O. Henry, Conscience in art (#Review)

Followers of the short story form will probably know of O. Henry, the pen-name of American author William Sydney Porter (1862-1910). Although he also wrote poetry and non-fiction, Henry was best known for his prodigious short story writing. His legacy, as Wikipedia says, includes the O. Henry Award, which is an annual prize awarded to outstanding short stories. The award was first made in 1919, and since then the winning stories have been published in an annual collection. I was introduced to this via the 2003 collection which includes stories by writers like A.S. Byatt, Anthony Doerr, T. Coraghessan Boyle, William Trevor, and Alice Munro. You can see the quality we are talking about. The 2003 issue also introduced me to another writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose “The American Embassy”, I read from the collection, and whose novel, Half of a yellow sun, I went on to read as a result.

All this is to introduce the fact that Library of America (LOA) recently published an O. Henry short story, and I thought I’d share it here.

“Conscience in art”

LOA, as always, provides some introductory notes to the story, starting a bit mysteriously in this case, by referencing the turn of the century Pittsburgh millionaires, such as electricity magnate George Westinghouse, steel company executives F. T. F. Lovejoy, Andrew Carnegie, and Henry Clay Frick, and other wealthy industrialists. Many “were passionate collectors of art”. Then they make their point, because this fact, they say, “supplies the plot of O. Henry’s story”. It’s worth pointing out, too, that an article referenced by LOA, says that Henry disliked Pittsburgh.

LOA goes on then to say that in November 1906, the editors of McClure’s magazine, wrote that

“In five years of magazine writing, O. Henry has reached the top of current fiction. The quantity as well as the quality of his work is remarkable, and he grows with every story. More stories of New York, the field of his great book The Four Million, will appear in McClure’s in the coming year.” 

O. Henry, LOA continues, had signed a contract for a dozen stories at $300 each. This might sound a big ask, but he was famously productive, having published 121 stories in 1904 and 1905. However, as it turned out, not one O. Henry short story appeared in McClure’s that year, largely because his health was declining as his drinking increased. Henry did, however, write some stories that year, with nearly half of them, says LOA, featuring “an affable con man named Jeff Peters” who had debuted in a 1903 story. Some ten or so Jeff Peters stories were distributed nationally by the McClure Newspaper Syndicate in 1907 in a series they called “The Gentle Grafter.” 

Then came the information that surprised me, because I don’t know Henry’s story. LOA says that these Jeff Peters stories came out of Porter’s three years in prison – for embezzlement – at the turn of the century. He worked the night shift as the druggist in the prison’s hospital, and is believed to have first drafted some of these tales during that time. According to LOA, the prison’s head pharmacist Dr. John M. Thomas reported that many of the stories were told to Henry on his rounds. Thomas said that he would frequently “find a story written on scrap paper on my desk in the morning, with a note telling me to read it before he sent it out.” LOA says that “Conscience in Art” is perhaps the best-known story in the collection. In it, they say, “the criminal principles and linguistic malapropisms of the swindler Jeff Peters finally meet their match in the ethically challenged Andy Tucker.”

So, the story concerns two con men, Peters who has some conscience – “I never believed in taking any man’s dollars unless I gave him something for it” – and Tucker who had no such qualms. Tucker comes up with the idea of swindling the Pittsburgh millionaires, who, Tucker tells Peters, will be easy to meet because:

‘They are rough but uncivil in their manners, and though their ways are boisterous and unpolished, under it all they have a great deal of impoliteness and discourtesy. Nearly every one of ’em rose from obscurity, … If we act simple and unaffected and don’t go too far from the saloons and keep making a noise like an import duty on steel rails we won’t have any trouble in meeting some of ’em socially.’ 

Tucker comes up with an art fraud plan, and of course there’s a twist in which Tucker manages to succeed in a scam in a way that doesn’t offend his accomplice’s tender conscience! I’ve only read one other O. Henry story, “The gift of the magi” – which is often compared with Guy de Maupassant’s “The necklace”. It’s an intense story, and different to “Conscience in art”, which is lighter, more comic, in tone. However, behind the lightness is some insight into those heady turn-of-the-century times in the US when faith in rags-to-riches held rein, and perhaps, Henry’s attitude to the rich.

Have you read any O. Henry? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

O. Henry
“Conscience in art”
First published: by the McClure Newspaper Syndicate (July 1907); then collected in The gentle grafter (1908). 
Available: Online at the Library of America

Ernest Hemingway, Cat in the rain (#Review)

As I often do with Library of America (LOA), I bookmarked their recent Story of the Week featuring Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Cat in the rain” to read later. “Later” came today. I have no Hemingway on my blog, so this seemed a perfect opportunity, and I do like short stories anyhow.

First ed. cover, from Wikipedia article. Public domain.

With many of my LOA posts, I need to start by introducing the writer, but this is not one of those occasions. However, if, perchance, you don’t know who Hemingway is, you can check his Wikipedia article.

Meanwhile, some background to the story. It was originally published in Hemingway’s first short story collection, In our time, in 1925. It is a very short, short story, but it has, according to LOA’s notes, garnered much critical interest. There is also a Wikipedia article on it. I’m not sure how much more I can add to what’s been said, given I am not a Hemingway scholar. However, I enjoyed reading it, partly because it felt more sensitive than macho, so I will say something!

“Cat in the rain”

The storyline is simple. An American couple is on holiday in Italy, and the story is set in and around their hotel. It’s raining, so they are stuck in their hotel room, she staring out the window and he lying on the bed reading. She sees a cat outside, hiding under a table, and she wants to rescue it. On her way outside, she sees the hotel-keeper (“padrone”), whom she likes. When she gets outside, however, the cat has gone, so she returns to her room and her husband. Wikipedia tells you exactly what happens, but generally I try not to spoil stories here, unless I know they are well-known (like, say, Pride and prejudice.)

The thing I like about Hemingway’s writing – though I’ve only read a little, and that was decades ago – is its spareness, and this is on display here. There are short, plain sentences, and simple repetition. These make it not only strangely beautiful to read but convey so much while seeming to say little. They convey a tone of lassitude, and also a sense of tension or lack in the marriage, though not a cross word is spoken.

Here is the wife, passing the hotelkeeper on her way out to find the cat:

He stood behind his desk in the far end of the dim room. The wife liked him. She liked the deadly serious way he received any complaints. She liked his dignity. She liked the way he wanted to serve her. She liked the way he felt about being a hotel-keeper. She liked his old, heavy face and big hands.

