Appearing in Brisbane in December 1940, the first issue of Meanjin Papers was a mere leaflet, eight poems bound in a buff cover with a design of four splayed footprints which inclined, as some readers tartly pointed out, to the left. The issue of 250 copies cost £4.10.0 to print and was distributed, usually unsolicited, throughout Australia to libraries, educational institutions, government departments, critics, academics, poets, potential patrons, enthusiasts for Australian culture, balladeers, yarners, acquaintances, relatives and friends. The footprints, later Meanjin‘s most nostalgically loved symbol, referred to the mundowi or cult figures of the Aboriginals. The Aboriginal motif recurred piously in the magazine’s name, the Aboriginal word for the spike of river-bound land on which Brisbane stood, and in the cute game-hunting piccaninny on the title page. The spike doubled as a metaphor for Meanjin‘s audacious cultural role.
The footprints also signified the four poets who were represented in the first issue by two poems each: peripatetic former violin teacher, Brian Vrepont, zealous Roman Catholic, Paul Grano, self-educated English emigrant, James Picot, and Townsville-born journalist and poet-editor, Clem Christesen, whose editorial ‘Foreword’ insisted on the need for cultural continuity during war and especially that the nation should be scorched into action and unity by the moral fires of poetry. Though they reaped conservative criticism for alleged pessimism and other anti-social traits, the contents confirmed the ascription ‘Traditionalist Number’: Vrepont’s lyric celebrations ‘The Apple Tree’ and ‘The Heron’; Grano’s courtly love poem ‘For These Are Gracious Things’, together with his plea for the individual over abstractions, ‘Pray Pity for Bill Smith’ ; Picot’s jagged syntax and rushed sincerity in ‘Australia to a War’ and his sonnet ‘Variation on a Theme of John Keats’; and Christesen’s sea-poems ‘Morning Bound’ and ‘By Lantern Light’, with their aura of unformulated longing.
Meanjin Papers was published bi-monthly for two years. Public reaction to the earliest issues was as varied as the contents: there was praise and encouragement but also scorn and vilification, cries against insidious modernism and applause for a trumpet call of national defiance, deprecations of slapdash originality and charges of strained imitation, advice to stick with the British and to ditch them, accusations of hot nationalism and skimpy patriotism, pleas for anarchism and assaults on internationalism. (There were also whispers of an inevitable Fascist leavening in post-war society.) Australia Firsters were excited by the appearance of a new sphere of possible influence. Some of Queensland’s more dulcet than discriminating poetesses (the suffix matching their broody utterances on Life) found a lopsidedness in the contents in favour of gaudy surrealism. The literati debated whether contributors were under the right contemporary poetic influences. Some observers thought they detected a noxious clique in the making; others deplored the appearance in a land that was thought to be incorruptible of the sickly prophet of ‘The Wasteland’ and the ousting of ‘Endymion’ (despite Keats’ honorable mention in the first issue). Much of the comment revolved around a dispute as to the true nature of beauty and its relation to patriotism.
At the beginning Meanjin‘s aims were limited and its view of its own role unformulated. There was the spiritual challenge of war; there was also the pragmatic aim of providing an outlet for Queensland literature that yellowed in cupboards for want of publishing opportunities. The expressed initial loyalty was a state one, and the first four issues published Queensland writing exclusively; but copies of early issues were fanned Australia-wide in what looked like an attempt, not to cover Queensland, but to convert the continent. The sense of a wider function developed quickly (two literary linch-pins from Victoria, John Shaw Neilson and Vance Palmer, were the first non-Queensland contributors in the fifth issue) and was, given Christesen’s ambitious sense of seriousness, inevitable. Bolstered by assurances from luminaries in the literary world such as Nettie Palmer (who was always seen to hail favourable cultural signs) that Meanjin was on the way towards making itself culturally indispensable, and fired by his own developing awareness of the possibilities of the journal, he began to see Meanjin as a long-term proposition. Like many others he learnt that the little magazine game is a pursuit of infinite seductions. More than regional aims were probably inherent quite early on.
