During the 1960s, Australia experienced immense social and cultural change as a schism developed between generations: an older generation ravaged by the Great Depression, the Second World War and the Cold War; and a younger one that came of age in a prosperous but seemingly culturally stagnant environment.
Clem Christesen, who remained at the helm of Meanjin from the time he founded it in 1940 until 1974, was caught up in this generational divide but he used the magazine to represent and monitor its effects. He was a long-time proponent of the need to question existing institutions and values—and this necessarily implicated Meanjin, as it became an institution in itself during his editorship. The pages of the magazine during this period and in the years immediately, following his retirement provide an important record of the conflict of politics and personality in a changing society.
Since Meanjin’s earliest issues, Christesen had avoided aligning it with any literary or political movement. It was intended to be an open forum for opinion and literary activity, and the only criterion for publication, as Christesen would constantly reiterate, was quality. Under his editorship, Meanjin represented and encouraged an interaction between liberal–humanist social optimism and concepts of culture and society derived from post-Romantic thought. The Second World War produced a renewed surge of national consciousness in Australia and, in its wake, a heightened optimism about the prospects for postwar society. Christesen held to a strong personal belief in the social function and importance of art and literature. Like other editors of journals founded during the war he was determined that culture should be kept alive, and this became Meanjin’s central project.
From the start Meanjin rejected the mass consumerism of industrial capitalism and considered art as central to social cohesiveness. When it moved from Brisbane to a new home at the University of Melbourne in late 1944, it was subject to increasing criticism in various quarters for its ‘distastefully radical and willfully self-directed line.’ The Commonwealth Literary Fund (CLF)—then the most important purse for little magazines—was at various times attacked by right-wing critics for its grants to magazines, particularly those seen to be veering to the left. By 1948, Cold-War-inspired suspicions had become firmly entrenched beliefs throughout much of Australian society: a climate of free speech and public opinion gave way to a conservative, self-righteous rigidity. The mass consumerism that Meanjin rejected in the 1940s in some ways came to constitute the national culture by the 1950s. The Menzies government presided over substantial material progress during the 1950s and 1960s, but as Meanjin, among other dissenting voices, strove to point out, the nation generally was in neutral socially and culturally.
Furthermore, during the 1950s and 1960s Australia was at risk of becoming, in effect, a satellite state of the USA. Not unlike now, the prime minister of the day dutifully followed the USA wherever it decided to go: disastrously so when Menzies and his successor, Harold Holt, followed the Americans into the Vietnam War. As Christesen wrote in 1970, ‘For me, the kind of Australia I had hoped we were building seemed to die upon the fall of the Chifley government. Today’s Australia doesn’t much appeal to me, I must confess?’
‘Today’s Australia’ wasn’t much interested in Meanjin either. Most writers and intellectuals were at odds with the wider community and derided as dwellers in an ivory tower. How could the magazine succeed in its self-proclaimed project of relating art and literature to society when it appeared to be rapidly losing touch with that society? In 1944, when Australia’s population was around seven million, Meanjin’s circulation had reached 4000 an issue. With a population of almost thirteen million in the mid 1960s, circulation had dropped to just 2500 copies per issue, many of which went straight into library stacks. Outside the pages of Meanjin, social commentators such as Donald Horne and Craig McGregor, while critical of many aspects of the national culture, were to be found defending the vitality and diversity of suburbia. Christesen’s suspicions of mass culture and his conviction that this would destroy the public’s capacity to appreciate higher art forms risked attracting charges of elitism, if not of exclusiveness. Yet the magazine managed to survive—partly as a forum of debate on these very issues. He was not one to shy away from active debate, even when it involved criticism of his own publication.
In 1966-67 Christesen commissioned the so-called Vodzone series: seven ‘commentaries on the reality of present-day life and living in God’s Own Country’ by Ian Turner, Owen Webster, Allan Ashbolt, Noel McLachlan, I.D.B. Miller, Geoffrey Serle and Geoffrey Blainey. Webster specifically (if half-jokingly) characterised Meanjin at one point as ‘that tired old campaigner, still stoically gnashing its gums.’ Much of the debate in the first four articles of this series was focused on the merits and demerits of current youth culture, (The last three focused on the question of America’s influence in Australia.) The inaugural article, by Turner, attacked youth for its laziness, apathy and hedonistic behaviour. The others showed a greater degree of tolerance for the younger generation, though it was singular that none of the authors in this series was from that age group.