There is lovely rhythm to this – but there is also information about her character and about what she likes in people. Later, back in the room, her husband George asks her what happened. She tells him the cat had gone, then:

“I wanted it so much,” she said. “I don’t know why I wanted it so much. I wanted that poor kitty. It isn’t any fun to be a poor kitty out in the rain.”

George was reading again.

George, in other words, is not listening to her wants or, indeed, needs, because both are wrapped up in this statement. I love this: the repetition (again), the staccato-like rhythm, and the direct, plain statement about George conveys, almost paradoxically, such intensity.

David Lodge, according to LOA, has written a “thorough and now-classic examination of the story” noting conflicting interpretations. They quote him as saying:

“although it is a well-formed narrative, with a clearly defined beginning, middle and end, the primary action is not the primary vehicle of meaning.” That is, the story presents “a plot of revelation (the relationship between husband and wife) disguised as a plot of resolution (the quest for the cat).”

That makes sense to me from my reading of the story; I read it as being about the wife, her needs and her relationship with her husband.

The story also – and Lodge’s comment doesn’t contradict this – exemplifies Hemingway’s theory of omission (or “iceberg theory”), which is the idea that, as with icebergs, there is more below the surface than above. In this case, there is the idea, for example, that there is more to the cat than just being a cat, even though Hemingway doesn’t tell us what. That’s for us to consider – and the critics sure have.

There are other reasons this story interests critics and Hemingway aficionados, a major one concerning whether it is autobiographical. According to LOA, Hemingway, himself, wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald saying that it wasn’t about his wife, Hadley, even though they thought it was. However, continues LOA, there’s evidence that she was at least the inspiration, and that biographers agree. Hemingway biographer, Michael Reynolds “admits … that Hadley must have recognized her own marriage in the portrait of the couple”, and Hadley biographer, Gioia Diliberto agrees that “it’s not hard to see Hadley’s vulnerability and loneliness in ‘Cat in the Rain.’”

I can see why this story has garnered such interest. Despite its seeming simplicity – the story itself isn’t hard to understand – there are multiple ways it can be thought about and interpreted, from the opening sentence to the intriguing last.

If you haven’t read it, do consider giving it a go at the link below – it really is short, and quick to read. If you have read it, what do you think?

Ernest Hemingway
“Cat in the rain”
First published: in In Our Time, 1925
Available: Online at the Library of America

Monday musings on Australian literature: Local colour, 1920-style

Back in June I wrote a post on the Australian Literature Society’s Women’s Night that they held in 1922. This Society, which was formed in Melbourne in 1899, has played an important role in supporting and promoting Australian literature for well over a century – first as itself, and then as part of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature (ASAL) with which it merged in 1982. As I’ve written before, ASAL continues to award the ALS Gold Medal which was established by the Society in 1928.

Now, I had in fact planned a different post for today, but I have had a busy weekend, and am still away from home, so have not had the time to work on that post. I therefore thought I would share another one of the delightful snippets I found some months ago about about the work of the society. The wonderful thing is, you see, that this Society’s meetings were often written up in the newspapers of the day, which provides us with an interesting insight into what the literati of the time were thinking and caring about.

And, one of those things was what made “Australian” literature. In 1920, Melbourne’s The Herald (July 10), reported on the meeting that marked the Society’s attaining “its majority”. That is, it turned 21! The meeting’s topic was “Local Color in Women’s Work”, with a paper was presented by Mrs Hilda Vroland. She argued that Australia’s women writers “did not portray very vividly those features of our life which were distinctive”. The report went on to explain what she saw as local color:

What was meant by local color was certain incidents, scenes and language which were characteristic of a particular country, and not only that, but a portrayal of an outlook on life which was typical of the class of people dealt with. Our local color was derived from incidents which immediately suggested Australian life — scenes that were truly Australian, and traits of character which had been developed by the freedom of this new land and the broader outlook.

Mrs Vroland named some writers whom she thought did produce good local colour – Doris Egerton Jones, Marie Pitt and Mary Gaunt (the last of whom Brona of Brona’s Books wrote about for the new AWW). Brona notes that some of Gaunt’s attitudes are problematical now, but nonetheless,

her short stories show a writer concerned with the role of women in society. Mary’s privileged colonial upbringing may be apparent in her writing at times, but her focus was clearly on how double standards, lack of agency and patriarchal practices negatively impacted on the lives of women.

Sounds like excellent local color to me …

Anyhow, the poet and journalist Bernard O’Dowd, who presided over the meeting, clearly agreed with the importance of Hilda Vroland’s subject, arguing that

Australians had as much right to see the universe in our honeysuckle and wattle blossom or even in the opossum’s burrow as the Englishman had to see his world in the oak-tree.

Furthermore, he was concerned, said The Herald, that Australian literature was not valued unless it “received the hallmark of the English papers”. (The old cultural cringe.) Local journals, he apparently said, “dealt almost exclusively with American literature, and ignored Australian writers”. Another speaker at the meeting, a Charles Carter, is reported as having “said that he “was gratified to know that the women writers quoted did not wholly rely upon the use of slang, horse-racing or bush-ranging for local color”. According to Brona, Mary Gaunt’s stories did include bush-ranging, among other topics. But was Carter being sexist about what “women” writers should write about, or simply complimenting them because these were not truly local color?

I will close here … and simply say that I enjoyed reading about the passion of these Australians for our own literature, even if (not surprisingly) the idea of First Nations people contributing to that literature doesn’t seem to have crossed their minds. I hope you all have enjoyed this little insight too.

Monday musings on Australian literature: The Australian girl’s annual

Some time ago I posted on an old School friend annual that I found during my decluttering. Today, I bring you a much older annual for girls, The Australian girl’s annual. It came not from my childhood, but from my aunt’s house when I was working on her estate, and it is undated. As far as I’ve been able to ascertain the series was published annually from 1910, when editions were apparently dated, until around 1935, when they weren’t. 1935 is the last time I found it mentioned in Trove’s newspaper index.

Trove’s cataloging records for it are incomplete. As far as I can tell, it was first called The Australian girl’s annual. It was then published as The Australasian girl’s annual (and perhaps The Australiasian girl’s annual), before returning to its original name. It was originally published by Cassell in London and Melbourne, but one Trove record notes that volumes from [1929]* on have the imprint “[Sydney] : Gordon & Gotch (A’sia) Ltd. for the Amalgamated Press Ltd.” My edition says “Published in Australasia by Gordon & Gotch (Australasia) Ltd.” but it also credits “The Amalgamated Press Limited Fleetway House, London, E.C.4”

So, I have two challenges. First, what is the date of mine? From Trove’s records, and from the contemporary-story illustrations, I’m guessing it comes from the 1929 to 1935 period. Second, who did it belong to? My aunt was born in 1930, when my grandmother was 37, making the book not really age-suitable for either – given it was geared, says The Australasian (21 December 1912), to “those who have passed childhood”. However, my aunt had a big sister who was born in 1918. Perhaps the book was hers?

