Monday musings on Australian literature: 1954 in fiction

Some of you know that Karen (Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambling) and Simon (Stuck in a Book) run “reading weeks” in which they choose, somewhat randomly, a year from which “everyone reads, enjoys, posts and shares wonderful books and discoveries from the year in question”. The next one is 1954, and is happening this week, 18-24 April.

I’ve taken part a couple of times, the first time being the 1936 Club for which I also wrote a Monday Musings. I’ve decided to do this again for 1954.

By 1954, World War 2 was over, and the now infamous baby-boom was well underway. Australia was welcoming migrants from war-torn Europe and life was, generally, looking good. However, the war was still close, and the Cold War was being well felt. The war featured heavily in popular literature, but writers were also looking at who we were as Australians, and at our near neighbours.

My research located a variety of books published that year across all forms, but to keep this simple, I am going to focus on fiction. Here is a selection:

  • Jon Cleary, The climate of courage
  • Dale Collins, Storm over Samoa
  • L.H. Evers, Pattern of conquest
  • Miles Franklin (as “Brent of Bin Bin”), Cockatoos (Bill’s review)
  • Catherine Gaskin, Sara Dane
  • Nourma Handford, Coward’s kiss
  • T.A.G. Hungerford, Sowers of the wind: A novel of the occupation of Japan
  • Barbara Jefferis, Contango Day
  • Eric Lambert, The veterans and The five bright stars
  • Henry George Lamond, The manx star
  • Eve Langley, White topee (Bill on The pea pickers and White topee)
  • Kenneth Mackenzie (as “Seaforth” Mackenzie), The refuge
  • Alan Moorehead, A summer night
  • Tom Ronan, Vision splendid
  • Arthur Upfield, Death of a lake
  • Judah Waten, The unbending
  • Don Whitington, Treasure upon the earth

Many of these authors have been forgotten, while others, like Alan Moorehead, are more remembered for their non-fiction work. Some, like Jon Cleary and Arthur Upfield, were successful writers of popular fiction, and are still remembered, albeit probably little read. Women are less evident here, than they were in 1936.

However, this list also includes some significant “literary” writers, like Miles Franklin, Eve Langley and Judah Waten, and others who are remembered today for awards established in their names, T.A.G. Hungerford and Barbara Jefferis. I like the sound of Jefferis’ debut novel. It was set during a single day in Sydney about Miss Doxy, a confidential filing and records clerk. The Barbara Jefferis Award was endowed by her husband in 2007 to commemorate her. 

There were very few literary awards at the time. One that did exist, the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal, was awarded in 1954 to poet Mary Gilmore for her collection Fourteen men.

Writers born this year included two poets, Kevin Hart and Dorothy Porter, and the novelist Kerry Greenwood. Deaths included, significantly, Miles Franklin.

Overland magazine, to which I often refer, was established in 1954 by Stephen Murray-Smith and Eric Lambert, who had also co-founded, with Frank Hardy, Melbourne’s Realist Writers’ Association.

The state of the art

Of course, I checked Trove to see what newspapers of the time were saying about Australian literature, and the fiction in particular.

Some specific issues

A recurring issue was the cost of books in Australia. A brief article in Adelaide’s Advertiser (January 25) reports on a visit to Australia by Desmond Flower of the large British publisher Cassell & Co. Flower said that English publishing costs had dropped slightly because of reductions in the price of cloth and paper, and the cost of printing was also likely to fall which should bring book prices down in England, “and consequently Australia”. (As an aside, he also noted that book business in Australia had trebled since 1939, which represented a greater increase than anywhere else in the Empire.)

Another discussion concerned the Little Golden Books, and Americanisation of Australian culture. (Nothing new, eh?) Jill Hellyer writing in the Tribune (July 21) argues not only that these cheap books had “pushed Australian authors even further from their precarious position”, when there are excellent Australian books available, but that the books were “full of loose phrases, bad grammar and cheap American slang”. She admits some in the series are good, but is particularly scathing about the Disney versions of classic children’s stories. There was a riposte, in the Tribune (August 11) from a “West Australian mother” who argued that “it is possible to select, from among these books, ones that can be good and useful for our children”. She didn’t mind ‘reading the words “sidewalk” or “cookies” because it provided her the “opportunity to explain this is how people talk in America”. From her point of view, these understandings help us get to know other people and cultures. However, while she disagreed with Hellyer’s specific cultural concerns, she agreed that “some [Golden Books] are very unpleasing, notably the ones based on Walt Disney’s films that were mentioned by the author of the article”.