In 1968, with heightening tensions in Australia over the Vietnam War and the worldwide phenomenon of mounting student radicalism, Christesen was prompted to commission a more extensive series, ‘The Temperament of Generations’, which featured contributors from both sides of the generation divide. Again there were criticisms and defences of contemporary youth culture, although any simple notion of ‘The Generations Gap’— fusty oldies versus radical, hedonistic youth—was specifically challenged in an article with that title in which Alex Carey proceeded to criticise youth culture, as manifested in Australia at least, for its general inclination to political and sexual conservatism.
There were still plenty of young radicals on the literary scene, seemingly intent on resisting the monopoly of the established journals. To them, Meanjin seemed dominated by the University of Melbourne and the past; Overland was only just beginning to escape its socialist-realist hangover; Poetry Magazine appeared too wedded to international modernism at the expense of the local product. Even though some new writers, such as Charles Buckmaster and Michael Dransfield, were beginning to win critical praise in established journals, new writers still felt that they were not being recognised for their talents. The new writers, especially poets, began producing their own magazines in early 1968, with Kris Hemensley’s Our Glass, Michael Dugan’s Crosscurrents and Charles Buckmaster’s The Great Auk among the first. Resolutely iconoclastic, and often rough and amateur-looking in presentation, the new magazines had nothing in common with the high seriousness of Meanjin. Our Glass was roneoed on foolscap paper and stapled in one corner. In its first editorial, Hemensley stated: ‘If you don’t like this broadsheet, then create your own—a free area around yourself.’
Christesen showed himself willing to take on board the criticism of these ‘Young Turks’ but he could return the criticism as well. In July 1969, he wrote to Kris Hemensley seeking his opinion on the future course of Australian poetry. The first issue of Meanjin for 1970 featured Hemensley’s ‘First Look at the New Australian Poetry’, which proclaimed the emergence of a ‘poetry which matters’—one that involves a ‘restoration of celebratory living’ and ‘encourages man to cease his clockwatching cardpunching existence’. It was not that such things didn’t matter to Meanjin too, but the magazine’s very longevity had become an obstacle to its vitality. According to Hemensley, ‘sterility’ was the keynote of established schools of writers and magazines (Meanjin Quarterly along with the rest). He recollected recently how Meanjin at that time had seemed to him ‘irrelevant; leading thought and intellectual discourse was no longer being carried on there.’ Other writers also recall holding this view of Meanjin. Michael Dugan thought it was ‘old, stuffy, academic’ and Frank Moorhouse felt it exuded the atmosphere of a ‘literary prison farm’. In response to such feelings, and to the new writers’ belief that the magazine wasn’t receptive to their work, Christesen stated: ‘I’ve always been willing to give the younger blokes a go, but the truth is bloody little new verse of quality is in fact being produced here, or elsewhere for that matter: most of it is windy rhetoric lacking substance; it’s spurious.’
By 1971, Christesen and Meanjin were at a critical juncture. Christesen still lamented what he perceived as a lack of support for the magazine’s project, was locked in yet another fierce battle with the CLF over Meanjin’s funding for 1972 and had to enter hospital for an operation. Coupled with the regular pressure of Meanjin’s day-to-day affairs, this produced a debilitating pessimism.
In mid 1971—at sixty years of age—Christesen began actively seeking an editor to take over from him. He had considered taking Meanjin into retirement with him, but social and political developments (the prospect of an end to nearly quarter of a century of Liberal rule in Australia, owing to the increasing unpopularity of the Vietnam War and other factors) promised new opportunities for Australian literature and for Meanjin. Change was essential to entice the disaffected new writers, but too much change could alienate Meanjin’s existing readership. As ever, the CLF was a major concern, given that it would only fund magazines with proved sales of more than 1000 copies per issue. Meanjin was selling around 2000 copies per issue in 1971, so the existing readership and any potential new readership needed to be carefully balanced.
Names bandied about as prospective successors to the editorship included Carl Harrison-Ford, Humphrey McQueen, Guy Manton, Denis Pryor, Alan Lawson and John Carroll, but the poet and critic Dorothy Green had always been Christesen’s first choice. He asked her four times between 1969 and 1973, and even joked, ‘If you’re not careful you might inherit the bloody thing. No one could do a better job?’
In 1972, Christesen had asked Jim Davidson, then a young cultural historian in Melbourne, to consider joining Meanjin as associate editor. Davidson, however, realised that he didn’t want to be an associate editor. Still, Christesen pursued him, eventually offering him the editorship. In October 1973, Davidson replied, expressing the hope that he could provide the much needed ‘bridge between academia and bohemia, between the university and the community. He also acknowledged how much he could benefit from Christesen’s experience. But he hesitated over financial matters, indicating that he couldn’t be expected to return to his old university on a lower salary scale than the one he formerly enjoyed. In his particular style, Christesen also wrote to several confidants in 1973 that he might still put up the shutters. Humphrey McQueen wrote to Christesen in January 1974 suggesting that Meanjin should retire with its founding editor—the two could not be separated.
