About five years ago the Fellowship of Australian Writers (Melbourne section) invited me to talk to them on this subject and in the discussion which followed there occurred some polite but trenchant criticism of the Australian universities for their neglect of our national literature. My talk had been a defence of the attitude of at least one of our universities but I was compelled to admit the force of what many of my critics had to urge.
It was pointed out that our literature is approaching its second century and, while it has produced few outstanding writers, it has already a respectable and growing body of writing to show. And yet of the eight teaching universities in the country not one has so far established a course in Australian Literature. While there are literatures which it is important for any university to study, it is the peculiar right and the duty of each country to establish and to foster the study of its own writers.
The second point was that the study of literature depends on a number of ancillary studies, historical, biographical and biblio-graphical, which can only be carried out by expert research workers and this sort of research it is the proper function of universities to maintain. They spoke of the material for these studies still uncollected and unassessed and of the scholars of the future who would deplore our neglect. As they talked I remembered how a year or two before, after a lecture on Charles Harpur, one of my students had told me that she was a descendant of the poet and that only a few months earlier her mother had put a whole trunk-full of Harpur’s papers under the laundry copper thinking that there was no longer any interest in keeping them. I was compelled to admit that our universities were at fault.
Why then have they neglected Australian literature? I think it is not hard to see why. In the first place modern literature has only just come to have a recognized place in the English courses of universities. Until recently their attitude was that noted by Henry Handel Richardson of her schooldays: ‘. . . We had learned a fair amount of Milton, Wordsworth, Gray, Cowper and so on; but Tennyson was not yet accounted a classic, and stray scraps were all I knew of him.’ ( The italics are mine.)
Australian literature in fact shared this general feeling in the past that nineteenth and twentieth century literature were too modern for university studies, which ought to be reserved for the established classics. However this attitude has been out-moded for a good many years now, so that it will hardly account for the fact that Australian literature is still a neglected subject in university studies. Yet modern English literature has found a place there. A more important reason perhaps is a vague feeling that Australian literature is not good enough or that it is not well enough established as a separate branch of literature, or again, that there is not yet enough of it to justify its having a course to itself. And although it may be infuriating to some partisans of Australian literature, I believe that these feelings are substantial and just. To argue against them is I think the wrong sort of argument and the right sort of argument is to show that, even if these contentions are true, there are other good reasons for universities to establish such courses.
The pass course in English in our universities is usually one of three years. Some universities have honours courses of four years. But the plain fact is that English literature can only be covered in this time with the greatest difficulty. To give a considerable part of this time to the study of Australian literature would mean that neither could be properly dealt with. On the other hand to establish separate and independent courses in Australian literature is a luxury that none of our universities, always desperately short of money, has so far been able to afford.
To see the reason why, in spite of its justice, this argument ought not to be accepted, I think we need to ask ourselves what sorts of justification there are for establishing a subject of study at a university. There are three sorts of answer : educational, intellectual and utilitarian.
In the first place certain university studies have the function of helping to maintain and promote a cultural tradition. Their aim is, in part at least, educative, and their method is to foster critical understanding and to civilise the imagination. For this the study of English literature is of prime importance. And if we have to choose what shall go into such a course, we are right to choose the best we can get. It would, I think, be hard to argue that Australian literature has anything comparable to offer. It is not a matter of arguing whether Goldsmith is inferior to Henry Handel Richardson, or Lovelace to Shaw Neilson. It is the more general argument that the great English writers cannot without loss be replaced by even the best of our Australian writers and that if we are to study great writers we ought to study them in their natural context of the lesser writers of their periods. To find a place for Australian literature within the present English courses is a disservice to both. And I am not sure that the present practice of most universities, the compromise by which, not Australian literature, but a few Australian books are included in the English course has anything to be said for it at all.
It may be argued that the body of literature is one body and I think that this is so. But the man who graduates with B.A., honours, in English literature has had an opportunity of knowing that body in all its range and beauty: the man who graduates with B.A., honours (Aust. Lit.) , would be like a doctor setting out to practise medicine after having dissected the left knee and the liver.
Yet even i f we admit this, there is an argument for the study of Australian. literature as a separate subject. In the maintenance of the cultural tradition the study of English literature may have claims immensely superior to those of Australian literature. But it would be foolish to ignore the fact that our native literature has something important to contribute in the very fact that it is native: that the civilisation, the way of life and the problems of this country are our own problems and that it is through literature that a civilisation expresses itself, through literature its values and its tendencies become conscious and its creative Torce becomes eloquent and evident.
Even if it were argued that the cultural tradition of Australia is not yet a very important one, it is still true that it is very important for Australians to consider it. However, I shall be prepared to maintain that the cultural tradition of Australia already has considerable importance and that quite apart from this there is a growing body of Australian writing which is well worth studying in itself. I would certainly not suggest that the only reason for studying Australian literature is for its historical interest and the light that is throws on local problems.
But universities exist for another purpose than the education of individuals. They exist primarily for the promotion of studies, for the advancement of knowledge in particular fields. As their name suggests, they exist in theory at least for the promotion of studies in all the fields of knowledge. No single university can do more than dream of this, but for each there will be subjects which have special claims not likely to be felt so strongly in other universities. And one of these claims is indisputable: the claim of the national literature to be a subject of study in the universities of the home country. It is not only the natural and obvious place for such studies but it is the natural and obvious duty of the home universities to initiate such studies so that they may take their due part in the idea of the universitas, the universal body of knowledge which nowadays can be covered not by any single university institution but by the general body of universities in the world.
From this point of view it is not a question of whether Australian universities can afford to establish courses in the study of Australian literature but whether they can afford not to do so if they are to carry out their functions. If literature is recognized as one of their proper fields of study, the universities as a whole should study literature as a whole wherever it exists and Australian universities have the right and the duty to see that the literature of their own country does not form a gap in the general body of studies.
The third reason for the establishing of a university course is technical and practical: the provision of the community with experts in the arts and sciences. Even if the study of literature is not a means, it depends, as I have said, on certain technical and expert studies, bibliographical, historical and so on, without which it cannot do its work effectively. And this forms another reason for the establishment of courses in Australian literature. If you are to have the study of literature in itself, you must have these ancillary studies as well.
From these considerations I would draw certain conclusions. In the first place it is high time that we had courses in Australian literature in our universities, that universities themselves and the sources from which they draw their funds should be prepared to budget for this. In the second place these courses should not form a part of, or an addendum to, existing courses in English literature but should be independent and separate courses of study. In the third place, because our native literature is a minor one among the literatures of the world, because it is limited in range and has hardly any writers of first rank, and because it is a branch of English literature in general, its study should not be simply an alternative to the study of English literature. It should, I believe, be undertaken only by students who have already undergone or who are undergoing training in one of the major world literatures, preferably that of England.
With such ideas in mind Canberra University College is at present experimenting in the establishment, for the first time in this country, of a complete course in Australian literature. The present course has been designed on historical lines and we hope that it will develop and in time help to encourage the establishment of studies in other places.
This essay first appeared in Meanjin, Vol. 13, No. 2, Winter 1954