Censorship was also discussed. The highly-respected Australian librarian John Metcalfe was quoted in Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph (August 10) as arguing against proposals (from both the right and the left) to extend censorship. The particular target was comic strips and books believed undesirable for children. Censorship, he said, is against the “liberal tradition” and was a “negative approach to the problem”. The Children’s Book Council, he said, “shows that a positive approach can be made in encouraging children to tackle a better type of literature.”

Similarly, a commentator in Wagga Waga’s Daily Advertiser (September 2) expressed concern about plans to extend censorship. Accepting that there there was a “a plethora of cheap and sexy trash on the market” and “an emphasis in some publications on crime and violence”, and agreeing that these can present “a danger to the younger generation and the lesser intellects [defined how?] among the adults”, this commentator believed that “a ban on ‘obscene’ literature is too dangerous to be countenanced”, and goes on to argue the case. There must be other ways, our commentator says, because

Once books are banned or burned, freedom is on the way out.

Some specific books

I could write screeds on reviews of particular books – even though I only read a tiny percentage of the articles I retrieved in Trove – but that’s not practicable, so, I’ll just share a few.

Brent of Bin Bin’s Cockatoos was much approved – and was also recognised by then as the work of Miles Franklin. IM (Ian Mair?) summarising the year’s books in Melbourne’s The Age (December 11) wrote “In the year’s fiction, first must come The Cockatoos … Like all her novels of country life, it has a wonderful feeling for place and period”. Earlier in the year, the writer of the Books Received column in Townsville’s Bulletin (April 18), wrote:

The theme is the universal one of the conflict between the artist and the practical majority who do not take the arts seriously, but the novel is also another Brent of Bin Bin’s memorable recreations of place and period in Australian country life. It is concerned particularly with the problem if the “exodists” — the restless young Australians who fifty years ago sought art of adventure, and in so doing suffered uprooting and exile. 

Oh dear – “the practical majority who do not take the arts seriously”!

There’s superlative praise for popular writers of the time like Jon Cleary and EV Timms. T.A.G. Hungerford‘s Sowers of the wind was also much liked. Interestingly, Wikipedia says that this novel won the 1949 Sydney Morning Herald prize for literature but was held back by publisher Angus & Robertson until 1954 “because it dealt with the economic and sexual exploitation of the Japanese after the War by Australian occupation forces”.

But I’ll save my last discussion for Eve Langley’s White topee. There were many reviews for this book, which continues the story of Steve from The pea pickers, but most seemed to be variations on a theme, which is to say, they praised its creativity but expressed some uncertainty too. Langley remains a challenging author for many, but her contemporary reviewers did value what she offered.

The Newcastle Sun’s (August 5) reviewer perhaps puts it best, opening with

It is impossible to judge White Topee by Eve Langley according to the established standards as the author has embarked upon the adventure of writing in a way that is completely original and individual.

The review uses headings like “poetic passages”, “heady style”, and “impressionistic”, but also gets Langley:

There are so many strands in this study of the country that the author’s impressions come tumbling with enough dazzling rapidity to suggest eccentricity, but the work on closer examination is revealed to be composite and, the result of shrewd observation and searching frankness.

M.P. in Queensland Country Life (August 5) is more measured, writing that it “could have been an outstanding book” but “is full of ego”. M.P. admires much in Langley’s passion and the writing:

Her love of Australia is deep and emotionally strong, and on the too rare occasions when Eve Langley forgets the poets and calls on her own descriptive powers she gives passages that, with their beauty and strength, are pure classics.

M.P. concludes that when Langley “extricates herself from the morass of sentimentality and confusion of mind she will write a book that is truly great”.

R.J.S., reviewing in Cairns Post (August 14) admired the book. S/he starts by saying “it has brilliant descriptive passages and much originality of thought but lacks a plot and is not a novel when judged by the usual standards”. S/he make a strong case for the work’s value:

To date no one has interpreted Australia and its people as Miss Langley has done in “White Topee.”

