Literary Criticism (Australian, History of)
I discover, too, that other perceptions – of Australian literature – all but erased his [Roy Bridges’] literary legacy.
Writing in 1984, John Docker observed that “radical nationalists have been and remain . . . very important in their varied contributions to Australian literature” (16). Twenty years earlier, Grahame Johnston had written that “literary commentary in this country has suffered from two main defects,” one of which is a “tendency to overvalue ‘Australianness’” (viii).
Famously, so-called radical nationalism reached its first zenith in the 1890s with “The Bulletin school” (Stephensen 57), at a time when literary criticism was becoming organised (Pierce, “The Critical Reception” 359) and when “questions about the nature and limits of truly Australian writing were answered largely but not entirely in nationalistic terms” (Heseltine 201). What followed in the early decades of the twentieth century was the foregrounding of a “less chauvinistic attitude” (James 55). This was, according to the patriots, a “dreary period in Australian literary confidence”, one dominated, firstly, by English academics who saw Australian literature as an offshoot of British literature (Dutton, Snow 16-18), and, secondly, by the so-called “cultural cringe” (Phillips 112-117). At this time, Australian culture was, A.A. Phillips argued, too “urban” (and urbane); too derivative and imitative of all things English (62-68). This was precisely the period in which Bridges flourished as a novelist, the bulk of his fiction being published between 1909 and 1941.
Radical nationalism resurfaced in the late 1930s, in the form of the “Jindyworobak Movement,” “a reaction [in part] against contemporary colonialist attitudes” that owed its impetus to Stephensen and others (“Jindyworobak” 408). The influence of this movement was still being felt in the 1960s (Bird et al. xv). Here is Stephensen, writing in 1936: “Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson may be regarded as typical pioneers of indigenous culture in Australia. Whatever their faults, their work has an outstanding quality of being drawn direct from Australian life, and not from a bookish or ‘literary’ idea, in imitation of English poets . . . Their work is crude enough in parts; it is the raw material of an Australian culture.” Stephensen contrasts Paterson and Lawson with the poet, Henry Kendall, whose “mind had an ‘English’ cast . . . he wanted to please the English. Kendall wrote of Australia, but in a prim English way, not in a robust Australian way” (29).
In many ways, this excerpt encapsulates the shift in literary perceptions that took place in Australia in the mid-twentieth century, by whose standards Roy Bridges’ work was found wanting. As we have seen, Bridges’ novels are conventional romances couched in a cultured and conservative style – the very antithesis of the realist works espoused by nationalistic critics. His characters and settings, too, are beyond the patriotic pale.
In The Australian Legend, Russel Ward argues that, according to the nationalistic mythos, the typical Australian resembles a nineteenth-century bushman; “a practical man,” that is, who is “rough and ready in his manners and quick to decry any appearance of affectation in others” (1-2). Aborigines, women and city-dwellers were clearly marginalised in this ideal (Huggan 55). (Exegesis)