They had to be. In the early Forties Brisbane and Queensland hardly seemed the right guardian for a magazine with the distracting habit of out-growing its intellectual boots. The population was small, virtually static, concentrated in the legally immature age groups and in rural areas. Educational standards were low, the State high school system was just over thirty years old, and the percentage of students reaching tertiary level a little over one per cent. The only public library in the State was Brisbane’s central Iibrary with its modest tally of 40,000 books. Other cultural institutions were recent, and tended to suffer the malaise of spiritual absenteeism deplored by nationalist intellectuals. (The Art Gallery managed to end the war with fewer pictures than it had at the beginning, a mysterious depletion, not a sacrifice to the national effort!) The State was governed by a narrowminded and often disreputable Labor Party oligarchy, with determined Roman Catholics apparently holding the balance in everything. Labour and race relations were violent.
Public opinion through the Thirties was complacent, isolationist and conservative. The Brisbane press reflected a climate of community politeness toward and remoteness from issues such as Italian intervention in Abyssinia and the Spanish Civil War. modified by the familiar undertones of respect for what was perceived as Fascist efficiency. The Courier-Mail, which employed Meanjin‘s editor from 1942. was pro-Empire and slavishly Royalist; its sketchy and selective coverage of overseas news was overwhelmed by loving elaborations of the bourgeoisie at their weddings, linen and bathroom teas, and tennis parties. The Queensland population seemed to consist primarily of Queensland debutantes, Queensland horses, Queensland gladioli, Queensland footballers. Queensland cornucopia and British vice-regality; the only foreign citizens seemed to be the King, and General Franco distributing medals to children. The meagre Saturday literary section appeared unaware that Australian literature existed, and showed little awareness and no grasp of literature anywhere The literary critics on the whole reflected admirably the public’s worm’s-eye view of culture. A few, such as W.A. Amiet of the Mackay Mercury, were competent, fair-minded and responsive to the local product; but the majority yawned or mounted their critical high horses and cantered horizonwards. One of the most active critics, Firmin McKinnon. boasted that he’d never seen a movie. and wrote as if he lived mentally in Stratford-on-Avon between leaves of grass, railing with all the weight of papal infallibility against latterday poetics. The literary canon was fixated on Brunton Stephens, Essex Evans and William Baylebridge. who all wrote about life in capitals to avoid delineating It. There were only two live theatres in Brisbane. and theatrical activity. reasonably vigorous towards the end of the nineteenth century, sank to a nadir in the 1930s. Queensland high culture was capable of comprehensive summary in a few pages.
The Queensland Authors’ and Artists’ Association attempted to inject a current of vigour and seriousness into this Lake Eyre of cultural apathy, producing ‘Yearly Surveys of Literature and Art in Queensland’, devoting solemn evenings to the discussion of Australian topics. and setting aside small sums from its strained budget to build up a library of Australian books; but its activities suffered from the ineradicable air of the small-town soiree, and the early part of the war saw a decline in its numbers and pursuits. Although the group voted money in support of Meanjin twice during 1943 and provided some of its members to be peripherally involved in the journal’s editorial side, a leading QAAA light, James Devaney, was frank about his unease with the ‘new’ verse practised by Meanjin’s cohorts, and advised Christesen to look beyond their gentle portals for assistance and inspiration for Meanjin.
