How the parallel lives of two influential editors formed Australia’s literary tradition

The duvet of Jim Davidson’s Emperors in Lilliput juxtaposes {a photograph} of Meanjin’s Clem Christesen smoking a pipe with an image of Overland’s Stephen Murray-Smith lighting his.

The design conveys Davidson’s give attention to the parallels between the 2 editors, every of whom based and presided over a bit journal for a outstanding 34 years. However the mirrored pictures additionally spotlight the gulf between a previous wherein Males of Letters may casually puff on their briars and a gift wherein pipe-smoking editors represent a faintly risible cliché.

Overview: Emperors in Lilliput – Jim Davidson (Miegunyah Press).

Davidson’s examine offers, then, an excavation of a vanished world, an archaeological dig into the miniature kingdoms over which Christesen and Murray-Smith as soon as dominated, each of which rested on a particular literary nationalism.

“The tradition of a rustic is the essence of nationality,” Christesen defined in an early radio broadcast, “the everlasting factor of a nation.”

He launched Meanjin amid the whole conflict of 1940. With a Japanese invasion seemingly imminent, the author Randolph Bedford dismissed a brand new literary journal as a waste of much-needed ink: intellectuals ought to, he mentioned, be “digging put up holes” relatively than scribbling poems.

Meanjin’s supporters, then again, noticed excessive tradition as constitutive of nationwide consciousness, an concept traceable again as least so far as the Enlightenment. Hume, as an illustration, thought “just a few eminent and refined geniuses” would form a “complete folks” by their “style and data”.

This concept was significantly sharpened by the primary world conflict. As Chris Baldick explains in his traditional The Social Mission of English Criticism, literary students promoted nice writing as fostering “the nationwide heritage and all that was valuable in it, towards the specter of its destruction by the barbaric Hun”. With Christianity shedding its energy, the literary canon supplied an alternate basis for the nation state – a lot in order that, in 1921, Oxford’s George Sampson may declare studying “not a routine however a faith […] nearly sacramental”.

The sense of excellent books superseding the Good E book because the supply of nationwide cohesion spurred on Christesen and his allies. Vance Palmer recognized resistance to the Japanese with an “Australia of the spirit”. An early Christesen editorial made the identical level – albeit warning that the nation’s roots have been “embedded in shallow sand and garbage” and thus required a severe literary watering.

Conflict, in different phrases, made poetry extra crucial, relatively than much less.

Literary nationalism and non secular unity

Nationalism supplied an exterior justification for Christesen’s preoccupations, rendering novels and poems not esoteric diversions however interventions of appreciable public significance. Crucially, although, it did so with out lowering literature to a mere cipher or proxy. Authors solid non secular unity with their imaginative energy, so nationwide id depended not merely on books, however on nice books. On that foundation, Meanjin’s literary nationalism pressured the literary as a lot because the nationalism: as Davidson says, “high quality” remained Christesen’s watchword.

Overland developed in a fairly completely different style. Like Christesen, Stephen Murray-Smith got here from a good conservative household. After army service in New Guinea, he studied on the College of Melbourne, a hotbed of postwar radicalisation that induced him to maneuver from the Liberal Get together to the ALP to the Communist Get together of Australia (CPA), all throughout the house of 12 months.

Native communism emerged from the conflict significantly strengthened by the mirrored glory of the Pink Military. Having lengthy since deserted proletarian revolution, CPA politics centred on the dream of a Common Entrance: a patriotic alliance between the working class and the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie.

The orientation lent explicit significance to its cultural endeavours. The get together embraced what it referred to as a “progressive nationalism”, describing native democratic traditions as menaced by capitalists in hock to international imperialists. Accordingly, the CPA ran bookshops all through the nation, launched a subscription-based distribution service often called the Australasian E book Society, and inspired would-be authors of democratic nationalist literature to affix the Realist Writers Group, whose e-newsletter Murray-Smith edited from 1952.

The CPA’s advocacy of a now desperately retro “socialist realism” may, maybe, be framed in modern phrases as an effort to advertise extra various illustration in a publishing business that just about solely excluded working class folks.

Frank Hardy in 1965.
Wikimedia Commons

In some respects, it succeeded admirably, developing a parallel literary infrastructure primarily based on the commerce unions. It created an alternate canon of left-wing writers that included the likes of Frank Hardy, Dorothy Hewett, Jean Devanny and John Morrison.

But its failures may be given a contemporary gloss. An emphasis on inspirational portrayals of “constructive heroes” supposedly arising from authors’ “lived expertise” fostered an aesthetic conservatism that privileged didactic content material over formal experiment. In his examine Writing in Hope and Fear, John McLaren describes how the Sydney Realist Writers Group critiqued a Frank Hardy story referred to as Loss of life of a Unionist:

Members of the group objected that the characters within the story weren’t ‘typical’, the husband Invoice confirmed a ‘dangerous angle’ to his spouse and had an anarchic angle to union self-discipline, and the story left it unclear whether or not the girl gave away her child for financial or home causes.

