The Bulletin and the Rise of Australian Literary Nationalism Essay - Critical Essays

The Bulletin and the Rise of Australian Literary Nationalism


The Bulletin and the Rise of Australian Literary Nationalism

The 1890s occupy a unique and transitional position in Australian literary history. In the years leading up to the end of English colonial rule and the creation of an autonomous Australia, the stirrings of nationalism reached a fevered pitch. Journalists, fiction-writers, poets, indeed the common man in Australia, according to the legend, felt the urge of a national calling and unity. More than any other single entity, the Bulletin, a weekly news magazine that began publication in Sydney at the opening of the 1880s, was the driving force behind the rise of Australia's literary nationalist movement in the final decades of the nineteenth century. By 1882, Australia was without any of the major figures of its colonial literary period; Charles Harpur, Henry Kendall, Adam Lindsay Gordon, and Marcus Clarke were dead, and A. G. Stephens, editor of the Bulletin's literary Red Page, would soon begin the process of searching for new talent. In the Red Page appeared the short fiction and verse—the two most popular forms of the period—of nearly every notable Australian writer who had anything to say about Australia, its people, landscape, and future. One of its most popular contributors, A. B. “Banjo” Paterson, presented audiences with well-received, nostalgic ballads and verses that would become part of the Australian literary consciousness. The Bulletin's most noted literary contributor, Henry Lawson, as well as poet Christopher Brennan and novelist Joseph Furphy, provided some of the most enduring pieces of the period. More important to literary historians, however, the magazine became the rallying point of a new national consciousness, promoting the ideology of democratic egalitarianism and offering a literary representation of Australia that would help define the new nation at the opening of the twentieth century.

Established in 1880, the Bulletin was guided in its earliest years by the editorial acumen of J. F. Archibald, who presided over the magazine's journalistic and literary content. Within a few years, the frequently irreverent publication had earned the moniker “the bushman's Bible” and under Archibald's tutelage developed its characteristically concise, almost epigrammatic style epitomized by the editor's imperative to “boil it down.” In addition to Archibald, A. G. Stephens, another editor of seminal importance to the Bulletin, spearheaded the formation of a separate section of the magazine containing fiction and verse. Called the Red Page, this extraordinarily influential literary magazine within the Bulletin was begun in 1884, although its title was not formally attached for another two years. A generally astute critic, Stephens was instrumental not only in discovering the finest works in verse and fiction to include in the publication, but also in supporting and developing a host of new, talented Australian writers. The Bulletin made Sydney the center of a flowering of Australian literature by the 1890s and encouraged the growing sentiment of Australian nationalism as well. Its writers soon became associated with a kind of bohemianism steeped in the radical, democratic, and progressive ideology promoted by the magazine and contributed to the spread of this sensibility throughout the intellectual centers of late nineteenth-century Australia. Additionally, the Bulletin's editors and contributors sought to propagate the “bush tradition,” which offered a uniquely Australian perception of the country's landscape, people, and national consciousness by focusing on the wild continental interior, the bush. In popular bush ballads, lyric poetry, and short fiction dealing with Australians and Australian life, prominent Bulletin writers such as Henry Lawson and “Banjo” Paterson detailed the values and ideals of a young, vibrant, and culturally distinct society. Thus, the Bulletin became the focal point of rising Australian literary nationalism in the final decade of the nineteenth century, a movement that culminated politically in the declaration of Australian Federation in 1901. Meanwhile, the journal promoted the full range of the era's most noteworthy Australian writers, introducing them to the extended reading public of the newly founded nation.

