Early Aussie Lit

Early Australian Literature #

The early settlement is well documented by literate people who kept records - Captain Cook’s log, Captain Arthur Phillip’s correspondence, Watkins Tench’s two publications of the Expedition (1789) and A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island. (1793)

The Voyage of Governor Phillip was the first book to be published in London in 1789.

The first dramatic production was George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, performed by convicts in Sydney, 1789.

In 1795, The wooden printing press of the First Fleet was used.

The first theatre was opened in Sydney by Robert Sidway.

In 1803 The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser was founded by Governor King and printed by George Howe.

In 1819, George Howe published the first book of verse, First Fruits of Australian Poetry.

J.L. Michael founded the first privately owned newspaper, Australian (1824 - 1848)

In 1825, the Australian Subscription Library and Reading Room was established in Sydney.

In 1828, The Bushrangers, a drama was produced in Edinburgh.

In 1831 Sydney Herald begins publishing, changed to The Sydney Morning Herald in 1842.

In 1833 The Theatre Royal is founded in Sydney.

In 1835, The Bandit of the Rhine, by E. H. Thomas was the first play published in book form (now lost).

In 1838, the first novel by a woman, Anna Maria Bunn, The Guardian was published .

Writers #

Many Colonial writers feel rejected for three reasons;

  • the personal – they don’t fit in,
  • the environmental – a harsh climate, and
  • the professional; “How can you love people who don’t want to read your books?”

The true writer demands more than an audience; they want an educated audience, a shared background of mind – an audience that responds, that engages. When Ovid was banished from Rome to the fringes of its empire, he rued the fact that he had been silenced as few people could read - lamenting:

“writing a poem you can read to no one/is like dancing in the dark.”

Our first native born of pure convict stock was Charles Harpur. His father, Joseph Harpur, an Irishman was indicted in London for highway robbery, reprieved and transported, landing in Sydney in November 1800, assigned to John Macarthur.

His mother, Sarah Chidley at 13 was convicted of a minor offence in 1805 and arrived in Sydney in 1806, also assigned to John and Elizabeth Macarthur.

Charles was born in 1813. By this time his father had gained advancement as Schoolmaster at Windsor, so his children gained an education having access to a number of libraries, including Samuel Marsden’s, known as the “flogging parson”.

Harpur’s early poetry, inspired by the Australian muse evoked the actual beauty of a little town, planned by Governor Macquarie on the cultivated countryside of the river:

For I felt thee- ev’n then, wildly, wondrously musing
Of glory and grace by old Hawkesbury’s side.

The Creek of the Four Graves #

Later he picturises the majesty of the Blue Mountain in his signature poem The Creek of the Four Graves, a dated and set piece of the massacre by aborigines.

An heroic narrative - story telling, becomes a hallmark of early Australian literature. The Miltonian language is alien to the setting, the reliability of its physical descritiveness sets it firmly in a new country. Is this a new Eden, or as Lawson later portrayed it, Hell on earth?

The brutal violence portrayed is perpetrated by the indigenous natives arousing fear, when in reality most of the killing was done by the settlers against the aboriginals.

A settler, looking for wider pastures for his expanding flocks and herds, takes four of his men along. Camping out, just before dawn, he hears an imminent attack from the indigenous people. He manages to get one shot away before managing a desperate escape. His men are not so lucky and the creek acquires the name of Four Graves.

David Marr, in Killing For Country claims The Rum Rebellion, which dethroned Governor William Bligh, revealed the rising power of the entrepreneurial class in the early colony. Macarthur, Brisbane, Darling, Bourke, Gipps, FitzRoy – a long list of administrators who nominally ruled New South Wales over the coming decades – brought from London strict instructions that Indigenous Australians were to be treated fairly and decently as subjects of the Crown. These instructions were largely ignored.

This was because the squattocracy required ever more of the Crown’s land for merino sheep. Prized for their fine wool, merinos thrived in the vast paddocks created by Indigenous firestick farming. Those who could leverage their wealth or connections to gain huge tracts of such land, gratis. Their only obligation was to stock it.

NSW was, then, for Marr, “perfecting a unique form of colonial conquest: invasion by sheep”. The original inhabitants were dispossessed by the immense economic engine that wool created. Inevitably, once it became clear these great mobs with their shepherds and overseers were sticking around, resistance from the locals grew, leading to targeted attacks on isolated, outlying Europeans.

The only evidence of questioning the rightness or wrongness of the events, in Harpur’s poem is a vital verse contrasting the violence and the calm beauty of the setting Judith Wright claims editors elided.

