. 1993, pp. 135-138.

33 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: American apologist for Australian literature

  1. I have often used that quote about HHR being regarded as our greatest writer without being aware of it’s provenance. Of course it was said by an American and was therefore gospel.

    But if you will forgive me, I wish to go off on a tangent. Three years ago I reviewed Anita Heiss’s Dhuulu-Yala alongside ‘Literature and the Aborigine in Australia’ by JJ Healy, an English student of Australian Literature in America. Specifically, at the Hartley Grattan collection in the library of U.Texas. In ‘C. Hartley Grattan Remembered’ (ALS, 1996) Healy begins “C. Hartley Grattan and his Australia and Southwest Pacific Collection arrived at the University of Texas in Austin in 1964.” and goes on to say that U.Texas had built up an “impressive library in Commonwealth literary materials over the previous ten years”, and that Grattan’s own formidable knowledge of Australian Lit had been built up over the previous 30 or 40 years.

    Judging just by the books referenced by Healy, Texas had a much more extensive collection than that available to Sutherland at Pennsylvania.

    • Thanks Bill, I read somewhere that Texas was the other early American place to teach Commonwealth literatures, but I had heard a Scandinavian name. I’ll check out that link.

    • PS I’m not sure what Sutherland had by the mid 1960s. Those books belong I believe to his 40s era. Sutherland was instrumental in setting up a Commonwealth literature section of the Modern Languages Association. I read that he suggested it but a couple of others were named as supporting it over the years. Grattan may have been one of those.

      • He was an elderly gent when I met him. Would have been 74 or thereabouts, since he was born in 1902. That fits with the guy I met. Certainly no spring chicken. I had a quick peek in Grove for the Lincoln College Stag. No online material, only some hard copies at the National Library, and Barr Smith library for Adelaide Uni. Not sure the point is worth the effort to chase up – though when I mentioned him at lunch, the wife felt the name was familiar.

        • No, as I said to Bill, the magazine is still in copyright so Trove is unlikely to have done it yet. And as I’ve also said to Bill, it’s clear he was here in 1977, so he could very well have been in Adelaide in ’76, but I can’t confirm that in my searches (at least, not yet.)

    • I had an encounter with Hartley Grattan in 1976. At the time I was living in Lincoln College, a residential hall for students at Adelaide University. Hartley Grattan (*) stayed at the college for a while, presumably he was doing something at the Uni. The master’s wife convinced him to write an article for the college’s annual magazine, and I was the editor this year. So in due course I got the article, read it, understood hardly any of it, and plonked it in the middle pages of the magazine on coloured paper, to make it special. And, of course, I thanked Hartley Grattan very much for his contribution. This being pre-Internet, and me having a scientific training, I didn’t have the foggiest idea who he was.

      * I am almost certain it was Hartley Grattan, but I am relying on my memory on something 40+ years ago. I still have the magazines, but behind several layers of junk. I shall not attempt to retrieve them!

      • Neil, I wrote you a long answer and WordPress ate it (or junked it). There’s a very interesting article by CHG in the Daily Telegraph of 5 June 1947 which indicates he may be a bit old for the CHG of your memory. WG will have to do a Trove search on your uni mag.

        • It may have been him Bill, because Wikipedia says that he was given an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the ANU in 1977, which suggests he was in Australia around that time?

        • PS I don’t think Neil’s uni mag will be in Trove – unless the University has made it available like The Canberra Times and Tribune have done – because it’s still subject to copyright.

        • Oh, and one more thing, Grattan apparently came to Australia at least 5 times, the first being in 1927. 1977 must surely have been the last as he died in 1980.

        • Yes. I give in. I was in a rush and troved on ‘Hartley Grattan Adelaide’ without doing basic wikipedia look up. Sorry. But the article, which I have come across before “Wanted, An Australian Critic”, is marvellous (and 5 July 1947, not 5 Jun)

        • I’ll try to check that out Bill. There’s a 1971 one in the Canberra Times by Maurice Dunlevy about having lunch with him. I haven’t read it all but it looks worth reading too.

      • Wow, how interesting Neil. I don’t know why you won’t attempt to retrieve those magazines!! Says she who, each morning these days, says she’ll get into her layers of junk but somehow finds excuses not to!

