Sisters in law have their uses. Millie’s youngest sister on a visit from Sydney over the New Year was sorting through the bottom shelf, the junk shelf of the bookcase in Psyche’s old room and came across not just the last extant copy of my dissertation but my long missing First Edition copy of Vance Palmer’s The Legend of the Nineties (1954).
This is not just an important book in the history of ideas about what it is to be Australian, but a gorgeous book of nearly A4 (I guess Quarto) size on gloss paper and with one or two illustrations on every page. Palmer begins …
… there has grown up a legend of the Australian nineties as a period of intense artistic and political activity, in which the genius of this young country had a brief and brilliant first flowering. Something new, it is claimed, emerged into the light. A scattered people, with origins in all the corners of the British Islands and in Europe, had a sudden vision of themselves as a nation, with a character of their own and a historic role to play, and this vision set fruitful creative forces in motion.
Russell Ward’s The Australian Legend, arising out of his PhD thesis, was published four years later. So clearly this idea of the 1890s as a period of revolution in Australians’ idea of themselves was ‘in the air’, and of course we achieved federation and (limited) independence from England on 1 Jan 1901. However, Palmer argues that:
The truth seems to be that the various impulses, ideas, and aspirations that made up the Australian dream cannot be limited to a particular decade. They sought expression, in one form or another, during the whole period from Eureka  to the First World War…
If the nineties have seemed to stand out with special prominence it is partly because of the lively journalism that flourished at their beginning: weeklies like the Bulletin, the Boomerang, the Worker gave a suggestion that the national mind was in ferment as never before.
The very first subject Palmer deals with is White Australia, the fears rational or otherwise raised by the influx of Chinese onto the gold fields – “by the end of the fifties, in Victoria, one adult male in every seven was a Chinaman”, and the complete exclusion from consideration of Aborigines –
This culture, this imaginative life, had so little concrete form, was so much a matter of primitive habits and observances, that it had small chance of being taken seriously by people whose minds were preoccupied with a particular kind of progress.
But that is also the last he has to say (about Aborigines – our preoccupation with the “yellow hordes” remained front and centre).
For all its ‘leadership’ in democracy, Australians and their politicians were largely uncaring of the freedoms they had obtained more or less by accident – “the democratic forms that were taken for granted had not, like the Americans, a philosophic base.” But whether or not he could express it, the ordinary working man felt free. “The People in Australia breathes free,” wrote one English observer in the 1880s, “It does not feel the weight of the two great divisions of the middle class that are above it: the well-to-do and the gentle folk. Workmen here do not go slouching down the streets as they do in England, crushed under the sense of their inferiority.”
Palmer believes that the ordinary working Australian, as a type, began to appear as early as the 1820s and 30s. Visitors observed that locally born children were taller and hardier than their parents; the custom of a man ‘taking the track’ always throwing in his lot with a mate was well established; as was the custom – commented on often by Miles Franklin – of feeding passing travellers. “So we find, in less than a couple of generations after the first landing, a national type appearing …”
The Legend began in the Bush because the (white) men there were one people, unified by common experience and by the constant movement throughout the interior of livestock and workers. The cities, although more populous, were stratified by wealth and class, unionism didn’t take as well even in the manufacturing centre, Melbourne; and there was no commonality of purpose between the classes.
That the great bulk of Australia’s arable land, up until the Land Acts of the 1860s, was divided into the enormous runs of the squatters meant that by necessity the bulk of the rural workforce was itinerant, their myth making oral, almost entirely through ballads and tall stories, long lost even before the turn of the century. When Banjo Paterson began collecting ballads the earliest dated back only to the 1860s and the famous bushrangers: Ben Hall, Harry Power, Ned Kelly.
Compulsory schooling meant that by the 90s literacy was widespread; and newspapers and magazines circulated freely. “A great deal of the importance of myths, it must be insisted, lies in the way they reveal values actually held by their makers.” In the 1890s the myths of the Bush were circulated in written ballads, but still the old ways held. Miles Franklin recounts in the semi-autobiographical Cockatoos that young men into town for the Show would stand around a fire each waiting to recite his scrap of Paterson or Adam Lindsay Gordon.