Queensland was the focus of Christesen’s visual imagination, providing a reservoir of imagery, particularly Townsville, where he spent his first years in an atmosphere of domestic security and sensual abundance; but he found the environment intellectually stifling and politically archaic. Queensland reacted by responding disastrously to the first issue and continued, in the editor’s estimation, to scorn or snub the magazine. The pathologist J. V. Duhig, who became involved in Meanjin‘s fortunes from September 1941, wrote bitterly with that tone of outrage endemic to cultural John the Baptists in his ‘Letter to Tom Collins’ in Meanjin (Christmas 1942) that local cultural dignitaries in politics, the church and the university had with two exceptions either kept copies of the magazine sent to them without paying, or returned them on the pretext that poetry was outside their experience. Queensland notables Inigo Jones and Randolph Bedford, who freely admitted that Brisbane was ‘still on the bread and beef menu of the last of the old Australia’, advised manual labour as a cure for poetic stargazers and washed-out Eliots. In November 1942 Christesen dashed off a lugubrious letter to Nettie Palmer complaining that he had been labelled a Communist and that Meanjin was AuntSallied in most of the places that mattered. Brisbane writers failed to help editorially and were casual with contributions, a lapse perhaps mitigated by the reflection that many of their effusions were ‘punk’.
Christesen’s editorials and other statements of viewpoint bore all the marks of hasty construction. often stimulated by the spark of the moment or the needle of recent reading. They were more like explosions of feeling than additions to a considered philosophy. Part-time editorship, the production of sixteen issues in the first three years, pragmatic adjustment to shifts in the magazine and to events, and the dislocation of war, all served to undermine editorial consistency; but Christesen’s pugnacious ‘Trailers’ show that from the first few issues he envisaged an extensive cultural and political role for Meanjin. The fact that the journal was part of the wave of nationalism that accompanied the war gave it a more than parochial role from the beginning. Of all the magazines established in Australia in the Thirties and Forties. Meanjin most overtly and strongly explained its existence as a reaction to the crisis. This ambition to speak for all Australians (also to show the right road to spiritual colonials and faint-hearts) was exemplified in the dynamic ‘Crisis Issue ‘ of March 1942. whose contents made a strong cumulative appeal for national self-knowledge and courage. Christesen opened with an embattled editorial ‘War on the Intellectual Front’, which encompassed a scenario of invasion, furious distinctions between the civilised and the barbarians, castigation of ‘enemies within’, a stagey aphorism in French on the fall of empires, and a portentous tribute to the unspecified disciples of an austere ‘fellowship of the spirit’ who ‘yield not to despair, however dark it may grow in their Emmaus.’ Duhig added a dour post-mortem on ‘Culture and the Crisis’. Ewers chattily defended Australian literature as the right diet for Australians, while Ingamells was unrepentantly and remorselessly Ingamells on an ‘Australian Outlook’. The emotional climax came in Vance Palmer’s mesmeric ‘Battle’, dedicated to that ‘Australia of the spirit’ which had contributed uniquely to ‘the creation of that egalitarian democracy that will have to be the basis of all civilised societies in the future’, fleshed out with cataleptic images in which Australians and their country are almost erotically related in the urge for hope, sanity and idealism.
The aim was not merely to be all-Australian, but to represent the values of liberal humanism as they were encapsulated in the writings and monuments, past and contemporary, of Western man. Christesen began to emulate contemporary magazines overseas and to foster the dissemination of international material in Australia, an activity shared to some extent with Melbourne’s A Comment and Adelaide’s Angry Penguins, both to be early post-war casualties. Cyril Connolly’s powerful Horizon presided in Christesen’s mind as the Little Magazine muse when Meanjin was under threat, and he attempted to foster an international correspondence and net a variety of overseas contributors. As early as 1942, he sent a sheaf of letters to English writers in an attempt to create an ‘intellectual lend-lease’. Meanjin‘s overseas content was built up from the Christmas 1942 issue, which carried Pearl Strachan’s weak resume ‘Contemporary Poets of the U.S.A.’; by the summer issue of 1943, the eight overseas contributors included writers from France, India, England, the United States and New Zealand, notably Britain’s multi-faceted Alex Comfort and America’s suave Karl Shapiro. Particular reverence for the French concept that writers should be engage was enshrined in the limpid expositions of editorial confidants A. R. Chisholm and Nettie Palmer. Reprinting arrangements were made with Partisan Review, and the literary editor of the Spectator was approached unsuccessfully for regular ‘London Letters’.