For see, the bright beholding Moon, and all
The radiant Host of Heaven, evince no touch
Of sympathy with man’s wild violence –
Only evince in their calm course, their part
In that original unity of love

Under God’s hand, in the beginning chimed
The Sabbath concord of the Universe,

This appears a rare metaphysical reflection. For most writers, survival against a pitiless environment pre-empted philosophical concerns.

Exactly who transgressed, causing this breakdown in the harmony of the universe.

Romantics, like Wordsworth, claim man is a reflection of nature, however Coleridge disputes this by writing:

O Lady, we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone doth Nature live…

Written in a stilted Miltonian, descriptive and narrative style, stale and rhetorical, depicting Australian scenes, using old expressions more suited to England. Instead of Edenic possibilities, the poem emphasises the impediments facing the expansionist settlers.

Harpur was renown for his powers of observation, the accuracy of his eye and the truth of his descriptions. What moved him most are the mountains, the clouds and the play of light.

Judith Wright maintained that Harpur was the first Australian poet able to accept and delight in the strange new landscape of Australia. He was firm in his feeling that Australia would become a promising model for the Old World. Yet at the end of his life he mourned that:

I have had to mingle daily among men who have faith in nothing in God’s glorious universe that is not in their own vile phrase, “money’s worth”.

Against this he could only set his “damned unconquerable love of Song.”

Wright maintains Harpur remains unrecognised because of his convict origins, his radical stances and the lack of feeling for national feeling for native Australian writing. Harpur was a thinking poet rather than a lyric. He became a political advocate, not for the “have nots versus the haves”, but a reasoned passionate and even religious conviction based on a world that allowed equality to all men, not a material right; a spiritual duty.

Harpur is also credited with a verse play, called The Bushranger, A Play in Five Acts, in 1853, the first play to be written and performed by a native born playwright.

Wright claims Harpur was robbed of his proper due and place in Australian Literature. He was the fountainhead of opposing but mingling themes and preoccupations of Australian writers: exile from European consciousness and readaptation and of hope, the Utopian but recurrent hope of human brotherhood in the far end of the world:

My country, though rude yet and wild be thy nature,
This alone our proud love should beget and command.
There’s room in thy broad breast for Manhood’s full stature…

Eliza Hamilton Dunlop #

Eliza Hamilton Dunlop’s poem The Aboriginal Mother was published in The Australian on December 13, 1838, five days before seven men were hanged for their part in the Myall Creek massacre.

About 28 Wirrayaraay people died in the massacre near Inverell in northern New South Wales. Dunlop had arrived in Sydney in February, and the Irish writer was horrified by the violence she read about in the newspapers.

Moved by evidence in court about an Indigenous woman and baby who survived the massacre, Dunlop crafted a poem condemning settlers who professed Christianity but murdered and conspired to cover up their crime.

To read it go to: https://nebo-lit.com/women/australian-women-writers.html

Much of Australia’s literature has been relentlessly negative. Lawson felt he was simply being realistic, but Banjo Paterson and Josephy Furphy were more positive and optimistic.

World War I was a disillusionment for all colonial outposts, including Australians. It took about fifty years for recovery. A.D. Hope, Xavier Herbert and Patrick White wrote rather realistically. It was the 1960’s and the election of the Whitlam government that perked the spirit of a more brighter future.

Henry Handel RichardsonThe Fortunes of Richard Mahony - Australia Felix helped to put Australia on the literary map.

Neither a promoter of an alien British culture, nor a promoter of Australianess, rather an observer of what happened to human beings when they crossed the seas from Europe to the ancient barbaric continent - Australia. In turn what they did to the land, how they robbed it with their greed, their unholy hunger and how the terrible revenge the ancient continent extracted from them for their folly. How does a cultivated person with special sensibilities, born or adopted into a New World society and then in revulsion from that embrace the civilisation of the old world?

D.H, Lawrence commented similarily on a “happy-go-lucky, don’t worry, we’re in Australia”, the country where there seemed to be “no inside life of any sort, just a lapse and drift”. Australia, a land of pleasure and hedonism.

Craig McGregor was another one who wrote about the great Australian stupor; satirising the modern Australian man’s conformity to a stereotype; that of a vapid predictable routine and sterile existence. He unthinkingly or blindly conforms to a life devoid of meaning. Subsiding from spiritual transcendence we soon degenerate to the sterile, mundane and moral aridity of modern man’s values and aspirations. Instead of yearning for moral enlightenment or heavenly paradise, we attempt to create it here through rampant materialism and indulgent hedonism.

