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