Open discussion on the evolution of Australian and New Zealand Thought

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Australian Legend - a personal note

Rafe's post looking at some writing on the Australian Legend raised some interesting issues. I thought that I should write a short companion piece, adding context especially for readers not familiar with Australian historiography.

Published in 1958, Russel Ward's Australian Legend remains one of Australia's best known history books and was republished back in 2003. The SMH article in the cited link provides an interesting context to the book, while the Australian Government's Cultural Portal provides a short if incomplete and partial introduction to the bush legend.

I have a direct interest in Russel's work at several levels.

He was one of my teachers at the University of New England and in fact forms one element of the New England intellectual tradition that I started to explore in a yet to be completed series. I was also fascinated then and now by the Australian character, although my interpretation was a little different from Russel's.

I do not have time in this short post to write a detailed historical analysis. Instead, I just wanted to point to a few threads that interest me.

All groups, nations included, have their own legends, constructs that they use to interpret the past.

In recent years I have worked mainly as a management consultant. Part of my work has focused on understanding the nature of organisational change and renewal. Central to this has been the nature of organisational cultures, the way in which this impedes or facilitates change.

I make this point because I sometimes feel that in this post-modern world in which the study of history has fragmented and lost a degree of relevance as a consequence, historians have become very uncomfortable in dealing with legends. They want to critique the legend itself, rather than looking at what is.

Take, as an example, the Turner frontier thesis, a thesis that formed a building block in Russel's thinking. In simple terms, Turner argued that the American culture and character had been formed in a positive way by the moving frontier. Russel adopted this concept to some degree and applied it to Australia.

Today, at least in Australia, this type of thinking makes us very uncomfortable because we see the moving frontier through a prism set by indigenous-non-indigenous relations. How can we attribute positive attributes to something so maligned? Yet the frontier thesis has an existence at several levels independent of any questions of Aboriginal-non-Aboriginal relations.

To say that something - the moving frontier - has negative elements, should not deny its broader features, including its role in influencing and supporting intellectual ideas.

Then, too, Russel was writing from and influenced by a particular tradition, one that still retains some mythic powers.

In an earlier work that I have not been able to check so am writing from memory, Professor Moses suggested that there had been three main schools in Australian historiography, old left, new left and imperial.

Russel belonged firmly to the old left stream. Influenced by Irish Catholicism as well as ideas coming out of England, this school saw the creation of a new Australian identity as a central issue. This is the world of Eureka, of trade unions and the 189os strikes, of sometimes rampant Australian nationalism.

Russel's emphasis on mateship, on egalitarianism, comes in part from this world. This is also the world of Bernard Smith, whose pioneering work on the history of Australian art argued that the history of Australian art lay in part in the creation of a distinctive Australian identity.

The position was always far more complicated than Russel allowed. The books that Rafe referred to in his post draw some of this out, including the influence of city based intellectuals and writers. Many of these in fact came from the country, but they formed a distinctive radical group. Much more was involved than just the itinerant bush worker.

Russel also ignored what Moses called the imperial stream in Australian historiography, although Russel himself with his Adelaide connections, with his moustache and formal manners, really came from part of the Australian establishment.

The imperial stream saw Australia and the evolution of the Australian character in the broader context of the history of Great Britain and the Empire. This is the world of Mary Grant Bruce in children's writing, of Charles Chauvel in film.

The imperial stream was just as Australian as the old left tradition. Whereas the old left tradition saw Australian identity evolving in some ways in opposition to the mother country, the imperial tradition saw the Australian identity as part of but better than that holding in England. A selection of the best from home plus Australia's own unique elements.

This view was in fact mirrored in the UK in both official and popular writing where the tall, lean, laconic competent colonial became a popular figure.

There is a strange analogy here to the Australian Aborigines.

All groups measure themselves to some degree by the way they are perceived by those around them.

The constant negative presentation of indigenous problems, as was pointed out in an Oceania article back in the 1960s, affects Aboriginal perceptions of themselves. Australians as a whole were far more lucky, because their presentation in the broader Imperial environment was largely positive from the very beginning. This fed back into Australian perceptions of themselves.

In all, Rafe's post opens up some very major topics!

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