Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Pocket Library (1)

Bill and Lisa have already posted today in recognition of ANZAC Day, Bill’s titled ANZAC Day 2022, while Lisa’s is about Martha Gething who is featured in the book, Australian women pilots: Amazing true stories of women in the air. My post, in fact, comes to you courtesy of Lisa who, last week, emailed me with the subject line, “A Monday Musings Topic?” She wrote that while reading Nathan Hobby’s soon-to-be-published biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard, she’d “learned about the existence of the Commonwealth Pocket Library, cheap paperbacks for distribution to POWs during the war”. She closed her email with, “Of course I thought of you…”.

Now, I’m always happy to hear ideas, particularly ones like this which come with a link to a scholarly article. I was especially grateful, this time, because I had been pondering a topic relevant to ANZAC Day, given Monday was going to be THE day. She handed me my post on a platter, so, thanks Lisa!

Australian Pocket Library

I should start, though, by saying that it appears it was called the Australian Pocket Library, not Commonwealth Pocket Library, as Hobby describes it. Wilde, Hooton and Andrews’ The Oxford companion to Australian literature says:

The Australian Pocket Library was a series of austerity paperbacks published with the help of the then Commonwealth Literary Fund during the economic restrictions imposed by the Second World War.

(The Fund’s involvement is probably where the “Commonwealth” confusion came in.)

There is, of course, far more to this story than The Oxford companion had time to tell, and I’m going to share some of it with you. In addition to reading the article from the Australian Literary Studies journal sent to me by Lisa, I also did a Trove search – of course! The project, it seems, generated quite a bit of excitement in bookish circles – and why not!

Neil James, in the article Lisa sent me, provides a history of the series. It started with an idea in 1943 and ended with publication of the last books in the series in 1947. Its active life, in other words, was short – but James argues that its legacy, both positive and negative, was significant. I’ll return to this in part 2, because there is so much to explore.


James explains that in 1943, Prime Minister Curtin had been approached by the AIF Women’s Auxiliary for Prisoners of War which wanted cheap editions of Australian books for Australia’s POWs. The Auxiliary had been choosing books for parcels going overseas, but were finding that “practically every Australian book we would wish to include is now out of print”. Prisoners of war everywhere, they said, ask for books about their homeland. The request was referred to the Advisory Board of the Commonwealth Literary Fund (CLF), and it ended up with Vance Palmer, who was on the Fund’s Advisory Board. He “immediately latched onto the idea”, not just for “the POWs, but also for the cause of Australian literature”. Never let a chance go by, eh! Vance and his wife Nettie Palmer, as many of you will know, were significant supporters and promoters of Australian literature, as well as being writers themselves. 

Anyhow, Palmer advised that the task was beyond private publishers: the paper would not be available, and, anyhow, “most publishers do not know what to print and how to get the copyrights”. It was, in other words, a job for the CLF. Indeed, writes James, the Fund had apparently had ideas since 1939 for “a standard library of Australian works”. Here was their chance.

Cutting to the chase, funding was granted and the process commenced. You won’t be surprised to hear that choosing the actual books was fraught. Various publishers wanted their books included, but Palmer was, says James, “sceptical of Australian publishers” because they’d proven themselves to be “cautious” regarding publishing Australian literature. A committee was formed to choose the books. The plan was that “the CLF would have editorial control but the publishers would pay for production and distribution”. Publishers “which had the rights to a book chosen would have first option to publish it in the Library” but they had to agree to “conditions governing cover design, format, royalties, and price”. James explains why publishers supported a scheme in which they took all the financial risk but gave “creative control to a Canberra committee”. The reason was, in a word, paper!

The list, primarily chosen by Vance Palmer and Flora Eldershaw, was not universally approved. James reports that CLF’s Board chair “was consulted only when the list was virtually set”. He was apparently a little put out, commenting that it “is possible that other considerations than merit have determined the choice”.