As far as reciprocal contact was concerned, the Americans were the most responsive group and lively contacts developed. particularly through members of the United States army in Australia who arrived insatiably curious, agreeably free-spending and apparently without the presupposition of superiority common to ancient culture. to stimulate the market for Australian writing and painting. The Americans provided as well scarce copies of magazines, newspapers and books, helping to swell Christesen’s library, which held runs of Partisan Review, Sewanee Review, Poetry, Horizon, Science and Society, New Republic and others. Often the similarities of outlook and phraseology between Meanjin and its big brothers was uncannily close. Christesen’s preference for the term advance guard is an obligatory borrowing, and his A.B.C. talk ‘The Meanjin School’ printed in the journal in Winter 1943, has striking resemblances to the editorial in the second issue of the influential American magazine Poetry, which committed itself to keeping an ‘Open Door’. With true Australian modesty of conviction, Meanjin promised to keep the door only ajar!
The editorial policy which helped to explain Meanjin‘s longevity, the determination to preserve an ‘open forum’, to foster healthy controversy, to present all viewpoints thus facilitating rational choice, acted against parochial preoccupations and was well established in the first five years of the journal’s existence. Father Edward Stormon, who brought Eliot’s Four Quartets to Meanjin‘s often apprehensive audience, praised Christesen’s attempt to reconcile the distinctively Australian and the characteristically European without loss to either. Others saw the potential weakness of Meanjin‘s throw at being all things to all men and to present all views without consistently backing any particular one (except of course the barracking for a national culture). Herbert Vintner detected a loss of force and vitality in Meanjin‘s failure to arouse strong criticism; Harry Hooton judged that Meanjin‘s organic strength was weakened by the vibrancy of competing voices. Not belonging to the moral uplift school of Australian culture, A.D. Hope was more cerebral, deploring woolly thinking and emotional sloppiness, the acceptance of bad articles on important subjects. Yet others deemed Meanjin cliquey and elitist. The cacophony of conflicting judgment about the magazine’s role showed that it was widely regarded as more than the organ of a northern coterie devoted solely to celebrations of ‘the rosella in the poinsettia tree’, ‘tall corn and alfalfa’ and the duties of ‘Cape York poets’.
The narrowness of Brisbane’s literary and political life, stifling to Meanjin’s impatient aspirations, was exacerbated by statements of intent to close the magazine and the decline of Christesen’s personal relationships. J. K. Ewers wrote to Ingamells that Christesen was ailing, threatening to dump Meanjin and retreat to the islands. FitzGerald received much the same message: rows with Vrepont and Grano, silence about the fate of Picot who had been a prisoner-of-war since the fall of Singapore, illness and overwork, lack of editorial assistance, resignation from job. Complaints of defections, boycotts, political pressure and the weight of sole editorial responsibility led Devaney in April 1944 to hazard the futility of reliance on older and implicitly spent writers. He tactfully drew attention to Christesen’s tendency to over-react to events and to demand too much of his associates. Meanjin had, after all, been a free assumption of responsibility on Christesen’s part, he concluded.
The relationship with Grano had foundered in mid-1942, when several Australian writers found themselves slightly tarred with the Australia First brush. Drawn by the movement’s seductive cultural nationalism, Christesen has been an early subscriber to the Publicist, had corresponded willingly with P.R. Stephensen, W.J. Miles and S.B Hooper, and had promoted with qualifications one of the movement’s pet texts, Morley Roberts’ glib Bio-Politics, in an editorial. When the police, hopeful of finding a coven of genuine traitors, conducted raids on the premises of AF members and sympathisers, including Grano’s Brisbane flat, letters from Christesen were found tenuously linking him with Stephensen and his loquacious associates. Increasingly repelled by Stephensen’s hydrophobic political lunges, Christesen was spared the direct attention of the law, but the experience was unnerving. Though much less wary then Christesen in his attitude to the movement, Grano’s support for AF principles had been more perfervid than concrete, more nationalistic than political, but his fingers had been burnt over the raids and he, perhaps hysterically, blamed Christesen for spreading news of the indignity meted out to him.
