A.D. Hope reflects on the advent of an Australian literature
The publication of this work, following closely on Professor Leonie Kramer’s Oxford History of Australian Literature with its two supplementary anthologies, marks not only a new development in the standing enjoyed by Australian writing in the world but also a radical change in the point of view from which literature written in the English language must henceforth be treated. This change of attitude, which was inevitable and has been slowly imposing itself over the present century, is still not well understood and has scarcely yet been accepted. It arises from the fact that English is now a literary language in some forty countries all over the world. In some it is the main or the only literary vehicle for writers. In others such as India, Canada, Malaysia and South Africa it competes with one or more other languages. In still others, like Nigeria, it is a secondary language but provides the only outlet for educated writers since the many native tongues do not provide an adequate reading public. In all these countries the English language serves and is embedded in very different social and cultural backgrounds which are unfamiliar to speakers and writers from other areas. Major writers in all these areas are known to readers throughout the English-speaking world and now constitute the current body of English literature proper. The editors of the last couple of volumes of the famous Oxford History of English Literature were forced to recognise this fact, just as they had had to recognise, in earlier volumes devoted to the 17th and 18th centuries, that the major writers of Scotland, Ireland and Wales were an integral part of ‘English’ literature. The older view that all branches of the process outside the British Isles formed minor, and probably inferior, offshoots to the main stem must now be given up, and in view of the fact that the literature of the United States now takes at least equal status with that emanating from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, it is arguable that the term ‘English Literature’ ought to be replaced by ‘Literature in English’. It would at least avoid confusion in describing its field and would bypass implications of dependence or inferiority. It would help to underline the fact that the writing produced in Great Britain from this age onwards enjoys no special prestige but is simply one among many branches of a subject defined merely by the language in which it is written – as Latin literature ceased in time to have any geographical meaning.
This change in attitude, and the facts which make the change necessary, only reflect a similar change imposed by estimates of the position of the different forms of the language in the various countries in which it is spoken. Writers tend to stick more closely to what used to be called Standard English than do the speakers of various regional dialects of the language, but it is steadily losing its claim to be a yardstick against which the other forms of English can be assessed on a scale of correctness. Its position now is simply that of one dialect among many – a class dialect in some areas and a literary dialect in a more general sense. But even as a literary dialect it is increasingly coloured by regional differences of idiom and vocabulary.
In the past, strong advocates of a ‘national literature’ for countries like the United States, Canada or Australia thought of a development away from the parent language to where a completely separate language, and by implication the literature of a quite distinctive society, became inevitable. Their model was possibly the development of the Romance languages and societies from their Latin origins. In this they seem to have been mistaken. The spread of education has tended to modify and slow down the more colloquial features of regional speech, and ‘standard English’ retains a literary and social prestige even though in a country like Australia there is much less prejudice against a ‘broad’ Australian accent among persons with other claims to eminence, when they speak on radio or television. It is no longer regarded as a compliment, even in England, for someone to be told that he doesn’t talk like an Australian, any more than it would be in Australia for an Englishman to be told that he talks ‘like a ruddy Pom’.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 8 No. 18 · 23 October 1986
SIR: A few years ago I wrote an essay in which I attributed to Professor A.D. Hope (amongst others) the misconception that the mainly South Australian poets of the Jindyworobak movement wanted to assimilate Australian culture, and especially Australian poetry, to Aboriginal culture. I would not expect Professor Hope to have heard of my piece (‘Survival of the Jindyworobaks’, Kunapipi, 1984). However, in reconsidering the subject recently, I decided that I had done Professor Hope an injustice: it seemed that in his hostile review of books by Rex Ingamells and Ian Mudie published over forty years ago in Southerly, and certainly in his comments on the piece when he collected it in Native Companions (Sydney, 1974), he had grasped the central point of the Jindyworobak idea, even if he disagreed with it. I was therefore surprised to find Professor Hope repeating what I originally took to be a misconception in his recent review of the Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (LRB, 4 September): ‘The so-called Jindyworobak movement of the Thirties was so extreme that it failed to take on. It urged Australians to cut all ties with the white man’s culture and to develop a new art and literature based on that of the Aborigines.’
The Jindyworobak movement was based on the simple idea that there was a disjunction between the culture which Europeans brought to Australia and the environment in which they found themselves. Far from being a new or ‘extreme’ idea, it was apparent to Barron Field, who claimed the honour of being the first Australian poet. In his Geographical Memoirs of New South Wales (1825), he wrote: ‘All the dearest allegories of human life are bound up in the infant and slender green of spring, the dark redundancies of summer, and the sere and yellow leaf of autumn. These are as essential to the poet as emblems as they are to the painter as picturesque objects; and the common consent and immemorial custom of poetry have made the change of seasons, and its effect upon vegetation, a part, as it were, of our very nature. I can therefore hold no fellowship with Australian foliage, but will cleave to the British oak through all the bareness of winter.’ In other words, since the seasons in Australia did not exhibit the changes of vegetation, and so on, which provide the allegories in which European poetry is steeped, it made Australian poetry, for Field at least, impossible.
