This text is an extract from Emperors in Lilliput: Clem Christesen of Meanjin and Stephen Murray-Smith of Overland, published in 2022 by Melbourne University Publishing.
Aboriginality, the Americans, and Dr Duhig
One aspect of the past remained problematic for Clem Christesen, and that was Aboriginality. The impulse to connect was there, given his naming of the magazine; but there was no hope of making the kind of connection the Greek poet Cavafy could effect, reaching from the modern Alexandria across the Arab centuries to the city’s classical past. A cutesy woodcut of a boy advancing with a dead goanna in one hand, and a boomerang labelled Meanjin Papers in the other, became the magazine’s colophon.
Did Clem ever think, when toying with Aboriginality, of Dolly, his childhood friend? Her constant presence, as a subordinate, had given his childhood the flavour of an African colonial one—habituating him to the notion that there would always be somebody following him about, enlarging his sense of self. But now he was searching for a basis for respect, and anthropology seemed to give it. Indeed he saw Aboriginality as providing, with Australian history in the broadest sense, and ‘Australian books so far’, the foundations for an Australian literary culture.
A.P. Elkin was at hand to educate Meanjin readers on ‘Steps into the Dream-time’ (a word which had only recently sharpened to this form), explicating the footprints on the magazine’s cover. (Clem had come across the notion somewhere, and had made the first rough sketch himself.) Elkin explained that the tracks were crucial to Indigenous ritual, as the site for re-enactment of the past of a cult hero; but they also enabled the supplicant to ‘pre-enact’ a desired future along the same lines, the ceremony giving him the necessary courage. All of this, as Elkin pointed out, provided a blueprint for white Australia’s moving away from a culture of transplantation: we would have to develop appropriate, continuing myths of our own. ‘We cannot fly with borrowed plumes nor run with artificial legs.’ Clem must have felt he could not have put it better.
The issue Elkin’s article appeared in was a significant one, despite its lack of designation. The frontispiece was by Margaret Preston: Aboriginal Hunt Design; the short story ‘Last of the Tribe’. Clem was making Indigenous people the cornerstone of an issue that, while wide-ranging, opened with ‘Three Polynesian Ceremonies’ (poetry) and included an article on China as ‘Australia’s opportunity’. The war—and what might follow—had given Clem a conspicuous regional consciousness. He quoted Wendell Willkie: ‘Perhaps the most significant fact in the world today is the awakening that is going on in East Asia.’
Some were encouraging him to make Meanjin not only represent Australia to Australians, but also internationally. ‘Australia its axis,’ suggested Kate Baker, ‘the World its circumference?’ Clem had sent copies to Britain, but the response had been poor, both from writers and institutions. But suddenly the world came to him. In July 1942 General MacArthur established Allied headquarters in Brisbane.
Along with the wave of Coca-Cola, cigarettes in new brands, and nylons, came Afro-Americans—and poets. Prominent among them was Karl Shapiro, who contributed his dissonant ‘Troop Train’ to the first issue for 1943; he enjoyed the ‘fiery warmth’ of the Christesens’ hospitality a few months later. Shapiro was publishing steadily and had just produced a book in Melbourne; he would shortly win the Pulitzer Prize. Another poet, Harry Roskolenko, also made contact and published in Meanjin, but his links with Angry Penguins were stronger. Significantly, this new dimension helped change the way Clem thought about the magazine. Meanjin’s first quarterly issue was the one that included ‘Troop Train’, and a screed from the time indicates Clem’s ambition to publish poems from writers in America itself; the magazine might ‘serve as a link between the two countries’. He was delighted when Meanjin received notice in the Christian Science Monitor, and that every mail from America brought interesting correspondence. American university and public libraries began to subscribe; as an encouragement, Clem began to highlight a special American rate when listing subscription details. The ripples of Meanjin were widening, from Queensland to Australia as a whole, and then outwards to the world.
