Australian Literature in the Early 20th Century!

We began today with a glance at Henry Lawson’s “Drifted Back”, a short story which encapsulated aspects of his own life story, but which also reflected back on Lawson’s impressions of what was being lost as Australia moved into the new century: Community, Mateship, The Old Bush School, the destruction of the environment with the arrival of the steam train in the outback. The story also demonstrated Lawson’s self-conscious utilisation of words and phrases that were/are part of the Australian idiom. Lawson was strongly nationalistic and was one of a number of artists and writers who were determined to show how Australia could stand independent from the so-called “mother country”. The story also demonstrated how Lawson could, in so few words, bring the inner world and feelings of his characters so vividly to life.  Here is his story:


THE STRANGER walked into the corner grocery with the air of one who had come back after many years to see someone who would be glad to see him. He shed his swag and stood it by the wall with great deliberation; then he rested his elbow on the counter, stroked his beard, and grinned quizzically at the shopman, who smiled back presently in a puzzled way.
“Good afternoon:’ said the grocer. “Good afternoon”.
“Nice day” said the grocer. “Nice day”
“Anything I can do for you?”
“Yes; tell the old man there’s a chap wants to speak to him for a minute.” “Old man? What old man?”
“Hake, of course—old Ben Hake! Ain’t he in?”  The grocer smiled. “Hake ain’t here now I’m here” “How’s that?”
“Why, he sold out to me ten years ago” “Well, I suppose I’ll find him somewhere about town?”
“I don’t think you will. He left the colonies when he sold out. He’s—he’s dead now:’ “Dead! Old Ben Hake?”
“Yes. You knew him then?” The stranger seemed to have lost a great deal of his assurance. He turned his side to the counter, hooked his elbow on it, and gazed out through the door along Sunset Track. “You can give me half‑a‑pound of nailrod”  he said, in a quiet tone— “I  s’pose young Hake is in town?” “No, the whole family went away. I think there’s one of the sons in business in Sydney now:’
“I s’pose the M’Lachlans are here yet?” “No; they are not. The old people died about five years ago; the sons are in Queensland, I think; and both the girls are married and in Sydney”. “Ah, well! I see you’ve got the railway here now” “Oh, yes! Six years. Times is changed a lot.”
“They are.” “I s’pose—I s’pose you can tell me where I’ll find old Jimmy Nowlett?” “Jimmy Nowlett? Jimmy Nowlett? I never heard of the name. What was he?” “Oh, he was a bullock‑driver. Used to carry from the mountains before the railway was made”
“Before my time, perhaps. There’s no one of that name round here now” “Ah, well! I don’t s’pose you knew the Duggans?”
“Yes, I did. The old man’s dead, too, and the family’s gone away—Lord knows where. They weren’t much loss, to all accounts. The sons got into trouble, I b’lieve—went to the bad. They had a bad name here” “Did they? Well, they had good hearts—at least, old Malachi Duggan and the eldest son had. You can give me a couple of pounds of sugar” “Right. I suppose it’s a long time since you were here last?”
“Fifteen years:’ “Indeed!” “Yes. I don’t s’pose I remind you of anyone you know round here?” “N—no!” said the grocer, with a smile. “I can’t say you do.” “Ah, well! I s’pose I’ll find the Wilds still living in the same place?” “The Wilds? Well, no. The old man is dead, too, and-” “And—and where’s Jim? He ain’t dead?” “No, he’s married and settled down in Sydney. Long pause “Can you—“ said the stranger, hesitatingly  “did you—I suppose you knew Mary—Mary Wild?” “Mary?”” said the grocer, smilingly. “That was my wife’s maiden name. Would you like to see her?” “No, no! She mightn’t remember me!” He reached hastily for his swag, and shouldered it. “Well, I must be gettin’ on”
“I  s’pose you’ll camp here over Christmas?” “No, there’s nothing to stop here for—I’ll push on. I did intend to have a Christmas here—in fact. I came a long way out of my road a‑purpose I meant to have just one more Christmas with old Ben Hake an’ the rest of the boys—but I didn’t know as they’d moved on so far west. The old bush school is dyin’ out.” There was a smile in his eyes, but his bearded lips twitched a little.
“Things is changed. The old houses is pretty much the same, an’ the old signs want touchin’ up and paintin’jest as bad as ever; an’ there’s that old palin fence that me an’ Ben Hake an’ Jimmy Nowlett put up twenty year ago. I’ve tramped and travelled long ways since then. But things is changed—at least people is.  Well, I must be goin’. There’s nothing to keep me here. I’ll push on and get into my track again. It’s cooler travellin’ in the night.”
“Yes. its been pretty hot to‑day:’
“Good day. Merry Christmas!”
“Eh? What? Oh, yes! Same to you! S’long!’”
“Good day!”
He drifted out and away along Sunset Track.