I was intrigued when I picked it up, because here’s this book called The Australian girl’s annual, but it was clearly generated from England. In my search of the Internet, I found reference to some research published in 2014. It was done by Kristine Moruzi, and her paper is titled “The British Empire and Australian Girls’ Annuals”. The abstract says:

This article explores two series of girls’ annuals: the Empire Annual for Australian Girls (1909–30), published by the Religious Tract Society, and the Australian Girl’s Annual (1910–3?), published by Cassell. Although both series were seemingly targeted at Australian girls, they were published in Britain before being given a new title and sent to the colonies. This article examines the implications of these British models of girlhood for their explicitly colonial girl readers. The British publishers of these annuals addressed an apparently homogenous readership comprised of girls from white settler colonies and Britain without attempting to customize the contents of their books for different audiences. In both fiction and illustrations, the annuals simultaneously employed and produced a British model of girlhood that was attractive to Australian girl readers.

“Before being given a new title and sent to the colonies”? This suggests that the very same content was published for English girls under a different title. Certainly, the volume I have contains 26 stories with not one written by an Australian, though one author, Violet M Methley (b. 1882 in Kent), might have had some Australian connection. She is listed in AustLit, because, as a blogger writes, “she may have spent time in Australia, as many of her books are set on that continent”. Then again, as this blogger’s blog is “Tellers of Weird Tales”, Methley may just have had a vivid imagination! She has two stories in this volume, one being “Mademoiselle Miss: a story of the French Revolution”. (As little aside, this story is illustrated by H.M. Brock whose brother was C.E. Brock, famous for his Jane Austen illustrations.) Her other story is “Celia: A thrilling story”, which is set in the Hebrides.

Anyhow, the 26 stories are written pretty much 50:50 by male and female writers. None are known to me, but many were prolific writers in their day. Pleasingly, the illustrators are identified along with the authors in the table of contents. Most of the stories are fiction, and they include traditional “girls’ stories” like school stories, but there are also historical and adventure stories, and non-fiction, such as editor H. Darkin Williams’ travel piece, “On top of the world: Sun and ice at mid-summer on the heights of Switzerland” and naturalist Mortimer Batten’s “The adventure land of wild nature: And how YOU can become a Member of a Famous Camp Circle”. Batten’s heart is in the right place but how relevant were his “stories about hedgehogs, and stoats, and hares, and wildcats, and eagles, and deer …” to his Australian readers?

Of course, my next step was to see if the annual was written about in Australian newspapers, and it was, most often in end-of-year lists as a gift suggestion. Here are some of the mentions:

For softer tastes quieter themes are chosen; but the stories by Mrs. G. Vaizey, Katherine Newlin, Bessie Marchant, Doris Pocock, and others, are well written, and have nothing of the vapidity which was once thought a proper characteristic of fiction intended for girls [my emph]. – The Australasian (21 December 1912.

a very attractive and beautifully printed volume, with illustrations in colour and in black and white. It contains many short stories by writers popular with girls, and one complete book-length story, ‘The Girl from Nowhere,’ by Nancy M. Hayes. An excellent present for a girl. – Sunday Times, 13 December 1925.

… It has four color-plates, a profusion of other pictures, and as for the stories and reading matter, generally—well, a very high standard is reached. – The World’s News, 19 December 1925.

The “Australian Girl’s Annual” is another publication that puts the girls quite level with the boys in diversity of reading matter and illustration. It has all those features which girls like, and a lot of others that boys will turn to—on the quiet, of course [my emph]. It is really a very fine compilation of first-class serial and short stories. – The World’s News, 18 December 1926.

fills that very much-needed requirement of the girl-child who has passed the ‘toys’ standard, and is yet too young to be interested in the sentimentality of the average best seller in the fiction field, or carried beyond her age by the classics. – Sunday Times, 15 December 1929.

But what did the girls themselves think? Well, thanks to the letters section in some newspapers’ Children’s Pages, we do know something:

Dear Uncle Jeff … I have been reading a very interesting book, ‘The Australian Girl’s Annual.’ It is just the thing. – The Albury Banner and Wodonga Express, 10 October 1913.

Dear Aunt Mary … I had a book called “The Australian Girl’s Annual” given to me for my birthday. There are some nice stories in it. – Western Mail, 22 September 1916.

Dear Aunt Georgina … We got book prizes, and the name of my book is ‘”The Australian Girls’ Annual.” It has nice stories in it. – Toowoomba Chronicle and Darling Downs Gazette 25 January 1930.

You can see how these Children’s Pages worked. Some of the correspondents even signed off “your niece”! These writers aren’t exactly effusive about the annual, but these were spontaneous comments in letters to a newspaper, so may not mean much.

Meanwhile, I would love to read what Moruzi found.

* Square brackets donate the lack of date on the volume.

Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1922: 6, Great Australian novel (again)

The things you find in Trove! As l was trawling Trove for my 1922-project earlier this year, I came across a reference to the Great Australian novel. Just one. So, I put it aside, thinking it would be a neat, quick little post for a busy week like this one. Little did I know …

Before writing this post, I thought I should do one more quick little search. Nothing much came up, except that buried in one of the few articles my search retrieved was a reference to a book titled The luck of 1825 by Horace B. Pithouse. Launceston’s Daily Telegraph (18 November), wrote that “the rough draft of the MS was originally sent for sake of a criticism to the de Garis Great Australian novel competition”. The de Garis Great Novel Competition? Ever heard of it? I certainly hadn’t.

So, I decided to do an Internet search, and up popped the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) with an article on one Clement John De Garis (1884-1936). Heard of him? I certainly hadn’t.

However, he was quite a character, and you can read about him at the link on his name above. In a nutshell, ADB lists his occupations as aviator, financier/investor, novelist, produce merchant, and short story writer, and describes him as “a man of effervescent charm and superhuman energy—a ‘prince of ballyhoo'”. Born in Mildura, he got involved in the dried fruit industry and was entrepreneurial in developing and promoting the product. But, it didn’t stop there. ADB writes that his “ambitions took on a manic quality and he began to see himself as all things to all men. A self-constituted patron of the arts, he launched a Great Australian Novel Competition”. This competition was advertised in 1919 with a closing date in early 1920. Hobart’s World (3 January 1920) promoted the competition, which had three prizes (£300 for first, £150 second, and £100 third). The goal was a “really great Australian novel”; the writer had to be Australian born; and “the story must be typically Australian”, which did not mean that ‘”local color” must be that of a shearing shed, or of the thirsty tracks in the Never Never.’

