Growing Pains: The Development and Appreciation of an Autonomous Australian Literature from the 1930s to the 1960s

The period from 1930 to the 1960s was one of rapid change and maturation for Australian literature, dictated primarily by the economic, political and social turmoil caused by events both globally and locally. The changing social and political landscape resulted in varied literary responses, including the socialist realism that emerged during the Great Depression, the influences of modernism and vitalism during the same era, and nationalism during and following World War II. The Cold War period saw an unprecedented level of political influence in the literary community, so these decades brought diversity, growth, challenges and opportunities to Australian literature. Literature’s social value was challenged by political events and anti-intellectualism, yet in some sense these hindrances also encouraged new developments to occur. The journey towards a more diverse and autonomous literature is one that occurred as Australia’s political and cultural values and institutions were also in flux. Australian literature emerged from this period with a critical view of society, increased study within the universities and a new level of global recognition, which helped to assuage Australia’s cultural cringe.

During the 1930s, Australian writers were responding to a sense of social crisis caused by the Great Depression, and either pursuing political ideologies such as Communism or further continuing the existing Nationalist literary trend. In addition to political influences, global literary and artistic movements such as modernism were beginning to be explored by a handful of Australian writers. The devastating effects of the Great Depression led to a range of social realist literature focusing on the difficult lives of affected working class and unemployed people. Carter writes that “this ideological crisis produced a serious involvement with community – if not the Communist Party – or with socialist and populist ideas” (371). An example of this community involvement is the formation of the Writers’ League, with active communist Katharine Susannah Prichard as president. According to Strauss, when the government attempted to prevent Czech socialist Egon Kisch from entering the country, “dissatisfaction with the strength of the FAW’s [Federation of Australian Writer’s] response to this attack on the free circulation of ideas led to the formation of the Writers’ League” (122). The establishment of the FAW and Writers’ League, and the involvement of writers in political parties indicate that writers were self-organising and attempting to establish an independent, vocal and influential literary culture.

On top of pure socialist realism, the 1930s also saw the publication of modernist novels such as Eleanor Dark’s Prelude to Christopher. Eleanor Dark used modernist techniques in her novel, such as interior monologues and free indirect speech to deeply psychologise her characters, and a heavy use of analepsis and “compressed and interrupted time sequences to reflect more accurately the way in which time is experienced” (Strauss 127). The importance of memory and interiority are made clear in the novel’s early pages, in which Nigel reflects upon his memories, thinking that “this little thread must be pulled patiently, patiently, like the unravelling of wool, till the mass was gone – finished – conquered. And as he pulled it came more and more easily, an endless, multi-coloured thread” (Dark 8). Croft remarks that Dark’s novel “is a product of the collapse of idealism” (422) following World War I. Australia’s brand of modernism was unique in its own way, because it manifested at a later time, decades after the movement had become fashionable in Europe.

World War II and the years following brought an increase in the diversity of literary works, in which writers, institutions and new literary journals played a role in responding to the social impacts of the war. The social realism of the Great Depression gave way to poetry reflecting upon the devastating human impact of the war, and an intensified morale-boosting nationalism such as Vance Palmer’s “Battle”, published in the newly established Meanjin journal. Palmer’s essay critically identifies a superficial side to Australian culture, writing of a land with “very little to show the presence of a people with a common purpose or a rich sense of life”, but he quickly shifts to his primary purpose of celebrating the “Australia of the spirit”, which has “developed a toughness all its own” (Palmer 5-6). Palmer’s inspirational nationalism stands in stark contrast to the poetry of Kenneth Slessor, who worked as a war correspondent and wrote poems such as “Beach Burial”, published in another emerging literary journal, Southerly. Slessor’s poem refers to the wooden crosses marking drowned soldiers as “the last signature of men, written with such perplexity, with such bewildered pity” (13), reflecting upon the intense sadness and difficulty of finding meaning in such tragic loss of life. The presence of multiple new literary journals, in addition to institutions such as the FAW and the ABC enabled literature to explore the conflict and engage the public in new ways.

An example of the conflicting views present in the literary scene is evident in the perpetration of the “Ern Malley” hoax, a successful attack on modernism and the modernist Angry Penguins journal. Buckridge writes that “the hoax marshalled Australian popular sentiment against literary modernism as never before” (173), highlighting the streak of anti-intellectualism that runs through Australian culture. While the hoax at least reflects a level of healthy debate within the literary community, it also resulted in the prosecution of the journal’s editor, a move described by Buckridge as “the translation of popular philistinism into repressive state power” (174). Such repression became more evident during the Cold War period, with political attacks on Communist and left-leaning writers and literary institutions such as the Commonwealth Literary Fund (CLF).

