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Monday musings on Australian literature: Whither Australian literature, 1930s (Pt. 1)?

November 4, 2019

Apologies to those of you not interested in the history of Australian literature, because this week and next I’m continuing my little survey of contemporary writing about Australian literature in the 1930s. My first post discussed the move from “gumleaf and goanna” to other topics, and last week’s focused on discussions about the importance of writing about character. This week and next, I plan to look at some bigger picture discussions about the place of Australian literature.

These posts are, however, based on a somewhat serendipitous search of Trove. There could very well be articles – there probably are – which say some different things. I can only share what I have been able to find in the time I have available. Just as well I’m not producing an academic work, eh?

And here might be a good place to point you to an article by Susan Lever in Inside Story concerning the current parlous state of teaching and research about Australian literature in Australian universities. It’s particularly depressing, now that we have Trove with its rich content, that there is not the support for research into our written heritage and culture – which, of course, feeds into discussions about who we are and where we are going.

Australian literature’s place in the Dominions

Why is it that Australian creative literature, fiction, and poetry has not reached the same high standard as that of South Africa and Canada?” and “What is the place of the Australian novel in the fiction of the British Dominions?” These questions were posed in reports of a lecture given in June 1934 by Firmin McKinnon to the English Association of the University of Queensland. Thomas Firmin McKinnon (1878-1953) was, coincidentally, born in the Yass area not far from were I live. He was a journalist, and, says Desmond Macaulay in the ADB, was nicknamed at Brisbane’s Courier, “the Encyclopaedia”! He and his wife were active in Brisbane’s cultural life, and by the mid 1910s and 1920s, he was “recognized as a tireless literary lecturer and mentor of many young writers”. Among his many roles, he was President of the Queensland Bush Book Club. Macaulay also says that “his Anglocentric conservatism, however, allowed little sympathy for certain literary trends”, so we should keep this in mind when thinking about his views of Australian literature.

The two reports are both in Brisbane’s Courier-Mail, one a brief report on a Tuesday and the other clearly a more feature article report on a Saturday. Neither have by-lines as far as I can see, so I’ll just call them Tuesday and Saturday. Tuesday’s is titled “Australian fiction: Where is it lacking” and Saturday’s is “Australian fiction: It’s place in literature”.

Katharine Susannah Prichard

Prichard, 1927/8 (Courtesy: State Library of NSW, via Wikimedia Commons)

Tuesday says that McKinnon particularly focused on the fiction of South Africa (represented by Sarah Gertrude Millin, Pauline-Smith, and Norman Giles), Canada (by Martha Ostenso, Corinthia Cannon, and Maza de la Roche), and Australia (by Katharine Susannah Prichard, Brent of Bin Bin, Flora Eldershaw, Marjorie Barnard, Helen Simpson, G. B. Lancaster, and John Dalley). Tuesday shares some of McKinnon’s arguments for the comparative failure of Australian fiction versus that of South Africa and Canada, saying that McKinnon’s conclusion is that “the contrast of nationality, and conflict of international ideas … were deficient in Australia. Even the contrasts provided by the migration era of the gold digging days had disappeared, and Australia was now the most homogeneous race on earth.” By contrast, South Africa had “a continuous conflict of colour and clash of nationalities” and while there was less conflict in Canada, it did have “a contrast of nationalities”. Hmm … sounds a bit simplistic to me. Prichard and Barnard-Eldershaw, for a start, found signifiant issues to tackle within our so-called homogenous culture. As did Christina Stead in Seven poor men of Sydney, but that, her first novel, was only published in the year of this lecture.

Tuesday reported that during the post-lecture comments, one person said “that many books of Australian fiction showed a good deal of slovenliness and lacked any marked spiritual impulse and characterisation”.

Book coverSaturday, as you would expect, provided more detail, including about the authors chosen to represent the three countries. Saturday reports that McKinnon admitted that “we have in Australia, in its history, and in its great cities excellent material and splendid background” but were not producing literature equal to Canada and South Africa. Saturday writes, presumably reporting McKinnon, that:

Unquestionably the impatience of the age has something to do with the decline of great creative literature all over the world. Beauty in literary form cannot flourish to perfection in an age that is wildly excitable, in an age that relishes some snippet about Bradman or Larwood, much more than it would a gem of English.

Have things changed much? Saturday goes on to report (or say) that

Australia has produced some very creditable fiction, but almost every creditable novelist who is writing of Australia has been abroad. Now is there any reason why our purely Australian novelist is not doing better work? There must be. Here in Australia we have a magnificent background for novels, and there is abundance of material. Some of the greatest novelists in the English language, from Jane Austen and Scott to Dickens and Walpole, have found their inspiration in happenings far less outstanding than those that could be found in the development of Australia, and in characters that may be found in any Australian city. But everything lies in the treatment of the subject, and our novelists fall short in the treatment of the story. Now what is the reason?

