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’.

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