A humorist named “Dip-Tin” in Western Australia’s The Moora Herald and Midland Districts Advocate (5 May 1920) promoted it in verse, and included this on the potential subject matter:

There’ll be yarns about Ned Kelly. 
And Judge Bevan, and Oenpelli— 
Bet your life! 
And be sure each central figure 
Will become a dinkum digger, 
Plus a wife. 

Late in 1920, the winner was announced – Frank A Russell’s The ashes of achievement. Heard of it? No, nor have I! And that’s not surprising because the reviews, overall, were poor. Take this one (with an unreadable by-line) in Perth’s The Call (31 December 1920), titled ‘When DeGaris slept! The prize Australian novel candidly reviewed. A literary “Dud” – which isn’t brilliant – and isn’t even Australian’. You get the gist. The writer critiques the book’s failure at length, exposing its weaknesses in subject-matter, characterisation and language. If you’d like to know how to thoroughly pan a book, here is a good example, and if what he (I think it’s a Hector) says about it is right, his assessment is fair enough. Hector (?) concludes that:

With the publicity that has been given it The ashes of achievement will probably be widely read. But it will not be remembered.

The Queenslander (1 January 1920) agrees with The Call, albeit with brevity:

The C.J. DeGaris Publishing Company is worthy of commendation for its courage and confidence, because the work of publishing in these days is a very expensive business, but if the remaining novels are not better than The ashes of achievement the effort to enhance the literature of Australia will not be very considerable. There is more real Australian atmosphere in a few chapters of a score of other Australian novels than in the whole of Mr. Russell’s very long and mediocre production. The test of a novel lies in its atmosphere and character studies, but while in the 30 chapters of “The Ashes of Achievement” one is continually meeting new characters, and as suddenly dropping them, there is none of any outstanding merit …

I did find one positive report – in Perth’s The Southern Argus and Wagin-Arthur Express (8 January 1920) – but it was cursory:

Under such circumstances [that is, winning this prize] one would naturally expect a good novel, and one is not disappointed. The ashes of achievement is an Australian novel, by an Australian author, and not flavored with gum leaves to make it so. It maintains the reader’s interest from beginning to the end, and will rank amongst the best of international novels.

Fair point about the “gum leaves”, but …

I’ll leave De Garis here, and will get to the article from Smith’s Weekly (16 December 1922) that inspired this post. It starts by saying that ‘about once a week in our “esteemed contemporaries,” Australian authors are adjured to write the Great Australian Novel’ and goes on, tongue-in-cheek, to explain why it’s so difficult. It’s because, for example, Australian heroes and heroines can’t match the English versions with their titles and valets, and rose-leaf skin. Further,

No British hero or heroine has to work. Readers dislike working heroes and heroines. They know all about work without reading about it. 

Smith’s writer concludes:

Instead of picturesque characters, ivy-clad ruins and dear old London, we have galvanised-iron, bank managers, kerosene-tins, gum-trees, the golden wattle-bloom, shearers’ strikes, drought, the W.C.T.U., the blue, blue sky (over-worked), the last-lady-help-but-one, Old Pardon the son of Reprieve, Clancy of the Overflow, and dear old Woop Woop.

That is all the material we have. Personally, I don’t see how we can make the Great Australian Novel out of it. 

Love it … the less said about the Great Australian novel the better, I reckon.

This was the sixth post in my 1922 series.

Previous 1922 posts: 1. Bookstall Co; 2. Reviewers on Australianness; 3. ALS Women’s night; 4. Adventure novels; 5. Art books

Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1922: 5, Art books

As I wrote in my fourth 1922-themed post, some genres and forms kept popping up in the articles I was reading about Australian literature. One was the adventure genre which I featured in the last post. That wasn’t particularly surprising, but today’s topic, art, is another matter.

However, before we get onto that, a note about by-lines. I’ve had it in mind for some time to do a Monday Musings post on by-lines. I probably will one day, but I need to do more research. One of the issues is that many of the articles I read in Trove have no by-lines, while those that do are often pseudonyms – and my, are some of them difficult to identify. There are two relevant to this post – Narrung who appears in the Sydney Mail (and Smith’s Weekly) and J. Penn in Adelaide’s The Register. I haven’t identified either of them yet, so if you know anything, please say so in the comments.

Now, onto art … I was intrigued to see such focus on writing about art, but I suppose I shouldn’t be, as the 1920s was a lively time in Australian art when Modernism, along with other exciting new styles and approaches, was taking hold.

Art in Australia

Issue no. 4

It’s not often that whole journals are reviewed these days – though there are exceptions, like the Griffith Review. I was surprised then to see how often Art in Australia was featured in 1922. The journal, which was published from 1916 to 1942, had a chequered publication history. Wikipedia explains that it had four “series”: (1) No.1, 1916 – No.11, 1921; (2) New Series Vol.1. No.1. (February 1922) – Vol.1. No.2 (May 1922); (3) Third Series No.1 (August 1922) – No.81 (November 1940); (4) Series 4, No.1 (March 1941) – No.6 (June 1942).

Two of the articles I read came from early 1922, and they discuss Issue no. 11. Penn, writing in Adelaide’s The Register (7 January), starts by saying that the introduction to the eleventh issue of this “fine literary and artistic serial … confirms an opinion frequently expressed in The Register Literary Page that the publication of such beautiful works as have emanated from the enthusiastic publishers in Sydney must … have been largely a labour of love”.  Penn says this because after this issue the new version will be a larger (newspaper-style?) format and produced less frequently.

The eleventh issue “is one of the best”, Penn says. It contains reproductions from artists like the Lindsays, Arthur Streeton, and G. W. Lambert, and literary contents from people like Lionel Lindsay, Sydney Ure Smith (the journal’s editor), Zora Cross, A. G. Stephens, and Christopher Brennan. Those of you interested in the history of Australian literature will recognise some names here like Cross, Stephens and Brennan.

The writer in Melbourne’s The Argus (21 January) also talked about this issue, but focuses on describing some of the art works produced within its pages. S/he writes, for example, that:

George Lambert is represented by his head of Miss Mollie Dangar, a pencil sketch that most critics would probably prefer to his “Bush Landscape,” reproduced in this number, though one must make liberal allowances, of course, for the loss inevitable in all coloured process work. 

The issue also includes “Red Gum Tree” by George Streeton (presumably a typo for Arthur). The article concludes by advising of the changed format to come. It will be “in larger size, though there will be fewer plates. The price will be only half that charged now, but the publishers say that there will be no diminution in quality.”