The books

And here, I’ll turn for a while to Trove, and what the critics, reviewers and journalists thought. One of those was R.G. Howarth. He was founding editor of the literary journal, Southerly, and literary critic for the Sydney Morning Herald. According to Lee, in the Australian Dictionary of Biography,  he “influence[d] Australian writing through deciding who would or would not be published in the 1940s and 1950s”. His sole criterion was “literary quality”, not “political and ideological considerations”.

Howarth wrote about the new initiative in 1944 (April 29), starting with the basic plan: it involves twenty-five “standard” Australian books, “designed for members of the Australian forces (including prisoners of war) and members of the Allied forces in Australia, as well as for the general public”, and to be sold at prices ranging from 1/3 to 2/. The list includes 10 novels, plus collections of short stories, “descriptive books”, histories, verse, a scientific work, and essays.

He comments that the poets, Lawson, Paterson, and Dennis, “will undoubtedly solace and stimulate the fighting-man” as well as “renew their own popularity”. He describes the novels, which included currently out-of-print books, Robbery under arms, We of the Never Never, and Man Shy; the best of Australian novels of the last war, Leonard Mann’s Flesh in armour, which is “unhappily little known because unobtainable”; and Katharine Prichard’s Haxby’s Circus, Brian Penton’s Landtakers, Vance Palmer’s Passage, Kylie Tennant’s Tiburon, Barnard Eldershaw’s The Glass House, and Miles Franklin’s Old Blastus of Bandicoot.

However …

Of course there was going to be a “however”! Howarth questions the definition of the selected works as “standard”, notwithstanding the CLF confronted issues concerning “copyright and competition”. He recognises that the Commonwealth Literary Fund is “at once serving the reading public, helping the Australian author, and reviving books undeservedly neglected”, then asks how far the list meets these purposes.

He questions, to take Prichard as an example, why Haxby’s Circus “and not her Pioneers or Working bullocks – much more Australian in spirit and setting?” Re Bernard Eldershaw, he asks, why “The glass house – a study of shipboard life during a voyage from Europe to Australia – rather than their prize winning A house is built?” Well, I don’t know, but Eldershaw was on the selection committee so …

Of Penton’s Landtakers and Franklin’s Old Blastus of Bandicoot he says that “much as one admires the authors in other ways one is compelled by honesty to say that their inclusion is at least questionable”. Old Blastus, he feels, ‘appears as a failure that might well have been a success; in it a true “character” is imperfectly realised’.

And of course, as all commentators do on lists, he identifies works not included, such as For the term of his natural life. He recognises that ‘opinions are now divided about this …but surely it presents a stage in our history and in the development of the human conscience that must be retained in mind. It is “standard”, too in the same sense as Robbery under arms‘. He names other gaps, such as novels by Eleanor Dark, Ernestine Hill, Norman Lindsay and Christina Stead.

But, he concludes:

Whatever one’s opinions of its selection, the Commonwealth Literary Fund must be congratulated on the vision and courage of the enterprise. It has here decisively shown its importance to Australian authors, hitherto largely unprotected and uncertain of the future; and its wish and power to foster the growth, and distribute the products of Australian literature.

Then, on 4 May 1944, he writes a letter to the editor passing on a playwright’s surprise at the omission of “the Australian playwright” from the list. Two days later, on 6 May, playwright Leslie Rees, who signs as “Hon. Chairman, Playwrights’ Advisory Board” responds in his own letter, saying that Howarth was “surely unfair in implying that the Commonwealth Literary Fund has done nothing for the Australian dramatist”. He defends the work of the Fund and says that “When the time comes for a second list of Pocket Library books”, plays “might well be included”. You gotta laugh really. Howarth merely passed on someone else’s comment – albeit in passing it on he must have agreed somewhat – while Rees defends the Fund suggesting that they “might” include plays in a later list! Sounds like some undercurrent there that we don’t know about.

