Australian literature

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Australian literature

Australian literature, the literature of Australia. Because the vast majority of early Australian settlers were transported prisoners, the beginnings of Australian literature were oral rather than written.

The Nineteenth Century

Early attempts at producing literary works were rather gentrified, written in the English style for an English audience. A good example is the work of W. C. Wentworth, author of Australasia, an Ode (1823), which is minor and imitative. During the next few decades Australian writers began to discover at least their subject, if not yet their voice, with the interpretive nature poetry of Charles Harpur (1813–68) and Henry Kendall (1839–82) and with the novels of Henry Kingsley (brother of Charles Kingsley), who wrote about pioneer life. The bush ballad, begun by Adam Lindsay Gordon, flowered in the work of Henry Lawson (1867–1922) and A. B. (“Banjo”) Paterson (1864–1941), whose Man from Snowy River and Other Verses (1895) includes the famous song “Waltzing Matilda.”

Convict life was depicted in Henry Savery's Quintus Servinton (1830), but it was not until almost a century after the first prisoners arrived that they received their due, in Marcus Clarke's classic account of life in a penal colony, For the Term of His Natural Life (1874). Less powerful, but true to life in the bush, were the novels of Rolfe Boldrewood (pseud. of Thomas A. Browne) and James Tucker, whose Ralph Rashleigh (1844) was the first book to focus on Australia's unique combination of prison life, aborigines, and bushrangers. Other important 19th-century novelists were Miles Franklin (1879–1954), whose My Brilliant Career (1901) is often designated the first authentically Australian novel, and diarist-novelist Tom Collins (pseud. of Joseph Furphy, 1843–1912). Poets of note include Hugh McCrae (1876–1958) and Dame Mary Gilmore (1865–1962).

The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

The increasing industrialization of the early 20th cent. rendered the pastoral nature of most Australian literature anachronistic. The present century eventually produced greater sophistication and diversity among writers. Probably the most important Australian writer of the early 20th cent. was Henry Handel Richardson (pseud. of Ethel Richardson Robertson), whose autobiographical trilogy, The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney (1930), presents a compelling portrait of Australian life. Richardson's reputation was matched at mid-century by Patrick White whose strong, somber novels, Australian in setting yet universal in theme, reveal the author's ambivalence toward his native land; White received the Nobel Prize in 1973.

Other notable 20th-century novelists are Brian Penton, Leonard Mann, Christina Stead (only one of whose novels is actually set in Australia), Arthur William Upfield (1888–1964), John O'Grady, Morris West, C. J. Koch, Peter Carey, Thomas Keneally, the aborigines Colin Johnson and Alexis Wright, and the Tasmanian writer Richard Flanagan. After emigrating to Australia in 1950, the English novelist Nevil Shute subsequently produced novels with Australian settings and themes. The most popular Australian novelist of the late 20th and early 21st cent. is Tim Winton. Remarkably, in a nation with such natural and human wonders, there has not yet been a major Australian poet. Current claimants, however, include R. D. Fitzgerald, Kath Walker, Judith Wright, J. P. McAuley, Kenneth Slessor, Vance Palmer, and Chris Wallace-Crabbe.


See H. M. Green and D. Green, A History of Australian Literature (2 vol., rev. ed. 1984); B. Argyle, An Introduction to the Australian Novel, 1830–1930 (1972); G. Dutton, The Literature of Australia (1976); L. Kramer, The Oxford History of Australian Literature (1981); and W. H. Wilde et al., The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (1985).

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