The get together developed a form of “sensitivity studying”, wherein apparatchiks assessed how precisely a given guide represented working class struggles: disapproval of Sally and Frank Banister’s novel Tossed and Blown led, as an illustration, to weeks of denunciations within the CPA’s newspaper Tribune, in a protracted and public cancellation.

Learn extra:
Judith Wright, an activist poet who was ahead of her time

A civilising pursuit

Overland appeared in 1954. Initially marketed as an extension of the Realist Writers Group e-newsletter, it was registered within the identify of its editor, so when Murray-Smith exited the get together after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1958, Overland got here with him.

The introduction to the 1965 anthology An Overland Muster illustrates how Murray-Smith’s editorial perspective developed. It argued that:

Firstly, that writing was not confined merely to the most effective that had been mentioned, written or thought on this planet, [but] that there have been all types of traditions, and never only a ‘nice’ one; secondly, that different issues being equal, writing coping with our native actuality, Australia and our jobs and our politics and our historical past, and for those who like, our seashores, can be significant in a approach that ‘higher’ writing extra faraway from us was not significant.

The passage retained the CPA’s dedication to a plebeian nationalism, outlined, in some senses no less than, towards a standard Anglophile elite. However Murray-Smith now rejected the conceptual equipment of socialist realism, insisting that Overland wished to be “broader, extra humorous, extra aware of literary requirements, and fewer dogmatic in each approach”. As he put it, in a later bald formulation, “we aren’t significantly desirous about stories-with-a-social-message”.

By abandoning a conception of literature as a direct political intervention, Murray-Smith moved to a model of cultural nationalism a lot nearer to Christesen’s, a lot in order that Frank Hardy may sniff about Overland changing into “a form of poor man’s Meanjin”. As Davidson says, Murray-Smith maintained a give attention to authenticity, whereas Christesen remained extra literary, however “ many individuals subscribed to each magazines; writers looking forward to publication, fortunately wrote for each of them […] in impact, they functioned conjointly”.

Their complementary success underscores the large benefits of nationalism as a strategic orientation.

By the Nineteen Thirties, Terry Eagleton says, the re-invention of literature as a semi-spiritual social glue allowed intellectuals to current English literature as “not solely a topic value finding out, however the supremely civilizing pursuit, the non secular essence of the social formation”. That conviction – a way that literature mattered essentially to the nation – sustained Christesen and Murray-Smith working their tiny magazines for 34 years, a tenure that Davidson describes (appropriately, for my part) as “nearly inconceivable immediately”.

Christesen donated the equal of $400,000 of his personal cash to maintain Meanjin alive; even his flaws (in a rare chapter, Davidson describes his personal harrowing expertise as Meanjin’s second editor, always undermined by its controlling founder) stemmed from his unshakeable perception in his mission.

Learn extra:
Stuart Macintyre’s rich history of the Communist Party of Australia recaptures a lost political world

The collapse of the nationalist paradigm

But Emperors in Lilliput additionally permits us to grasp how the nationalist paradigm collapsed. The later incarnations of Meanjin and Overland have been, Davidson says, “typically dismissed by a lot of the studying public as too self-consciously Australian, workouts in gumnutry”.

That’s not stunning. In the course of the Chilly Conflict, a deep anti-Americanism underpinned the CPA’s cultural interventions, with get together publications calling, as an illustration, for ruthless censorship of US comedian books. The Australasian E book Society’s Invoice Wannan urged Overland to pit its “aggressive Australianism” towards “the garbage coming in from abroad”. By and enormous, the journal did, mounting, via everything of Murray-Smith’s editorship, a rearguard defence of Australian folks traditions towards comics, tv, rock music and the like.  

Clem Christesen within the Nineteen Thirties.
Nationwide Library of Australia

Christesen’s dedication to a nationalism underpinned by excessive tradition more-or-less mandated an opposition to US-based tradition industries, regardless of his deep engagement with American literature. By the the Fifties, he, too, was denouncing the “monumental amount of sub-normal trash” arriving from abroad and urging Australia “to guard its personal tradition from being perverted and corrupted by debased types of a international tradition”. From the angle of a twenty first century wherein Warner Brothers and DC reign supreme, a perception in a literary Border Pressure able to excluding American superheroes appears quixotic, even perverse.

Way back to 1848, Marx had described the inexorability of cultural globalisation. The Communist Manifesto defined how “particular person creation of particular person nations [became] frequent property”. For Marx, the world market’s tendency to undermine “nationwide one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness” made cultural autarky not solely unimaginable however profoundly reactionary.

The event of Meanjin and Overland illustrates the purpose. Meanjin took its identify from a Turrbal phrase for the spiky promontory on which Brisbane had been constructed. The journal used as its colophon a boy holding a goanna and a boomerang. An early version contained an A.P. Elkin article entitled Steps into the Dream Time. But Meanjin, like nearly all of the writers it revealed, took it as a right {that a} nationwide tradition can be European.