As the Bulletin defined Australian literary styles and tastes at the end of the nineteenth century, it also promoted the writer that many deem the greatest Australian talent of the period, Henry Lawson. His early collection of simply-structured, succinct, and naturalistic short stories, While the Billy Boils (1896), is generally viewed as artistically his finest. The four short stories of Joe Wilson (1901), interconnected by the presence of their common narrator, are significantly more complex than Lawson's prior tales. Taking the form of a proto-novel, Joe Wilson utilized some of the characteristic Bulletin stylistic conventions epitomized in Lawson's earlier volume, while complicating the bush ideal of “mateship”—a strong, egalitarian bond of friendship between men that has since achieved a near mythic status as part of the Australian literary and social landscape. Even more so than Lawson, the writer who most captured the popular mind of Bulletin readers and promulgated its themes was the poet A. B. “Banjo” Paterson. Paterson's immensely well-received collection of verse The Man From Snowy River (1895) exemplifies the simple rhythms, nostalgic and sentimental subjects, and classless point of view of the “common man” out in the bush that appealed to Australian literary tastes of the period. Paterson was also responsible for the narrative ballad “Waltzing Matilda,” a piece commonly regarded as Australia's unofficial national anthem. Unlike Paterson and other representative Bulletin poets—such as Bernard O'Dowd, whose Dawnward? features such typically Australian verses as the piece entitled “The Bush”—Christopher Brennan is regarded as the outstanding literary poet of the era, despite his tendency to defy its typically nationalist bent. Brennan's symbolic verse in Poems (1913; much of it composed in the 1890s) scarcely mentions its locality in Australia, preferring internal landscapes as it evokes a sense of despairing alienation. The stories of Barbara Baynton's collection Bush Studies (1902) and Miles Franklin's 1901 novel My Brilliant Career are two of the very few works of serious literature by Australian women in the period to have met with any critical recognition, largely because they were both well respected by A. G. Stephens. The setting of Baynton's tales is solidly Australian, and the stories themselves describe the potentialities of loneliness and violence in the Australian bush with near grotesque detail. In contrast, Franklin's My Brilliant Career focuses on the life of a teenage girl. Its Australian setting and characters, however, are offset by its more universal thematic appeal. Among the host of remaining Bulletin writers, such names as Francis Adams, Edward Dyson, William Astley (who wrote as Price Warung), Victor Daley, James Edmond, Steele Rudd, Roderick Quinn, and Hugh McCrae also stand out, as does that of Joseph Furphy. Furphy's experimental, comic novel Such Is Life (1903), narrated by the philosophical Tom Collins, is an allusive, encyclopedic, and unconventional work that bridges the gap between the late 1890s Bulletin style and the modernist innovations of the succeeding century.

While the Bulletin and its contributors were promoting what has since been deemed the “Legend of the Nineties” by such critics as Vance Palmer (the twentieth-century successor to A. G. Stephens as the patron of Australian literary nationalism), contemporary scholars have tended to view the period with a greater degree of objectivity. Certainly this phase is one of the most critically discussed in Australian literary history, and while most agree that the 1890s do represent a watershed era in the development of a self-consciously Australian literature, some question the overall value of the writing that appeared in the pages of the Bulletin, arguing that a strongly nationalistic literature does not necessarily make for a lasting one. Some critics, such as Brian Kiernan, have observed that A. G. Stephens, following his nationalistic agenda, failed to fully comprehend the universal qualities of a few of the works that passed before him. He praised Miles Franklin's My Brilliant Career as “the very first Australian novel to be published,” but demonstrated only a limited understanding of the significance of Joseph Furphy's Such Is Life. Whatever his limitations may have been, Stephens continues to be perceived as the leading critical figure of the period, whose direct influence on Australian writing in the late 1880s and 1890s was by any estimation enormous. Other commentators have also questioned the extent to which many of the more notable writers whose work appeared in the Bulletin can accurately be said to have supported the ideals it publicly espoused. Lawson's writings, critics have observed, often fail to celebrate a democratic or egalitarian vision of Australian life and in many ways are deeply pessimistic. Several modern critics, Leon Cantrell among them, have thus offered opposing perceptions. In Cantrell's view, “a sense of alienation and loss” pervades many of the literary works of the 1890s, evident in the bush fiction of Lawson, Barbara Baynton, and Edward Dyson, among others, and particularly so in Christopher Brennan's Poems. Much critical attention has been given to the subject of the bush tradition and the myth that accompanies it. One of the fundamental qualities of Australian writing, and Australian poetry in particular, has been a focus on the country's unique, untamed, and often foreboding landscape. By the end of the nineteenth century, perceptions of the bush and of the rugged figures who peopled it had formed an integral center to the Australian literary legend. The bush, in its typical polarity to the urban landscape, offered a symbolic source of fortitude and renewal compared with the city as a site of decadence and corruption. Critics, led by Judith Wright, have noted that Australian writers made much of this metaphorical dichotomy, especially at the end of the nineteenth century. Later critics, including Graeme Davison, have additionally observed that, with only a very few exceptions, the bush-obsessed Bulletin fiction writers and poets spent most of their working lives in the urban environment of Sydney, thereby lending an ironic gloss to contemporary interpretations of the Australian literary nationalist legend of the 1890s.

