The Legend of the Nineties, Vance Palmer

Australian Women Writers Gen 2 Week 13-19 Jan. 2019

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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 [1854] 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)


related posts:
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!)

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Prior Prize Winners, All That Swagger

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Samuel Henry Prior (1869-1933) was a financial journalist and editor with The Bulletin from 1903. He purchased founder, JF Archibald’s shares in 1914, and by 1927 all the remaining shares. While responsible for the strong emphasis on finance which was to sustain The Bulletin into the 1970s, he was also conscious of its early role in promoting Australian literature, and in 1928 inaugurated The Bulletin Novel Competition which was renamed after his death the S. H. Prior Memorial Prize. The prize was for a work of Australian literature, presumably unpublished, as the winner would receive a cash prize (initially £100), publication, and serialization in The Bulletin. The first Prior was won by Kylie Tennant with Tiburon in 1935, and the second, the following year, from 230 entries, by Miles Franklin with All That Swagger.

The first Bulletin prize, in 1929, was won jointly by M Barnard Eldershaw, A House is Built and KS Prichard, Coonardoo. I couldn’t find any lists of prize winners on the net, the Oxford Companion gave me The Battlers (Kylie Tennant) and Joseph Furphy: The Legend and the Man (Miles Franklin) for 1941 and 44, Annals of Aust.Lit., nothing. Searching on Trove I found Eve Langley’s The Pea Pickers (“its literary merits are of a somewhat mediocre description.” West Australian, 30/05/42) for 1940 (with two others, not named in Langley’s recreated memoir Wilde Eve). And in another story, that Dymphna Cusack’s Jungfrau was the runner up to All That Swagger. After a couple of pages, ‘prior’ and ‘bulletin’ and even ‘prize’ being so common in war-time dispatches, I gave up searching for more. Do you guys know any others?

Searching Trove for reaction at the time of publication of All That Swagger, I came across this in the Wilcannia Western Grazier of Sat 19 Sep 1936:

XJl-EBAltY l’BIZtt WINNjSB.
Wotoao Wiiter’a SacooW.
A Sp’«ndid Auirfttlion Bloty.

I Alt Thnt Swagger, tho oor …

I’ve corrected it (if you’re not aware, Trove is a database of all Australia’s newspapers digitised and awaiting amateur proof-readers), and the full copy reads as follows:

Literary Prize Winner
Woman Writer’s Success.
A Splendid Australian Story.
All That Swagger, the novel that has won this year’s Prior Memorial Prize and which will appear as a serial in The Bulletin in ten page installments, commencing September 16, is all Aus-tralian, in every word and line.Though it spans four generations and a hundred of time, it is true to period and takes no liberties with history. Only an Australia could have written it, and there has been nothing written like it except the Brent of Bin bin novels, the style and writing of which it resembles.
The writer, Stella Miles Franklin, was born at Talbingo, at the foot of the steep descent from the hills of Monaro into the Tumut Valley.
She was still a girl when she found herself on a holding near Goulburn, and, departing from the traditions of her forebears, she wrote a novel. The manuscript was sent to THE BULLETIN in Archibald’s time, and was returned with some kindly comment and en-couraging advice. She revised her story and sent it to Henry Lawson.
The novel had the ironical title My Brilliant Career, and created quite a literary sensation when it arrived in Australia, and its publication definitely determined Miss Franklin to pursue a literary career.
Her second book, Some Everyday Folk – and Dawn, had been published in 1909. Then came Old Blastus [of] Bandicoot, a full-bodied portrayal of a roaring old bull of a settler whose voice would split the granite in the Monaro ranges and send the wallabies scam-pering up the gorges for the risk of their lives.
Other books have been written by Stella Miles Franklin, but of her writings All That Swagger is easily her greatest effort, and is probably the finest Australian story ever written. That is, of course, saying a great deal, but those people privileged to have read the novel unanimously agree that it is remarkably Australian and is a cavalcade of progress over 100 years in this great continent, for the story covers a century, ending in 1933, and is espe-cially strong in characters: one at least of its people— Danny Delacy—seems certain to take a leading place in Australian literary tradition, Other characters— notably Danny’s “brave Johanna”— are admirably projected people that readers will enjoy.
All That Swagger is such a great story that THE BULLETIN has decided to publish it in large instalments of 10 pages, making each a miniature novel. In these generous instalments the reader will appreciate the continuity of the story and the true significance of All That Swagger.