Llike Tuesday, he reports on the various ideas put forward and rejected by McKinnon, one being the effect of Democracy, itself, which he argued “which tends to the mediocre in everything”. Saturday quotes McKinnon as saying

Art and literature need to be fostered by leisure, good taste, moderate wealth, and cultivated discernment, and these do not flourish best in a democracy. Demos is a poor patron of art and literature.

Sounds a bit elitist don’t you think?

However, McKinnon, fortunately, realised the error of this argument, given Canada and South Africa were also democracies. And so, as Tuesday did before him, Saturday shares McKinnon’s argument that it’s “the lack of contrast and conflict in Australian life” that doesn’t support “literary creativeness”.

The answer? McKinnon says that what Australia needed was the “steady flow of migration” to provide “the clashes”, the opportunity to make comparisons “that are particularly valuable to the creative artist”. I’m not sure I fully agree with McKinnon’s argument regarding literature – I don’t see much evidence of clash of cultures driving Jane Austen’s novels, for example – but I do agree that cultural diversity is a good thing.

Anyhow, it appears that McKinnon gave a version of this talk later in the year, on 17 October, to the Authors’ and Artists’ Association. He again compared Australian writers with Canadian and South African ones, and he again argued that Australian novelists, with some exceptions, lack perspective and imagination, that they’re narrow and insular. Perhaps because this time he was talking to the creators themselves, he was, it appears, a little more positive. He “spoke of the vast and artistic improvement In Australian fiction within the past three years” albeit “all of it [was] written by travelled authors”. He again recommended migration to Australia, but added that “the development of aviation” and “even the Centenary gatherings in Melbourne” would be valuable in “helping to provide that standard of measurement that novelists needed”.

Now, I don’t know the South African and Canadian writers named, so I can’t comment on their relative merits. I’d love to hear from anyone who does know them. Regardless, though, I believe that Australians were producing some very interesting work in the 1930s, alongside the usual more popular fare?

Any comments?

29 Comments leave one →
  1. November 4, 2019 11:22 pm

    It does make it difficult to give an opinion when we’ve never heard of those South African and Canadian authors.
    But we do know that it wasn’t all that much later when there was a veritable exodus of creatives abandoning the conformity of Australia: Germaine Greer; Barry Humphries; Robert Hughes; Madeleine St John and so on.
    Maybe what he was indirectly alluding to was the White Australia Policy and how it had had a stultifying effect?

    • November 5, 2019 8:21 am

      He may have been Lisa, interesting point. My suspicion, though, is that if he was conservative he was thinking of encouraging European migration?

      • November 5, 2019 11:56 am

        My thinking is coloured by my current reading of Tim Watt’s new book, The Golden Country, Australia’s Changing Identity… more about it in due course…

        • November 5, 2019 1:13 pm

          I look forward to it then. It’s fascinating, though not surprising, how what we are reading at any particularly time throws different things into light isn’t it?

  2. November 5, 2019 12:02 am

    Interesting discussion…I am drawn to books written by Australian writers more so than those from SA of CAN! It must be something I like about the diverse Australian landscape vs characters…..and the rich Aboriginal history!
    This post did spur me on to find a SA literary award (SALA) and look closer at the Giller Prize (CAN). I was also curious which 1930s American authors were in the spotlight: Z.N. Hurston, Margaret Mitchell, P.S. Buck, Margaret Barnes, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Robert Frost.

    • November 5, 2019 8:22 am

      Oh thanks Nancy. I didn’t know that SA prize. And I love that you checked American writers of the times. Some good names there!

  3. ian darling permalink
    November 5, 2019 12:20 am

    Probably shows that it is very difficult to generalize about a national literature as it is shaping itself (and what is meant by a “national literature”?) Fiction, abundant and largely ephemeral, would be especially difficult to sort out.

    • November 5, 2019 8:24 am

      Yes, exactly Ian. Wouldn’t you love to check back in 100 years to see who of the current crop were still being read and written about?

  4. November 5, 2019 6:59 am

    “Beauty in literary form cannot flourish to perfection in an age that is wildly excitable, in an age that relishes some snippet about {…} Smith or Warner
    No, ST – nothing at all has changed: Australian literature is as thin on the ground now as it was then.
    (Says she whose consumption of same is restricted to listening.)

    • November 5, 2019 8:27 am

      Oh M-R! I don’t think it is thin on the ground now! You need to get out more… Get those libraries to get more Aussies in. Haha! I think it’s quite an exciting time, particularly with the increase in Indigenous writers.

