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Any survey of the work done by Australian authors suggests a question as to what length of time ought to be allowed for the development of distinctive national characteristics in the literature of a young country self-governing to the extent of being a republic in all but name, isolated in position, highly civilised, enjoying all the modern luxuries available to the English-speaking race in older lands, and with a population fully two-thirds native. The common saying that a country cannot be expected to produce literature during the earlier state of its growth is too vague a generalisation. There are circumstances by which its application may be modified. It certainly does not apply with equal force to a country whose early difficulties included race conflicts, war with an external power and political labours of great magnitude, and to another whose commercial and social development, carried on under more modern conditions by a people almost entirely homogeneous, has been facile, unbroken and extraordinarily rapid.

Nor can paucity of literary product, where it exists, be satisfactorily explained by the unrest that continues in a new land long after it has attained material prosperity and the higher refinements of life. The Americans are a type of an extremely restless people. They have been so throughout the greater part of their history, and the characteristic is now more marked than ever. It is a fixed condition of their national being, an expression of the cumulative ambition that is the source of their varied progress. Yet from time to time men have arisen among them who not only have given intimate views of a new civilisation, but have added something to the permanent stock of what Matthew Arnold used to call ‘the best that is known and thought in the world.’ Even when the independent nationhood of the United States was still but an aspiration, Benjamin Franklin had familiarised Europe with much that has since been recognised as inherent in the modes of thought and manners of the Western race.

The bulk of the literature of America is, of course, still small in proportion to the culture and intellectual energy of the country; but it has been and is sufficient to interpret in a more or less distinctive way all the leading phases in the evolution of the national thought and sentiment. The subtle influence of the deeply-grounded religious feeling which, implanted by the Puritan pioneers, has survived generations of intense absorption in material progress and the distractions that modern life offers to the possessors of newly-acquired wealth; the pride of the people in their independence, and their natural tendency to overrate it in comparison; with the conditions of other countries; the contrasts furnished by a society fond of reproducing European habits, yet retaining a simplicity and freshness of its own: these and other features in the progress of the United States for over a century may be found expressed in its literature from the native standpoint, and not merely from that of the intelligent outside observer.

An American writer in discussing, a few years ago, the quality of the literature produced before the War of Secession, when wealth and leisure were abundant among the planters and in the principal New England towns, observed that ’there would seem to be something in the relation of a colony to the mother-country which dooms the thought and art of the former to a hopeless provincialism.’ If a comment so largely fanciful could be made respecting Australasia and Canada, it would practically mean at all events from the American point of view that as long as they remain dependencies of Great Britain, and therefore lack the stimulus of an active patriotism, so long will much of whatever is individual in their social development and national aspirations be without expression. In the case of the Australasian colonies it would further mean (apart from any consideration of their future independence) that a people far removed from other communities of the same race and already giving promise of being the greatest power south of the equator, must continue for an indefinite period to be wholly sustained and swayed in matters of thought and art by a country over twelve thousand miles distant that happens for the present to offer the most convenient markets in which to buy and sell. The point need hardly be discussed, but it suggests some facts in the intellectual life of Australia that it will be of interest to name. These may not be found to explain why there is yet no sign of the coming of an Antipodean Franklin or Irving, or Hawthorne or Emerson; but they will help to show why the literature of the country grows so unevenly, why it is chiefly of the objective order and leaves large tracts of the life of the people untouched.

Perhaps the paradox that a people may read a great deal and yet not be interested in literature could hardly be applied to the Australians, but it is a fact that they make no special effort to encourage the growth of a literature of their own. By no means unconscious of their achievements in other directions in political innovations, in sport and athletics they appear not to take any pride in or see the advantage of promoting creative intellectual work. Will this be considered natural and reasonable, as already they are supplied with books and plays and pictures from England and Europe, or as a proof of thoughtlessness and neglect? ‘Why,’ asked a critic in the Edinburgh Review in 1819, ‘should the Americans write books when a six weeks’ passage brings them, in their own tongue, our sense, science, and genius in bales and hogsheads?’ Are the Australians of these days asking themselves a similar question? It would seem so. In 1894 they imported books, magazines and newspapers from the United Kingdom to the value of L363,741: this, too, at a time when most of the colonies were understood to be rigidly economising in consequence of a financial crisis. A decade before the amount was not far short of a hundred thousand pounds higher.

