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”.
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”.
Saturday, 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?