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Australian Essay

Henry Savery (1791–1842), transported to Van Diemen’s Land for forgery, is best known as the author of the novel Quintus Servinton (1831). It is widely accepted, however, that under the nom de plume of “Simon Stukeley” he also wrote a series of 30 sketches of Hobart Town and its inhabitants which, appearing in the Colonial Times through 1829, were published in the following year under the title The Hermit in Van Diemen’s Land.
This work makes him the first essayist in Australian literary history.
Following The Hermit in Van Diemen’s Land, the next significant contribution to the form was The Australian Sketch Book (1838), written when its author, James Martin (1820–86), was only 18, and in acknowledged imitation of Washington Irving.
Thereafter, H.M.Green asserts in his History of Australian Literature (1961, revised 1985) that between 1850 and 1890 “the only example of the essayist pure and simple was Richard Birnie.” For 18 years from 1870 Birnie (1808–88) was retained to write a regular column for the Australasian, the weekly supplement of the Melbourne Age. Some of these were published as Essays: Social, Moral and Political in 1879. High minded and hortatory, they seem badly dated today.
The prose of other colonial writers, however, retains a livelier appeal. Among them were two short-term visitors from Britain, Richard Rowe (1828–79) and Frank Fowler (1833–63). Rowe’s contributions to a range of Sydney newspapers and journals were collected in 1858 as Peter Possum’s Portfolio. In the following year, and after he had returned to England, Fowler produced Southern Lights and Shadows. Like Rowe, he had written for a number of Sydney publications, and had indeed been the founding editor in 1857 of the Month.
Between the later 1860s and the early 1880s Australia’s most important essayists lived in Melbourne, and wrote for its leading newspapers, the Argus and the Age. Among the earliest and probably the best was Marcus Clarke (1846–81), most widely remembered for his convict novel, His Natural Life (1874). Clarke, who had emigrated to Australia in 1863, began writing for newspapers and magazines soon after his arrival. Most notably from 1867 to 1870, and using the nom de plume “The Peripatetic Philosopher,” he contributed a series of sketches of city life to the Argus and the Australasian.
Another shrewd and lively recorder of Melbourne’s low life was John Stanley James (1843–96), who came to Australia by way of the United States in 1875. From late 1875 to late 1877 he contributed “Notes on Current Events by a Vagabond” to Melbourne Punch.
In 1876 he began writing for the Argus under the same pseudonym. His columns proved so popular that they were collected in 1877 and 1878 as The Vagabond Papers. Michael Cannon, his modern editor, described James’ normal method as “the straightforward, sympathetic, never sentimentalized description of his experiences and observations …a cool unemotional statement of the survival technique of a man who has almost no money and no home of his own.” A third writer to chronicle the life of colonial Melbourne through the prose sketch was Edmund Finn (1819–98), who used both “An Old Colonist” and “Garryowen” as his noms de plume. The Garryowen Sketches (1880) reflect an earlier Melbourne than the observations of either Clarke or James.
By the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, more than 100 years of European experience in Australia had produced a substantial body of literature offering scope for interpretation through the critical essay. Individuals like Douglas Sladen (1856–1946), George Burnett Barton (1836–1901), Henry Gyles Turner (1831–1920), and Alexander Sutherland (1852–1902) had all advanced the understanding and knowledge of Australian writing both at home and abroad well before the 1890s. However, it was that decade which saw the emergence of Australia’s first major literary essayist. A.G. Stephens (1865–1933) used his editorship of the Sydney Bulletin’s Red Page (a full-page literary section) both to encourage native talent and to create a matrix of critical discussion within which the creative writers might develop their skills. Through his own writing as well as through his editorial authority, Stephens made a major contribution to the development of an informed critical environment in Australia; The Red Pagan (1904), a collection of some of his Bulletin writings, is a landmark volume in the development of the Australian literary-critical essay.
Probably Stephens’ most formidable contemporary in the domain of criticism was the poet C.J.Brennan (1870–1932). Around 1900, Brennan wrote a number of substantial critical essays which were included in the edition of his prose works by A.R.Chisholm and J.J.Quinn in 1962.
The decade of the 1890s has acquired legendary status in Australian literary history, a phenomenon partly explained by the appearance of a number of reminiscences by individuals who had participated in the events of those years. Among the most important of these are Those Were the Days (1918) by G.A.Taylor (1872–1928), Knocking Round (1930) by John le Gay Brereton (1871–1933), and The Romantic Nineties (1933) by A.W.Jose (1863–1934).