Representative Works

Francis Adams
Poetical Works (poetry) 1887
Songs of the Army of the Night (poetry) 1887

J. F. Archibald
A Golden Shanty: Australian Stories and Sketches; Prose and Verses by Bulletin Writers [editor] (short stories and poetry) 1890

William Astley (Price Warung)
Tales of the Convict System (short stories) 1892

Barbara Baynton
Bush Studies (short stories) 1902

E. J. Brady
The Ways of Many Waters (poetry) 1899

Christopher Brennan
Poems (poetry) 1913

Frank J. Donohue
A Sheaf of Stories for the Centenary Year (short stories) 1888


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Criticism: Overviews

H. M. Green (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: Green, H. M. “Magazines.” In A History of Australian Literature: Pure and Applied, Volume I, 1789-1923, pp. 719-36. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1961.

[In the following essay, Green chronicles the history of the Bulletin and discusses other Australian literary periodicals published between 1880 and 1931.]

This was the great age of the Australian magazine. That does not imply, of course, that its standards have not in a number of instances been reached or surpassed, but it suddenly burgeoned in a manner that would not have been expected by anyone unacquainted with the predisposing causes, leaving the succeeding age to proceed with a more regular and...

(The entire section is 7552 words.)

Richard White (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: White, Richard. “Bohemians and the Bush.” In Inventing Australia: Images and Identity 1688-1980, pp. 85-109. Sydney: George Allen & Unwin, 1981.

[In the following essay, White details the rise of national consciousness among Australian writers, artists, and intellectuals in the 1880s and 1890s.]

The brave Bohemians, heart in hand,
March on their way with spirits free;
They count not moments, sand by sand,
But spill the hour-glass royally.
With wine and jest and laughter long,
Their lives appear to pass, may be;
But still beneath the river's song,
There sounds the sobbing of the sea.

Victor Daley1

From the 1880s,...

(The entire section is 9938 words.)

David Carter and Gillian Whitlock (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Carter, David, and Gillian Whitlock. “Institutions of Australian Literature.” In Australian Studies: A Survey, edited by James Walter, pp. 109-35. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1989.

[In the following excerpt, Carter and Whitlock analyze the content, style, and public role of the Bulletin in the last decades of the nineteenth century.]

… Just as literature has played a major role in discussions of national identity, so too have questions of national identity played a key role in determining how people have read and discussed Australian literature. Literary texts have been read with such questions in mind as: How ‘Australian’ is this book?...

(The entire section is 10049 words.)

Criticism: The Legend Of The Nineties

G. A. Wilkes (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: Wilkes, G. A. “The Eighteen Nineties.” In Australian Literary Criticism, edited by Grahame Johnston, pp. 30-40. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1962.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1958, Wilkes discusses the unique characteristics that defined Australian literature of the 1890s while commenting on major writers and works of the period.]

The first duty of anyone discussing Australian literature in the nineties is, I imagine, to demonstrate the existence of his subject. In Australia's literary development, is there a period ‘the nineties’ with distinctive characteristics that can be intelligently discussed, and if so, may the writing...

(The entire section is 4857 words.)

John Barnes (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Barnes, John. “Discovering Australia: Commentary.” In The Writer in Australia: A Collection of Literary Documents 1856 to 1964, edited by John Barnes, pp. 65-70. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1969.

[In the following excerpt, Barnes remarks on the influence of A. G. Stephens as editor of the Bulletin's literary Red Page in the 1890s.]

To move from Desmond Byrne to A. G. Stephens writing in the same year—1896—is to alter sharply the perspective in which Australian writing is viewed. Stephens writes from within a new movement, hopeful of its future, and confident in his assessment of its importance … / [was] Stephens—the first significant...

(The entire section is 2421 words.)

Brian Kiernan (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Kiernan, Brian. In Criticism, pp. 15-23. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1974.

[In the following excerpt, Kiernan examines Australian literary criticism of the 1890s, focusing on A. G. Stephens as “the critical patron of Australian literature” and his twentieth-century successor, Vance Palmer.]

Generally [Australian] critics were in basic agreement on their assumptions about the relationship between literature and society. They differed mainly in their opinions on the way in which the future ‘national literature’ could be best encouraged—by a disinterested appeal to the highest standards or by an encouraging response to the gallant efforts of...

(The entire section is 3674 words.)

Leon Cantrell (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Cantrell, Leon. Introduction to The 1890s: Stories, Verse, and Essays, edited by Leon Cantrell, pp. xi-xxv. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1977.