Foremost in his list of the salient intellectual tendencies of the native population of the United States Mr. Bryce places ’a desire to be abreast of the best thought and work of the world everywhere, and to have every form of literature and art adequately represented and excellent of its kind, so that America shall be felt to hold her own among the nations.’ And he further attributes to them ’an admiration for literary or scientific eminence, an enthusiasm for anything that can be called genius, with an over-readiness to discover it.’

Artistic talent in America has from an early period in the history of the country enjoyed the stimulus of local respect and attention. Mr. Henry James has testified to the ‘extreme honour’ in which writers and artists have always been held there. Literature is now a subject of special systematic study in all the important schools; literary organisations are numerous, including no fewer than five thousand circles for the study of Shakespeare; authorship has become something like a craze in fashionable society; the intelligence of the criticism in the weekly press is on the whole equal to that in English journals; and several of the magazines are largely devoted to the more artistic kinds of writing. If the results of these incentives to production seem comparatively small, as they undoubtedly do, it must not be forgotten that the profession of letters in America long suffered, and is still suffering, from the absence of international copyright law. Before the year 1891 the markets were filled with cheap reprints of British and European works (often of an inferior class), and even now authors have to encounter competition with a vast quantity of foreign matter of which copyright, owing to the peculiar conditions of the law and of the publishing trade, is often obtained at prices much below its real value.

It is not, however, the native literary product of America that is noteworthy so much as the widespread and conscious taste for literature among the people, and the means which they adopt to promote it. The best friend of Australia could not credit it at present with any markedly active desire ’to have every form of literature and art adequately represented and excellent of its kind.’ In this respect the results of the high standard of education attained in the Government schools and the subsidised Universities are disappointing. The Universities of Sydney and Melbourne will soon be fifty years old, but neither is yet represented with distinction in the higher forms of literature and art. The Governments, at least, do their duty. Having liberally provided for school education, they spend annually large sums in making additions to picture-galleries, in maintaining libraries (of which there are over eleven hundred), technological schools and museums, and in other ways adding to the comfort and enlightenment of the people. But large private contributions are rare, and the founding or endowment of public institutions still rarer.

Of societies or clubs devoted specially to the interests of literature there are very few probably not half a dozen. Here and there among the upper classes there are little coteries whose members read the English and French reviews, and are well posted in all movements of interest in the world of letters, but there is no actual organisation among them, and they do not seek to extend their influence. Their ambition is confined to providing for their personal improvement and pleasure. The reading of the people, though extensive, is not serious nor in any way specialised, unless a recent notably high average of borrowing in the historical departments of a few of the free libraries be taken into account. The leading book exporters in London say that throughout the Antipodes the public demand is confined, as in England, mainly to the ‘general’ literature of the hour. ’Whatever has succeeded in London will usually succeed in Australia’ is the invariable remark of the exporter and the first principle that guides his tentative selection in the case of all newly-published works. The circulation of the best British weekly and monthly reviews by some of the principal subscription libraries helps the reader to choose for himself, but if he should wish to buy a new book, however valuable, that has not become popular in the business sense, he will probably have to send to London for it.

The wealthy people seem to select their reading-matter chiefly with a view to entertainment. Not long ago the manager of one of the most fashionable of the Melbourne circulating libraries said that about ninety per cent. of the female and seventy-five per cent. of the male frequenters of such libraries in Australia read only novels. But this average is perhaps rather over-stated, being given at a time when there was an exceptional demand for certain novels that had obtained notoriety by an audacious treatment of sex questions and English society.

A glance at the fare which fourteen of the London publishers provide in their colonial editions is of interest. Excellent value, of its kind, is usually offered in these issues, but here again we find proclaimed an excessive preference for light prose literature. Of 264 volumes in one ‘colonial library,’ 238 are of fiction. Sketches, memoirs, reminiscences and a few essays make up most of the balance. The taste of the working classes, so far as it can be ascertained from the records of the principal free libraries, is, curious as it may seem, decidedly sounder than that attributed to the customers of the subscription libraries. It must be remembered, however, that the former are seldom tempted with new fiction, and never with fiction of the spicy or questionable kind. Some of the larger institutions are rigidly exclusive in regard to the light kinds of literature.

