Dorothy Green was an intense speaker and writer. This quality arose from a strong Christian faith which assured her that human life has meaning and that all human beings deserve a justice their rulers deny them. Her insistent belief that ordinary people “are still better than their culture” supported her optimism that they will eventually realize the minimum demand of justice—that none should go hungry in a world with technology already supplying commodities beyond any demand—and her anger at the system that devotes this technology to greed and aggression and at the individuals who choose to use their intellect to serve this system.
Green, who in her earlier years was better known by her birth name as the poet Dorothy Auchterlonie, began her writing career while a student at the University of Sydney where, as editor of the journal Hermes, she published an editorial essay, “People, Politics, and ‘Poetry’” (1938). The separate words in the title identify the issues that were to remain central to her concerns throughout her life, and their juxtaposition explains her moral passion. Poetry, and literature in general, were, for Green, a means of identifying and clarifying human relationships, and her criticism is merciless in its condemnation of pretension in content and falsity in form. Hence in 1944, writing about the “Ern Malley” hoax (in which editor Max Harris mistook as real some spoof poetry written by two wellknown Australian poets and published it in the avant-garde journal Angry Penguins) Green recognized the intellectual arrogance—which prevented Harris attending to either the opinions of others or the rhythms of the words presented to him—that led to his humiliation. More than a quarter of a century later, she was equally perspicacious in her identification of the flight from reason of many of the counterrevolutionary poets collected in Thomas Shapcott’s 1969 anthology Australian Poetry Now, and later of the way the commodification of literature in Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds (1977) degrades the capacity for human feeling. Yet her feeling for the positive forces of life, which gave impetus to her condemnations of the shoddy, also enabled her to find virtue in works that she knew were deeply flawed. So, her review of Germaine Greer’s book on women painters, The Obstacle Race (1979), condemns the polemic that separates women as victims from men as oppressors, yet finds in the book reason to hope that women may lead the way toward William Morris’ ideal of a world where art is “a necessity of human life, common to the whole people.”
The greater number of Green’s essays were reviews, which take the form, when she is dealing with writers she admired, of a penetrating scrutiny of the work in question and a passionate engagement with readers to convince them of the importance of recognizing its truth. She shared with Judith Wright the belief that the core of morality was to be found in the wholeness of humans and nature, and that evil was what defaced or deformed either. She shared with Martin Boyd, to whose writing she brought discriminating praise, the belief that the custodians of this value were artists and aristocrats, for whom the world was to be enjoyed and praised, not exploited for material gain or delivered to the dealers of death. The religion that supported these beliefs, although formally orthodox, was in no way narrowly sectarian. She accepted the many paths to God, including the Buddhism of Robert Gray’s poetry as much as the secular humanism of Christina Stead. Yet she was intolerant of the easy acceptance of any universal ideal that denied difference and division, particularly the notions that all is permitted in a fallen world, or that humans do not have to wrestle with the divisions brought about by this fall.
The search for a wholeness that would transcend division without denying it accounts for Green’s interest in the biologist, anthropologist, and novelist Grant Watson, whose letters she edited and whose work she discussed in an important essay, “The Daimon and the Fringe-Dweller” (1971). In analyzing Watson’s work, Green reveals her own understanding of the mysteries of existence. The English-born Watson spent only two years in Australia, but the relations between its people and its landscape provided the theme for six of his ten novels. The fringe-dwellers of the essay’s title are those who move out from civilization to pursue their demons to the true center, the land where nature communicates through the senses an understanding of life that moves beyond the merely human. This understanding, which Green likens to Hindu and Chinese thought and to the way of being of the Aborigines, brings the spiritual, the biological, and the cultural into harmony. Green contrasts it with the exploitative modes of Western rationalism, which subjugate both women and the land to the masculine drive to dominate and possess. In this desire Green locates the divisions between individuals and nations alike.
Green’s distrust of isolated intellectualism did not, however, mean any elevation of feeling over thought, or any romantic illusions about the innate wisdom of untutored sensibility. As she says in her essay (originally a lecture) “The Place of Literature in Society” (1986), the illiterate could exist happily only in societies where there was no pressure of population on resources. In the contemporary world, bondage to nature means misery, and the absence of public discourse means bondage to those who control the economic forces. Literature, “humanity thinking aloud,” is the “great continuous discussion throughout the ages and across the world” that provides the insights into the human condition which alone can offer us the hope of freedom.
In her essay on A.G.Stephens, Green remarks that he fails the final test of a critic—the ability to develop his particular insights into a continuous argument. Green herself passes this test triumphantly. Her moral concerns are consistent from her earliest work, but develop as her understanding of the complexity of the human predicament develops to take account of the social origins of individualism, of the divisions of the self, and of the persistent and pernicious effects of power and greed. At the same time, the content of her essays provides an analysis of the developing responses of Australian writers to their environment. Her essays on A.H.Davis and Louis Stone identify the precise nature of their Australian experience, while those on Patrick White demonstrate how he uses this experience to contribute to world literature. All of this is accomplished with wit and a breadth of knowledge that places the immediate in the context of the universal, represented by the touchstones of Shakespeare, Milton, George Eliot, and Tolstoi.
Green will probably be remembered mainly as a poet and critic, but her essays are integral to her work, and contain the craftsmanship, the sharp-eyed insight into human nature and human folly, and the passionate concern for our relation to ourselves and to nature, that marks all of her writing.
Born Dorothy Auchterlonie, 28 May 1915 in Sunderland, County Durham, England.
Studied at the University of Sydney, B.A., 1938, M.A., 1940. Worked as a broadcaster, journalist, and news editor, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 1942–49. Married H.M.
Green, 1944 (died, 1962): one daughter and one son. Teacher and coprincipal at a girls’ school, Warwick, Queensland, 1955–60; lecturer in English, Monash University, Melbourne, 1960–63, Australian National University, Canberra, 1964–72, and the Royal Military College, Duntroon, 1976–80. Awards: James Cook University Literary Award, 1973; Barbara Ramsden Award, for Ulysses Bound, 1973; honorary degree from the University of New South Wales. Medal, Order of Australia, 1984, and Officer, Order of Australia, 1988. Died in Canberra, 21 February 1991.
Essays and Related Prose
The Music of Love: Critical Essays on Literature and Life, 1984
The Writer, the Reader and the Critic in a Monoculture (lectures), 1986; enlarged edition, as Writer, Reader, Critic, 1990
Other writings: poetry (as Dorothy Auchterlonie) and the critical study Ulysses Bound (1973). Also revised her husband H.M. Green’s History of Australian Literature (1985).
Dowse, Sara, “In the Nature of a Prophet: Sara Dowse Profiles Dorothy Green,” Australian Society 9, no. 2 (1990):18–21
Southerly issue on Green, 50, no. 3 (1990), particularly “The Work of Dorothy Green” by Elizabeth Perkins: 279–93
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