Clem now felt emboldened to number its pages consecutively through the year; but the growing success of the magazine underscored its need for financial stability. Someone prepared to underwrite it now stepped forward: J.V. Duhig (nephew of Brisbane’s Catholic archbishop), a pathologist who had recently been appointed to a chair at the university. But Duhig’s interests were much more extensive than that: actively interested in all the arts, he was a founder of the Brisbane Repertory Theatre Society (which is probably how Clem came into contact with him), and had himself written plays. He was also a prominent Rationalist, a keen art collector, and a promoter of radical causes. Duhig was concerned about the state of Australian culture, believed writers should be paid a salary (as in Russia), and saw the sceptical prognostications of academics on Australian literature as nothing but harmful. There was a real convergence of interest.
Clem had to be prodded by Brian Vrepont to go and see Duhig, and activate the doctor’s interest. The upshot was that Duhig provided secretarial help from his office, in particular the handling of accounts, and agreed to guarantee Clem against loss with the journal. This took the form of his paying the printing bills, with Clem passing on the money from subscriptions and sales as it came to hand. Meanjin was ‘the best thing of its kind in Australia’, Duhig believed. But he may have become a bit alarmed at Clem’s constant itch to expansionism. Duhig’s original thought had been one of helping poetry; and, while he was happy to publish three articles in the expanded Meanjin, he felt some check should be placed on Clem’s plans. There should be a trust, he believed, with fortnightly meetings, and the ‘journal’ should appear regularly. He was not concerned about expenditure as such, he explained, so much as having a hand in planning that could lead to deficits. Nonetheless, the magazine should aim ultimately to be self-supporting.
Clem claimed that Duhig proved ‘unbearably arrogant’, and that was why he broke with him. Paul Grano, looking on, thought Duhig ‘as self-opinionated & as dictatorial as Clem himself’. Certainly, while it was professed that Clem had full editorial independence, Duhig was capable of writing to people and asking them to submit articles which would be published if they were up to scratch. Increasingly Clem felt pressured, and expected to show his gratitude—something which did not come easily to him at the best of times. When Duhig’s secretary hinted that she might have to give up Meanjin work the following year, he began to think of retreat. Initially proposing that some of the work be transferred to an accountant, Clem came and collected the subscription cards for his own perusal—and then took them to the new man too. The secretary felt tricked, and hurt, and received another letter from Clem—so full of self-justification that it scarcely read as the intended apology. Clem and Duhig parted, after a flaming row. Subsequently the patron was simply excised from the narrative. Sixteen years later an article he submitted was rejected by Meanjin, a secretary writing the letter. ‘I hope your paper can get along without me,’ rejoined Duhig. ‘Once upon a time it couldn’t. It would have died. I wish it had.’
Enter Dorothy Green, enter—and exit—Judith Wright
One day a short story arrived from a young woman in Sydney; Clem advised that she should consider writing criticism for the journal. That would become her forte as Dorothy Green, but Dorothy Auchterlonie would first become known to the literary world as a poet. In 1943 she turned up in Brisbane, brisk and businesslike, the first woman news reporter for the ABC. Given the presence of General MacArthur, it was an important position, requiring much resourcefulness from this detached woman sitting in the Christesens’ living room.
There was more to Dorothy than met the eye. A fine singer—lack of money prevented her from going overseas for training, a lasting cause for regret—she had a passionate nature that had been crimped by isolation. Having been brought to Australia as a child of 12, she had bridled at the excessive discipline that led to children being strapped when they got their sums wrong. It left her with a powerful impulse to challenge injustice. Dorothy’s father had died when she was quite young, but recently she had lost both her mother and her brother (of whom she was fond), missing in action at sea. At 28 she felt quite alone.