Davidson eventually came on board in 1974, acting initially as apprentice on the production side, with Christesen paying him personally as a way around Meanjin’s perennially shaky financial situation. As a later editor of Meanjin, Jenny Lee, has written, this was probably a mistake: ‘it was never going to be easy under these circumstances for the old hand to pass his life’s work over, and there were no clear guidelines about each other’s roles.’
In the first two months of their working partnership things went extremely well between Christesen and Davidson. The pair discussed the younger man’s ideas—foremost of which was Davidson’s suggestion for a special issue to coincide with Papua New Guinea’s independence from Australia in 1975. But soon enough, the day-to-day contact between Davidson and Christesen brought out their differences. In June 1974, Christesen took leave to attend a conference in Canberra and to escape the Meanjin office. When he returned, the prearranged transfer of the Meanjin archive to the Baillieu Library had not gone ahead, and the editorial board that would handle policy-making after his departure had still not been set up. The situation grew tense and soon erupted into open conflict. The two men even fought over who should open the mail and Davidson’s notoriously compact handwriting. The situation angered Christesen to such an extent that he wanted to suspend publication and even contemplated dismissing Davidson.
In a letter to Geoffrey Serle, Christesen conceded that both he and Davidson made mistakes, but that he didn’t know how else he could have behaved. He cited a ‘clash of irreconcilable temperaments [and] a serious misunderstanding of motives/intentions.’ Eventually, after his annual trip north, Christesen gave authority to form a not-for-profit company to publish Meanjin, with the new editor appointed for one year only—not a secure start.
Davidson may have appeared a risky choice as editor given the need to attract younger writers and readers to Meanjin. He had not been active in the young writing movement before he took up the Meanjin editorship. Indeed, he had been living overseas for six years. He was also an opera enthusiast with other high-cultural tastes—immediately separating him from the more grassroots new writers. These interests, however, ensured that Davidson could act as a bridge between the generations and not alienate his older readers and contributors. His enthusiasm and energy made up for his distance from new developments in Australia. He was also well aware of the Christesen legacy and understood that if Meanjin was to survive under his editorship, it needed to ‘establish a new constituency without losing the old’.
Davidson’s first solo issue in April 1975 was well received. He made clear that the changes being made at Meanjin were not for change’s sake but in the conviction that the magazine’s traditional constituency had been eroded as Australian literary studies had developed and become more academic—producing a whole host of journals with specialised academic interests. What Davidson was seeking to produce, as he told Age writer Stuart Sayers, was a:
‘…journal of creative writing and comment that isn’t necessarily academic but links up with cultural and social comment, which is, indeed, as Meanjin has always claimed, “a review of arts and letters”. To achieve that means returning to first principles as well as exploring new directions.’
His early issues contained work by Frank Moorhouse, Michael Wilding, Brian Kiernan, Craig McGregor and Les Murray—all of whom had only limited contact with Meanjin previously. In mid 1975 Kris Hemensley was appointed poetry editor as a sign to the Generation of ’68 that Meanjin was ‘open to all sorts of influences’. The third and fourth issues were devoted to Papua New Guinea and women in the arts respectively. There were still voices in various quarters that expressed scepticism about whether Meanjin could be saved at all, and many accused it of being the preserve of a cultural minority. But many still do.
In 1976, when Davidson began showing mock-ups for a new format, Christesen intended to issue a formal protest. Davidson was appalled—perhaps more by the rumour he had heard that Christesen still referred to himself as editor, Davidson wrote to him in February 1977: ‘you must now rest content with the title “founding editor”. This is how the world now sees you.’ Strong words, but proof that Meanjin was now making a definitive move into a new era.
- Lynne Strahan, Just City and the Mirrors: Meanjin Quarterly and the Intellectual Front 1940-65 (Melbourne, 1984), p. 3.
- B. Christesen to Norman Bartlett, 14 December 1970, Meanjin Archive, University of Melbourne. (All subsequent correspondence cited here is held in this archive.)
- Christesen to Hemensley, 23 April 1970.
- Christesen to Green, 9 December 1970.
- In Jenny Lee, Philip Mead and Gerald Murnane (eds), The Temperament of Generations: Fifty Years of Writing in Meanjin (Melbourne, 1990), p.
- ‘Is a New Dawn Breaking for a Literary Gibraltar?: A change at the top for Meanjin Quarterly’, Age, 3 May 1975.
- Jim Davidson, ‘Making Meanjin Survive’, interview in Lee et al., pp. 230-2.