Late in the year, Adelaide’s The Mail (2 December) wrote about the November 1922 issue of Art in Australia, from the third series, but starts by commenting on the journal as a whole:

Once in each quarter the soul of Australia is nourished and kept alive by the group of artistic and literary spirits who under the name of “Art in Australia, Ltd.,” register the vitality and departures of art and the arts in Australia to-day.

I love the belief that “the soul of Australia” is “nourished and kept alive” by a “group of artistic and literary spirits”. The writer argues that, while painting in Australia can’t “yet compare in range and extent of output with English resource”, this journal “can proudly take its place beside the older Studio“. Not only is it “accomplished in its colour reproduction” but it has “a freshness and virility characteristically Australian”.

Moreover, the issue is, the writer continues, “possessed especially of literary strength centring upon living and candid appreciations of Henry Lawson on the part of A. G. Stephens and J. Le Gay Brereton”. Melbourne’s National Gallery director, L. Bernard Hall, writes on aesthetics, and someone called “F. Bennicke Hart deals suggestively with the prospect before Australian music, stressing the propriety of at any rate continuity with the British spirit”. (Hmm…) There are also “characteristically caustic comments and epigrams” from Norman Lindsay, and poetry from writers like Dorothea Mackellar and Leon Gellert. And much more, but you get the gist of the breadth of the arts covered by the journal.

The writer concludes that “the duty and privilege” of all who support progress in Australian art is to not only support the journal, but introduce it to others.

Art books

Newspapers in 1922 also carried articles about art books, but Narrung, in the Sydney Mail (28 June) starts by discussing the book production industry in Australia, noting that books produced here had been of poor quality: “the less said about them the better; no library would care to own them, and they remain a sad record of ignoble effort and artistic failure”. Meanwhile, overseas, beautiful books were being produced, books that “should have set a great example locally for those who had eyes to see and admire”. Angus and Robertson’s and The Bulletin had produced some beautiful books, but they were made overseas.

Then, Narrung writes,

after a long period of sterility the subscription edition of “Satyrs and sunlight,” by Norman Lindsay and Hugh McGrae, made its appearance some 10 or 12 years ago, and until recently remained probably the handsomest example of a book ever turned out in Australia.

After a few more years, books of “great artistic merit” finally started to be produced here, like Elves and fairies by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, The art of Fred McCubbin, and the famous catalogue, the first Hilder book. Suddenly, Australian publishers, including Art in Australia, were publishing beautiful books, albeit many being limited or subscription editions. A particularly beautiful example, according to Narrung, was Norman Lindsay and Leon Gallery’s The Isle of San. Narrung concludes with:

The fact remains that when some local artist or author is singled out nowadays for a special edition the result is always a delight, and Australian books, like other of our products, compare with the best of the world’s market.

The writer in Melbourne’s The Herald (2 December) also takes up this issue of publishing beautiful books, saying that “every painter whose work is worthy gains nowadays the recognition for which, in the past, genius often strove vainly”. S/he reviews The art of Sara Levi, published in 1922, calling it an “attractive portfolio”. Sara Levi was a nature painter, and was involved in several art societies at the time. “Brighton Beach”, a “charming picture” that was included in this volume, apparently fetched $4,400 in 1990, the highest price she’s fetched to date.

A superficial survey, but I’m enjoying learning (and sharing) these little insights into literary Australia of a century ago.

Previous 1922 posts: 1. Bookstall Co; 2. Reviewers on Australianness; 3. ALS Women’s night; 4. Adventure novels

Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1922: 4, Adventure novels

Continuing my 1922-themed posts, it became clear as I delved into Trove that certain genres or forms kept recurring in the reviews and articles I was reading about Australian literature. I plan to share them over the next few 1922 posts, starting with adventure in this post.

You might remember that my first 1922-themed post was on the N.S.W. Bookstall Co. Adventure novels, it seems, were among their popular fare. A brief article in The Australian Worker (22 February) discusses a couple such novels, but starts by saying that the N.S.W. Bookstall Co.

continues to deliver the goods, and as the goods, in the shape of vigorous yarns by Australian writers, appear to be selling well enough to make a further continuation certain, the company can be congratulated in believing years ago that local talent would make good if it were given the chance hitherto denied it.

Adventure novels

Some of you might remember a recent Monday Musings I did on Australia’s favourite genres, in which I reported that a Swiss-based study had determined that Adventure and Classics were our favourites. I won’t revisit that now, as you can read the post and its source information yourself if you’d like, but I was surprised that Adventure seemed so popular now. I am not so surprised, however, given the still relative newness of the Australian settler colony in 1922, that adventure was popular then. What did surprise me, however, was that, despite the longstanding strength of the bush myth, the bush was not the main setting I found – but I did find a few.

One was titled The black opal. I don’t know how many novels have been titled The black opal, but they abound, including Katharine Susannah Prichard’s of 1921. In 1922, however, there was one by journalist-cum-novelist Jack North. The Northern Territory Times and Gazette (16 September) writes that it is sub-titled “A story of Australian love and adventure”, but that

it is more than that. Notwithstanding the melodramatic incident which Percy Lindsay selected for his cover design, The black opal is a wholesome, well-written novel in which the lure of the bush triumphs over the glamor of the city.

I think “Jack North” might be a pseudonym. He had written, at that time, two other popular novels, Harry Dale’s Grand National and The son of the bush, plus, apparently, scenarios for the “movies”. (The article writer used those quotation marks for this clearly still strange new medium.)

A more traditional-sounding bush-adventure novel is Roy Bridges’ historical fiction, The cards of fortune, which the writer in the Kandina and Wallaroo Times (20 December), says is set in “the stirring days of the first settlement in Tasmania”. (Not sure all would call those days “stirring”, at least with a positive connotation!) It is, says the writer, “an appealing love story which is developed with the aid of stirring adventure”. (There’s “stirring” again”.) The novel, about a bushranger hunt, is described as a “bright little story of the early days”. Adventure novels are, I guess, escapist!

Island adventure novels

The most common adventure novels I found, however, were island adventures, which I think could qualify as a sub-genre?

The Australian Worker article I mentioned in this post’s opening briefly discusses two novels, S.W. Powell’s Hermit Island and Jack McLaren’s Feathers of heaven. The reviewer clearly admires the publisher, but not necessarily these books. They are both set to the northeast of Australia, and, s/he says,

are big-bulged with thrilling adventures in those places where the codes of life, to put it mildly, are not exactly of the parlor or the Sunday school variety.

They hope “this island type of yarn won’t be overdone”, because, they say

There’s plenty of love, and adventure, and goodness, and badness in Australia without going north-east in a boat to look for these elements of a readable story.

