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Letter to Tom Collins

Anna Heyward

Anna Heyward discusses what searching through Meanjin’s dusty archives revealed about Australian literature

Dear Tom,

A bit over a year ago I began working in the Meanjin archive in the Special Collections department of the Baillieu Library at the University of Melbourne. My task was to begin at the very beginning, at the inception of the magazine, and move forward, matching writers to their work. Six boxes of linocuts from the 1940s to the 1980s had been discovered, inky and dusty, and they needed restoration. These were prints that had been used in the magazine—they were cartoons, letters, covers and portraits. Most of the portraits were by Louis Kahan, prints of his portraits of writers that were exhibited at the Ian Potter Museum of Art in early 2009. The work was painstaking. The Special Collections archive is dark and crowded and dim. Several times I lost my way. I loved it.

I confess, Tom, when I began this work, I had never heard of you, nor of Joseph Furphy, nor of your towering classic Such Is Life. I was in my final year of an English major at the University of Melbourne. No Australian literature course was on offer in the English department that year. As the semester progressed, my work in the Meanjin collection became more and more important to my reading life, and the discoveries I was to make in those last six months as a student changed everything for me.


Chris Wallace-Crabbe by Louis Kahan,
Meanjin, vol. 29, no. 2, 1970.

In a happy coincidence, the week before I began my work in Special Collections, I had attended the inaugural meeting of what was then called the Australian Literature Reading Group, where I met my friend Stephanie Guest, its instigator, for the first time. Our project was simple. We were to go week by week, and each time discuss a piece of Australian writing, previously unfamiliar to us, with the help of an invited guest. Kevin Hart spoke to us about Robert Gray. Sophie Cunningham introduced me to Timothy Conigrave’s Holding the Man. Chris Wallace-Crabbe read us Les Murray’s ‘The Broadbean Sermon’, Judith Wright’s ‘Nigger’s Leap, New England’ and Kenneth Slessor’s ‘Five Bells’. We read A.D. Hope’s ‘Australia’ and our five big cities became ‘five teeming sores’ for me ever after; Peter Rose had us read Peter Porter’s heartbreaking poem ‘An Exequy’. Justin Clemens discussed Christopher Brennan, and Helen Garner talked about hating writers festivals. We talked about Thea Astley and Barbara Baynton. I learnt who Shirley Hazzard was.

Each time I would return to the Meanjin collection and search for more. Through the magazine I was able to situate my discovery of that writer against their discovery by the world. A.R. Chisholm’s piece ‘Christopher Brennan and the idea of Eden’, from the June 1967 issue of the magazine, was my critical introduction to Brennan.

One morning in February I dropped a heavy box onto my sandalled foot. Opening up the box to inspect the offending weight, I found a handsome drawing of my teacher, Chris Wallace-Crabbe. Next in line was a haughty-looking Henry Handel Richardson. A portrait of a boyish, excited-looking young man with a long gaze turned out to be Randolph Stow, a writer whom I feel lucky to have discovered. Patrick White’s stare was as concrete and anxious-making as I had ever seen in photographs. Each time I identified a portrait I would clean it, label it, shelve it, and then set about searching for the work of that writer. I got to know the magazine well, and I was astounded by it. There is a very strong literary history preserved in the Meanjin papers. It opened up to me, week by week. The dark purple bruise creeping up my first and second toes that afternoon reminded me to look for a copy of The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea in the second-hand bookshop on my way home. Among the pages of the magazine, Tom, I found serious, intelligent criticism of wonderful and now-forgotten writers. I found fiction and poetry that I never could have imagined as belonging to what I had previously perceived as the landscape of Australian letters. The wild, precise prose of Christina Stead was ours. I read Douglas Stewart, Ray Lawler, Thea Astley, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Vance Palmer, Xavier Herbert, Dorothy Green, Kenneth Slessor, Alan Marshall, Norman Lindsay … and you, Tom. I also found Solzhenitsyn, Georg Lukács and Picasso. More than once I was distracted from my real classes. I passed over reading Foucault for the umpteenth time in favour of Elizabeth Jolley. It began to feel subversive.

So, Tom, each time I would take my findings back to Stephanie, and we shared many of these old pages with the group. We all wondered about reading Australian writing at universities, and whether its absence was strange or traditional.

