Monday musings on Australian literature: American apologist for Australian literature

If you read my 1965 series Monday Musings post on literary visitors, you will know the subject of this post. It’s Professor Bruce Sutherland, who was credited with establishing one of the first university courses on Australian literature in the USA (at Pennsylvania State University, in 1942) and who became the first American Professor of Australian Writing in 1950. He was regarded as a pioneer in promoting the study of “Commonwealth literature.”

Tischler, writing about Sutherland in Antipodes, says that, originally a medievalist, he was converted, saying that “Nowadays, I prefer to feel the keen wind of the contemporary world blowing through my study windows.”

Hume Mystery of a Hansom CabSo, he offered his course for the first time in 1942, just after Pearl Harbor was attacked. Australian books were hard come by in the American market, and with the war, they became “almost impossible to import”. Tischler says that at the time he started the course there were four Australian titles in the Penn. State Library:

  • John Boyle O’Reilly’s Life … with complete poems
  • Henry Handel Richardson’s The fortunes of Richard Mahony
  • E.W. Horning’s Stingaree 
  • Fergus Hume’s The mystery of a hansom cab (my review)

I wonder how many Aussies know all these? I’ve only vaguely heard of two of them: O’Reilly and Hornung. Anyhow, Sutherland began collecting Australian literature, resulting in Penn. State having “one of the best research collections outside Australia”. Carter and Osborne write that Sutherland’s teaching and his collection of Australian books “became a touchstone for the organised study of Australian literature in America”.

His first courses, Tischler says, relied heavily on a Henry Lawson short story collection, a poetry collection, Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Moon of desire, Richardson’s The fortunes of Richard Mahony, Miles Franklin’s All that swagger, and Kylie Tennant’s Battlers. She praises this selection for its “openness” and “willingness to include women as well as men, popular and classically shaped pieces, modern and nineteenth-century titles.”

In 1945, Sutherland wrote an article titled “Australian books and American readers” for America’s The Library Quarterly. He listed some of his favorites, says Tischler,

noting that Richardson was “perhaps the greatest living Australian novelist”. Others, whose works he cites are Marcus Clarke, Lawson, Joseph Furphy, Prichard, Christina Stead, Tennant, Eleanor Dark, Edith Littleton [sic], and Xavier Herbert.

Edith Littleton? Ah, it’s Edith Lyttleton, who wrote as GB Lancaster. She won the ALS Gold Medal in 1933, but seems to have lived mostly in New Zealand.

In a Meanjin article in 1950, Sutherland described his course, explaining that he examined the general movements in Australian literature, using materials, writes Tischler, “covering history, geography, explorations, flora and fauna, customs and manners, travel, biography, and literary criticism”. He included all the major forms – novels, short stories, poetry, plays, and essays. Tischler suggests he was teaching at a good time, being before the explosion in opposing ideas about literary criticism. He could, she writes, “simply bring his interest in social, historical, and biographical criticism to bear on his criticism, rather than limiting himself to the text as the “New Critics” might have done, or questioning the text and its voice as the “Deconstructionists” might have done later on.”

Sutherland did visit Australia, as we know from my Monday Musings. His first trip, though, was not 1965, but 1951 on a Fulbright scholarship to study A.G. Stephens, that long-term editor of The Bulletin “whom he considered Australia’s foremost literary critic.” Sutherland was apparently an affable man who could get on with all sorts of people. Tischler quotes the Sydney Telegraph as saying that he looks like “the young Abe Lincoln, speaks like a college educated Gary Cooper, and has the homespun simplicity of Will Rogers.” He became good friends with Miles Franklin.

“There is more to Australian literature than most Australians realise” (Sutherland, 1952)

He also – and many of us won’t be surprised by this – found that Australia’s university students back then were mainly interested in “a classical, academic course of study” which limited their engagement with their own literature and culture. Sutherland’s response was to take “on the role of apologist and critic” for our literature! Nice that someone did, eh?

Things did improve, he noticed, over time. Nonetheless, in the second issue of Australian Literary Studies, in 1963, he noted that although there is literary criticism in Australia “no Australian author is in danger of being smothered under an avalanche of critical commentary”. Hmm …

In his Meanjin article “An American looks at Australian literature”, Sutherland, Tischler explains, said he was looking for an “indigenous” literature, “an honest and sincere attempt at self-expression in Australia”. Australia had “no Emerson, no Hawthorne, no Melville, no Poe, no Whitman” all of whom “combined a knowledge of old world culture with new world conditions”. But, it did have, he said, Shaw Neilson and Christopher Brennan. Also, Henry Kingsley was “a rough Australian equivalent to Fenimore Cooper”; and “in For the term of his natural life” could be found, he said, some of the moral indignation that produced Uncle Tom’s cabin”. He believed that there were many other parallels “among local colour and regional writers of both countries”. Indeed, he said, “Tom Collins could well have been an Australian Mark Twain had he been recognized soon enough and given the backing and encouragement that Twain received from the common man in America.” Darn it, eh!

Book coverI hope you’ve enjoyed this little portrait. I’ve loved discovering this American enthusiast for our literature. I’ll finish with comments he made about one of his favourite Australian authors, Henry Handel Richardson, after her death. He said (reported The Argus in 1946) that she’d been “snubbed by her old school and ignored for many years by the [Australian] reading public” but that “she nonetheless regarded herself as Australian” which was demonstrated by “her choice of Australia as the background for most of her work.” Of The fortunes of Richard Mahony, he wrote

in this family chronicle she reached her highest peak as a writer, as an analyst of character, and as a proponent of tragedy that is Shakespearian.

Oh, to have such a supporter, eh?


  • Book news: American Tribute (1946, July 27). The Argus. p. 15.
  • Carter, David and Bruce Osborne. Australian books and authors in the American marketplace 1840s–1940s. Sydney University Press, 2018. p. 338.
  • Praise for Australian literature (1952, June 17). The Age. p. 2.
  • Sutherland, Bruce. ‘Review by Bruce Sutherland.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 1, no. 2, 1963.
  • Tischler, Nancy. ‘Bruce Sutherland and images of Australia.’ Antipodes, vol. 7, no. 2, Dec. 1993, pp. 135-138.