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Monday musings on Australian literature: Whither Australian literature, 1930s (Pt. 2)?

November 11, 2019

As I wrote last week, I apologise to those of you not interested in the history of Australian literature, because yes again I am continuing my little survey of contemporary writing about Australian literature in the 1930s. This week I plan to look at some another discussion about the place of and interest in Australian literature.

So, today’s post looks at an article which asked Why is the average Australian reader, if given the choice, more likely to pick an overseas (English or American book) than an Australian one?

Australian fiction in America

In 1935, Pegasus (whoever that is) wrote an article (probably syndicated) in the Central Queensland Herald inspired by Australian readers’ apparent preference for books written overseas*, and in which s/he discusses, conversely, the growth of interest in Australian literature in America! S/he says that the Christian Science Monitor reports that “the American reading public is beginning to ‘wake up’ to the fact that worthwhile fiction is being produced in Australia”.  Tell McKinnon et al, that, eh? Pegasus, in fact, says that

Australian fiction has been noticed in America is something to be put to the credit side of the ledger, when Australian authors and critics deplore the quality of Australian fiction produced to date.

Book coverIndeed, Pegasus says that the Christian Science Monitor writer talks about the enthusiasm of the American reviewers “which is more than I can remember occurring in this country”. The book, they are particularly enthusiastic about is Henry Handel Richarson’s The fortunes of Richard Mahony. Pegasus notes that “there are many in Australia who would agree with the American critic who described this novel as ‘the most important single piece of literature ever to come out of Australia,’ [but] it has never become popular in Australia, either amongst critics or readers”!

Pegasus then shares some of the other books that were being appreciated in America. Rolfe Boldrewood’s Robbery under arms and Marcus Clarke’s For the term of his natural life are also loved here, he says, but EL Grant Watson’s Desert horizon, “has been forgotten here, if it ever received any particular attention”. Katherine Susannah Prichard’s Working bullocks was being deservedly appreciated, but, says Pegasus,

the unfortunate Coonardoo, well-written though it is, is probably better appreciated than it deserves by an American critic who can regard it as “a portrayal of the relations between the white race and the white black on a typical cattle station in north-eastern Australia.

Other books appreciated in America include G.B. Lancaster’s Pageant, M. Barnard Eldershaw’s A house is built, and Frank Dalby Davison’s Red heifer (Man shy), which “has already been accepted in America, probably to a greater extent than in Australia”. Man shy and A house is built are both well known to me, and would be regarded as classics I think, but G.B. Lancaster, whom most of us haven’t read, is mentioned once again in my blog. This is the name used by Edith Lyttleton (1873-1945). Born south of Launceston, she moved with her family to New Zealand when she was six years old, and stayed there until she moved to England in 1909. She returned to Tasmania in the 1930s, but ended up moving back to England. She wrote, among other things, thirteen novels and some 250 short stories, which, says AustLit, were “mostly narratives of romance and adventure set in the remote back country of New Zealand, Australia and Canada”. It’s probably not surprising, given she lived very little of her adult life in Australia, that she’s not particularly well-known here now. However, Pageant did win the ALS Gold Medal.

What all this says to me is that when it comes to the creative arts, there is always something for commentators to be concerned about – and then talk about – which is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, any publicity is good publicity, n’est-ce pas?

Any comments?

* Things seemed to have started to change by 1937, according to Angus and Robertson’s Mr W.G. Cousins.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. November 11, 2019 11:21 pm

    Even now, those first three books: HHR, Boldrewood and M Clarke are almost the only early Australian literature widely available. What could you add? My Brilliant Career, which was out of print until the 1960s and Geoffry Hamlyn. Certainly not Such is Life which I can’t imagine is taught anywhere in Australia let alone overseas.

    You tweaked a memory so I looked up C Hartley Grattan. It seems he began collecting and writing about Australian Lit (in the US) in the 1920s. So that might have helped.
    If you have the time/interest, this is as far as I got: https://digitalcommons.wayne.edu/antipodes/vol2/iss1/4/

    • November 12, 2019 3:30 am

      Thanks Bill … I have come across C Hartley Grattan. I remember reading about his Antipodes article, but haven’t actually accessed it yet. I should do so, shouldn’t I?

  2. November 11, 2019 11:35 pm

    It would be interesting to know something about the marketing of Australian books in this era.
    In our own time, in bookshops at any rate, we see some booksellers devoting a separate section to Australian fiction, while others shelve it in amongst everything else. I found the same thing in NZ: looking specifically for Kiwi novels, I was stymied by this latter practice, and not helped by staff who didn’t know which ones were Kiwi either.
    There was/is a recent campaign #LoveYAOz to try to counteract the overwhelming preference of young readers for American YA, I don’t know how successful it has been.
    But what never ceases to surprise me is the way some readers, including a couple of well-known Australian authors that I know of, are so dismissive of Australian writing. They would dream of doing this to our sporting teams or our fashion designers, but it’s fine to insult our literary community… when in fact in the case of one of those authors I’m thinking of, their Goodreads shelves show that they’ve read very little of it anyway and have no business having an opinion about it.

    • Neil@kallaroo permalink
      November 12, 2019 12:34 am

      Since when did a lack of knowledge stop one from having an opinion on something? Indeed, with some people (for example, politicians) the inverse rule seems to apply: the smaller the knowledge, the greater the opinion 😦

    • November 12, 2019 3:35 am

      Yes, good point Lisa about the marketing. It would be interesting to know. I wrote earlier this year about university courses established in the US in the 1940s. That would have helped. But how it was promoted in the 1930s I don’t know.

      Good point about the #LoveYA in our own times, though I guess that (and the AWW Challenge) have been more about promoting our own literature here, rather than overseas – which is a start!

  3. November 12, 2019 6:29 am

    Certainement !
    All these titles are known to what I laughingly call my brain; but none read. So I must be guilty of being an average Australian reader (I used to, you know).
    Will you cut me dead in future ?
    :\

  4. Meg permalink
    November 12, 2019 7:35 pm

    Hi Sue, I don’t know G B Lancaster. I also would think Rex Ingamells who was the founder of the Jindyworobak Club (1938), had an influence of the growth of promoting Australian writing.

    • November 13, 2019 8:38 am

      Yes, I think he did, Meg, thanks for reminding me of him. I think he didn’t really come into his own until the late 30s and that his main influence was probably the 40s, which I should get to some time!

      • November 13, 2019 11:14 am

        I have an Ingamells on my shelves which I could get to early next year, also some 1940s Aust.Lit text books of my father’s.

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