Note McGregor’s Behold the Man: https://nebo-lit.com/language/Exam-Essays/Comprehension-Behold-the-man.html

One obvious dichotomy between writer and reader is the melancholy, even despairing view contrasted by the reader’s cheerful acceptance of the place, blowflies, dullness and all. Gloom and outright hostility induced by Australia has been an enduring theme from Gordon, Clarke, Kendall, Harpur, Boake, Lawson, Baynton, Brennan, Henry Handel Richardson, Christina Stead, Xavier Herbert, Patrick White. In some the love-hate relationship seesaws, in some there is a fear and distrust of the land itself, in others a love betrayed by crass Australians. D.H. Lawrence found a lack of declarations of love that flaws Australian Literature; towards each other and of the country.

A.G. Stevens, an editor of the Bulletin blamed Henry Lawson’s lack of love on his Englishness, “he was one of us but not of us”.

Much the same was said of Joseph Furphy;he was with us, but he was not one of us”.

Stevens further says of Lawson’s Faces in the Street: Sydney in the 1890’s was for the average young man, a jolly town, with ample material for a cheerful life – work enough and wages enough, and freedom and sport enough. I have never seen a crowd so happy, so carefree, so full of high spirits as a gathering of young men at the Domain Baths on a Sunday morning. He felt Lawson was sadly excluded by his temperament and his hearing infirmity; he sat and brooded and wrote Faces in the Street. Lawson’s self epitaph was “Starved by cheap imported rubbish”.

Of Henry Handel Richardson’s Ultima Thule The Sydney Mail, recognised the almost unanimous praise that English authoritative critics heaped on this great Australian novel, but added anyone who takes up this book expecting to read anything typically Australian will be grievously disappointed. The unrelieved gloom permeated by blank despair does not reflect the happiness and humour beneath our sun.

Ron Saw writing about Manning Clark in 1979, uses almost the same expressions about “merchants of doom” taking Clark to task for saying that in the second half of the 1970’s (Post Whitlam) “a great sadness spread over a land nature seemed to have designed for gaiety and delight”.

Martin Boyd was another expatriate to suffer rejection. Despite chieving great success in England, few Australians took any notice of his writing in 25 years. Boyd’s books are not gloomy, but they are not at ease with Australia.

Robbery under Arms by Bolderwood is is not highly rated even though it represents a lightness and freshness often found missing in other works. It like Banjo Paterson’s poetry captures Blake’s aphorism,

“Energy is Eternal Light”.

By the 1960’s a renaissance or cultural re-awakening emerged with a sharing of response, magazines with high circulations began to open dialogue and we began to escape English domination.

Australian Satire #

Mungo MacCallum considered Barry Humphries the most brilliant and original Australian satirist of his generation; in the same league is Garry McDonald, with his invention of Norman Gunston.

Humphries has always been something of a Tory, but for many years his conservatism was largely irrelevant. His transphobic pronouncements, while obviously offensive, can be regarded as part of his deliberately provocative persona. And the idea that his name was expunged from Melbourne International Comedy Festival’s most prestigious award – the Barry Award – is precisely the kind of reaction he was, perhaps, looking for.

John Clarke and Brian Dawe became one of the most incisive and cutting political satirists, especially The Games.

Plenty of other Australian practitioners of comedy are memorable: Max Gillies and his writers, Roy Slaven and H.G. Nelson, the Chaser mob, and the team who gave us Frontline, The Castle and Utopia. Later MacCallum’s favourite comedian became Kitty Flanagan.

The historian John Hirst contends that while the Australian people despise politicians, but the politicians can extract an amazing degree of obedience from the people, while the people themselves believe they are anti-authority. Australians are suspicious of persons in authority, but towards impersonal authority they are very obedient.

Hirst, of course, had no problem finding evidence for his proposition. He could cite phenomena as diverse as compulsory voting, random breath testing, bans on smoking in public places and compulsory bike helmets. Most of us only begin to recognise the peculiarity of some of these ways that governments regulate our behaviour when we are outside the country, or if we have come from somewhere else.

Ceridwen Dovey feels incapable of criticising Australia despite its shameful history of annihilation and racism, its growing intolerance of foreigners of certain kinds and colours. It is relevant that South Africa’s policy of Apartheid was influenced by Australian attitudes to its indigenous and white Australia Policy, enforced until the late 1960’s.

Our inhumane treatment of asylum seekers fits in neatly with all early atrocities.