R.J.S. advises that the novel “cannot be skipped through” and suggests that “the careful reading it deserves will disclose that the writer has opened a new furrow in the field of Australian literature”.

I’ll leave White topee there, and will conclude my introduction to 1954 in Australian fiction with popular non-fiction author, Colin Simpson, who is quoted in Grafton’s Daily Examiner (December 23) as saying:

If one person in three would make one of his or her Christmas gifts a book by an Australian author, that could sufficiently enlarge the market to make authorship economic for more than just a few of us. The effect on our national literature could be very considerable.

Plus ça change?

Additional sources:

Meanwhile, do you plan to take part in the 1954 Club?

47 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: 1954 in fiction

      • Do you think the books are sold at a reasonable price for the cost of production and payment to the author, or are Australian publishers price gouging? I ask because the U.S. is dealing with price gouging in all corners of the market now. However, if your publishers pay their authors better, then that’s something different. From my understanding, U.S. authors get paid so, so little because much of the cost of a book goes back to the publisher and marketing.

        • To be honest Melanie I’m not sure. There were importation rules on books into Australia that kept prices high. They were to be revoked around 2016 and I can’t recollect (or find out) whether that happened. However, my sense is that, when you take exchange rate into consideration, prices aren’t as different now as they were in the 90s. In other words, when I visited the USA in 2017 the price differential seemed a little less though it was still there. I can’t compare with England though.

          I don’t think we pay our authors significantly more … Whenever I research this topic of book prices, I get lost in arguments from authors, booksellers and publishers. But you might be interested in this article by an Australian writer from a few years ago. It suggests that US royalties are (were) a little less than ours. Given your domestic market is potentially over ten times bigger than ours you can see why it might be fair for our royalties to be higher?

          We have a consumer watchdog that keeps (tries to keep) a close eye on price gouging. I wouldn’t think that publishers here would get away with any large scale/obvious gouging. Certainly I don’t think independent publishers gouge.

          I’d love to hear from anyone who knows more on this topic.

        • I would love to hear from other folks, too! All I know is when ebooks became popular, Barnes & Noble had to pay consumers for price gouging. I don’t know all the details of it, but I do believe I got something like 73 cents in the settlement.

        • I’m not sure how or when it was established, but certainly since I’ve been a bookseller, a RRP is established for all books sold in Australia through an Australian publishing house. Places can then chose to discount this RRP but as far as I know, no-one can sell above the RRP.

          Books coming in from an overseas supplier are subject to the exchange rate, international postage costs etc. But of course, some of them also don’t pay tax in Australia. If your local bookshop cannot get a book in for you, then try Booktopia. They’re an Australian company at least.

        • Yes, thanks Brona, I now try Booktopia next if I can’t get it from a shop. Then Fishpond. Stopped Book Depository years ago when it changed to Amazon. I do buy Kindle books from Amazon but that’s about it.

        • I read the article Sue added, which was written by an author, and it makes a lot of sense. The part I was drawn to was the explanation of how Australian writers sell loads of books in the U.S. but make almost no money on them.

  1. Pingback: #1954Club: post your reviews – Stuck in a Book

  2. Oh dear, I know a good few of those authors but haven’t read any of those books, not a one.
    For the club I’ve just started reading The Untidy Pilgrim by Eugene Walter about his coming-of-age in Mobile in the US, but I’m not sure I’ll persist with it…

  3. I was nine in 1954, and one of my classmates was Felicity Collins – the daughter of Dale Collins! I knew in a very vague sort of way that her father was ‘a writer’, but at that age I had no concept of what this actually meant. I’m aware of most of the authors on your list, and have read at least half of them, but I’ve never heard of Norma Handford or Henry George Lamond. Interesting post – thanks, Sue.

    • How interesting Teresa … but of course we wouldn’t as children understand those sorts of lives unless they were in our own families would we?

      BTW, in case you go researching her It is Nourma Handford I believe not Norma. Very unusual.

    • BTW I have read a few of the authors, but not those books. And had heard of many others but I didn’t know Handford or Lamond either, nor Evers or Whitington, though Evers rings a vague bell.

