Monday musings on Australian literature: 1929 in fiction

As many of you know by now, Karen (Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambling) and Simon (Stuck in a Book) run “reading weeks” in which they nominate a year from which “everyone reads, enjoys, posts and shares wonderful books and discoveries from the year in question”. The current year is 1929, and it runs from today, 24 October to 30 October. For the third time now, I have decided to devote a Monday Musings to the week (my previous two being 1936 and 1954).

1929 is a meaningful year for me, because that was the year my dear mum was born. It was, however, meaningful more universally too, given, as most of you will know, the Wall Street Crash came late in the year and ushered in the Great Depression. But, of course, this happened at end of 1929, so won’t be reflected in the books published that year.

My research located books published across all forms, but my focus is fiction, so here is a selection of 1929-published novels:

  • Arthur H. Adams, Lola of the chocolate and A man’s life
  • Martin Boyd, Dearest idol
  • Bernard Cronin, Toad
  • John Bead Dalley, Max Flambard
  • Jean Devanny, Riven
  • M. Barnard Eldershaw, A house is built (John Boland’s review)
  • Arthur Gask, The lonely house
  • Mary Gaunt, The lawless frontier
  • William Hay, Strabane of the Mulberry Hills: the story of a Tasmanian lake in 1841
  • Fred Howard, Return ticket
  • Jack McLaren, A diver went down
  • Frederic Manning, The middle parts of fortune: Somme and Ancre, 1916 (Lisa’s review)
  • Myra Morris, Enchantment
  • Katharine Susannah Prichard, Coonardoo (Posts by Lisa and me)
  • Effie Sandery, Sunset Hill
  • Henry Handel Richardson, Ultima Thule (Brona’s review)
  • Alice Grant Rosman, Visitors to Hugo
  • James Tucker (as Giacomo di Rosenberg), Ralph Rashleigh (Bill’s review)
  • Arthur W. Upfield, The Barrakee mystery
  • Arthur Wright, Gaming for gold
Book cover

By the late 1920s, there was quite a flowering in women’s writing, which continued through the 1930s. This is reflected in the above list, which includes Jean Devanny, Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw (writing collaboratively as M. Barnard Eldershaw), Mary Gaunt, Katharine Susannah Prichard and the already-established Henry Handel Richardson. Effie Sandery (Elizabeth Powell), Myra Morris and Alice Grant Rosman also appear in the list, but are new to me.

There were very few literary awards at the time, but two that were established in 1928, made awards in 1929: the ALS Gold Medal went to Henry Handel Richardson’s Ultima Thule and The Bulletin’s (unpublished) Novel Competition was won by Vance Palmer’s The passage.

Writers born this year included poet Peter Porter, and novelists Kenneth Cook, Catherine Gaskin, Ray Mathew, and Glen Tomasetti (though she was better known as a singer-songwriter and activist). Deaths included Barbara Baynton, who continues to be the subject of some of my most popular posts.

The state of the art

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

One of the things that shone through the newspaper articles I read was great enthusiasm to support and promote Australian literature. The papers reported on the meetings of many organisations, including the Australian Literature Society (which originated the ALS Gold Medal), the Queensland Authors’ and Artists’ Association, the Henry Lawson Literary Society of Sydney, and The Royal Australian Historical Society. The papers noted the issues they raised, and what guest speakers discussed. These included:

  • holdings of Australian literature in school, university and public libraries. There was clearly concern about either lack of good holdings and/or lack of promotion of those holdings. Brisbane’s The Telegraph (8 February), for example, reported that the University of Queensland had approved the purchase of books by Australian authors for the University library from the proceeds of Authors’ Week. Further south, Tasmania’s Mercury (6 December) reported that the Australian Natives’ Association* had decided to write to the Launceston Public Library committee, asking them to set aside a section of their library for “works of all descriptions by Australian authors” and to so identify them.
  • support for Australian literature. A couple of papers reported that organisations had expressed appreciation for the support given to Australian literature by newspapers. Melbourne’s Argus (19 March) quoted a speaker at the Australian Literature Society saying that “the best newspapers of the Commonwealth were making a definite attempt to create a literary tradition, and the standard of professional writing was high, despite the fact that writers appeared to be paid in inverse ratio to their qualities” [my emph]. The Sydney Morning Herald (11 June) repeated similar praise from the Henry Lawson Literary Society which said that “opportunities for Australian writers had been greatly extended by the interest displayed by Australian newspapers and journals prominent among which were the Sydney Morning Herald and the Bulletin. On the other hand, Melbourne’s The Age (16 March) wrote of Australian Literature Society’s point that “more is required of the public than a passive loyalty”, while the above quoted Argus wrote of the public’s “indifference”.
  • lectures on Australian literature. Papers also reported on various lectures given on Australian literature. The Australian Worker (28 August) promoted a series of three to be given by author, editor and critic A.G. Stephens. It was organised by the University Extension Board “in response to numerous requests for lectures on literary subjects”. His topics were Australian Poetry, Australian Humor, and Australian Literature.