[In the following excerpt, Cantrell highlights the uniqueness of 1890s Australian literature and the significant developments in Australian literary history that occurred during this decade.]

The decade of the 1890s has meant many different things as Australians have tried to come to terms with their past. Perhaps there is always an aura of nostalgia and sentiment hanging over a period which seems to mark a watershed between an old way of life and a new. And when that period marks the closing years of a...

(The entire section is 5001 words.)

Chris Wallace-Crabbe (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Wallace-Crabbe, Chris. “The Legend of the Legend of the Nineties.” In Review of National Literatures: Australia, edited by L. A. C. Dobrez, pp. 64-84. New York: Griffin House Publications, 1982.

[In the following essay, Wallace-Crabbe summarizes the literary period of 1888 to 1903 in Australia, commenting on the significance of the Bulletin and the writings of Henry Lawson, Joseph Furphy, and Christopher Brennan.]

In democratic communities each citizen is habitually engaged in the contemplation of a very puny object, namely, himself. If he ever raises his looks higher, he then perceives nothing but the immense form of society at...

(The entire section is 6545 words.)

Criticism: The Bulletin Style

Ken Levis (essay date 1950)

SOURCE: Levis, Ken. “The Role of the Bulletin in Indigenous Short-Story Writing During the Eighties and Nineties.” In The Australian Nationalists: Modern Critical Essays, edited by Chris Wallace-Crabbe, pp. 45-57. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1971.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1950, Levis discusses the opportunity provided by the Bulletin to Australian short fiction writers concerned with depicting Australia and its people.]

The greatest force in the development of indigenous short-story writing was the Sydney Bulletin, which provided a stimulus, developed an attitude of mind, stood firmly by its writers and supplied...

(The entire section is 4428 words.)

Adrian Mitchell (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Mitchell, Adrian. “Fiction.” In The Oxford History of Australian Literature, edited by Leonie Kramer, pp. 27-172. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1981.

[In the following excerpt, Mitchell points to the major Australian fiction writers of the 1890s typically associated with the Bulletin—particularly Henry Lawson and Joseph Furphy.]

In most views of Australian literary history, the Bulletin is the exclusive forum for the new realism, the spawning ground for a new authentic Australian Literature. The antagonism of the realist towards romance was not just a formal objection, but a reflection of ardent nationalism that welled up as Australia...

(The entire section is 6419 words.)

Doug Jarvis (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Jarvis, Doug. “Lawson, the Bulletin and the Short Story.” Australian Literary Studies 11, no. 1 (May 1983): 58-66.

[In the following essay, Jarvis evaluates the fictional techniques favored by the Bulletin in the 1890s.]

The importance of the Bulletin in the emergence of a national literary tradition in the last decades of the nineteenth century is generally recognised, but precisely how it carried out this role is only vaguely defined. The Bulletin of the early 1880s shows scant evidence, as Ken Levis points out in ‘The Role of the Bulletin in Indigenous Short Story Writing During the Eighties and Nineties’, of being...

(The entire section is 4434 words.)

Criticism: Australian Literary Nationalism

Bruce Nesbitt (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: Nesbitt, Bruce. “Literary Nationalism and the 1890s.” Australian Literary Studies 5, no. 1 (May 1971): 3-17.

[In the following essay, Nesbitt recounts the debate between realism and romanticism conducted by Henry Lawson and “Banjo” Paterson in the pages of the Bulletin during the 1890s, suggesting its impact in accelerating Australian literary nationalism.]

As every culture advances toward maturity, R. W. B. Lewis has suggested, it seems ‘to produce its own determining debate over the ideas that preoccupy it’.1 In the nineteenth century, Australians certainly participated enthusiastically in numerous controversies about the great...

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Geoffrey Serle (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Serle, Geoffrey. “National Inspiration c. 1885.” In From Deserts the Prophets Come: The Creative Spirit in Australia 1788-1972, pp. 60-88. Melbourne: William Heineman, 1973.

[In the following excerpt, Serle stresses the relationship of the Bulletin to the national literary awakening of Australia in the 1890s.]

The 80s were the springtime, adolescent period of Australian history. In these boom years, the utopian assumption of Australia's destiny an another United States, peopled by a chosen white race, superior to the Old World and free from its vices, held sway as never since. The native-born were taking over, and in Victoria the Australian Natives'...

(The entire section is 5230 words.)

