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’.

As the writing of a country increases in volume over the years, it needs more and more reference for the ordinary reader to find his way about in it. As each age recedes into the past, there is an ever-growing need for background information on institutions, beliefs, historical and biographical details which are no longer common knowledge. This has been in part provided by useful works such as the Oxford Companion to English Literature, and comparable works covering the same areas in the United States. But now there is need to provide such a cover on a world-wide scale.

This the authors of the Oxford Companion to Australian Literature have set out to do for their own country. Their venture, as described in their own words, has been to aim at a work primarily providing ‘entries on authors and literary works’. They decided to scrap an earlier intention not to include living authors or their books – which was wise of them, since ignoring the great expansion in Australian writing since the 1950s would have given the work an oddly unbalanced and out-dated look. Living authors who have established reputations are well represented in the work as it stands.

Their second main aim has been to provide ‘literary, historical and other cultural contexts’ within which Australian authors and their work can be placed. ‘Our notion of literary contexts,’ they go on, ‘has been broad enough to permit entries on literary journals, series, awards, societies and movements; on libraries, publishers and cultural organisations; on aspects of closely associated fields (e.g. cinema, broadcasting, the theatre, Australian English); on overseas writers who either visited Australia (e.g. Trollope, Stevenson) or exercised significant influence in Australian cultural history (e.g. Dickens, Shakespeare); and on other topics. By historical and other cultural contexts is meant those aspects of Australian life and history about which readers unfamiliar with Australia might need basic information (e.g. the Australian States or the Heidelberg School of painting – places, people; events, idioms and so on). Some of these have produced an extensive creative literature of their own (e.g. the phenomenon of bushranging) and most are at least alluded to somewhere in Australian writing.’

All this seems extremely sensible and has on the whole been carried out with judgment, discretion and economy. The Australian devotion to horse-racing is notorious, but, as the authors point out, ‘the entry on the Turf deliberately provides only very basic information about the development of horse-racing ... and emphasises instead the kinds of connections between the Turf and Australian literature.’ This is literally true of that article, though when one turns to it, one is led to wonder, since horse-racing is a subject that nearly everyone is familiar with, whether it needed three columns of close print to enlighten a reader on its influence on Australian writers, and a further entry on Phar Lap, ‘Australia’s most famous race-horse’. This is ungrateful of me, I know, since I am quoted for some contemptuous lines on the Sport of Kings, blackguards and our local ‘Yahoos who live in slavery to the horse’. But such examples are rare. The article on bushranging which runs to over five columns justifies itself both because the subject has more to do with Australian writing and at a better level than fiction on racing subjects, and because readers are much more likely to need information on a topic which has now passed into history and is, in any case, largely peculiar to Australia.

Some might be tempted to smile at the idea of a volume comparable in size to the Oxford Companion to English Literature on which it is modelled, when Australian writing has only been in existence for less than two hundred years, was thin on the ground for the first hundred, and still contains few writers of the first quality, with even those mostly unknown outside Australia until recently. Compare this with its model, covering up to more than a thousand years and an enormous body of writers, among them some of the greatest geniuses in European literature. Add to this that a companion to English writing has to include reference and information relative to those sources in the whole of the European tradition which have influenced English writers, whereas Australian writers have not, on the whole, been much influenced by any tradition but that of England itself, with some reference to that of the United States. On this view, the present volume might well look like an example of what was common enough in the nationalistic movements in Australia in the past: a brash assumption that any literature is comparable to, and to be matched against, any other literature – understandable of course, but clearly a symptom of an adolescent point of view, the young pipsqueak feeling his oats and challenging dad.

I think the laughers might feel justified in laughing but that they would be wrong, because of the changes in the world situation of English literature in general, and of the English language as its medium in the world of today. The academic – that is to say, the informed critical and scholarly – study of English literature is only about as old as the actual existence of Australian writing. It is still, in comparison with other disciplines, a relatively young study. We are discovering already that it was based on assumptions about the future which have since been shown to be false or misleading. Countries like Australia, Canada and the United States are not, as we once supposed, moving away from English on the pattern of France, Italy and Spain moving away from the original Latin. That was largely the result of isolation resulting from the collapse of the old Roman Empire. The immense increase in communications of every sort in the modern world seems to have arrested a partition we thought inevitable and were in some cases prepared to welcome. But social disparities between the countries that speak English continue to grow, and there is more and more need for companions to the literature of each in order to interpret it to the others. The need is increased because the long isolation of Australian writing has at last begun to break down. This follows on the long neglect of it within Australia itself.

