Up from Under

John Bayley

  • The Faber Book of Contemporary Australian Short Stories edited by Murray Bail
    Faber, 413 pp, £12.95, January 1988, ISBN 0 571 15083 7

A famous passage in Henry James’s Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne laments the absence for the writer in America of every relation and institution which made writing socially viable – an army and a navy and a church and a court, and classes and village squires and evening parties. James’s view of the materials available to the writer may strike us today as somewhat old-fashioned and unenterprising, but there is a basic shrewdness in what he says. Without the ‘density of felt life’ which the artist almost involuntarily was vouchsafed in these materials he is thrown back on his own resources and ideas – his own emptiness, as it were. Hawthorne peopled that emptiness with symbolic situations from the New England past, but he could not get very far along that road. Conrad had the luck to possess a ready-made ‘dense’ world in a ship and its crew, from which he could later colonise and create land life. But the problem as James had perceived it did not go away.

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