Wilcannia was then and is now a very small desert town on the Darling in far western NSW so it’s unlikely the Western Grazier had a dedicated book reviewer. Further, some of the lines used in the article are those of the judges, so I’m guessing the story was provided by The Bulletin (though it sounds very Colin Roderick).

All That Swagger is not “the greatest Australian story ever written” though it may have been at the pinnacle of novels in the Bulletin (Gen II) school of pioneer realism still favoured by conservatives today. By 1936, better contenders for Great Australian Novel would have included For the Term of His Natural Life (Marcus Clarke), Such is Life (Joseph Furphy), The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney (HH Richardson) and Seven Poor Men of Sydney (Christina Stead).

I couldn’t see how long the Prior Prize ran on for, only a few years probably, as in 1946 the Sydney Morning Herald began its own prize, £2,000 for an unpublished novel, won by Ruth Park with The Harp in the South. And did you notice that all the prize winners I mentioned, which was all the prize winners I could find, were women. That was a great generation, from WWI to the 1950s.

All this is by way of saying that as soon as I finish reading All That Swagger I will publish a review. And after all this, I’ll try and keep it short!

 

Miles Franklin, All That Swagger, first published (slightly abridged) in serial form in The Bulletin, Sydney, 1936 and then in book form.

I’m pretty sure both Tiburon in the previous year and All That Swagger were published by Angus & Robertson so they must have had an arrangement with The Bulletin, which had published books in the past – Steele Rudd for example – and had its own imprint, Endeavour Press.

For all Miles Franklin reviews and other posts on her see my Miles Franklin page.


Apology. As usual, importing newspaper text has destroyed all my formatting. I could (and did) try deleting some of the HTML, but any un-pairing of instructions just makes things worse.

Bohemians at the Bulletin, Norman Lindsay

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Illustration: Henry Lawson reproves Bert Stevens [clerk]
The founding of the Sydney Bulletin in 1880 by JF Archibald (and John Haynes, who does not appear to have played a part in its day to day operations), as a magazine of news, comment, short stories and poetry, marked a turning point in Australian nationalism, expressed in its banner “Australia for Australians” – famously changed in 1886 to “Australia for the White Man”. In 1894 Archibald employed AG Stephens, already a well-known literary critic, who began soliciting and commissioning literary works for his famous ‘Red Page’:

What readers could expect in the ‘Red Page’ was a potpourri of articles, reviews, extracts, letters, paragraphs, anecdotes and notes, occasionally with photographs or cartoons. The poem of the week, starred to indicate its quality, appeared in a top corner and in the bottom corner might be blunt, cruelly witty advice to rejected contributors. Stephens’ common practice was to spark controversy by attacking an established writer, such as Burns, Thackeray, Kipling, or Tennyson, thereby enticing correspondents as varied as Christopher Brennan or George Burns to attack and counter-attack, sometimes over weeks. It was heady stuff. (ADB)

In 1901 Norman Lindsay, then aged 21, came to the Bulletin as an illustrator, from Melbourne where he had been at art school. Although already married, he fancied himself as a carouser, a Cassanova, and produced endless drawings of naked women. Later in life he wrote some interesting fiction, mostly semi-autobiographical and boastful of his conquests, and of course the wonderful children’s book, The Magic Pudding (1918) prized by generations of young Legends.

In 1911 Lindsay went to England for a while and returned suffering a nervous breakdown -which he is happy to talk about in this book – which led him to buy Springwood in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney where he was to spend the rest of his life, and which was the setting for the movie Sirens (1994) starring Sam Neill (as Lindsay), Elle Macpherson and a young Hugh Grant.

In Bohemians at [orginally ‘of’] the Bulletin (1965) Lindsay writes short sketches of his interactions with Archibald, Stephens and some of his fellow contributors. Lindsay admires Archibald with whom he is largely in accord – including on the related subjects of buxom 14 year old girls and the entrapment of men by Rape Laws – and ends his piece on Archibald with:

We know that Archie endowed Australian art with the Archibald Bequest and bestowed on Sydney the splendid Archibald Memorial fountain, the only truly fine monument the city possesses… But he wrote his personality deeper on this country’s culture when he sought for and published the best poetry and prose and draughtsmanship it could produce, and fostered in it the spirit to envision life in its own terms and not on any culture borrowed from other countries.