Authorship in Australia loses an important incentive in the absence of local magazines. All of the better kind have lacked sufficient public support. Several of them, including the Colonial Monthly (established by Marcus Clarke), the Melbourne Review, the Centennial Magazine, and the Australasian Critic (the latter conducted by the professors of the Melbourne University) promised so well that their want of support is not easily explainable. It has been attributed to an unreasoning prejudice, an assumption that being locally produced they must necessarily be inferior; but this probably does the reading public less than justice. Apparently from their contents, most of the magazines failed because they were made too Australian in character, too unlike the English periodicals to which readers had been so long accustomed. There are many fine magazines in the United States, but their conductors do not make the mistake of trying to do without British and European contributions. They know the value of names as well as of matter. Foreign writers supply about one-third of the contents of the monthlies. When great interest suddenly attaches to some national question, their enterprise, like that of the newspapers of the country, sometimes takes the special form of securing cabled summaries of the opinions of influential politicians in Great Britain and elsewhere for immediate publication.

A contributory cause of the failure of Australian magazines is the fact that the cost of their mechanical production has always been higher than that of any of their imported competitors. This promises to be a difficulty for some years to come. Book-publishing, as a separate business, is also practically impossible, for like reasons. The Australian reader attaches no special value to the possibilities of the local magazine, partly because its place as a literary and art record is considered to be fairly supplied by the weekly newspapers. Moreover, it is said he demands cheapness as well as high quality in his periodicals, and knows that both can be got in several English, American and European magazines. If this be so, the same predilection will no doubt account for the spectacle of leading London firms sending to the colonies tons of their popular modern books in paper covers, and offering them at about half the price charged in the United Kingdom, where they are obtainable only in cloth-bound editions.

That no one has yet lived by the production of literature in Australia is not a matter for surprise. No one, indeed, would seriously think of attempting to do so. Gordon was a mounted policeman, a horse-breaker, a steeplechase-rider anything but a professional man of letters; Marcus Clarke was a journalist and playwright, and wrote only two novels in fourteen years; Rolf Boldrewood’s books were written in spare hours before and after his daily duties as a country magistrate; Henry Kingsley returned to England before publishing anything; Kendall held a Government clerkship which he exchanged for journalism; Mr. Brunton Stephens is in the Queensland Civil Service; Mr. B. L. Farjeon’s colonial work was mainly done in connection with the New Zealand press; Messrs. Marriott, Watson, E. W. Hornung, J. F. Hogan, Haddon Chambers and Guy Boothby, among younger writers, have taken their talents to London; and none of the half-dozen female novelists have been dependent upon literature for a livelihood.

What, it may be asked, becomes of the best talent developed by the Australian schools and Universities? It is employed, or tries to find employment, in the practice of law, medicine, journalism and teaching. From law to politics is but a step in the colonies, and the chances of attaining Cabinet rank, rendered frequent by the prevailing aggressive form of party government, are often attractive to men of ability and ambition. The journalists are more or less drenched with politics all the year round, and they, too, occasionally find it an easy matter to vary their occupation by assisting in the active business of law-making. The tension of their daily lives, severer than that of the majority of press writers in Great Britain, leaves them little or no leisure for literary work of the higher kind, and generally the prospect of being compelled to send whatever they might write to the other end of the world for the chance of publication discourages effort. It may safely be said that there are young men on the editorial and reporting staffs of a dozen of the principal journals who possess ability that would secure them distinction in the wider fields of England or America. To their skill and spirited rivalry is due the universally high quality of the Antipodean press. Mr. David Christie Murray, writing after considerable experience of the colonies, and as one who had been an English journalist, said that on the whole he was ’compelled to think it by far and away the best in the world.’ The remark is without exaggeration so far as it applies to the large weekly journals.

