The Bulletin and the Rise of Australian Literary Nationalism Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.