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Monday musings on Australian literature: Supporting locals in 1927

April 27, 2020

Back in 2014 I wrote two Monday Musings posts on a plebiscite held in 1927. It involved readers of Melbourne’s The Argus newspaper naming those they deemed “the six leading poets and the six foremost writers of fiction of Australia and New Zealand”. You can see the results in my first post, and some post-plebiscite commentary in the second post.

“to change the slackness and indifference of the mass”

In this post, I’m returning to that plebiscite via one particular response from Tasmania’s Burnie-based Advocate newspaper. Published on 31 August 1927, the article has a plus ça change feel to it. Here is the article’s opening few sentences:

Singularly remiss are Australians in according patronage to Australian productions, which suggests that we are still a long way from achieving nationhood. It is not the making of a choice in favor of local works which animates the majority with what might be expected to be a bias towards the products of the country, “other things being equal,” but it is safe to say that the country of origin never enters into the calculations of the ordinary purchaser. Whether the goods are Australian matters not at all. This will have to be altered before our people can claim to be patriotic, and to change the slackness and indifference of the mass is the objective of various drives of late.

The “various drives of late” included an Australasian Authors Week to be held in the September. It was partly for this week that the plebiscite had been held. Now, ignoring the problematic issue of patriotism, I believe that we all should read, see, listen to the products of our own creators. As Heather Rose wrote in Bruny (my review), the arts are critical to maintaining a strong culture, and maintaining a strong culture is critical to a country’s independence and sovereignty. If we don’t know who we are, if we don’t know what we believe in and stand for, how can we defend ourselves against the incursions of other cultures? Moreover, how can we improve?

Book coverSo, back in 1927 the Advocate took on this issue of supporting local writers. The article refers to the plebiscite, and says of the winning prose writer, Marcus Clarke:

Marcus Clarke is placed first, probably on account of the attention which is being devoted at the moment to that powerful story which has been adapted for the screen. Many regard “His Natural Life” as a classic, and if that be disputed still it is a great book, containing many artistic faults as all books do, but preaching a powerful lesson to humanity and setting forth with a realism unsurpassed in the language what purports to be the brutal happenings of a brutal age.

I like the recognition that even if not everyone agrees that the book is a classic, it is still “a great book”.

Anyhow, the article then shares the top prose and poetry writers from the plebiscite, and follows up with this:

Some of these writers are not even known to many, no doubt, which indicates how unjustly obscure is the Australian man and woman of letters in their own country. No two discriminating readers will probably agree that the placements above indicate the true merits of the respective writers, it is largely a matter of fancy, as well as of judgment in what literature should express, but the list is of value, as stimulating thought and directing attention to some of the immortals of the pen which Australia has produced.

I’ve bolded the points of interest – to me, anyhow. I agree that such lists have value, even if (and perhaps, sometimes, because) you don’t agree with the choices.

“a plea for later writers”

The Advocate then moves on to argue for not just reading writers from the past, like Clarke and Boldrewood, but reading current writers “who are still in the flesh and endeavoring to woo the attention of their own countrymen and women”.

Being a Tasmanian paper, it mentions some Tasmanians. One is Roy Bridges, on whom, the Advocate says, “Tasmania has a claim”. (The University of Tasmania goes further describing him as “Tasmania’s most prolific novelist”.) He “is wonderfully prolific, and his Dead men’s gold and Vats of Tyre will repay perusal”. Also mentioned is woman writer Marie (Bjelke) Petersen, who was also well-known as a physical culture teacher. She, says the Advocate,

has done well with her novels on the other side of the world, like so many others who are criticised in their own land. It has been urged that her stories are lacking in sincerity as pictures of Tasmanian life, but they compensate for this in the fresh treatment of conventional subjects she is capable of and her unusually facile style.

Book coverThe Advocate also suggests Bernard Cronin, describing him as “amongst the leaders of Australian fiction”, and naming two of his popular works, Red Dawson and Salvage. I have devoted a Monday Musings to him. Although Cronin has disappeared from popular view it sounds like he was the real deal. He was, in fact, the seventh ranked author in the plebiscite. The other author recommended is A. G. Hales, “an industrious writer”, whose McGlusky series, the paper says, “have enjoyed a wide vogue”. He died in 1936, at the age of 66. A brief death notice in the Warwick Daily News says he was ‘popularly known as “Smiler” Hales’ and describes him as “the well-known Australian journalist, war correspondent, author and lecturer”. I feel another author-dedicated Monday Musings coming on!