In the years between the two World Wars there was a steady output of recollections and nostalgia of one kind or another. Bush life in pioneering days, for instance, was a popular subject represented by Mary Fullerton’s (1868–1946) Bark House Days (1921) and Mary Gilmore’s (1865–1962) Hound of the Road (1922). Pen sketches of old bush ways merged readily into descriptions of the bush itself, ranging from the observations of amateur nature lovers to the more exact observations of serious natural historians. The various works of R.H.Croll (1869–1947) are toward the amateur end of this spectrum, as are the books of Donald Alister Macdonald (1857–1932), James Edmond (1859–1933), Bernard Cronin (1864–1968), and Charles Barrett (1879–1959). The apogee of the lyrical evocation of Australian nature was reached in Images in Water (1947) by Elyne Mitchell (1913–), largely devoted to the alpine regions in the southeastern part of the continent, while probably the most prolific and influential nature writer over many decades was A.H.Chisholm (1890–1977). An intermittent English visitor, Grant Watson (1885–1970), combined scientific inquiry and metaphysical speculation in some highly original essays, some of which were collected by Dorothy Green in Descent of Spirit (1990).
In the middle 1930s two anthologies of essays marked the success the form by that time had achieved: Essays: Imaginative and Critical, Chosen from Australian Writers edited by George Mackaness and J.D.Holmes (1933), and Australian Essays edited by George H.Cowling and Furnley Maurice [i.e. Frank Wilmot] (1935). The editors of the latter had this to say, inter alia, in their introduction: “The Australian essay is the product of that most potent force in the cultural development of Australia, the newspaper. The magazine and review have not flourished here…most of our essays have seen the light of day in the columns of newspapers, especially in the Saturday journals, rather than in more ambitious periodicals. The essay began in Australia with the example of Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, and Leigh Hunt before it, and it has flourished in their tradition.
Reminiscence, description and discussion are its modes.” Their observation was, with only minor qualifications, to prove as accurate in prospect as it was true in retrospect.
One medium for comment at essay length not recognized by Cowling and Maurice was radio, which enjoyed considerable popularity and influence through the 1930s and 1940s.
The book reviews of Vance Palmer (1885–1959), one of the leading literary figures of the day, reached a wide audience through his weekly broadcasts over the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC). Vance’s wife Nettie Palmer (1885–1964) also occupied an influential position in the literary community; some of her best and most representative work in the essay form appears in Modern Australian Literature 1900– 1923 (1924) and Talking It Over (1932).
Undoubtedly, however, the supreme practitioner of the essay in Australia during the first half of the 20th century was Walter Murdoch (1874–1970). His prose pieces, which cover an astonishing array of subjects from the most trivial to the most profound, are unmistakably in the tradition of Lamb, Hazlitt, and Hunt. Appearing in the press over more than four decades, they were brought together in a number of volumes of which Speaking Personally (1930) and Selected Essays (1956) are representative. Murdoch remains a rare figure in the Australian literary landscape—an essayist first, last, and
Not all the essayists of the 1930s were content to write within purely belletristic conventions. At least three deserve mention for the intellectual weight and polemical passion they brought to their subjects: John Anderson (1893–1962), P.R. Stephensen (1901–65), and Rex Ingamells (1913–55). For many years professor of philosophy at Sydney University, Anderson used the essay form to expound his own version of the liberal tradition as well as to explain and defend the achievement of then new and challenging writers like James Joyce. Some of his essays were brought together under the title Art and Reality: John Anderson on Literature and Aesthetics (1982) by Janet Anderson, Graham Cullum, and Kimon Lycos. Stephensen’s The Foundations of Culture in Australia (1936) was a strongly nationalistic tract which in turn inspired Ingamells, the founder of the Jindyworobak movement, to write (with Ian Tilbrook) Conditional Culture in 1938.
At the other end of the spectrum from such high seriousness, the interwar years also had their quota of essayists who looked at life from a comic point of view. Hal Eyre’s Hilarities (1929) touched its subjects with a light brush. Later and more robust humorists included Lennie Lower (1903–47), Ross Campbell (1910–82), and Bernard Hesling (1905–88). Their tradition is continued by current writers like Barry Oakley (1931–), Morris Gleitzman (1953–), and Wendy Harmer, all of whom have contributed regularly to the metropolitan press.
World War II brought something of a hiatus to the development of the essay in Australia. While established writers like Murdoch and the Palmers maintained their positions of eminence, it was not until the late 1940s and early 1950s that any significant new names began to appear. By then there was at least a handful of serious literary and cultural journals capable of publishing sustained analytical essays on literary, cultural, social, and political matters. The career of A.A. Phillips (1900–85) was thus closely associated with Meanjin Quarterly, the best of his critical pieces being collected in 1958 as The Australian Tradition, a volume which remains admired today. For the Uncanny Man (1963) by Clement Semmler (1914–) has also stood up well to the passage of time.