Dorothy had requested the transfer to Brisbane, to help reorient herself; the friendship with the Christesens, which would become life-long, played an important part in this. With Clem she shared a commitment to literature and to progressive causes; with Nina, to whom she was closer, a love of Russian literature and social values informed, in the manner of Tolstoy, by Christianity. But suddenly Dorothy decided to return to Sydney. It seemed that she had made up her mind: the university librarian and respected literary figure H.M. Green, a handsome man, had been pursuing her. She reciprocated his feelings, but there were problems. Green was 34 years older, and married with two grown-up daughters. There would have to be a divorce—not common then, and almost unthinkable for a high church Anglican such as Dorothy. But she would go for broke.
Dorothy had no sooner vacated her flat than it was occupied by Judith Wright. It was a ‘little windowless slice of a room’, but, given the pressures of accommodation in wartime Brisbane, Judith was grateful. Clem had much more reason to be appreciative of her. By the time she arrived Judith had already sent a number of poems, which he was glad to publish. The first, ‘The Company of Lovers’, had appeared 18 months before: her verse not only had the elements of lyricism that always appealed to him, but a rare emotional intensity and moral engagement. And she was sympathetic. In her initial letter Judith expressed admiration for the work being done by ‘you and your staff’—little realising that one day she would be it. She gave money, troubled a little that since she wished to publish in the magazine, it might not be quite right—but this hesitation was ignored by Clem. She listened to his plaint, expressing regret that she was too far away to help.
When Judith learned that an issue might not appear, she volunteered to come to Brisbane to assist. Although becoming aware of the spiritual sustenance she drew from New England, Judith was finding life on the family property tough: her brothers were away at the war, so there was much hard work to be done. Moreover, warmth and light were restricted in the gloomy homestead, and following a drought the cold was bitter. Judith was desperate to get away as soon as her brothers returned. Not quite knowing how to respond, and hoping at one point that he might be able to meet Judith and talk to her (however briefly) from a train as it passed through Armidale, Clem was silent. But she prodded him into frankness, and some time afterwards, in 1944, she came.
As the train steamed into Brisbane, the response of this woman sitting in her carriage in prewar clothes was positive. Brisbane, she would later write, ‘if corrupt was cheerful, if dirty was warm. It was disposed to enjoy life, and its flamboyant vegetables and flowers, the electric-blue of morning glories scrambling over unpainted fences … disguised its sins.’ Although hard of hearing, Judith brought with her some practical experience: in Sydney (where she did not want to resettle) she had taken a business course, become a fast typist, and worked for an advertising agency. Along the way she had learned how to give a boss hints about improving office efficiency or business methods, ‘but never to remind him that you had made the suggestion in the first place’—skills that unexpectedly came into play at Meanjin.
Judith’s real job, a paid one, was as a clerk with the Universities Commission; at Meanjin she was an after-hours volunteer who hoped to be included in editorial discussions. But this did not happen. The rising poet of her generation was regarded just as a secretary. Working in the Christesens’ home in Dutton Park, she did meet the young poets of Barjai, who often dropped in to borrow books from Clem’s extensive library. And one day, having been introduced to the freelance philosopher Jack McKinney, she was surprised when he followed her into the kitchen to help with the dishes.
McKinney and Wright had read each other’s work in Meanjin, and been impressed, but Judith was not expecting to be listened to with such respect. McKinney, trim and fit, had spent much of his time trying to scratch a living from the land; he had written in his spare time, as much as poor health allowed. His family life was in ruins, and eventually he would leave his wife and take to the road with his bike, a battered tent, and a few possessions. He was determined to devote the rest of his life to philosophy.
McKinney believed that Western philosophy had become derailed by its progressive analysis not of the world, but of our shared world picture. It was important to find an alternative, since that approach had contributed substantially to the crisis in Western civilisation. Judith was predisposed to accept this idea, for it paralleled a truth she was working towards:
The language and culture I was brought up in … had nothing to do with the land my relatives had taken. It was wholly imported, a second skin that never fitted, no matter how we pulled and dragged it over the landscape that we lived in. Nor, of course, did we ourselves fit. That fact was growing more obvious as the land changed under our hands.