Meanwhile, on 17 May, P.I.O’L. also took up the issue of “standard”, but I’ll leave that for next week … and simply say, here, that little of the discussion I read focused much on the poor POWs!


13 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Pocket Library (1)

  1. Thank you for including my copies of Old Blastus. As you can see, I have two. How, I don’t remember. And how did you ever find the photo?

    I’ll write you a more considered comment tomorrow, but well done you and Lisa, an excellent topic.

    • Thnaks Bill … and I look forward to your more considered response as I’m sure you’ll have something to say.

      How did I find the photo? I would actually have found it when I looked for your review as I knew you’d posted on it. However, I found it before I got around to looking for your review through a Google Images search on “Australian Pocket Library”!

      • That’s putting the pressure on! I don’t seem to have any others. Interestingly my two ‘Old Blastus’s, one has a hard cover and the other a soft.

        You’d think with a print run of 25,000 there’d have been more APLs around. But maybe dad wasn’t interested – he liked MF, maybe because of the Canberra connection – but didn’t generally read Australian fiction.

        I don’t mind the books selected, and anyway it’s hardly surprising given the authors were on the selection committee. No modernists you’ll notice.

        I wonder who Carl Warburton, author of Buffaloes is?

        • I found a few via Google Images, from second hand bookshops, but I didn’t click on the links to see how recent they were. (Franklin, Prichard, Clune, Lawson in particular popped up more than once.) And of course, they were for shops that are online and who included “Australian Pocket Library in their description”.

          I’ve never heard of Carl Warburton – I know the list changed a little from the original selection due to issues re copyright, finding a good version to reprint, etc. (I will look into him and others more, but in ADB he is only referenced as having visited buffalo hunter Paddy Cahill who gets an ADB entry.)

          Re modernists, I will include in my next post a discussion of overall “sense” of the selection. I didn’t want to spend all the post on James, but he does have some interesting things to say. I will pick that up, along with more comments from the bookish newspaper commentators!

  2. I’m surprised that what may be called a great renewal in interest in Australian books in Australia was kicked off by the need to entertain POWs. While the entire topic was interesting, and the arguments over what is really representative of Australia were fascinating, I kept thinking, “This is all designed for some poor chaps locked away during a war!” Your posts always renew my interest in how American publishing changed over time, and the conclusion I come to is that we used to publish a lot more, and there used to be enough interesting newspapers and magazines to share one chapter of a novel each week (I do think this is a smart business model, as writers must be on their toes enough to keep readers interested in coming back), but now all the books are put out mainly by five publishers. How very dreadful.

    • Thanks Melanie. I’m always impressed by the interest you take in Bill’s and my posts about things very Australian. It’s quite rare. Re this series. As I think I said, very little that I read actually mentioned the poor POWs which I think might partly be due to the fact that the CLF saw it as an opportunity to meet their own goals, but partly also because the war was pretty much over by the time most of the books actually appeared.

  3. Melanie may be interested to know inexpensive books were also made available in Britain, not for PoWs, but for servicemen. My review of John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down ( features an image of my father’s original wartime copy, held together now by staples. In all the armed forces, there was always a great deal of waiting about, in barracks, at train stations, embarking on ships and at sea, and so on, and they had very little in the way of entertainment. Plus, the men, for all their courage, were often lonely and afraid, and bored. At a time when hardback books were expensive and beyond the reach of many, these prototype paperbacks were a brilliant solution.
    What the well-intentioned folks at the Australia Commonwealth Literary Fund could not have known until after the war was that the 22,000 Australian servicemen captured by the Japanese in 1942 were being worked to death by the Japanese, and were probably too exhausted to read anything. And anyway most of the ‘comfort parcels’ sent to them were never received.

    • Thanks Lisa, that’s not surprising I guess … and yes, good point re many of the POWs being too tired to read, too. As it turns out, I think the issues was pretty moot given the timing.

  4. Pingback: Sunday Lowdown #171 – Grab the Lapels

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