The conservative Menzies government came to power in 1949 on the back of anti-communist sentiment and a post-war public that was “sick of government intervention in their lives” (Clarke 277). As McLaren points out, fears of communism were certainly genuine, but “this fear fed on the hostility to ideas and suspicion of difference that has been endemic to the Australian tradition since the earliest days of white settlement” (115). The diverse, conflicting views and outlets for publication that had emerged during the 1940s were now under threat due to government oversight of CLF funding, an important source of income for both authors and literary journals. Clem Christesen, editor of Meanjin, saw his publication suffer funding cuts on the basis of being “too aligned with communist opinion” (McLaren 114). Despite the political influence upon literary journals and the persecution of leftist authors, the journals survived and published a number of influential works, while also allowing new writers to find their voice alongside more established names.

In 1963, Meanjin published “Down at the Dump” by Patrick White, who had already published award-winning novels, but had not yet been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. White’s short story helps to illustrate the maturation process that Australian literature had emerged from over the previous decades, particularly when contrasted with the dominant socialist realism of the 1930s. White’s story focuses on Australian suburban culture, sharing some basic themes with socialist realism, but with a much more critical eye and modernist influences. McKernan writes that White’s early novels “examined the national tradition while refusing to accept the socialist realist version of nationalism” (168), a trait that is also evident in “Down at the Dump”. The story focuses primarily on two families on the same day, and White shifts the narrative perspective rapidly between the various characters. While his tone is raw and his portrait of suburbia is not flattering, there is a measure of empathy in his portrayal of the lower-class Whalley family, who head to the dump to scavenge and enjoy a beer. Meanwhile, White’s critical view is apparent when he writes of the middle-class suburban characters attending Daise Morrow’s funeral:

Even if their rage, grief, contempt, boredom, apathy, and sense of injustice had not occupied the mourners, it is doubtful whether they would have realised the dead woman was standing amongst them (White 210).

This passage exemplifies both White’s disdain for realism, in his depiction of Daise rising from the dead, and his opinions regarding the ugliness and hypocrisy underlying suburban Australian culture.

The writing of Patrick White and his subsequent canonisation during the 1960s is testament to the growth and development of Australian literature, both despite and because of the difficult preceding decades. Buckridge observes that the autonomy of Australian literature was “significantly enhanced by the ‘professionalisation’ of literary research and teaching in the universities” (188), and observes that heading into the 1960s, “CLF grants to writers and projects, if not generous, were slowly increasing” (190). The acceptance of Patrick White as a great Australian writer, and Australia’s emergence from the fearful post-war and cold-war era helped to bring Australian literary culture into a healthier and more robust state.

The 1930s to the 1960s were a turbulent period in Australian history, spanning the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, World War II and the Cold War. The literature produced in this era was very much a product of these events, and played an important role in influencing public opinion and pursuing political ideologies. A relatively diverse mixture of socialist realism, inspirational and critical nationalism, modernism and vitalism were all important components of the literary output, although the Cold War era presented some menacing threats to the independence and freedom of writers and their ideas. Despite such threats, the presence of literary journals and the emergence and recognition of a Patrick White as a great writer led to a wider appreciation of the importance of our own national literature, including dedicated study in the universities. The growing pains of Australian literature in this period resulted in a rich and varied collection of works that can still be appreciated today.

 

Works Cited

Buckridge, Patrick. “Clearing a space for Australian literature: 1940-1965.” The Oxford Literary History of Australia. Eds. Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Bruce Benett and Jennifer Strauss. Melbourne: Oxford U P, 1998. 169-192. Print.

Carter, David. “Documenting and Criticising Society.” The Penguin New Literary History of Australia. Ed. Laurie Hergenhan. Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin, 1988. 370-734. Print.

Clarke, F. G. Australia: A Concise Political and Social History. Oxford U P, Melbourne: 1989. Print.

Croft, Julian. “Reponses to Modernism, 1915-1965.”. The Penguin New Literary History of Australia. Ed. Laurie Hergenhan. Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin, 1988. 409-429. Print.

Dark, Eleanor. Prelude to Christopher. Ultimo, NSW: Halstead Press, 2011. Print.

McKernan, Susan. A Question of Commitment: Australian Literature in the Twenty Years After the War. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1989. Print

McLaren, John D. Writing in Hope and Fear: Literature as Politics in Postwar Australia. Cambridge, England: Cambridge U P, 1996. Print.

Palmer, Vance. “Battle.” Meanjin Papers Vol. 1, No. 8, Mar. 1942: 1. Web. 18 Jan. 2013.

Slessor, Kenneth. “Beach Burial.” Southerly Vol. 5, No. 3, Sept. 1944: 13. Web. 18 Jan 2013.

Strauss, Jennifer. “The Several Faces of Realism.” The Oxford Literary History of Australia. Eds. Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Bruce Benett and Jennifer Strauss. Melbourne: Oxford U P, 1998. 122-129. Print.

White, Patrick. “Down at the Dump.” The Australian Short Story. Ed. Laurie Hergenhan. St Lucia: U of Queensland P, 2002. 183-216. Print.

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