In a presentation in 1966, Christesen decreased Indigenous Australia to a cautionary story, a warning as to the place an insufficiently vigorous tradition may lead.
“An Australian literary editor,” he defined,

is confronted by a form of huge cultural Simpson desert. A number of literate natives huddle beneath ragged ghost gums or brigalows close to brackish billabongs and soak holes. For probably the most half they stay solitary lives, mumble to themselves, go on random walkabout, however definitely there may be little communication in any recognisably civilised sense between them.

The Communist Get together had backed Aboriginal struggles from as early because the Nineteen Twenties and, as leftists, Murray-Smith and his comrades stood significantly upfront of the white mainstream. Davidson describes how Overland revealed a “cluster of articles on Indigenous issues”, together with an insider account of the NSW Freedom Ride of 1965.

Joseph Furphy (1843–1912).

But it’s tough to not discover how a lot the “mood democratic, bias Australian” slogan that adorned the Overland masthead seems like a Hansonite catchphrase. The comparability could be unfair – Murray-Smith selected the phrase as a result of within the Fifties conservatives recognized with the British empire. However the citation got here from Joseph Furphy’s novel Such is Life (1897) – and Furphy elsewhere defined how in “all of the rugged prose of life there runs a pressure of poetry, and the identify of the poem is White Australia”.

In a colonial settler state, the boundary policing of literary nationalism couldn’t assist however foster a racialisation of tradition, even amongst self-identified progressives.

Certainly, one of many revelations in Davidson’s account entails the markedly right-wing jag Murray-Smith took in later years. A scholar demonstration towards the racial IQ theorists Hens Ensenck and Arthur Jensen appalled him a lot that he briefly contemplated an “alliance with the authoritarian proper to ensure the order with out which we can’t operate”. He thought-about the Whitlam authorities “extra disastrous than most of us on the Left are prepared to confess”. He turned vice-president of the Anti-Metric Society, judged the inspiration of the Communist Get together “the largest tragedy in Australian politics”, and instructed {that a} proposed new college curriculum ought to centre on Latin, typing, the Bible, and “maybe automotive mechanics”.

Clem Christesen, Kylie Tennant, and Stephen Murray-Smith at Monash College in 1975.

Learn extra:
‘The Red Witch’: how communist writer, intellectual and activist Katharine Susannah Prichard helped shape Australia

Literature and activism

Murray-Smith’s late conservatism provides an exclamation level to Davidson’s key competition that the tip of the 2 males’s tenure signalled the expiry of a sure mannequin of literary editorship.

So what, we’d ask, has changed it? Think about the rhetorical methods by which literary organisations, together with magazines, defend their existence immediately.

When Murray-Smith died in 1988, the Labor Get together had already embraced the neoliberalism that was sweeping the world. One side of that was the reconceptualization of the humanities as before everything an business, justified by the extent to which it contributes to GDP. Of necessity, as Alison Croggon writes, “artists and cultural organisations [were] compelled to justify themselves in languages and in response to standards which have nearly nothing to do with artwork”.

As Croggon implies, this was a enterprise doomed from the beginning. You possibly can tot up the not-inconsiderable variety of folks employed immediately and not directly by the tradition industries, however that doesn’t present a vocabulary to evaluate the exercise these folks contemplate essential. To place the problem one other approach, if the market adjudicates aesthetics, J.Ok. Rowling issues greater than any poet who ever lived.

Not surprisingly, determined writers push again towards the neoliberal paradigm by invoking an old-style literary nationalism, not least as a result of its assumptions are baked into the infrastructure of arts funding. But, although slogans about “telling Australian tales” emerge nearly reflexively, they not possess a lot rhetorical energy for a public that, fairly justifiably, needs to listen to (or, extra probably, stream) the most effective tales from all around the world.

Jim Davidson, Meanjin’s second editor (1974–1982) and creator of Emperors in Lilliput.
Melbourne College Press

To its credit score, the Australian literary scene now pays significantly extra consideration to problems with race, gender and sexuality, in ways in which render the valorisation of a “nationwide id” nearly unimaginable. The issue doesn’t pertain merely to the standard canon’s relationship with white Australia: even probably the most multicultural nationalism relies upon, by definition, on a boundary separating residents and foreigners.

However the brand new preoccupation with social justice, whereas crucial, shouldn’t be enough to re-ground a literary challenge.

Any understanding of tradition solely when it comes to politics faces the identical dilemma encountered by the writers of the CPA. If we conceive of writing as a mere proxy for activism, we turn out to be dangerous activists (poetry makes nothing occur) and worse writers, devoid of any standards for judging the aesthetic worth of our work.

That’s why this historical past issues. For all its flaws, the nationalist paradigm supplied a foundation for Christesen and Murray-Smith to privilege literary achievement: the non secular wellbeing of the nation depended, they declared, on nice writers. We are able to’t – and shouldn’t – revive their challenge. However we definitely ought to study from it, as we try for one thing higher.

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