  2. I have a brother-in-law (from whom I am seriously estranged) who would probably be deep into this bloke: the b-i-l has been published on most of these writers.
    When I peruse your posts I am ever reminded of how much there in is literature to study, and how little of that I have done.

  3. You ask who’s read the initial four titles that were available in the 1940s? I’ve read the inverse of you: The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney is IMO one of the finest books ever written – it’s in my 20 best ever Australian books and I suspect always will be.
    I’ve also read The Mystery of the Hansom Cab, said to be the first Australian crime novels (but like most crime novels it failed to hold my interest even though it’s set in a recognisable Melbourne.)
    It fascinates me that my little blog get hits from US universities, and when I track them back it turns out that it is suggested as a reference as a source for students. So there are still US universities offering specialised courses in OzLit, when (I believe) most of our universities do not I don’t think this is a terrible thing, I discovered many of my treasured Oz titles at university when they were part of a general English Lit course. But I wonder what the career trajectory is for an American student studying OzLit for a year? .

    • Thanks Lisa. I don’t think you’ve read the inverse of me? I’ve also read The mystery of the hansom cab, which I enjoyed, but because of its history and place in our culture. I think I read books like that with a different brain – which enables them to hold my interest because I’m intrigued by what such a writer at such a time was doing rather than focus on the story and characters. I haven’t read the two you haven’t. BUT, mea culpa, I still must read Richard Mahony. It’s weird that I haven’t because it’s one of the books I remember on my Mum’s shelves in my childhood. It was such a big book that it captured my attention.

      Interesting question re career trajectory for American students studying OzLit. I’m not sure that there’s a particularly career trajectory any more than those who study the classics or European history? Their undergraduate degrees tend very much to be liberal arts degrees aimed at developing general knowledge and thinking skills I think, rather than pointing to a particular career. More often than not, the career is the next degree. That’s my understanding, anyhow, but perhaps an American reader here could verify?

      • *smacks forehead* I read your whole piece, and then went back to check which ones you’d mentioned in the next paragraph and didn’t absorb the fact that you’d reviewed the hansom cab in your list above it!
        #shedding brain cells daily, sigh…
        I don’t know if they’re still available, but my copy of The Fortunes is in three volumes (Penguin), so it’s less daunting to read.
        I know Columbia has a very general arts program, because I bought Great Books by David Denby which is all about the books they study there. (The book is a bit like a canon). But universities vary widely, don’t they? There was a news story this week about some student suing a university for its mickey-mouse degree… whether it’s a valid criticism of that university or not, I suspect that it shows that students expect to get some kind of employability out of a degree, wherever they get it from.
        But whatever the reason, it’s nice that they do it:)

        • I know all about shedding brain cells Lisa – glad I’m not the only one.

          Yes, I think when (note I say “when” not “if”) I read fortunes I’ll do it in volumes. I hate holding big heavy books!

          Universities do vary widely, and particularly in the USA where there are so many of them. And Columbia is, I’m pretty sure, one of the top ones. Isn’t it the one famous for journalism?

          Re employability, I suppose yes, all degrees have an element of that but I think with a liberal arts degree it’s less about the actual subjects you do than the skills you get – writing, analysis, problem solving, etc – because if you’re not doing something vocational you’d be looking at admin jobs, HR jobs, policy jobs etc. Is this making sense? (Like an Australian arts degree without the add on law or education or librarianship qualification, for example?)

  4. Agree with Lisa. The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney I found breathtaking. A major achievement for any national literature. And as I recall, this was Dorothy Green’s opinion too.

  5. WG, I don’t remember her comment exactly, but it was along the lines that it was a terrible book, because it was all doom and gloom. I tend to avoid doom and gloom, no matter how well written!

  6. He was right about Richard Mahoney which I read a couple of decades ago and, to me, was as gripping as anything by Flaubert or George Eliot (Big European Novels). I found out about the novel by a mention of its power and subtlety in Asa Brigg’s classic study of Victorian Cities. I must read it again!

  7. Yes, how lovely that he put himself into this position. And also lovely that he was so generous about HHR’s classic novel and writing style.

    Also found the rhythm of the discussions in the comments here especially delightful, even though I don’t grasp most of the specifics/references because I don’t have your background in this lit. But all the P.S.s and back-and-forth was fun to watch.

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