This is just a small taste of the sorts of discussions of Australian literature that occurred throughout the year. The final recurring issue I want to share concerned the quality of Australian literature – to date.

Book cover

Journalist Firmin McKinnon had strong views about Australian literature, and I have reported on him before. Then, 1934, he was still speaking about what he was arguing in 1929, which was how “behind” Australian literature was compared with the settler societies like Canada and South Africa. Brisbane’s The Telegraph (6 August) reported on a lecture he gave, in which he pronounced that:

Australian novelists have failed in the main because they have no definite attitude towards life that is worth writing about, because many of the characters are unreal, and because they have failed to interpret the great soul of the real Australia.

He did, however, praise two novels from my list above. One was John Dalley’s Max Flambard, which he described as

the best novel yet produced of Sydney and suburban life, failing only because he had given his novel a tinge of satire which detracts from a true interpretation, and depicts snobbery as the dominating feature of suburban life.

Oh dear, we can’t be satirical about Australia? But, he saves his best praise for the one he sees as “the greatest Australian novel”:

“A House is Built,” by Miss Eldershaw and Miss Barnard. … while it may be too long and too particularised for the average reader, it was a story of the reconstruction of the past, covering the history of Sydney for half a century.

Overall, though, he argues that Australian literature to date was lacking a “definite constructive outlook towards life”. McKinnon was firmly of the opinion, as The Queenslander (6 June) reported on an earlier address, that

some writers unfortunately wallowed in the realism of misery, forgetting that misery was not a dominant feature of Australian life, but light-hearted optimism and courage.

Australian writers “must”, he told the meeting, “tell a story true to Australian life”. I think I’ll leave you with that little thought!

Additional sources:

* Natives, here, meaning “white” Australian-born, not First Nations people, an appropriation issue that was commented on by later historians.

Meanwhile, do you plan to take part in the 1929 Club?

21 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: 1929 in fiction

  1. Concurrently with the ALS Gold Medal the principal Australian literary prize was the Bulletin (later the Prior) Prize. Both commenced in 1928. The 1929 Bulletin Prize winner was Vance Palmer, The Passage.

    I largely agree with McKinnon about Australia. – I don’t know about our settler colonial fellows – that writing in the 1920s was a bit of a desert, mostly derivative bush stuff, eg. MF started writing as Brent of Bin Bin in 1928 with Up the Country. I don’t think we really embraced our (sub)urban reality until Christina Stead and Eleanor Dark in the 1930s

    • Ah yes Bill … I went looking for The Bulletin Prize’s 1929 winner, but got distracted by reading the Bulletin page at Wikipedia. I must add this to the Wikipedia 1929 page.

      McKinnon mentions Up the country favourably in one of his lectures. The thing I don’t agree with is that cheery-positive view, that idea that gritty realism isn’t relevant to Australia. Just ask Barbara Baynton (who died in 1929 whether she thought things had changed) though of course her writing was a bit earlier, or all those “leftie” writers coming up who saw where things weren’t all optimistic. He did have some god points though about what makes a good novel that I plan to expand on in a later post.

      • In my AWW Gen 3 page (at the bottom) I have attempted to construct prize winners lists from all the available sources. When it was done it was the most comprehensive, though of course least used.

  2. Not I .. but I gasp at the thought of both “Coonardo” and “Ultima Thule” being published in the same year ! Now there’s a nod to the emerging female writer ..

    • Yes, I was thinking that Lisa … it’s intersting to me how much reporting there was of local news, like meetings. I guess without globalisation and fast communciations, the news was so much more focused on the local. Maybe it’s partly the “new” nation enthusiasm and partly lack of other content. But, it is nice to sense a real engagement with the idea of developing an Australian culture.

      • Yes. I seem to remember some media attention about the Americanisation of our culture, when? in the 80s, was it? But that’s faded.
        (Though there are rustlings occasionally. Yesterday at Latin (a hotbed of pedants, ha ha!) there was discussion about the corruption of words like data, which has lost the distinction between singular and plural. The US was blamed, of course. )

        • Yes, probably the height of concern was around then. I need to send Mr Gums along to your Latin class. I’m somewhat pedantic about words, but he takes the cake!! The Americanisation that I particularly hate – but when I discuss it, it seems that most aren’t even noticing – is in pronunciation. The way more and more are pronouncing Ceremony (this one is gone – it’s almost completely Americanised now I think), Military, Territory, to name a few.

          Mr Gums and I were discussing Data just recently too … and what about the pluralisation of collection nouns – “the team are” not “is”, etc. Oh dear, let’s not go down this path …

  3. Fascinating, thank you! I am taking part and about to start reading a Golden Age mystery I was fortuitously sent by Dean Street Press earlier in the year. Just hope I can read and review by the end of the Week!

  4. Pingback: The Cult of Craftism? Let’s talk about it… | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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