The extent of the favour shown by Australian readers to the works of their own novelists is, as a rule, exactly proportioned to that which their merits have previously won in England. Booksellers and their London agents, who of course treat all literature from a purely commercial standpoint, are at all events unanimous in discrediting the existence in recent years of any prejudice against colonial fiction of the better class. It is now very seldom sent out in two or three volume form, they say, but neither are the most popular English novels, except occasionally to subscription libraries. For representative Australian work, then, there is a fair field but no favour. It is as though the function and existence of the authors apart from the rank and file of English letters were not recognised. There is an exception to this rule in the poet Gordon, as a portion of his writings, the Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes, irresistibly commemorate the national love of horseflesh and outdoor life. Every Australian now knows that For the Term of his Natural Life is a great novel of its class; but as a leading Victorian journalist (Mr. James Smith) once pointed out in an article in the Melbourne Review, Clarke’s real merit was for years undervalued, because he was known to be ‘only a colonial writer.’ Thousands of English, European and American readers had admired the novel before they thought of inquiring who the writer was or whence he came. It is true that the story attracted a good deal of interest in Australia even during its first appearance as a serial, but from elsewhere came its recognition as one of the novels of the century.

The authors whose lives and writings are briefly sketched in this volume are all noted in some degree for accuracy and sincerity in their representation of life in Australia. They have all written from abundant knowledge from love, also, perhaps it may be added of this great wide land with its brilliant skies, its opportunities and its wholesome pleasures. That they should fail to cover their field that they tell too much of country life and adventure and too little of the throb and energy of the cities is in a large measure explained by the fact that their books are of necessity primarily written for English readers.

Somehow it is assumed that people in the mother-country continue to be interested only in the picturesque, the curious and the unusual in Australian life. The idea is in part a survival from earlier years when a host of military officers, Civil Servants, journalists and tourists described in some form the more obvious peculiarities of the colonies: their giant, evergreen forests, strange amorphous animals, aristocratic gold-diggers, ex-convicts in carriages, and general state of topsy-turveydom. There is quite an amazing variety of occasional records of this class in forgotten books, magazines and pamphlets. In at least a score of well-known novels there are charming country scenes, true in every particular; but there is a distinct limit to the power of fiction of this kind to interest remote readers, while much repetition of it might well be misleading.

A writer in the Australasian Critic once rightly observed, respecting a batch of short stories of the conventionally Australian kind, that English readers might ’fancy from them that big cities are unknown in Australia; that the population consists of squatters, diggers, stock-riders, shepherds and bushrangers; that the superior residences are weatherboard homesteads with wide verandas, while the inferior ones are huts and tents.’ No foreign reader could understand from them that ’more than half the Australian population have never seen kangaroos or émus outside a zoological garden, and that not one in a hundred, or even a thousand, has seen a wild black fellow.’ There is a well-known type of Australian novel to which the same remarks might apply with almost equal fitness.

The lack of interest on the part of the novelists in the cities is the more noticeable because they contain one-third of the whole population of the country, a proportion said not to have a parallel in any other part of the world. This neglect is surely a mistake, founded on an erroneous conception of the tastes of the English public, and resulting partly from the absence of anything like a local literary influence upon the writers. ’Have the stress and turmoil of a political career no charm?’ asks Mr. Edmund Gosse, in referring to the restricted scope of the English novel, and in making a plea for ‘a larger study of life.’

The same question might with very good reason be raised concerning the political life of Australia, which has been almost entirely neglected since Mrs. Campbell Praed used up the best of her early impressions and settled in England. The majority of the writers of fiction who continue to live in the country are women, and possibly not interested in politics; but the chief reason why the romance is seldom written of the Cabinet Minister who started life as a gold-digger or draper’s assistant, or of the democratic legislator whose first election was announced to him through a hole in a steam-boiler that he was riveting, is to be found in a belief that it would not be appreciated in the far-off land whither all Australian books must go for the sanction of their existence. Here again the British reader appears to be misjudged, for has he not accepted from another direction, and enjoyed, Democracy and Through One Administration? Mrs. Praed, lightly skimming the surface of Antipodean political life in two of her stories, has shown it to be not without humour, nor lacking in the elements of more serious interest. But she cannot be said to have exhibited any particular belief in the political novel, and none of the more practised among her colonial contemporaries has ever given it a trial.