Of the weeklies mentioned above, the Boomerang and the Worker were founded by William Lane, who with 800 followers, the cream of the recently-quashed union movement according to Palmer, sailed to found the utopian New Australia in Paraguay in 1893. That left the Bulletin under JF Archibald to become the bushman’s bible.
The Bulletin … stood for a republican form of government; payment of members; one person, one vote; state revenue derived directly from the land; complete secularization of education; reform of the criminal code and the prison system; a united Australia and protection against the world. It denounced religious interference with politics, foreign titles, the Chinese, and imperial federation.
Archibald’s greatest gift was “discovering men of talent”. Palmer, despite being married to one of the greatest, makes no mention of women of talent.
For some years Archibald’s Bulletin was to act as the chief instrument for expressing and defining the national being.
This is more a history of the period rather than of the development of the Legend, which is probably why Russell’s work continues to have relevance while Palmer’s does not. He spends a chapter considering the writers and painters of the Bulletin:
… the liveliness and importance of the early balladists and short story writers is not to be judged by the absolute value of their work… Archibald’s Bulletin was planned as a unity: one item gave support to another … The result was something unique in journalism, a paper that rippled with gaiety, democratic feeling, masculine humour …
In 1893 AG Stephens came to the paper, and his ‘Red Page’ became an important showcase for Australian writing. Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson who wrote for the Bulletin from the earliest days, and later Joseph Furphy and Steele Rudd, and all the other now forgotten or anonymous contributors embodied in their ballads and stories all the important elements of the myth of the Lone Hand, the Australian bushman – strength, independence, mateship, laconic humour (and of course the complete absence of women).
The final chapters discuss politics, the rise of organized labour, the even more effective rise of employer organizations (plus ça change etc.), the land bubble, banking failures, Federation.
In the interior there was little talk of federation but the essential unity of Australia as a country with common interests was taken for granted: in the capital cities, federation was discussed as an important issue, but it was regarded as an alliance between countries foreign to one another and having rival economies.
After discussing the great Queensland shearer’s strike of 1891, in which armed soldiers protected non-union labour, Palmer writes that
political democracy had not been fully achieved, there was a breach between Government and the mass of the people, particularly the workers. Even among those who had no sympathy with the strikers there was an uneasy feeling that the Government had come to the aid of the employers in a way that could not be justified …
Palmer finally returns to the Legend in his conclusion:
From the sketches of countless occasional writers of the eighties and nineties, as well as from the more permanent work of Lawson and Furphy, a special type emerged – a laconic but sociable fellow with his own idiom and his own way of looking at things. He had humour of a dry sardonic kind, a sensitive spirit with a tough covering, initiative and capacity that were qualified by ‘near enough’ standards of achievement…
A tradition of democratic writing was thus established, and it has not been lost, for it is strongly marked in the Australian novel and short story of today.
Vance Palmer (1885-1959) grew up in rural Queensland and began writing at the end of the period he describes here. He became a respected though now largely neglected novelist and alongside Nettie (his wife), was at the heart of Australian writing for decades. How he then manages to completely overlook women’s writing is beyond me.
Vance Palmer, The Legend of the Nineties, Curry O’Neill Ross, Melbourne, 1954.
Cover: Detail from Princes Bridge (1908) by Frederick McCubbin*
*”Frederick McCubbin painted [the] oil sketch, Triumphal Arch at Princes Bridge, Melbourne in 1901, possibly during the procession. In May the grand ceremony of the opening of the Commonwealth Parliament took place and this temporary arch was created for the triumphal procession of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York.” (NGA)
Bohemians at the Bulletin, Norman Lindsay (here)
Poetry Slam, Lawson v Paterson (here)
My Henry Lawson, Bertha Lawson (here)
In Search of Steele Rudd, Richard Fotheringham (here)
The Drover’s Wife, Frank Moorhouse (here)
Louisa Lawson v Kaye Schaffer (here)
Louisa, Brian Matthews (here)
Joseph Furphy, Miles Franklin (coming!)