I will digress briefly here to say a little about Jack McLaren (1884-1954), because he was quite a prolific and popular writer. According to Wikipedia, he wrote novels based on his own experiences and was renowned for his “authenticity of background”. The son of a minister, he apparently ran away from school when he was 16, and worked as a cabin boy and seaman before landing in North Queensland in 1902. For the next 10 years he worked and travelled around the islands north and northeast of Australia, like Fiji, Java, New Guinea, Malaya and the Solomon Islands. He wrote for The Bulletin before turning to novels in 1919. Feathers in heaven was around his 7th novel.

The writer in the Kadina and Wallaroo Times (8 March) says that McLaren was one of Australia’s most popular authors. Feathers in heaven, this writer says, “is a novel of stirring adventure written round the illegal hunting of New Guinea’s beautiful birds-of-paradise … [and] … of course there is a girl in the story”. For this writer, the novel offers “wholesome adventure”.

Our Kadina and Wallaroo Times writer also discusses Powell’s Hermit Island, identifying it as being “of the Islands adventure class”, and set “off the beaten track” in Tahiti. It involves suspicion of piracy, for which there is “circumstantial evidence” and “develops rapidly to a wholly unexpected climax”. Sydney’s Sun (12 February), reviewing the same novel, makes a strong point about its Australian quality, starting the review with:

For a fine adventure story, neatly told, it is not always necessary to go overseas. Here is an Australian author, S. W. Powell, who knows the knack. Hermit Island is excellent value … The yarn is as capably done and as well imagined as any that comes out of California, and it has the advantage of speaking our own Australian language. 

S.W. Powell had, at the time, written four popular island-adventure novels. The genre was clearly a goer back in the 1920s.

Another reviewer, this time in the Northern Territory Times and Gazette (18 July), discusses Powell’s The pearls of Cheong Tah. Like the previous reviewers, this one comments on Powell’s inclusion of humour in his novels – along with tragedy and romance.

Some random concluding observations

Did you notice the focus on “wholesome”? “Little” things like this provide such insight into their times.

Also, I struggled to find cover images. These books may have been popular, but most were cheap paperbacks and have not, apparently, survived well. Neither have the literary reputations of most of their authors. As always, it’s interesting to see how popular authors of a time fare over the long term. Could it be argued that the more popular a work, the greater the likelihood of appealing to more ephemeral interests and tastes and therefore of dating?

Previous 1922 posts: 1. Bookstall Co; 2. Reviewers on Australianness; 3. ALS Women’s night

Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1922: 3, ALS Women’s Night

Continuing my 1922-themed posts, I was intrigued that, in 1922, the Australian Literature Society held a Women’s Night. This Society was formed in Melbourne in 1899, with the aim of encouraging both the study of Australian literature and Australian authors.

According to the National Library the Society:

  • held regular meetings which included talks, recitations, readings of unpublished works, musical items and reviews
  • established a general library of first editions and important Australian works which it maintained for nearly eighty years.
  • published a journal Corroboree from 1921 to 23

In 1928, it established the ALS Gold Medal to be awarded to the author of the best novel published in the previous year. The first winner was Martin Boyd’s The Montforts, but that, obviously, came after 1922! What also came later was that this society merged in 1982 with the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, which continues to award the ALS Gold Medal.

Now, back to 1922, and the Society’s Women’s Night. I’ve had a little look at Trove for 1920 and 1921, and while there are references to women’s topics being discussed at ALS meetings, it seems that 1922 may have been the first time they devoted a night to Women’s writing.

As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, there were just two papers presented: Australian Women Prose Writers, by Mrs Vernon Williams, and Australian Women Poets, by Elsie Cole. Before I share the idea that inspired this post, I did find mentions of Women’s Nights in 1927 and 1929. In 1927, The Age (July 12) reports that there was a paper on Stella Miles Franklin, followed by some readings and recitations of works by women, while in 1929, The Age (July 15), again, reported that the night would ‘take the form of a debate, the subject, being “Australia is Lacking in a Back Ground to Inspire Romantic Writing”‘.

And now, back to 1922 again. The report in Table Talk (August 3) reported that Elsie Cole’s paper on the poets said that “We had reason to be proud, if critical, of our present output of women’s work” and that “the prospect for the immediate future was encouraging”. Unfortunately, none of the reports I read gave any details about the content of the papers, so what, for example, were the criticisms?

As for Mrs. Vernon Williams’* paper on the prose writers, they reported her saying that “one outstanding feature of the Australian novel is its purity” but they didn’t elaborate. Williams also apparently said that the Australian novel was full of sincerity and the glamour of romance.

The report shared one other idea from the talk, which was that:

In the early days of Australian literature the output of women writers was more prolific than that of men writers, because the opening of a new continent did not give men opportunity to concentrate their activities in that direction.

I haven’t seen this specifically articulated before, and would love to know exactly what she was talking about. The first “Australian-made novel” novel, Henry Savery’s Quintus Servinton (my post), was published in 1830, with the first novel by a woman published in Australia, Anna Maria Bunn’s The guardian, appearing in 1838. But, “the output of women writers” did start before this. Dale Spender writes, in Writing a New World: Two centuries of Australian women writers (see Bill’s post), that from very early on women wrote letters and

women’s ‘world of letters’ provides an alternative and rich resource of information. Women’s thoughts and feelings find expression in a literature which stands as a repository for women’s consciousness and a record of their endurance in the strange land. So the letters of Elizabeth Macarthur and Rachel Henning, for example, tell a story of settlement, create heroines of stature who experience a series of adventures which could readily and reassuringly be recounted ‘back home’; but at the same time these letters plot personal struggles with independence and identity. Miles Franklin begins My Brilliant Career at the point at which Elizabeth Macarthur and Rachel Henning leave off …

Women’s letters and journals, as Spender shows, provided a rich and important literature, but novels by women did start appearing by the middle of the century with Catherine Helen Spence’s Clara Morison in 1854, and Louisa Atkinson’s Gertrude the Emigrant in 1857. Ellen Davitt followed with a crime novel in 1864, and then, in the 1880s, novels by Ada Cambridge, Rosa Praed, Tasma, and others were published.

Presumably it’s to these novelists that Williams refers, but, to suggest that, somehow, men had less opportunity to write in the colony’s first century feels like a backhanded compliment – as if women’s lives were easy, and men’s not. However, her recognition of the depth of women’s writing tradition is notable. It’s a recognition that got lost by the middle of the 20th century and that we are still trying to recover now. I must try to access Williams’ paper.