The Jindyworobaks differed from Field (on this matter) only in their belief that in order to write truly Australian poetry, it was necessary to bridge the gulf between the culture they inherited from Europe, and the environment. That is why they adopted the Aboriginal word jindyworobak, which according to them meant ‘to join’. They used it to denote a joining, not of white and Aboriginal culture in Australia, but of the cleft between culture and environment in the civilisation which Europeans had brought to the country. The Aborigines came into the Jindyworobak theory only secondarily for, as Rex Ingamells saw it, theirs was a culture in harmony with the environment. They exemplified the possibility of achieving the connection suggested by the word jindyworobak, but the Jindyworobak idea did not entail the belief that white Australians could make the connection by copying the Aboriginals. The Jindyworobak poets knew they were writing in the English language for a start. The point is, rather, that the Aboriginals had a culture which embodied an ultimate respect for the land, or the environment.
This touches the nub of the argument, which is really between those who believe the Australian environment can be subdued by European culture and those who hold that Australia is the place where man’s faith in his ability to control nature runs out, like the rivers flowing off the western slopes of the Great Dividing range, which deceived early explorers into the belief that they would find water at the centre of the country. Forty years ago, when he reviewed the Jindyworobak writings, Professor Hope seemed to belong to the first category, for he urged the Jindyworobaks to pay attention to evidences of the Europeanisation of Australia – the windmills, railway trains, sheep stations, vineyards, and towns like Broken Hill and Canberra. He could point to even more evidence now, if he is still of the same mind, yet maps of Australia still mark a huge area of the western centre of ‘no significant use’, presumably the region Les Murray described in his recent poem ‘Louvres’ as
the three quarters of our continent
set aside for mystic poetry.
Surely Professor Hope does not think Australians should ignore this, and pretend that their country consists only of the coastal strip in which the majority of them live. Some of the events surrounding the mysterious Azaria Chamberlain case, particularly as it is depicted in John Bryson’s new book Evil Angels, suggest that Australians wherever they live are still influenced by an environment they do not fully understand.
The Jindyworobaks, and particularly Rex Ingamells, were sometimes inclined to state their case badly (as Professor Hope mentions in Native Companions) or to overstate it. They also wrote a lot of bad poetry and their excessive use of aboriginal words in some, but by no means all, of their poems, were easily ridiculed. Yet the fact that the most vociferous of them were poets of modest attainments should not be a reason for rejecting their diagnosis of Australian culture. It is also slightly misleading for Professor Hope to confine the whole movement to the Thirties. The Jindyworobak idea was first enunciated in the Thirties, but Rex Ingamells was active as a poet and publicist until his death in a car accident in 1955, and a Jindyworobak anthology was published every year from 1938 to 1953. Moreover, poets with roots in the Jindyworobak movement, or affiliations with it, like William Hart-Smith and Roland Robinson, are still publishing and still admired.
The Jindyworobak movement is treated seriously in Judith Wright’s Preoccupations in Australian Poetry (1965); and in her paper ‘Some Problems of Being an Australian Poet’, collected in Because I was invited (1975), she stated what is essentially the Jindyworobak idea in different words: ‘Somehow our landscape threatened our identity … it offered nothing to get a grip on with the instruments provided by English language and literature.’ Her poetry, as well as her discursive writings, suggest that she shared the basic Jindyworobak view of culture and environment in Australia. Since Judith Wright acknowledged the significance of the Jindyworobak movement, Les Murray has several times claimed affiliations with it, even as recently as his interview with Carol Oles, published in American Poetry Review, (March/April, 1986). One of the many remarkable qualities of Murray’s poetry is that it is evidently working out a philosophy about Australia and the rest of the world which is founded on the same idea of culture and environment which inspired the Jindyworobaks, but Murray has thought more deeply about it than its original proponents. His recent prose book The Australian Year is a splendid elaboration of the Jindyworobak idea.
It would not have been worth going on at this length about a subject remote from many of your readers were it not for the fact that at the end of a long review, full of percipient observations about Australian literature, Professor Hope uses what he suggests was the collapse of the Jindyworobak movement as a clinching argument to prove that the literature remains provincial because of its ‘failure to generate any theory of literature or criticism which has its origin in the country and is purely Australian in character’. He reinforces this argument by suggesting that Australia has yet to produce a writer who could exercise ‘a profound influence on the literary climate of the mother country’. But the essential Jindyworobak idea was not extreme, and was not forgotten. It persisted through the writing of Judith Wright, not to mention a number of other poets from her generation down to some of the youngest now writing, and it is flourishing in the work of Les Murray, who may well be the Australian writer bound to make an impact on the literary climate of the ‘mother country’, not that it matters.
Bruce Clunies Ross