Has anyone read any of these later writers?

15 Comments leave one →
  1. April 27, 2020 11:19 pm

    No I haven’t read any of them except Marcus Clarke. I once read something very critical (or scornful) about Marie Bjelke Petersen but I don’t seem to have included her on any of my lists. But. What about Tasma?

    • April 28, 2020 8:25 am

      This article only named a couple of the top plebiscite authors, and then authors still alive and publishing in 1927. Tasma doesn’t meet either of those criteria.

      Bjelke Petersen is someone I’d like to check out. Her novel Jewelled nights was made into a film by Australian Louise Lovely. She, B-J I mean, was an interesting woman I think.

  2. Meg permalink
    April 28, 2020 7:26 am

    Hi Sue, I have read Marcus Clarke and Marie Bjelke Petersen. I haven’t heard of A G Hales but I have heard of Bernard Cronin. And, this is only because he is mentioned in “An Outline of Australian Literature” by H M Green. Green says “..Cronin came to Australia as a child and has worked in the bush in all sorts of capacities. He has been influenced by Zane Grey,and one or two of his novels are so American in tone and even language that it is hard at times to realise that they are Australian stories written by an Australian. He then said that Ernest Andrew Ewart’s novels were much nearer to real life.

    • April 28, 2020 8:27 am

      Ah, interesting Meg. I’ve heard of Cronin too but I don’t recollect ever hearing of Ernest Andrew Ewart! Have you?

      • Meg permalink
        April 28, 2020 10:54 am

        Hi Sue, I haven’t heard of Ewart but in the book it says that Ewart was awarded a prize in the 1928 Bulletin competition. Ewart was better known from his war stories as “Boyd Cable”….. He wrote “By Blow and Kiss” (1924). Also, another author mentioned which I have not heard of is Erle Cox, who wrote Out of the Silence(1923), ‘..an exciting and well worked-out romance..

        • April 28, 2020 11:24 am

          Meg, I wish I’d thought of that. In compiling my ‘best reads’ for 1919 I came on The Old Comptemptibles by Boyd Cable – and “discovered via the Oxford English Dictionary that ‘Boyd Cable’ is Ernest Andrew Ewart”. AustLit entry here

        • April 28, 2020 11:52 am

          It’s hard to remember them all Bill, particularly when they are not household names.

        • April 28, 2020 12:10 pm

          Everyone should own HM Green. It comes in two volumes, 1788-1923 and 1923-1950. And two editions – 1962 by Green, and 1984 revised by his daughter Dorothy. Thanks to dad I have vol I of the first edition and both volumes of the 2nd.

        • April 28, 2020 12:25 pm

          Yes, I know, but I don’t!! It’s never come into my purview, but I must seek it more actively I think.

        • April 28, 2020 11:52 am

          Thanks Meg … I have quite a few books on Aussie Literature but not Green’s. I must look out for it.

  3. April 28, 2020 8:08 am

    Crikey, you get around in your research ! 😀

    • April 28, 2020 8:28 am

      Thanks M-R. I enjoy doing it. So many interesting people, stories and ideas out there.

  4. April 28, 2020 4:19 pm

    I”m another who’s only read Marcus Clarke from your suggestions. I’ve read 19 Australian authors whose books were published in the 19th century and up to 1926, but I have no idea which of them might have been alive when this survey was done.
    (I have a vague project to read something from every year and Bill kindly gave me a list of books to look out for, but it’s not so easy to locate these books now that there’s so few bricks-and-mortar second-hand shops to browse in. We are reduced to searching online, and then paying a premium price plus postage for something that, a’hem, isn’t always great to read. There is Project Gutenberg of course, but then it has to be read digitally, and I hate that.)

    • April 28, 2020 4:50 pm

      I like your vague project Lisa but it would be a challenge. I don’t like reading digitally a lot but I do do it. However the thing about Project Gutenberg is that the quality of the digitisation is variable and that puts me off. If I were an academic, I’d be thrilled to have that resource, but otherwise I find it not wonderfully appealing!

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