* AustLit explains that Mrs Vernon Williams is the writing name for Elvie Williams, the wife of Vernon Williams, who was “a member of the Australian Literature Society, Melbourne”. She had two articles, “Australian Women Novelists, Parts 1 and 2”, published in two consecutive issues of Corroboree : The Journal of the Australian Literature Society, vol. 1 nos. 10-11, July-August 1922, but they aren’t available online.

Previous 1922 posts: 1. Bookstall Co; 2. Reviewers on Australianness

Monday musings on Australian literature: The Red Witch

Last week, I attended the online launch of Nathan Hobby’s biography, The red witch: A biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard. It was beautifully emceed by Lisa Hill, of ANZLitLovers, and involved three speakers, Karen Throssell, award-winning poet and the only grandchild of Prichard; Nathan Hollier, the publisher; and, of course, the author himself, Nathan Hobby.

A brief intro

Katharine Susannah Prichard
KSP, 1927/8 (Courtesy: State Library of NSW, via Wikimedia Commons)

Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969) has to be among Australia’s most interesting and significant writers. I first read her in my teens when, keen on civil rights and concerned about racial discrimination, I read her novel Coonardoo. I loved it, though I’m sure my response was naive and typical of those earnest times. However, I never forgot Prichard.

She wrote thirteen novels, a memoir, plays, reportage, poetry and short stories. She won the Australian section of Hodder & Stoughton’s All-Empire novel competition with The Pioneers (1915) (my review), and in 1929, Coonardoo shared the Bulletin’s Novel prize with M. Barnard Eldershaw’s A house is built. She was also a founding member of the Communist Party of Australia, which brought her notoriety that dogged her through life.

So much is known about her, and yet so little, because, although we have her son’s Ric’s 1975 biography, Wild weeds and wind flowers, there has not been a comprehensive biography – until now.

The launch

Before I share the highlights of the launch, I’ll reiterate a comment I made on my post on contemporary responses to Coonardoo, because it speaks to the challenges faced by KSP researchers. I wrote:

I was horrified by the frequency with which Prichard’s name was spelt incorrectly. This must have driven Hobby mad in his research. She is frequently written as KathErine, not KathArine, and occasionally Catherine, and even Kathleen. Really? Then, there’s her last name, which was often reported as PriTchard not Prichard. It must have driven HER mad too, at the time. Sometimes, too, her married name, Mrs Hugo Throssell, is used.

It is truly astonishing how often her name was – and still is – got wrong.

So now, the launch …

After the usual introductory comments and acknowledgement of country, Lisa introduced the three speakers, and then were were off, starting with Karen Throssell who had the honours of formally launching the book.

Karen referred to the title, suggesting the word “witch” connotes independent women who defy convention, which accurately captures her grandmother. (An aside, I remember when Nathan asked us bloggers to vote on the titles he was considering for his planned biography, long before he had a publisher. None of them was The red witch, but what an inspired title it is.)

Anyhow, Karen went on to read her poem “My fairy godmother” about her doting gran, the “wild Bohemian”, KSP. She mentioned the challenge over the years of protecting her family’s reputation, referencing her recently published book about her father, The crime of not knowing your crime: Ric Throssell against ASIO.

Karen then turned to Nathan’s biography. She initially feared he was focused on some of the personal secrets in Prichard’s life, but was pleased that his biography does, in fact, focus on KSP’s intellectual and political ideas more than her “private peccadillos”. What she likes most about the biography is Nathan’s detailing the “journey of the individual books” including KSP’s travel to the places in which her books were set. She also likes his coverage of the various books’ reception, particularly of Coonardoo, which she described as an “act of literary empathy”.

She declared the book launched and the floor (or screen) was handed over to Melbourne University Press’s publisher, Nathan Hollier. He spoke briefly, noting that early reviews had praised Nathan’s “capacity to write and tell a story … with felicity … without overt authorial intrusion”. Books, he said, are not ephemeral, and he believes this one will stand test of time as a resource for literature, culture, history, and Australians generally.

Then it was Nathan Hobby’s turn. After introductory acknowledgements, he got onto talking about the process and challenges of writing the biography. Given the reputational issues that have dogged KSP’s family, he said he had been apprehensive because he was aware of the pain that had been caused to the family by scholars and others.

He was grateful that the publisher let him go to 150,000 words. (As we bloggers who followed the project on Nathan’s blog for several years know, this was still a challenge, because he was initially keen on a three-volume biography. But, I suspect it’s a good decision, and maybe Nathan can now write a bunch of articles using all those treasures he had to cut!)

He talked about the value of the Internet for modern research, praising, in particular, Trove. It was especially useful for him as a Western Australian, and even more when the pandemic and travel restrictions hit. It would be utopia, he said, to have all of Australia’s archives digitised. Yes!

Nathan talked a little about the art of writing biography, and referred to some other biographers, but I didn’t catch the names. He talked about the challenge of resolving contradictions in your subject, and quoted one writer – if I’ve got this right – as describing biography as the “art of human betrayal in words”. In terms of writing his own, he said he had to juggle the constant tension between the chronological and the thematic. He also talked about the style of biography which involves the “biographer on a quest”. He suggested this works well when there is not much material, such as Brian Matthews’ Louisa, on Louisa Lawson, but this was not a problem he faced with KSP! He said that his aim was to show “a lived life”.

Oh, and he thanked all his supporters for their encouragement and camaraderie.

Q & A

There were several questions, but I’m just sharing some:

  • On deciding what to cut and what to keep in the editing: his criteria were how the material related to the bigger picture, its literary and political significance, and whether it explained who she was and/or her work
  • His favourite KSP work: perhaps Coonardoo, but he also has a soft spot for the Wild oats of Han. KSP saw The roaring nineties as her most important work.
  • On what KSP would make of Russia today: Russia is not really a Communist nation today; he can’t see she’d like Russia or Putin.
  • Most exciting moment: many Eureka moments, often little things like finding a grocery receipt from their honeymoon in Hugo Throssell’s papers.
  • Most challenging moment: different types of challenges, such as technical ones in accessing material, and writing ones like determining a structure.
  • Difference in public reception of KSP and Jean Devanny (from academic Carole Ferrier): Devanny would probably answer in terms of class. Ferrier commented on the rivalry between the two: Devanny felt KSP had been “taken up” by the Community Party. KSP’s image was “respectable” whilst Devanny’s was “disreputable”. Ferrier said the women encompass some of the issues faced by women as revolutionaries.