On the main question of a national literature it will perhaps be concluded that Australia has yet scarcely any need to be concerned: that not much must be expected from a civilisation which, though it has been rapid, began little more than a century ago; and that the existence of wealth, and the possibilities of leisure and culture which wealth affords, cannot produce the same effect upon art in a new country as in an old one. The whole matter no doubt is somewhat difficult of decision. It has been none the less useful to indicate why so little of the work already done is the work of native writers why the existence of much of the best of it may almost be considered accidental. And while a refusal to take the trouble of independently judging the worth of a local artistic product may or may not be an invariable characteristic of a new country, it was also right to contradict on the best available authority the assertion of a ‘prejudice’ against the work of Australian authors.

A portion of the talent that cannot be absorbed in the already overcrowded ranks of law and medicine might find employment in building a literature which should have something of national savour in it, if migration to England were no longer a condition of success to those who would make writing a profession, as migration to New York or Boston is similarly found to be a necessity to the young Canadian man or woman of letters. It need not be wished that the colonial Governments would do more than they have done certainly not that they would create a sort of civil pension list, as a section of the Legislative Assembly of Victoria contemplated doing ten years ago in discussing a proposed grant to the family of Marcus Clarke. But the Universities might extend their influence, and those who have leisure might combine to introduce some of the methods which have helped to create a living public interest in literature and art in European countries. In other words, there is needed an increased sense of responsibility in the cultured class: those people, among others, who yearly help to fill the luxurious ocean steamships on their long journeys to the Old World, and who bring back so singularly little practical enthusiasm for their own land in the South.

Meanwhile it is encouraging to note the high promise of the work of some of the younger writers. Mary Gaunt (Mrs. H. Lindsay Miller), the daughter of a well-known Victorian judge, has, in The Moving Finger, raised the short story to an artistic level hardly approached by any other Australian writer. And Mrs. Alick Macleod, author of An Australian Girl and The Silent Sea, has given in the former novel a fine story, despite some irregularities of form the most perfect description of the peculiar natural features of the country ever written. For the first time the Bush is interpreted as well as described. In the attitude displayed in this story towards the fashionable life of the towns there is habitual impatience and occasional scorn. The sketches of Mrs. Anstey Hobbs’ efforts to found a salon, the flirtations of Mrs. Lee-Travers who ’chose her admirers to suit her style of dress’ Laurette Tareling’s solemn respect for Government House, and the generally satirical view of the ’incessant mimicking of other mimicries,’ are no doubt justified; they are often decidedly entertaining. But it would of course be a mistake to accept all this as more than a partial view of Melbourne society. The book does not pretend to deal with it in other than an incidental manner. Mrs. Macleod’s studies of character and often clever dialogue suggest that she might profitably adapt to the presentation of Australian life the quiet intensity of Tourgueneff, or the delicately observant style of the American critical realists, Henry James, W. D. Howells and Richard Harding Davis. And here one wonders whether the Australian novelists who find so little material in Sydney and Melbourne have seen what the new writer, Henry B. Fuller, has done with the life of modern unromantic Chicago?

According to Mr. Howells, America, through the medium of its own particular class of novel, ’is getting represented with unexampled fulness.’ The writers ’excel in small pieces with three or four figures,’ and are able conveniently to dispense with sensationalism a point not yet reached by Antipodean novelists. ‘Every now and then,’ he says, referring to the extreme of this type, ’I read a book with perfect comfort and much exhilaration, whose scenes the average Englishman would gasp in. Nothing happens; that is, nobody murders or debauches anybody else; there is no arson or pillage of any sort; there is not a ghost, or a ravening beast, or a hair-breadth escape, or a shipwreck, or a monster of self-sacrifice, or a lady five thousand years old in the whole story; “no promenade, no band of music, nossing!” as Mr. Du Maurier’s Frenchman said of the meet for a fox-hunt. Yet it is all alive with the keenest interest for those who enjoy the study of individual traits and general conditions as they make themselves known to American experience.’ As the Transatlantic social conditions, of which the realistic novel with only three or four figures is understood to be the outcome, are being more or less repeated in Australia, a similar literary medium will probably be found best adapted to the portrayal of life there. At least it may be claimed that there is no lack of material in the shape of individual traits which have not yet been suitably described in any form.