  4. Fascinating stuff.. I suppose this is a reminder of the ephemeral nature of the vast majority of novels.I haven’t read any of these books although Miles Frankin is well known here. The name Arthur Upfield does ring a bell- didn’t he create a series of crime novels with a native Australian protagonist? I think he was published in Penguin paperback in the UK.

    • Well done Ian, yes he did. I’ve never read any, but I did see the TV series in which the main character was played by a white actor in black face! That would not happen now.

  5. I’ve read a lot of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon Bonaparte detective fiction, and have reviewed those I’ve come across set in WA where Upfield worked for a while. NB is an Indigenous protagonist written by a white author and we wouldn’t do that now either, but the novels are written sympathetically. The Aboriginal magic and spirit world elements would upset me if they were even implied by a modern white author. What I would really like to read is an Indigenous critique.

    Oh yes, your MM. Really enjoyed your discovery of White Topee reviews. And thanks for linking to mine. A while ago I made a list of national prize winners from this period (still lots of gaps). By 1954 the Bulletin Prize had ended and the the MF was yet to start.

    • Thanks Bill… yes you are right, a non-Indig author would not write those Bony stories now either.

      I was hoping you’d enjoy the White Topee reviews. I had to search specifically for them as my general 1954 Australian books search on Trove didn’t reveal them in the first 10 pages of hits.

      As you say the Bulletin prize had ended and as MF only died in 1954 hers hadn’t quite started! There were all sorts of short lived prizes around then but tracking them down is tricky!

    • Wow, that is interesting, given, I was going to say, how much before the Civil Rights movement it was. But then I thought I’d better double check that, and Wikipedia says the movement started in 1954! Your finding makes a lot of sense then, doesn’t it. (My awareness of the movement is from the 60s but I suddenly thought that Rosa Parks’ action was the 50s. Glad I checked.)

      • Most people think 60s because that’s when the The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. Malcolm X was assassinated. MLK was assassinated. Medgar Evers, JFK, Robert F. Kennedy, Fred Hampton, etc. Lots of political/racial assassinations connected to Civil Rights. And the March on Washington was in 1963. But, all that was building beforehand.

    • What a fabulous post Sue, I love how you flesh out these years.

      Seeing the name Sara Dane took me back to my teen years when the TV series came out. Mum had several Gaskin’s on her shelf at this time & I devoured them all.

      When I was at uni in Wagga there was a wonderful secondhand bookshop that kept me going for 4 yrs. It was there I discovered Bony and Arthur Upfield for the first time. I think there about 30 books in the series & I probably read about 20 of them over the 4 yrs I was there. Checking the blurb I think this was one I read as I remember the whole thing about waiting for the lake to dry again to solve the mystery.

      Thanks for the memories 😊

      • Glad to oblige Brona. I loved doing this. Gaskin was certainly popular in the early to mid 20th century. My grandmother and uncle read Upfield but I don’t think my parents did.

  6. I am actually reading The Refuge for this week but having started a new job not sure I will finish in time. It’s not a particularly well written book but it’s insight into sexism and racism are eye-opening.

    • Thanks Kimbofo … How great that you are reading it! I think seeing older attitudes is one of the values of reading older books but it’s tough if the writing is not great.

  7. I really enjoyed this post, both learning about some Australian books out that year, as also topics that were discussed in the press. I was smiling when I read how Americanization was an issue back then as well. The world certainly never changes, does it?

  8. Pingback: “Sunday” Lowdown #168 – Grab the Lapels

  9. I so enjoyed this post. So interesting. Always so much new to learn. Now if I could only remember all that I read. I went to a book launch last week for Jane Rawson’s book A History of Dreams. The interviewer was Geordie Williamson, a book critic from The Australian. He was talking about the severe shortage of paper next year and how hard publishers are going to find books. If that is true I wonder what will happen to the cost of books. Anyway, lovely informative post.

    • Thanks Pam … it makes it extra worthwhile when readers say they enjoy these posts that I have enjoyed putting together.

      Oh wow, that’s interesting re paper. My reading group was tonight. A small turn out for one reason or another and only a couple of us read the actual print book but we both remarked on what a very beautiful edition it was. However, I can cope with electronic books if I have to! I’m getting better at it!

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