Douglas Jarvis (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Jarvis, Douglas. “The Development of an Egalitarian Poetics in the Bulletin, 1880-1890.” Australian Literary Studies 10, no. 1 (May 1981): 22-34.

[In the following essay, Jarvis explores the literary values of the Bulletin and their significance to Australian society in the 1880s.]

In the period 1880 to 1890 the Bulletin was formulating the editorial policy and the literary attitudes for which it was later to become notorious. The literary attitudes expressed in the columns of dramatic and other criticism and in articles with titles like ‘Literature in Australia’ are significant both as developments of attitudes and preoccupations...

(The entire section is 6266 words.)

Gerhard Stilz (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Stilz, Gerhard. “Nationalism before Nationhood: Overseas Horizons in the Debates of the 1880s.” Australian Literary Studies 14, no. 4 (October 1990): 476-88.

[In the following essay, Stilz studies international inspiration and domestic contention in the development of an Australian national literature in the 1880s.]

In 1888, the year of the Australian Centennial, the Sydney Bulletin, otherwise no mean advocate of nationalising Australian culture, observed with some sarcasm:

During the present period of high-falutin, Centennial ‘blow’, Australia has pulled herself together and carefully and categorically gone...

(The entire section is 6103 words.)

Criticism: The Myth Of The Bush

Judith Wright (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: Wright, Judith. “The Growth and Meaning of ‘The Bush.’” In Preoccupations in Australian Poetry, pp. 45-56. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1965.

[In the following essay, Wright explains the origins of the symbolic dichotomy between the bush and the city in late nineteenth-century Australian poetry.]

[Henry] Kendall died in 1882, and with him died the nineteenth-century attempt to interpret this new country in ‘serious’ verse. [Charles] Harpur's adjuration to himself—‘Be then the Bard of thy country’—had been heard, beyond his own generation, by no one but Kendall; and Kendall's decision to take over the search for the Harp Australian had...

(The entire section is 4514 words.)

Clement Semmler (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Semmler, Clement. “‘Banjo’ Paterson and the Bush Tradition in the History of Australian Literature.” Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society 62, no. 4 (March 1977): 224-31.

[In the following essay, Semmler illuminates A. B. “Banjo” Paterson's integral contribution to the Australian bush verse tradition in the 1890s as one of the most prominent and popular Bulletin writers.]

Andrew Barton Paterson was born on 17 February 1864 at Narambla near Orange, in New South Wales. He died in Sydney in February 1941, just short of his seventy-seventh birthday. At the age when he was taking an active part in the social and literary life of this...

(The entire section is 4085 words.)

Graeme Davison (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Davison, Grame. “Sydney and the Bush: An Urban Context of the Australian Legend.” In Intruders in the Bush: The Australian Quest for Identity, edited by John Carroll, pp. 109-30. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1982.

[In the following essay, Davison provides the cultural context for the Australian legend of the bush, a myth consolidated by the mostly urban-dwelling writers of Sydney's Bulletin during the 1890s.]

‘It was I’, recalled Henry Lawson in his years of fame, ‘who insisted on the capital B for “Bush”’.1 Lawson, as it happened, was not the first writer to adopt the convention and his pursuit of the bush idea was only...

(The entire section is 7299 words.)

Sue Rowley (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Rowley, Susan. “Imagination, Madness, and Nation in Australian Bush Mythology.” In Text, Theory, Space: Land, Literature and History in South Africa and Australia, edited by Kate Dorian-Smith, Liz Gunner, and Sarah Nuttall, pp. 131-44. London: Routledge, 1996.

[In the following essay, Rowley affirms the “imaginative formation of Australian national culture” by the late nineteenth-century writers who employed the images and themes of bush mythology in their works.]

Recent theories of nationalism and national culture and identity have emphasised the active role of the imagination in the formation of nations. Benedict Anderson's most influential and...

(The entire section is 5146 words.)

Further Reading


Barnes, John. “The Time Was Never Ripe: Some Reflections on Literary Nationalism.” Westerly 24, no. 4 (December 1979): 35-44.

Criticizes the nationalist view of late nineteenth-century Australian literature presented by Vance Palmer and other nationalist critics concerned with the period.

Buckley, Vincent. “Utopianism and Vitalism.” In Australian Literary Criticism, edited by Grahame Johnston, pp. 16-29. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1962.

Observes strains of humanistic utopianism and echoes of Nietzschean metaphysics in Australian literature from the turn of the nineteenth century....

(The entire section is 714 words.)