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?
So, 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.
The 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?