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Bible Encyclopedias

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

Australian Literature

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"AUSTRALIAN LITERATURE. - Australia's beginning was from a literary standpoint unfortunate. The primitive aborigines had no history and no legendary lore which, finding expression through some of the first colonists, might have added to the world's stock of romance. The exploring of the continent - the siege of the Blue Mountains with their baffling natural fortifications, the conquest of the great fastnesses of the sun on the dry inland plains - might have inspired an epic, but no one of the explorers nor of their contemporaries attempted more than a bare record. The sordid convict era inspired one book - For the Term of his Natural Life (1874), by Marcus Clarke - which is made notable by its subject rather than its treatment. The bushranging era inspired another - Robbery Under Arms (1888), by " Rolf Boldrewood " (T. A. Browne) - of which the same may be said. Those are the two master works of early Australian letters. Yet neither is distinctively Australian in the sense of showing a different outlook on life or a different sense of literary values, to that of the average contemporary English writer. The same may be said of the poems of Adam Lindsay Gordon, who wrote in Australia of Australian subjects from the standpoint of an English squire.

At a later epoch, when there was less promising material, there came the beginning of a characteristic Australian literature giving great promise which as yet has not been fulfilled. The people - bred from the wilder and more enterprising of English, Scottish and Irish stock, responding to the influence of the bountiful, sometimes fierce, sunshine, and to conditions of life which are singularly free from any bonds of convention and tend to the levelling of social conditions - have departed somewhat from the home type. They are gay and debonair, whilst a little inclined to be cynical, irreverent and vainglorious; enduring and brave, even to the point of being somewhat ruthless. The qualities of these new people, the Australians, begin to show in their literature, which is as yet more impressive in quantity than in quality. There are at least one hundred minor poets of some skill and originality of thought in Australia (with five million inhabitants), and nearly that number of prose writers of distinction - all showing to the close observer some signs to distinguish them from writers of the same class in Great Britain and in America.

A hedonistic joy in life, a disrespect for authority, a wit tinged with cruelty, a freakish humour founded on wild exaggeration - those are the qualities which outcrop most often in exploring the fields of contemporary Australian literature. There is to be found, tpo, a tinge of mystic melancholy, a sense of bitterness - a loving bitterness - inspired by the harsh realities of life in the " bush " where Nature makes great demands on human endurance before permitting her conquest, but enslaves her wooers by her very cruelty.

This modern Australian literature owed very much to one man - J. F. Archibald (1858-1919). He was of partly Scottish, partly Irish, partly French forbears, with a touch of Semitic blood. Editor for a quarter of a century of a notable Australian paper, he made it his mission to encourage young Australians to write of the life that was peculiar to Australia. He was a wit with a fine flair for a phrase; a sentimental cynic; and passionately Australian. Mainly under his aegis there came forward a young school of writers which included Henry Hertzberg Lawson (b. 1867), who has given in short stories and verse faithful, sometimes terrible, glimpses of the " bush "; Andrew Barton (" Banjo ") Paterson (b. 1864), a singer of the rackety, horsey life of Australian sheep stations; George Louis Becke (1848-1913), who pictured South Sea Island life; Arthur Hoey Davis (" Steele Rudd," b. 1868), who writes broadly comic and yet sympathetic studies of life on the small farms of Australia; Roderic Quinn (b. 1869), and the late Victor Daley (both of Irish extraction and giving in their verse two different and yet both characteristically Australian modifications of Celtic melancholy); Edwin James Brady (b. 1869), writer of sea songs; Ethel Turner (Mrs. H. R. Curlewis, b. 1872), English-born but Australian by education, a graceful novelist of Australian childhood; Bernard O'Dowd (b. 1866); Barbara Baynton, Mary Gaunt, James Francis Dwyer (b. 1874) and many others. Some of these owed much, some little, directly to Archibald and his newspaper. But without a doubt he was the chief founder of a new Australian literary movement.

Within the decade 1910 -20 there was very little that was characteristically Australian in the literary product of the southern continent. An exception must be made for The Sentimental Bloke, by C. J. Dennis, a collection of verse which showed original qualities of humour and sentiment. A distinctively Australian literary magazine, The Lone Hand, faded away after a period of apparently vigorous life.

Australian letters suffer from diffused energy. There are numberless writers of some ability, but no commanding figures. The future holds out a hope of Australian work of the first rank, inspired perhaps by the " bush " - the mysterious Neolithic-age forests, hills and plains - perhaps by the giant work of the early explorers, perhaps by the extremely fluid social conditions of a young country full of self-confidence as it grapples with the old, old problems of civilization.

The Australian newspaper press reproduces with close fidelity British press characteristics. The Melbourne morning journals, the Age and the Argus, follow traditions which in the British islands survive only in Scotland and the provinces; the Sydney morning journals, the Herald and the Telegraph, are somewhat more new-fashioned, and are comparable with their London contemporaries. Practically all Australian papers record fully not only the doings of their own parliamentary and municipal bodies but also British political history and foreign affairs. A new note of progress has come into Australian journalism since 1910 by the foundation of a cable news agency as a rival to the old agency which for many years had a monopoly of foreign news service. (F. F.)

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Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Australian Literature'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. 1910.

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