The answers to many of our questions about teaching Australian literature at university were to be found in Meanjin, on my Tuesday mornings, in the cold labyrinth of the archives. I came across A.A. Phillips’s 1950 essay ‘The Cultural Cringe’ and sent it to Stephanie the same day. In that essay Phillips identifies an anxiety in Australian writing: ‘an inability to escape needless comparisons’. This ‘disease of the Australian mind’ causes the Australian reader constantly to ask himself ‘yes, but what would a cultivated Englishman think of this?’ and so hinders ‘the fine edge of his Australian responsiveness’. We thought about its relevance today, and whether our own estrangement from Australian writing had anything to do with the apprehension Phillips spoke about sixty-two years ago.

In 1959 Vincent Buckley published a lecture on ‘the possibility, and the propriety of having Australian Literature as a subject of formal teaching and discussion in a university’. I read it with astonishment. The first question Buckley asks is one that I think is no longer worth addressing—is there such a thing as an Australian literature? He goes on to make a point that perhaps relates to A.A. Phillips’s argument about ‘Australian responsiveness’, about the Australian ‘aesthetic’ and about our potential for kitsch and parochialism:

Ever since Marcus Clarke praised A.L. Gordon’s poetry for its Australian-ness we have tended to praise, push, boom the inferior article on ‘Australian’ grounds, and so compromise the claims or depreciate the standing of the superior.

Dear Tom, did we have a desire for that which is Australian to be aesthetically Australian? Were this the case, I am worried that Australian literature never could be anything more than Australian literature, just a niche in the huge anglophone whorl.

Buckley’s preliminary question ‘can Australia be said to have a literature?’ leads him to our real preoccupation, ‘can there be said to be a body of Australian literature which is amenable to formal study in a university?’ His answer is circular and somewhat self-fulfilling:

There is still enough authority about a university to give a particular cachet to any work which is seriously studied and critically discussed in its department of English. If a work is set for special study, named in the Arts handbook, recommended to be bought, lectured on, and discussed in tutorials, then the natural assumption is that it is a book which it is important for students to read and discuss. Important for students themselves, I mean, and not merely for the good of some abstraction which we call Australian Literature.

A literature is something that we go by. It informs the way we speak and the way we govern. To teach a piece of writing in a university is to make it important. If we teach Australian literature it will become literature. As Roland Barthes said, ‘literature is what is taught’. We choose the books in the canon, they don’t put themselves there by mystical artistic force. Moreover, as Buckley writes:

If we took the best Australian writers—Furphy, Richardson, Herbert, Dark, Palmer, and Patrick White in the novel; Brennan, Slessor, Hope, Judith Wright, Neilson and McAuley in poetry—we should have a body of work which is obviously different in certain of its preconceptions and tendencies from the best English work over a comparable period, and even from the best Canadian or South African or New Zealand work.


Miles Franklin by Louis Kahan,
Meanjin, vol. 24, no. 4, 1965.

Even more exciting than the idea of swallowing Australian writing buried in its national context is the idea of removing it from that very context:

Henry Handel Richardson couldn’t have written if Nietzsche hadn’t written, and if the French novelists of the nineteenth century hadn’t sponsored the novel of psychological realism. Brennan would have been entirely different without Mallarmé and German Romanticism. Judith Wright walks in the open space cleared by Eliot and Yeats. Hope has more in common with Yeats and Swift and Auden than with any other individual Australian poet. Eleanor Dark has a greater affinity with several English novelists of this century than with any Australian who preceded her. And Patrick White must be talked of in the context provided by Lawrence, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Melville as well as in that of the Australian mythos of exploration.

W.A. Amiet had already answered the question of canonising Australians in volume 1, number 6, 1941, in an essay called ‘Australian Literary History’:

Literary history—a blend of biography, bibliography, philosophy, sociology, criticism, flour, soda and cream o’tartar—follows in the wake of literature as inevitably as martial history in the wake of war. Moreover it far-reachingly affects the development of letters, imbuing the impressionable young with a prejudice in favour of such things as are selected to be recorded, applauded and permanently enrolled in the national archives.

Amiet provides the timid and deferential critic, prone to sidelining Australian writing, with a checklist:
Rule 1. Get rid of the inferiority complex.
Rule 2. Get it clear that ours is a literature, not a branch literature.
Rule 3. To obtain ‘national’ results, don’t harp on the ‘national’.