Jack’s quicksilver mind, his accessibility and humour, naturally complemented Judith’s moral earnestness and the deliberativeness of the deaf. Jack was slow to declare himself, but the pair were a natural fit. Much of the poetry Judith was then writing ‘arose directly out of attempts to translate ideas into images and language as we talked’. Before long she saw it as her task to help this untutored man, clearly in need of support, proclaim his ideas to the world.
Clem did not take kindly to the suspected closeness between his secretary and McKinney. Seeing himself as a mentor, he felt displaced by this trim greyhead with keen blue eyes; a charmer, yes, but possibly a fraud, certainly an amateur. Besides, having recently failed to write a novel himself, Clem was involuntarily hostile to a man with a big idea. Nonetheless he accepted Jack’s manuscript, ‘Towards the Future’, for the Meanjin Press, pushed along by the enthusiasm of Mrs Hamlyn-Harris, who—while wishing to pepper it with references to astrology and the pyramids—was prepared to underwrite it. He had published articles by McKinney, but his misgivings persisted, abetted by the sceptical response of academic philosophers. Eventually Clem declared the work did not ‘satisfy’ him: Judith believed that once he had an eye on moving Meanjin to the University of Melbourne, the nature of the work became an embarrassment. And yet … some of Jack’s ideas accorded with those of Lewis Mumford, whom Clem admired. So he procrastinated, then reported further negative academic advice. Jack (who would later win academic respect) withdrew the manuscript.
When the move to Melbourne was in the offing, Clem asked Judith to go with him as Meanjin’s paid secretary. But there were no details as to wage and salary (he did not have them), and a profound disinclination on her part to comply. Much as she loved Nina Christesen, she had always found good relations with Clem to be difficult, given his ‘unpredictable mixture of self-esteem and self-distrust’. This, she felt, could only increase in the new setting. Judith was not sure either that the job would last, realised her deafness would limit other job opportunities, and dreaded Melbourne’s cold. Besides, she had grown to love Jack McKinney, and in consequence was angered by the way ‘the detestable Clement’ was treating him. As a token of appreciation, Clem sent her money, and later apologised gruffly for his ‘bad blunders while you were helping me in Brisbane’. But Judith’s attitude had hardened. ‘I wouldn’t trust him any further than a snake under the house,’ she told Jack.
With the knowledge that his close friend Jim Picot was—at best—living the life of a prisoner of the Japanese, Clem was aware that, of the founding four poets, he alone was still involved with Meanjin. Brian Vrepont, after being helpful assessing manuscripts, faded away, since (a natural aristocrat) he did not like literary politics or being subjected to Clem’s plaint. Vrepont then moved to Sydney: for a time Clem lost touch. With Paul Grano, his relations were never easy. Given to sardonic remarks, Grano was notoriously moody and becoming more consciously Catholic: he had begun compiling an anthology of Australian religious verse. Although he approved the Meanjin project, Grano knew that his own verse had little appeal for Clem and that, given his trajectory, it would come to have less. He pulled out abruptly.
A year later, when P.R. Stephensen was interned along with the other leaders of the Australia First movement, Grano’s house was raided by the police. Not long after, he turned up at Clem’s office, violently abusive with (false) accusations that Clem had spread stories about the raid. He ‘could scarcely talk, he was so excited’. But Grano subsided, and cordial relations were resumed. Important here was Nina, who would send him poetry. As Nettie Palmer remarked, ‘your other problems remain, my dear sir’; but Nina, who drew universal approval, was there to help him face them. ‘She’s a pearl!’ Nina’s sagacity was needed: Clem was ‘very resentful against his “friends”’, noted Jim Devaney. Clem had persuaded him, against his better judgement, to read poetry submissions. ‘Am more than ever convinced,’ Devaney told Grano, ‘that Clem and I will clash badly.’