On the other hand, Lindsay didn’t get on with AG Stephens and the things he writes about him are mostly spiteful – Stephens scuttling back to his office in the face of danger, and so on. Henry Lawson, Lindsay did not know very well, mostly seeing him as angry presence dashing in and out of the Bulletin offices, or cadging money for grog, and in fact he knew Bertha (Henry’s estranged wife) better, as she managed a picture gallery for George Robertson next door to Angus & Robertson’s bookshop:

I was holding a one-man show at the gallery, and happened to be in Mrs Lawson’s small office, finishing a pen sketch which had been commissioned, when she dashed in exclaiming breathlessly, “I can’t go out there. He’s only come in here to annoy me.” I glanced out to discover that “he” was Henry Lawson, who was going around making a pretence of looking at the pictures …

Steele Rudd, Lindsay met just the once (oddly, as Rudd lived in Sydney from 1903-08) seeing him as a yokel, though he was in fact a senior clerk in the Qld Public Service, but at least has this to say of him:

In his Dad and Mum and Dave and Joe he created idiosyncratic characters … and not just types as Lawson did with his Bills and Jims and Andys, who are all out of one mould, indistinguishable as personalities from each other.

With Banjo Paterson, an ‘aristocrat’ according to Lindsay, he was much more in sympathy and they would go horse riding together, having stables, paddocks (and grooms!) at their north shore properties.

I can’t ever recall discussing literature with him, nor did he place any accent on his contribution to it, which was a considerable one, and now seen in its significant relation to a national culture. By the fine quality of his ballads, he compressed into a few years the bridge between the folk-lore ballad and major poetry which the early Scotch and English balladists made for the great Elizabethan poets.

There are other once notable and now largely forgotten writers – Victor Daley, Rod Quinn, Jack Abbott, Bernard O’Dowd, Randolph Bedford, Hugh McCrae, Louis Stone (whose novel Jonah I must read) – many of whom Lindsay knew well. Lindsay is knowledgeable about poetry, as I am not, and gives a lively account of a period – more than a century ago now – which was still central to the study of Australian literature when this little book came out in the sixties.

He ends with thumbnail sketches of ‘Tom Collins’ (Joseph Furphy) and Miles Franklin, whom he met only briefly. Of Furphy, to whom Lindsay must have been introduced soon after he arrived at the Bulletin, he writes “I don’t remember a single thing he said”, though he does remember the fuss AG Stephens made publishing Such is Life and the great expectations he had for it.

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Miles Franklin in 1902 by Norman Lindsay

But Miles definitely made an impression!:

I came across gaping at this bright vision of girl in such a drab and dusty setting, and was introduced to her by A.G. [Stephens] – Miles Franklin! reality far outshone fancy’s portrait of her inspired by her novel [My Brilliant Career], and I went straight up in the air, bubbling an extravagant tribute to that work.

I have written before that Stephens, fearing Lindsay’s predatory disposition, would not let Lindsay see her downstairs, so he “never saw Miles again till she returned to Australia, and we were both middle-aged”, when she tells him he was the one member of the Bulletin staff whom she wished to meet, which he says he does not believe. However, in her own work, My Career Goes Bung or Cockatoos, I forget which, she has him present her with a book of his sketches (Jill Roe says the book was by Stephens but signed by Lindsay who had illustrated it). Strangely, this brief meeting, or at least its sequel, is described/imagined also by Kylie Tennant who has Franklin running into Barbara Baynton at a tram stop outside the Bulletin offices, by which time Franklin is carrying a box of chocolates.

 

Norman Lindsay, Bohemians at the Bulletin, first pub. 1965. This edition Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1980.

see also:

Bertha Lawson, My Henry Lawson, Frank Johnson, Sydney, 1943 (review)

Richard Fotheringham, In Search of Steele Rudd, UQP, Brisbane, 1995 (review)

Penne Hackforth-Jones, Barbara Baynton: Between Two Worlds, Penguin, Melbourne, 1989 (review)

Kylie Tennant, “Miles Franklin: Feminist whose men were men”, SMH, 23 Jul 1974.

Poetry Slam, Lawson v Paterson (here)