Relations between them were aggravated by Christesen’s detection of a campaign against Meanjin among Roman Catholic writers. Grano denied the claim, but the conviction was fuelled by the dignified withdrawal from association with Meanjin of Catholic poet and critic, Martin Haley. Grano’s literary outlook was also conservative and, inclining to the straight and narrow, he found Meanjin‘s ‘open forum’ policy debilitating. For a while he was aligned with the Jindyworobaks, and from time to time revived his scheme for founding a militant Roman Catholic magazine. In the event he broke with everyone and retreated into the safer cul-de-sac of dogma.
The friendship with Vrepont was shattered more because of a clash of personalities than disputes about literary policy or political belief. Though much older than Christesen, Vrepont was forward-looking on social and literary matters; but his streak of bravura was resented by the more conformist in the local pantheon, and he could be both irascible and patronising. Personal irritations accumulated, and the rift culminated in a violent disagreement over Christesen’s contention that contributors should also be subscribers, an opinion garnished with complaints that Meanjin‘s ostensible helpers were disloyal, fickle and half-hearted. By the middle of 1942 Christesen confided to Ingamells that most of his old friends had pulled out of the magazine. Some of the trouble emanated from a feeling in Brisbane that Meanjin was deserting its source by extending its interests Australia-wide, then flinging its net ambitiously towards overseas contributors. Christesen retaliated with the perennial claim that Brisbane had not been kind to its literary offspring. Victor Kennedy gleefully described the ructions of ‘literary revolutions and schisms’ up north. Tactfully forth right, Nettie Palmer warned Christesen of the dangers of alienating old Brisbane friends and collaborators, some of whom, justifiably or not, felt excluded, and advised him of the need for unity and strength if Meanjin were to survive.
Since they are often seen to be gratuitous, literary magazines are ultimately dependent on patronage. There were therefore problems of finance as well as of diplomacy. Christesen’s collaboration with the magazine’s financial guarantor, J. V. Duhig, had ended in rancour. Financial insecurity had been endemic from the start, and dependence on the quirks of an individual patron was a role for which Christesen was temperamentally unsuited. The circumstances of the rupture between the two men are obscured by the sound and fury generated; but it probably emanated from Duhig’s insistence that the overseeing of Meanjin‘s business affairs was a corollary of his offer to secure the journal’s financial survival, and Christesen’s consequent ‘intolerable feeling that I was being laced under a financial obligation’. Duhig’s approach in late 1943 was conciliatory to the point of flattery about Christesen’s editorial skill, but he was firm in insisting that ‘some kind of trust takes over the general management’, that regular policy meetings be held, and that the journal should come out regularly. Acting with an impulse which left no room for compromise, Christesen contacted an accountant in January 1944 and informed Duhig through his secretary, who was also on loan to Meanjin, that the magazine’s routine management was now in the hands of a professional. The move included the summary removal of subscribers’ cards from the secretary’s office. By the middle of February the break was complete. Christesen had perhaps had his first advanced lesson in the impossibility of being ‘free and dependent at the same time, a lesson which was to be prolonged and refined by his experience at the University of Melbourne.
Negotiations for Meanjin‘s move to Melbourne were under way by mid-1944, through correspondence with Donovan Clarke and Colin Badger of the University of Melbourne’s Extension Board. When a southerly shift was mooted, Melbourne and Sydney were rival venues. ‘The second largest publisher in Sydney’ had apparently offered attractive terms which continued to lure Christesen even after arrangements to go to Melbourne were ostensibly finalised. However the enthusiasm and patience of Clarke and Badger won the day, with the support of Extension Board members philosophy professor Boyce Gibson and joyous Meanjin contributor A.R. Chisholm, and the backing of chancellor J.D.G. Medley. Ewers predicted that the journal might graduate to the status of a fully fledged literary review through its removal to ‘the city of fogs and self sufficiency’. Max Harris, who had been defended by the dons and roughed up by the philistines, warned cheekily, ‘Beware of Professors!’