‘I can name many Australian creators of literature,’ concludes Amiet. ‘Let not our historians depress them with proofs that they are merely creators of Australian literature.’

I also found many letters to you, Tom. Letters from Kate Baker, Nettie Palmer, Kylie Tennant, Jim Devaney, James Duhig, John McKellar, Manning Clark and Miles Franklin. James Duhig wrote to you of his frustration that Australian school children are not made to read Australian letters. ‘Two of the greatest artists who ever lived [Goya and Cervantes] wrote and depicted local themes … if a man cannot see the significance of life about him he is no writer,’ he argues. Historian Manning Clark wrote to you to rail against the disparity between the upper middle class and the working class in Australia, a phenomenon I believe we have all but completely forgotten about:

You see there is a rift in our society—the elite flee to the garret, to the polite drawing-room, to Europe, while the people ape the mate ideal, being bonzer sorts! I am not asking you to feel penitent, to take back what you said. I am addressing you because I believe you tried to do something worthwhile to interpret Australian life.

My favourite letter was that of the wonderfully clever and lively Miles Franklin, published in summer 1944, around the time the Ern Malley hoax was erupting at Angry Penguins. In it she responds to the assertion that ‘there is no Australian literature’. ‘In a land which tests gregarious humanity by isolation and loneliness,’ writes Franklin, ‘none but the self-superior and those without humour could fail to appreciate the democracy of the dismissal into one camp of all persons here so bumptious and foolhardy as to have articulated their indigene in song or story.’ She was writing in wartime, and looking back with frustration to the turn of the century, to the publication of Such Is Life as well as her own My Brilliant Career, a time during which Australians were ‘finding a delight, as sweet as first love, in the capture of the distinctive atmosphere and characteristics of their environment’. ‘Aut Australia aut nihil,’ you declared in 1897, Tom—Australia or nothing. Two years later your poetic counterpart Henry Lawson said that any talented Australian writer should ‘study elementary anatomy, especially as applies to the cranium, and then shoot himself carefully with the aid of a looking glass’. Lawson ignored his own advice.

Everything I read began to remind me of something else. In a class on postmodernism we discussed Salman Rushdie’s Shame and the ‘innovative’ and ‘postmodern’ stylistic practice of breaking the fourth wall and addressing the reader. All I could think of were the first lines of My Brilliant Career, in which Franklin interrogates the reader, ‘what matters it to you if I am egotistical? What matters it to you though it should matter that I am egotistical? ’ In that class we had to discuss Barthes’s Death of the Author, a reiteration of Proust’s argument against Sainte-Beuve. I wondered if it even mattered that any of the writers I was reading were Australian. Or if, as Barthes said, to read them that way is to place limitations on them. Reading Christina Stead’s The Man who Loved Children, I can’t believe that to be true. Stead spent months pacing the streets of Washington with her husband, gathering minutiae to change the book’s setting from Sydney to the United States, at the demand of her publisher. Whether the book were set in Sydney or in Washington, it is still the same book by the same writer. Perhaps this book is based on portions of Stead’s life. In one sense, anything anyone writes is autobiographical. But there is nothing that a biographer could possibly find in Stead’s life that could diminish or ‘explain’ the power of the sentences in that book.

The inception of Meanjin was an act of bravery, and a sign of belief. To start from the very beginning, to pick up the first ever issue of Meanjin, or of Angry Penguins for that matter, is to open yourself up to an unrecognisable Australia. In 1940 paper was expensive, the population was seven million, we were at war. Australia was once a hard place to live in, I’m sure you’d know, Tom. Those who began the publication were renegades who believed in the writers who had already inhabited this country, and knew that there was much more to come. Clem Christesen created a journal to which one could apply your own self-description, ‘temper democratic; bias, offensively Australian’. The establishment of Meanjin was an affirmation of the intellectual life of Australia under duress. Whether English departments receive the same amount of funding as they did last year or not, we have a duty to go on reading.