After Henry Lawson we went on to explore the worlds of a few of the most significant early 20th Century authors:  John Shaw Neilson, Miles Franklin, Frederic Manning, the writings of William Ferguson and Aboriginal activist John Patten, who were advocating for Aboriginal Citizenship in 1938 (exactly 150 years after the arrival of Captain Cook- their writings show a fascinating side to Aboriginal Activism in the early 20th Century) and finally M.Barnard Eldershaw.

This clutch of writers embrace a huge range of literary and intellectual interests. Neilson is the poet who shows how the language of poetry is closest to music and art through his use of colour and sound to paint word pictures, compose sound tapestries that approximate other art forms. His “The Orange Tree” moves language towards the ineffable with its closing line “… for I/ Am listening like the Orange Tree”. Miles Franklin records her battles with the harsh Australian landscape and with the insensitive commandeering Australian male with poetic panache! Her writing comes alive as it is read aloud, as her voice punches through the forces that opposed her distinctive talent:

The summer sun danced on. Summer is fiendish, and life is a curse, I said in my heart. What a great dull hard rock the world was!…. Weariness! Weariness! I said the one thing many times but, ah, it was a weary thing which tool much repetition that familiarity might wear away a little of its bitterness!

So we here we hear and see how for Franklin the actual writing of her diary of events is the very means through which she is able to push beyond the boundaries of her limitations and the restrictions imposed on her as an early 20th Century woman! This is a good example to demonstrate the power and purpose of creative writing: keep on with your blogging one and all!

Frederic Manning is my pick of the bunch today. He is such a deep and searching writer, bringing the harsh realities of the war experience into sharp focus, but not without a sense of humour as is represented through his quotation from Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part II in which the character Feeble intones:

By my troth, I care not; a man can die but once; we owe God a death… and let it go which way it will , he that dies this year is quit for the next!

This is a kind of macabre humour in linking the horrific experiences of World War 1 with this Shakespearean take on war. But then Shakespeare was such a passionate anti-war monger that he used all his literary  resources (especially humour) to point out the utter absurdity of war. This is the starting point of Manning’s gripping tale!

Blog Topics arising from this feast

Take one of the following questions and adapt it to your own interest (if you want you can turn the way you answer the question into a creative entry, by making it into a dialogue or into a letter to a character or even the author (him or herself): – have fun with this!

Enjoy your writing.

John Shaw Neilson

1/Discuss the significance of the last line of “The Orange Tree”

2/Why is the speaker in “The Poor, Poor Country” “no pauper”?

Miles Franklin

3/What language choices gives Miles Franklin’s “A Drought Idyll” its poetic power?

4/ What clue does the last line of this chapter give to the function of creative writing for Miles Franklin?

5/ What insight does the exchange between Mr Beecham and Syb on pages 347-348 give the reader into Franklin’s attitude to relations between men and women?

Frederic Manning

6/How does Manning capture the state of mind of the exhausted soldier in the exchange between Mr Clinton and Bourne on page 367?

7/ What is Manning’s attitude to the experience of the soldiers on the last page of the extract (page 369)? How is attitude created?

M.Barnard Eldershaw

8/How effectively does the language of this novel convey the disintegration of Sydney landmarks? (see especially pages 426-427).

9/ Stylistically compare the 2 paragraphs beginning “With them came Bowie.” (page 424) with Frederic Manning’s conversation between Mr Clinton and Bourne on page 367. Which piece of writing is more effective? Why?


Today’s Audio Lecture on Early 20th Century OZ Lit

And here is Elaine Lindsay’s slide show – used in tutorials:week 8 overview 2018 Elaine

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