The only literary journal in Melbourne at the time was A Comment, insecure, irregular, and bravely amateurish, which finally perished in 1947 for want of 150 subscribers. Clarke and Badger had considered establishing an ambitious magazine in Melbourne, a project known to the Palmers; but they decided instead to adopt Meanjin, which had many of the desired intellectual qualities and a committed readership. The ideal, as Clarke put it, was a quarterly which would be more academic then Meanjin, and more creative than The Aust.Quarterly. The sort of thing that could give a man 30,000 words for a critical article if it was required, or could print a long short story. Something say after the type of Revue Des Deux Mondes.
The advantages to Meanjin were the prospect of a grander literary life in Melbourne, the link with Melbourne University Press, the provision of accommodation, secretarial assistance and limited financial support by the University, and the chance to become ‘the real literary periodical for the country’. As an associate rather than employee of the University, Christesen was free to engage in freelance activities such as journalism, and to determine editorial policy without interference from the University administration.
The offer was comprehensive, full of potential and couched in flattering terms. Christesen appeared elated by the tribute, and by his chance for freedom from the routine and mundane aspects of the editorial role. However there were disconcerting ambiguities: in the amount and duration of financial support offered, and in grey areas in the arrangement for association with M.U.P., whose manager was writing in terms that Christesen interpreted as potentially predatory. Extension Board association was likely to involve an editorial board, which Christesen welcomed as an advent of expertise without foreseeing the inevitable territorial disputes and de facto censorship. The question of whether the University Council was aware of the commitment undertaken was to bedevil Meanjin-University liaison indefinitely.
By the end of 1944 the shape of Meanjin had been determined. Publication was quarterly, the size of each issue had increased, and circulation was approximately 4,000. The contents included creative writing in poetry and prose from within Australia and without, art work and art criticism, articles on the Cinderella of the arts in Australia, music, anthropology, politics, cultural philosophy, education and the condition of society, impassioned spurts of editorial comment, extensive book reviews and snippets of current literary affairs, poems like Hope’s ‘Australia’ and Judith Wright’s ‘For New England’, Margaret Preston on ‘Some Aspects of Contemporary Art’ and Manning Clark on ‘Mateship’, the full range of rumination on Australianism from Elkin’s ‘Steps into the Dreamtime’, Chisholm’s lustrous ‘This Atlantis’ to Max Harris’s send-up of the Jindyworobaks in ‘Dance Little Wombat’, and just before the departure from the piquant city, an interested coverage of the iceberg that scuttled the Angry Penguin, I’affaire Malley. The magazine’s reputation was secure though contentious, and a correspondence network throughout Australia and overseas had been secured, including Meanjin talent scouts in Melbourne (Nettie Palmer), Sydney (A. D. Hope), Adelaide (Brian Elliott) and Perth (J.K. Ewers). Press reviews spoke glowingly of the magazine as a national enterprise. H.M. Green, who awarded most of the gold and silver stars in Australian literature, had removed the accolade of leading the Australian verse renaissance from the Jindyworobaks and transferred it to Meanjin. Though not a choice selection, Meanjin Press publications had gained a modest reputation for taste and enterprise, enhanced in 1946 by the publication of Judith Wright’s first volume The Moving Image. Above all, the magazine’s distinctive flavour had been concocted: lively, combative, inquisitive, eclectic, committed equally to a broad national awareness and a cosmopolitan openness to ideas. From their weather-ridden and sometimes supercilious anchorage in Melbourne and its premier University, the original footprints, deplored by some for their incorrigible leftness and by others for their endemic straightness, were to continue to strike a course towards that ‘Australia of the spirit’ which was destined to supersede the land of hope and glory.
Lynne Strahan was editorial consultant then Associate Editor of Meanjin from late 1968 to early 1973. Subsequently she catalogued the Meanjin Collection now in the Baillieu Library at the University of Melbourne.