Phillips and Semmler were both literary critics rather than creative writers. Since 1958, however, some of the most distinguished collections of literary essays have come from poets or novelists. They include Poetry and Morality (1959) by Vincent Buckley (1925– 88), Because I Was Invited (1975) by Judith Wright (1915–), The Pack of Autolycus (1978) and The New Cratylus (1979) by A.D.Hope (1907–), The Peasant Mandarin (1978) and Persistence in Folly (1984) by Les Murray (1938–), The Music of Love (1984) by Dorothy Green (1915–91), and The Lyre in the Pawnshop (1986) by Fay Zwicky (1933–).
Closely allied to the critical essay is the study which fuses literary insight with comment on broader historical and cultural issues. Many examples of this genre have appeared over the past 20 to 30 years, some of the most impressive being Ockers (1975) and The Unknown Great Australian (1983) by Max Harris (1921–95), Days of Wine and Rage (1980) by Frank Moorhouse (1938–), Gallipoli to Petrov (1984) by Humphrey McQueen (1942–), Hot Copy (1986) by Don Anderson (1939–), and Soundtrack for the Eighties (1983) by Craig McGregor (1933–). In the introduction to this last collection, McGregor asks, ‘“Why a book of essays?” His reply to his own question indicates the essential continuity of the genre from its beginnings with Savery to the present day: “I’ve always liked the essay ever since reading Hazlitt at school … So to a certain extent this is a deliberate exercise in an honourable and enduring literary form…a conscious attempt to stretch and expand the traditional essay form.”
Other essayists have had less lofty intentions, a number, for instance, being content to continue the tradition of reminiscences of people and places—A.R.Chisholm’s (1888– 1981) Men Were My Milestones (1958), for instance, or John Morrison’s (1904–) The Happy Warrior (1987). Probably the most accomplished Australian essayist since World War II was Charmian Clift (1923–69). Returning to Australia in 1964 with her novelist husband, George Johnston, she was soon writing a weekly column for the Sydney Morning Herald which both acquired a wide popular readership and represented the most elegant writing in the belletristic mode since Walter Murdoch. Her topics ranged from the challenges of expatriation through the pangs and pleasures of family life to the changing urban experience of Australians. After her death Johnston brought together many of her best pieces as The World of Charmian Clift (1970).
While Clift did not fully realize her gift as an essayist until after her return home from a long period overseas, it is necessary to conclude this survey by observing that some notable Australian writers have followed the opposite path on their way to achieving a deserved reputation in the essay form. Morris Lurie (1938–), Clive James (1939–), Kate Jennings (1948–), and Meaghan Morris (1950–) have all published collections of essays of real interest and distinction—but only during or after periods of residence away from their native land. Lurie’s The English in Heat (1972) transports the Australian capacity for deflating comedy to London of the 19608, while Clive James in a collection like Visions Before Midnight (1977) focuses a sardonic eye on British television. Kate Jennings has turned her residence in New York City to real advantage in Save Me, Joe Louis (1988) and Bad Manners (1993), while Meaghan Morris’ The Pirate’s Fiancée (1988) brings a powerful intelligence to bear on contemporary issues in feminism, cultural politics, film, and literary theory.
It is fair to say that the essay as a literary genre has never occupied a central place in
the history of Australian writing. Its most important literary practitioners have, with few exceptions, reserved their principal energies for the cultivation of other forms—fiction, poetry, or drama. Literary critics, most notably in the 20th century, have used the essay to offer an interpretation of the emerging corpus of creative achievement. Starting from their own disciplinary base, leading figures in other areas of intellectual endeavor— history, philosophy, science, politics, sociology—have made important contributions. By and large, however, the essay in Australia has developed no distinctively local features of style or structure. The result is a body of work providing a valuable commentary on the changing concerns of Australians and rising at its best to an elegance of expression and force of argument which are part of the common currency of good writing anywhere.



Australian Essays, edited by George H.Cowling and Furnley Maurice, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1935
Essays: Imaginative and Critical, Chosen from Australian Writers, edited by George Mackaness and J.D.Holmes, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1933
Forum: Contemporary Australian Essays, edited by Bruce Elder, Sydney: Wiley and Sons, 1972

Further Reading

Green, H.M., A History of Australian Literature: Pure and Applied, revised by Dorothy Green, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1985 (original edition, 1961)
Hooton, Joy, and Harry Heseltine, Annals of Australian Literature, Melbourne and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991 (original edition, 1970)
Wilde, William H., Joy Hooton, and Barry Andrews, The Oxford Companion to Australian Litrerature, Melbourne and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994 (original edition, 1985)

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