  5. Meg permalink
    November 5, 2019 9:29 am

    Hi Sue, I don’t know of the 1930s Canadian or South African authors. When you look at the Wikipedia list of Australian authors and their novels of the 1930s, it was quite diverse. Glad to see that McKinnon does mention Prichard, From that list you can see there were sagas, crime, romance and social novels, and not all lacking in imagination. Patrick White went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. I have no doubt, that another Australian author will win one again.

    • November 5, 2019 1:23 pm

      Thanks Meg … love that you checked out Wikipedia … he also mentioned Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw which pleased me. As Ian says, it’s probably hard to write “objectively” about your own time.

  6. Dr L.F.S. Browne permalink
    November 5, 2019 10:16 am

    A review of “God’s Fools” a book by Norman Giles (real name Norman Robert McKeown) is published in the Sydney Morning Herald 21 October 1932 p.4. McKeown wrote pulp fiction (for Street and Smith’s Magazines) under his own name. The Bodkin Point.

    • November 5, 2019 1:29 pm

      Thanks LFS Browne, for this. I don’t know him or that book at all. Another one to keep an eye out for. Most of the 1930s writers I know are women, with a few exceptions like Frank Dalby Davison and Ion Idriess.

  7. November 5, 2019 12:43 pm

    I think it was a good question to ask and interesting comparisons to make. It seems to me Aust.Lit was a bit thin on the ground for a decade or two up to the 1930s when it really took off. I’m not going to look up dates and figures, but the great books of the Bulletin era were My Brilliant Career and Such is Life in 1901 and 02. From then on Steele Rudd dominated with his “Dad & Dave” stereotypes, which probably set us back a fair way, though some of the 1880s women, notably Rosa Praed, were still producing good stuff.

    Then right at the time McKinnon was speaking Christina Stead, Eleanor Dark were about to burst onto the scene with world-class character based fiction; HH Richardson had already published The Getting of Wisdom and Maurice Guest; and KSP, Kylie Tennant and others were emerging on the Social Realist side.

    • November 5, 2019 1:26 pm

      Yes, I agree it was worth asking Bill. You’re right that the 1930s was when it all took off again, and he was of course saying this in 1934, so before many of the writers really got going. As well as Stead and Dark, there was also Dymphna Cusack.

  8. November 7, 2019 6:44 pm

    As you allude to above, I wonder if the condition of Australian literature verses Canada and South African literature was something that people debated back then. There is s tendency for some critics to be very hard on content being produced in their own backyards. I have noticed this tendency to exist across many art forms and across time. I wonder if some of that could have been a factor in this piece.

    • November 7, 2019 8:27 pm

      I’m sure it partly is Brian – the other man’s grass, etc! It would be interesting to read what South African and Canadian critics were thinking and saying, wouldn’t it?

  9. Robert Alan Hayden permalink
    November 9, 2019 10:11 am

    No mention of Henry Lawson? Henry – I’ve barely read him – will be the only writer still talked about one hundred years from today.

    • November 9, 2019 1:13 pm

      Thanks Robert. I don’t agree that he’s the only one who’ll still be written about, but you could be right. However he died in 1922 so wasn’t relevant to this discussion.

      • Robert Alan Hayden permalink
        November 10, 2019 1:06 am

        Well maybe I read it wrong, I assumed any Aus writer up until then was relevant. Lawson has statues dotted all over the place, I’m sure he’ll live.

        • November 10, 2019 9:06 am

          Oh, yes, I’m sure he will, Robert. You’re right. My sense was that you thought the others may not.

  10. Robert Alan Hayden permalink
    November 10, 2019 1:35 am

    Lawson was a born writer, untutored. Unsophisticated. Considered a bit rough in the 1930s.
    Nothing has changed.

  11. Robert Alan Hayden permalink
    November 11, 2019 11:58 am

    PC hacks like Winton won’t live, they write to order: dictates of the times. Henry Miller lives, but wouldn’t get published today. Tropic of Cancer was lorded in the 1930s, but offensive to women right now. OH! And (if I may say) women control most of what gets published in 2019. So watch your manners. Aboriginal or ethnic writers get shoved to the front; but then Demedenco pulled the biggest con since Ern Malley. How embarrassing.
    L F Celine, best author of the 20th Century, is so denigrated now you’d think he’d written Mein Kamph. And so you have to watch out, toe the line, the party line, or you’re nowhere.

    -Robert.
    Excuse the spelling, I’m too tired to look things up.

    • November 11, 2019 1:44 pm

      Thanks, Robert, we all have our different points of view, our different interests in what we read and why, don’t we?

  12. Robert Alan Hayden permalink
    November 12, 2019 5:40 am

    Yes.

    Thanks.

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