Monday musings on Australian literature: Realism and Modernism

Now that’s an aspirational title for you, and one that I will not live up to in terms of expectations. However, I wanted to write something for Bill (The Australian Legend)’s AWW Gen 3 Week (Part 2). As its focus is, primarily, Realism and Modernism in Australian literature from post-WW1 to 1960, and, as my plan is to contribute a review of an Elizabeth Harrower novel, I figured I could leap into this Realism-Modernism murk and see what I could find!

Essentially, of course, most of us readers just want to read good books, and not worry too much about the trends and “isms” that the academics love, but it is sometimes interesting to think about them – at least a little. Bill has written clearly on the subject on his AWW Gen 3 page, so I’m just going to add a few thoughts and ideas that I’ve gleaned from around the place.

Mena Calthorpe, The dyehouse

Realism – social realism, which is really what we are talking about here – is fundamentally a sociopolitical movement which was concerned about the oppression of the working class by capitalist forces. Its drivers are social rather than psychological, group-focused rather than individual-based. It was the main fictional approach of the first half of the twentieth century, and was a driving feature of Australian literature of the 1920s to 1950s. Mena Calthorpe’s The dyehouse (my review), published in 1961 but set in the mid-1950s, is a good example. In my post, I noted that the characters are types, reflecting the various “players” in the worker-capitalist struggle, but are also authentic, psychologically real human beings which helps make it such a good read. There’s no escaping the fact, though, that Calthorpe’s intent is political.

Book cover

Modernism, on the other hand, focuses more on the individual – on, as Bill quotes, “decay and a growing alienation of the individual. The machinery of modern society is perceived as impersonal, capitalist, and antagonistic to the artistic impulse”. A significant exponent of modernism in Australia was Patrick White. A whole slew of Australian women writers are identified with Realism, but there’s also a good representation of them who worked in the Modernist style, such as Christina Stead, Eve Langley and Elizabeth Harrower (all of whom I’ve reviewed here.) Modernism, the theory goes I believe, eschewed realism.

Realism, or Modernism – or, both?

However, as with all things, real life doesn’t always suit theory, and writers, in particular, don’t always “know” that they are supposed fit the prescriptions of the theorists! So, it was with interest that I read an article about Elizabeth Harrower that discussed this very problem. The article, which appeared in Australian Literary Studies, 15 (3) 1992, is by Nicholas Mansfield, and is titled “‘The Only Russian in Sydney’: Modernism and Realism in The Watch Tower“. Mansfield opens with

Elizabeth Harrower The watch tower

In the post-war period, the dichotomy between Realism and Modernism seemed to summarise all the important rivalries in Australian fiction — nationalist enthusiasm and political responsibility lined up against cosmopolitan sophistication and formalist experimentation. Given the approximate and tendentious nature of the terms of this dichotomy, it was inevitable that writing that could not fall easily into one or other of its broad categories would be met with some uncertainty and perhaps eventually ignored. The aim of this article is to show how a novel which met such a fate, Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watch Tower, both discusses and defies the simple dichotomy that Australian literary critics in the 1960s were so keen to maintain as their paradigm.

It’s a long article, but the gist is that while there is a Realist aspect to Harrower’s novel – a study of power, and a quest for freedom – it is Modernist by refusing to “definitively explain the basis of power” and by refusing to rely on an “essential truth”, on, I suppose, an absolute reason or answer. These refusals “radically contradict the traditional purposes of Realism” which he called “the most social and rational of all literary modes”. Mansfield argues that

Harrower’s novel, like the work of Christina Stead before her and Helen Garner after her, attempted to subject the techniques and concerns of the traditional social novel — especially the question of the nature and function of domestic power — to the self-consciousness that modernism demanded, without giving in to the temptations of either formalist machismo or realist belligerence.

Mansfield believes, however, that because Harrower’s novel combined “Realist” issues with more “Modern” responses, it confounded critics of the time:

Harrower’s novel not only rejected the quest for essential truth that had such poignancy for writers and readers of fiction in Australia at this time, but also confounded the binary opposition on which much criticism rested. For these reasons, even when it was positive, the critical reception of this novel was tentative, and soon ended in uncertainty and silence.

A case of critics trying to make the work fit the theory, rather than look at the work on its own terms? Anyhow, it probably didn’t help, as he also implies, that Harrower was a woman writing about women’s experience.

Interestingly, I also found an article (from Studies in Classic Australian fiction) that outlined why Patrick White’s works, which can look like “traditional, bulky, realist fiction”, are modernist. The writer, Michael Wilding, however, also admits that White “is playing with the realist tradition”, that he “gestures at realism” which he then denies or inverts. Voss, of course, is an excellent example of this, but Wilding discusses several White novels to support his argument.

I like Wilding’s definition of realism, as:

a committed left-wing realist mode: democratic in its sympathies, egalitarian in its perceptions, naturalistic in its causality and motivation, precise and laconic in its verbal manner.

However, while naming Katharine Susannah Prichard and Vance Palmer as purveyors of this style, he also includes Christina Stead! Just shows the limits of theory?