When I was first appointed in 1945 to an English department in an Australian university, the only literature in English studied there or in any of the others was that of Great Britain, with an occasional glance at what was going on in the United States. Protests that I, and others, made on behalf of Australian writing were politely ignored or grudgingly met by the inclusion of a novel or two by an Australian writer in a modern English syllabus. When five years later I introduced the first full year’s course in the subject at the University College where I held the chair of English, it was refused recognition by the University of Melbourne which controlled our degrees. After we became independent, however, the resistance, indeed the hostility, of the universities quickly collapsed. Now all of them and all other tertiary institutions teach the subject. But the years of neglect made it very difficult at first. Reliable texts were hard to get, libraries even harder to build up, and the usual indispensable aids to study at university level – trained teachers, bibliographical and historical studies, biographical and critical studies of literary movements and individual authors – were almost entirely wanting. A quarter of a century later much of this deficiency is being made up, and the appearance of the Oxford Companion to Australian Literature is a landmark in that development. For the first time Australian students and general readers of their country’s writing have an accurate and full work of reference on almost every aspect of the subject on which they may need information or further referral. This is the second point on which the size of the work is to be defended.

But there are other grounds as well. Since the last great war, Australian literature has become a subject of study in universities all over the world, either in separate courses or as a component of what are rather ineptly called ‘Courses in Commonwealth Literature’. If these studies are to develop and spread, their present students and teachers, who are often hampered by lack of books and background material, must surely find the Oxford Companion invaluable. Its appearance as a pioneer work, indeed, should encourage other countries in the English-speaking world to follow its example, so that in time the necessary bond between individual writers who are known throughout the world and the writers whose reputation is largely confined to local regions will bring the establishment of a unified and coherent form of the whole body of what I have called ‘Literature in English’. This may sound like something of a messianic dream, but I believe that it is bound to come, and that it will perhaps resolve the problem of the spread of a rather pallid and monotonous internationalism against the maintenance of a healthy and vigorous provincialism in each of the regions where writers in English have their roots.

In case I should sound too enthusiastic, someone may well ask whether, in my opinion, Australian literature has really ‘come of age’ in the sense of being completely independent and self-reliant. My answer would be not quite, but nearly so. Its first writers were English, Scots or Irish transferred to alien shores and naturally looking to Great Britain for their audience. In this they were followed by the first generation of writers born in the colony and absorbed with the problem of adapting the mediums of English verse and prose to a scene and a rough society which it fitted rather awkwardly. As a result, the writers of the 19th century give the impression of aiming at the country, explaining it for the benefit of an audience in another hemisphere and on the other side of the world. This provincial and rather parochial tone persisted into the Twenties and Thirties of the present century – to be replaced by a new generation of writers who felt no obligation to be consciously Australian and who wrote from rather than at the country, which they simply took for granted.

It remains provincial, however, in two very important senses. The first of these lies in its failure to generate any theory of literature or criticism which has its origin in the country and is purely Australian in character. It has been content to take its lead in these matters from abroad, and has been inundated by successive waves of theory or innovations of style and practice imported from Europe or America. The sole exception, the so-called Jindy-worobak movement of the Thirties, was so excessive that it failed to take on. It urged Australians to cut all their ties with the white man’s culture and to develop a new art and literature based on that of the aborigines, the folk who had lived longest in contact with the soil. Despite its muddled thinking and its impossible demands on artists, it was a healthy reaction against overseas domination of our ideas. Nothing of native origin has so far risen to take its place.

In passing, one may note the somewhat ironical fact that, while the entry on the Jindy-worobak movement itself is both full and accurate, the same cannot be said of that part of the long article on the aborigines which deals with the complex question of European attitudes to the native peoples of the country and their treatment in Australian literature. There is some confusion in the depiction of the aborigines – they are either idealised as the ‘noble savage’, or sentimentalised in later fiction, or they are the ‘ignoble and brutish savage’, or indeed the comic savage. These categories are too sharply defined. The different attitudes were often combined in various ways and certainly co-existed throughout the whole period of Australian writing.

The second consideration that still limits any claim that it has at last emerged to a fully independent and autonomous status as a world literature can be seen when one studies the longer-established colonial literatures such as those of the United States and the various states of Spanish America. The emergence of one or more writers of genius who have exercised a profound influence on the literary climate of the mother country itself is something that has not happened in Australia. There is nothing comparable to the influence of Walt Whitman, Henry James or T.S. Eliot, say, on contemporary English practice and critical attitudes, or of Ruben Dario and Luis Borges on the practice of their craft in Spain. Nor is anything of the sort yet in sight.

I have perhaps wandered rather far from the book I have ostensibly set out to review, but consideration of its importance to the present situation, and of its probable impact on future attitudes and practices in the world in general, do not seem to be irrelevant to an estimate of a very workmanlike and quite unpretentious work of reference. It seems to me likely to have effects far beyond the aims of its compilers.