A big thanks to all for a smoothly-run and engaging launch. Now to read the book …

Further reading

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Pocket Library (2)

Last Monday I introduced the Australian Pocket Library (APL) which was a series of cheap paperbacks produced under the auspices of the Commonwealth Literary Fund (CLF). Its initial purpose was to provide Australian reading matter to Australian POWs but, in its final form, was intended by the CLF to play a bigger role in promoting Australian literature at home too. Planning started in 1943, with publication occurring between 1944 and 1947.

In last week’s post I shared part of an article on the APL by academic, Neil James, and some thoughts on the selection by a contemporary critic and literary editor, RG Howarth who discussed the library, taking as his starting point that the library was intended to contain “standard” works. I will return to James, but first, more from contemporary commentators on Trove.

Standard?

I’ve chosen to focus on P.I. O’Leary (1888-1944), a journalist and poet who, like Howarth, was committed to promoting Australian literature, and who also took up the “standard” question. P.I.O’L (his by-line) wrote an extended article about the APL in the Books and Bookman magazine of the Advocate in 1944 (17 May). He commences his article, titled “We parade our masterpieces”, with:

What is a “standard” Australian book? How many of the books selected by the Advisory Board of the Commonwealth Literary Fund to form the nucleus of an “Australian Pocket Library” are “standard” works? These and other points in this commendable enterprise are here considered.

Overall, he commends the endeavour, because too many works have been out of print. He sees the Library as representing “a belated national appreciation” of Australian writers. He is “not heady with any enthusiasm for an attempted, forced growth of literature in Australia”, he says, arguing that you cannot force produce great novels or great poems. However, “Australia has, and has had, many subsidised industries—and there is no reason why the literary industry … should not have some assistance in the shape of grants to writers”. Then he gets onto the issue of “standard”.

He doesn’t really know ‘what entitles an Australian literary work to be styled a “standard” book’, he says, but supposes that

Robbery under arms has passed the test, together with, say, We of the Never-Never, On the track and Over the sliprail, Such is life, and a handful of other books.

However, the selection of some of the other books as “standard” works, “sets up an energetic speculation as to what special passport a book must carry in order to cross the frontier”. (Love the language.) He knows how difficult it is to make such choices, but writes that “some books selected do not appear to me to even be borderline cases”. Then, like Howarth, he puts forward his views on some of them.

He agrees with Howarth’s questioning the inclusion of Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Haxby’s Circus, asking “what standard does it set up?” He thinks it the weakest of her novels, and “not comparable to Working bullocks or Coonardoo as a skilful work of fiction”. (Howarth named Working bullocks and Pioneers as better.) Like Howarth, he also questions the inclusion of Brian Penton’s Landtakers (read it anyone?) as “standard”, describing it as “largely sound and fury”. 

P.I.O’L also discusses representativeness, asking whether the selection is “representative” of “our writers’ books”. He feels that “as a foundation selection it is … satisfactory”, arguing that “a start had to be made somewhere”. Howarth, he says, agrees, given the limitations the CLF was operating under. Moreover:

Allied Servicemen are not literary cognoscenti balancing niceties of literary values, characterisation, form. If you were to ask most of them in what order they would place the writers of their own polyglot land they would probably very honestly say that they were no judges—and had not read many books, American or otherwise, anyhow.

Then he tackles Howarth’s discussion of the gaps, the works that should have been included. Again, I loved his language:

And when you start offering a register of names of writers whose works should be included in the “Australian Pocket Library” you push your keel into a wide sea—one, sometimes of trouble. 

He disagrees with some of Howarth’s suggestions – we are mostly talking poets here – and makes his own, but you can read it yourself if you are interested. Overall, he agrees with Howarth’s support of the project, quoting Howarth’s statement that the CLF should be “congratulated on the vision and courage of the enterprise”.

Legacy?

Now, I’ll return to Neil James’ 2000 article because he has some interesting points to make about the selection, and the APL’s legacy.

Looking at the selection nearly sixty years later, James writes

The titles selected reflect clearly the nationalist agenda in Australian literature … `Representative Australia’ in 1943 derived from the Bush, and the democratic values which seeped into Australian culture from its historical struggle against the natural elements. Most of the titles were originally published in the 1920s and 1930s, but some went back to an earlier age to engage with the grand narratives of exploration, adventure and colonisation. The list sets up literary values, social values, and national-historical values as interchangeable. This is hardly surprising given the primary influence of Palmer, whose published and broadcast criticism sought to define an Australian literature in national terms … It was a nationalist canon in paperback set for a wide distribution, and it sat comfortably with the government’s war-time agenda.

James shares the many practical challenges the CLF confronted – acquiring rights to the books, cover design, production problems, and agreeing on price with the publishers. And he describes the project’s demise, ending up publishing 26 of the finally planned 39. It’s all interesting and you can read it in the article. I want to end with his discussion of the legacy because this is most relevant to us now.

First, he says, it “represents the first officially selected and endorsed canon of Australian literature” and one recognised at the highest level of government. Furthermore, the APL played a significant, though not recognised, role in the “unprecedented transformation in the publication and recognition of Australian literature” in the 1940s and 50s. However, the importance of the Library has been lost partly, he argues, because the “nationalist outlook” of the selection was rejected a decade or so later by the universities, resulting in the writers being expunged from the canon.

The failure of the venture also had an impact on publishing. The CLF withdrew from “acting as de facto publisher” and became more reactive than proactive in publishing ventures. Had it succeeded, and had the CLF ‘continued to foster a nationalist canon of writing, there would have been, at the very least, more than “one set of values [to rule] the entire roost”, as Max Harris put it’.

More significant, though, I think, is James’ argument that the failure of the APL “effectively delayed the literary paperback in Australia by two decades”. He believes that the 1930s Penguin revolution in Britain “could have been reproduced here in the 1940s” with the APL its “de facto trial run”. Unfortunately, its unappealing format, which was “far too compromised by wartime conditions … killed off any good will towards paperbacks amongst booksellers and publishers”.

How fascinating. It was not until the 1960s, James says, that the literary paperback returned to the Australian scene, and not on a major scale until the 1970s. This fundamentally influenced “the character and the accessibility of Australian writing”, by which he means that because mass cheap paperbacks were not available as they were in Britain and France, “the readership of Australian literature was to remain the middle classes rather than `the multitude’.”

James concludes – in 2000 – that the Australian Pocket Library is worthy of “further scrutiny as part of the assessment of individual authors, and in understanding the evolution of Australian cultural values”. He also suggests that, “given the current paucity of an available Australian backlist” it may contain lessons for a classics publishing program! Well, it may not be the same model, but the Text Classics imprint, which began in 2012, has picked up the baton of cheap affordable classics and run with it. As far as I can tell, ten years later, it is going strong, with a catalogue that is diverse but, like the APL, constrained at times by access to rights.

Sources