The question is …

Jane Rawson, A wrong turn at the office of unmade lists

Does all this mean anything? Well, not to our individual reading experiences I think. But, if we believe the arts are (partly) about reflecting and/or responding to our times, then these “trends” mirror what was happening. Social realism recognised a growing concern with the inequalities and oppression wrought on people by increasing industrialisation under capitalism, while modernism reflected a sense of alienation and meaninglessness that the times (progress, industrialisation, war, technology, urbanisation) were effecting in people. In current times, we are seeing, for example, a rise of “cli-fi” and climate-related dystopian literature in response to you-know-what. Literature, in other words, tells us about ourselves and these theories are a way of articulating that.

Anyhow, back to Bill. It will be interesting to consider how these traditions “behave” as we move into Bill’s Gen 4 next year. Meanwhile, I’ll just say that both these “isms” appeal to me. I love the reformist heart behind realist novels, but there’s also that part of me that relates to the modernist’s sense of alienation in an uncomprehending and incomprehensible world. I didn’t fall in love with TS Eliot in my youth for nothing!

26 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Realism and Modernism

  1. What a great essay, I’m blown away! What can I add? I think Eleanor Dark is an important Modernist, maybe our first. I would love to know who she read – Woolf? Sackville-West? And Dymphna Cusack illustrates perfectly your contention that in the real world writers occupy more than one stream. I think that as a writer she tended to modernism but as a committed left-winger her subject matter dragged her into the realm of social realism.

  2. ST, my much-admired friend, you have taken me back to the days when, having completed fairly happily a post-grad thingy,I was contemplating enrolling for a Masters in Lit. (can’t remember its exact name) ,,
    After which contemplation I was forced to be honest and admit that that level of study was well beyond me. I’ve never been academic in my thinking,
    But you .. you are the top-class reviewer you are because you have behind your writing a truly academic brain.
    How you manage to write so interestingly in spite of it I do not know ! 😀

  3. The funny thing about ‘literary theory’ I always think is that it makes things sound as if the writer set out to be working in one tradition or another, whereas the ‘theory’ usually comes, I think, after the event, not before. Theories are good and useful and often fun, but I see them as separate from the novels etc themselves. Maybe this doesn’t make any sense… it’s early in the morning.

    • It makes perfect sense Carmel. I agree they can be good and useful and fun, they can provide context for our thinking can’t they?

      And you’re right in that they have to come after the event – so what will theorists make of some of our current trends? But of course with someone like Harrower writing towards the “end” of the ”trend”, contemporary critics will start seeing her work in that light?

  4. I am one of those readers who does not usually read a book because of it’s ‘ism’s.

    But knowing about the possible ‘ism’s is fascinating and adds a little something to the reading journey. Although KSP has confused me somewhat with her Wild Oats of Han.

    Clearly written about her own childhood in Launceston and written with an eye to showing (retrospectively) her socialist background/heritage (I believe) yet it is also highly nostalgic and sentimental in style (which makes it hard to apply the word realism to it when it feels so idealised and romaticised).

    All grist for our Gen III reading mill though 🙂

    • All this makes sense Brona. And of course your comment on that KSP book just proves that writers will write what they want to and leave it to the rest of us to make sense of it , isms or no isms!

  5. I second Carmel. You write what you need to. And we’re often drawn to experiment and fail. Being an outsider, having grown up American, and Jewish to boot, it’s not surprising that sometimes I’ve met with bewildered reactions. At one stage I’d been inspired by writers like Isaac Babel and Sholem Aleichem, both of whom play with hyperbole, but ironically. Got a big fat nowhere with that. The point being that writers, being writers, will resist categories and genres. Otherwise, why write?

    • Well said, Sara, and that’s what we (ordinary readers anyhow) want – for writers to write what what want, not to some formula. It’s interesting then to see what patterns or trends come out of the zeitgeist versus the outliers who follow their own tangent. (If that makes sense.)

    • I don’t think (good) writers write to a formula, but they do write within a recognisable period, as we can see by the similarities in the works we are looking at this week, and it takes a great writer – like James Joyce or Virginia Woolf – to break out of the constraints of the period, and even then, if you step back, you can generally see predecessors taking baby steps in the same direction.

      So Ursula Le Guin writes that in college in the late 1940s “I had been writing realistic stories because realism was what a serious writer was supposed to write under the rule of modernism .. But I was soon aware that the ground it offered my particular talent was small and stony. I had to find my way elsewhere”.

      Of course as the “rules” of a period become a matter for discussion good writers begin to subvert them. (I wished to write all this in my summing up, but I didn’t want to write behind the backs of the authors who have commented here).

      • Oh that’s great of you Bill! You can write it in your summing up too? As not everyone will read this.

        That’s a great quote from Le Guin. I like reading (hearing) writers talking about their craft.

  6. I also find these Isms very interesting.

    I think that it is fair to say that some works do not fit neatly in to the boxes. But some actually do. I actually think that understanding these things can enhance a reading experience.

    I also like both realism and modernism.

  7. Coincidentally, I just listened to some discussion of The Watch Tower on a podcast episode from the New York Review of Books (from maybe December, not too old, but not brand new either). One of the reviewers there was saying that he’d discovered her via those handy TEXT classics (which one of the branch libraries here used to have, which tickled me as a browser–they still have them I’m sure, but I’m not browsing there anymore obvs.) and was now in the process of buying everything else she’d published (five, in total, I believe).

  8. Pingback: The Wild Oats Of Han | Katharine Susannah Prichard #AWW

  9. Pingback: Invasion Day, 2021 | theaustralianlegend

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