There were also continual problems with production. First was paper: as Meanjin had come into existence since the war began, it was refused a licence, and therefore a quota. Numerous visits to government offices got Clem nowhere, despite the small amount of paper involved. ‘I was always being threatened,’ he recalled, ‘by Paper Control with imprisonment for using paper without authority.’ Once typeset, copy had to be approved by the censor. Then there were the printers, from whom Clem forever after carried stigmata. Errors were numerous, often the result of carelessness; sometimes a whole issue would have to be reprinted. One printer came to his rescue, telling Clem not to worry as he could get machine-finished paper, and he did. But he was inclined to run his business from the pub next door. Clem moved Meanjin to Truth newspapers, but they stole an anthology of short stories he had prepared, and, using newsprint, distributed it for sale under their own imprint among the troops. Later, Paul Grano ascertained that Clem had been through five printers in the Brisbane years: even the alcoholic had had enough, and told him to go. True, he was a perfectionist, but his demands were less important than his way of being unpleasantly emphatic. He simply wore people out.
Clem was running out of associates, and out of printers. Meanwhile it was plain, by mid-1944, that MacArthur was about to move north. The Afro-Americans, the jazz, the street fights and the snatches of passion would largely disappear with him. Brisbane would be returned to its sluggish self: a place where the premier still had not seen Clem after a year of having kept him waiting. Indeed the premier, along with the minister for education and his director-general, plus the two archbishops, had been sent Meanjin; they either said they never read poetry, or could not understand the poems that had been printed, or—nothing. There was not much interest at the university, either. The place could do with a Max Harris, Clem decided, to produce an Angry Turtle.
In addition, at the Queensland Authors and Artists Association there was the feeling that Meanjin had grown ‘too big for its Queensland boots’. The society had given £10 to the magazine in 1942, but was not happy with the result. The worthy efforts of its members seemed increasingly pushed aside to make way for writers from the southern states. ‘You are moving over from the younger and un-established to the older and established,’ a local poet told Clem. Since the rift with Duhig, Clem was feeling anything but established. How would he finance the growing journal? He told (Sir) Keith Murdoch that he could see the answer might have to be a move to either Sydney or Melbourne. While pondering his situation, Clem was caught up in a tram smash, bore a minor injury, and experienced further ill-health.
As early as the Summer Issue of 1941 Clem had seen Meanjin in national terms, though a ‘cultural sapling … tended by Queensland writers’. By mid-1944—perhaps building on a suggestion of A.D. Hope—there was a national committee of consultants, one from each state. Queensland, relatively small in population and with a low educational base, could not sustain a magazine of Meanjin’s ambition. In one of the big cities there would be greater opportunities, not least for influence. Clem longed, Judith Wright recalled, ‘for a hand in the making of the new national and international cultural renaissance which he believed was on the way’.
For a time it seemed Sydney might be Meanjin’s new home. R.G. Howarth had always been sympathetic—‘a friend to Meanjin’, as Clem would say. He had just arranged for Southerly to be taken over by Angus & Robertson, which had drawn an immediate response from Clem, outlining Meanjin’s difficulties. Howarth urged Clem to come to Sydney and encouraged him to go into book publishing ‘in a big way’, since he had ‘an absolute genius for it’. Douglas Stewart, too, was keen for him to come—and Clem’s inclination at first had been towards the harbour city. He may even have had an offer of financial assistance. Meanwhile, Vrepont wrote a chirpy letter, saying that he was keeping an eye out for a suitable house or flat.
But it did not happen. In Melbourne lived the encouraging Nettie Palmer, and Vance, and Percival Serle, and soon a proposal came that he had scarcely thought possible. The last issue for 1944 was cancelled, ‘As a result of unavoidable publishing delays’. A number of articles, listed as forthcoming on a previous back cover, never eventuated. The Christesens were about to strike camp, and take the magazine to Victoria. •
Jim Davidson was the second editor of Meanjin (1974–82). He is best-known for two biographies, Lyrebird Rising: Louise Hanson-Dyer of Oiseau-Lyre and A Three-Cornered Life: The Historian W.K. Hancock. These won multiple awards.