Opening the first issue of Meanjin Papers one finds these words from Clem Christesen:

‘Poetry’s unnat’rel; no man ever talked poetry ’cept a beadle on boxin’ day, or Warren’s blackin’ or Rowland’s oil, or some o’ them low fellows; never let yourself down to talk poetry, my boy.’ But we have disregarded Tony Weller’s advice to his son, Samuel. In an age governed by the stomach-and-pocket view of life, and at a time of war and transition, we still strive to ‘talk poetry.’ For we believe that it is our duty to do so. We believe that it would be a grave error to suppose the nation can drop its mental life, its intellectual and aesthetic activities for three or five or more years, neglecting them and those trained to minister to them, and then pick everything up again as though nothing had happened. Literature and art, poetry and drama do not spring into being at the word of command. Their life is a continuous process growing within itself, and its suppression is death. Therefore we determined to commence the publication of the Meanjin Papers. Media for similar expression are sadly lacking in this country. It is hoped to continue publication of this brochure throughout the war period—and perhaps well into Peace. Prose, as well as verse, will be included.


What follows is a slim volume of just eight poems. Christesen was motivated by ‘the literary rebels of our century as represented in the little magazine movement’. In the 1940s, Australian literary nationalism was unsure of itself. Angry Penguins was ruined by the shame and trauma of the Ern Malley hoax but lingered on defiantly for two more years. We were also in the wake of the Jindyworobak movement, a revolt against the invasion of false European imagery into Australian art. The Jindyworobaks believed Australian writers needed to react exclusively to local stimuli, they wanted to ‘free Australian art from whatever alien influences trammel it’. They were ridiculed for parochialism and naivety. R.H. Morrison called them ‘Jindyworobak-wardness’ while A.D. Hope dismissed them as a ‘boy scout school of poetry’.

While they may not have achieved their end of a genuine and natural Australian aesthetic and style, as a masterful poet without an explicit nationalist agenda such as Judith Wright did, they at least attest to an anxiety in this generation that Australian words would be swallowed up in the sea of English or, worse, dismissed as second-rate ‘Britishness’.


Geoffrey Serle by Louis Kahan,
Meanjin, vol. 24, no. 2, 1965.

In issue two, of February 1941, James Picot attempts to discuss the criticism of Australian poetry. For the Jindyworobaks, he writes, ‘it is just no good talking Keats’, yet ‘we live in the world of Lenin and Einstein and Freud and Whitehead, and the Australian is as intelligent as anybody else!’ This struck me as very poignant, Tom. There was a time when one felt one had to write the sentence ‘The Australian is as intelligent as anybody else!’ This is the fluff, the bore, the anxiety around Australian letters. We battle between trying to seem as natural as we can and Australian as we can, from the puritanism of New Criticism to the puritanism of the Jindyworobaks. We think an awful lot about how we might seem, how international we are and how local we are.

In ‘The Cultural Cringe’ A.A. Phillips writes of the ABC Incognito radio program, in which two musical performances are compared:

one by an Australian, one by an overseas executant, but with the names and nationalities withheld until the end of the programme. The listener is supposed to guess which is the Australian and which is the alien performer. The idea is that quite often he gets it wrong or gives it up because, strange to say, the local lad proves to be no worse than the foreigner. This unexpected discovery is intended to inspire a nice glow of patriotic satisfaction.

We want to be pleased by the quality of something Australian being comparable to anything else in the world, we want to be surprised by it. Do we really, Tom? If the act of reading is about self-discovery, which I believe it is, then it seems an awful shame to read like that. I am passionately, exhaustively grateful that last year I was spurred, by my work in the Meanjin collection and by my work with Stephanie, into reading Patrick White, Helen Garner and Christina Stead. I shudder when I think of how close I came to missing out.

When I read Watkin Tench’s incredible 1788 in 2012, I thought about how perhaps for a long time Australian writing was about encounter. I think this is true of Katharine Susannah Prichard, of Judith Wright, of Barbara Baynton, even of Ern Malley, or even painters such as Fred Williams and Sidney Nolan. Perhaps it still sometimes is. Perhaps the biggest one is our encounter with ourselves. Maybe this is where the Jindyworobak movement went wrong. They were trying, not to know themselves, but to invent themselves. To know our writing is to know ourselves. This was certainly how it felt last year when we began our exploration into what was up until then, for us, the mysterious subculture of Australian literature. That was how it felt on those dark quiet mornings I spent on the third floor of the library, uncovering the faces and words of our written past.

Yours sincerely,
Anna Heyward

©Anna Heyward



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