Thursday, July 10, 2008

Text and the city: the urban role in the Australian bush legend

Australia is the most urbanised nation on Earth. Yet the bush has iconic status and provides the core of a national imagining. The Australian “bush legend” has a great influence on the national psyche. The legend dates back to the 1890s and remains a powerful image with mass appeal for national consumption. The bush legend is often trotted out for advertising or tourist purposes, or both, as in the case of the Gold Coast’s Australian Outback Spectacular (sponsored by R.M. Williams, “Australia’s leading bush outfitter”). Through the work of three historians (Sean Glynn, Graeme Davison and Richard White), this post will look at some of the reasons why the legend became so engrained in Australian culture. It will examine the critical influence of Russel Ward’s attempt to analyse the bush mystique and the economic and cultural that contributed to the making of the legend. The paper will then touch on the growing importance of Sydney in the 1890s, the Bulletin newspaper that emerged from that city, and the writers that brought its ideas to light. Out of all these factors grew a legend that fed on the creativity of the city to construct a powerful image of the bush.

The historian Russel Ward acknowledged this opposition between the city and the bush in his study of the legend but traced its birthright to bush workers. In his major academic work, "The Australian Legend" he identified a “national mystique” in which outback manners and mores subtly diffused through the whole of society allowing a “bush ethos” to become synonymous with Australian nationalism. Ward argued that in the 1890s this bush ethos was romanticised and spread by the poetry and prose of new nationalist writers of the Bulletin school such as Furphy, Lawson and Paterson. Davison, Glynn and White drew on Ward’s work but came to different conclusions as to the provenance of the legend. Davison argues this glorification was not the transmission of frontier values to the city, but rather the projection onto the outback of the values of alienated urban writers. Glynn notes that by 1890 urbanisation was the dominant experience for a majority of Australians and it was their ideological needs that forced the acceptance of the bush legend. White argued that Ward’s ‘noble frontiersman’ was a symbol of escape from the tyranny of industrialised civilisation. All three historians were agreed upon the importance of the urban context in the Ward’s definition of Australian character.

But merely pointing to its city birthright does not throw any real light on how the legend emerged. To understand it in more detail, requires an understanding of the nature of Australian identity. White noted three factors in the making of this identity: the cultural baggage of Western ideas on science, nature and society; the intelligentsia that framed those ideas in an Australian setting; and the attitudes of the ruling class that patronised the intelligentsia. Glynn, Davison and White have noted how all three factors played a role in the formation of the bush mythology. In the late 19th century, Australians ransacked the history, nature and folklore of Europe and North America to construct a uniquely national Australian culture. It was the product of an emerging urban intelligentsia in literary media rather than a rural folk culture. Most importantly, the timing for this assertive nationalism was crucial: the vested interests in 1890s colonial society realised that there were advantages to a federal Australia that could solve economic problems in the areas of communication, finance and transport. But federation itself never captured the public imagination. The hardships that most of the population faced during the 1890s economic depression, made the urban image makers turn to the bush legend for a more fulfilling vision of Australian nationalism.

Invention and imagination are key components in any legend. Benedict Anderson defined the nation itself as an imagined political community. It was imagined because most members of a nation will never know most of their fellow members but in each of their minds lived what Anderson called, “the image of their communion”. Ward’s images of Australian communion rested heavily on the interpretation of popular folksong and literary work of the era. But the three later historians all agree this was a simplistic deduction. Davison used other tools such as electoral rolls and directories to show the concentration of boarding houses and radical institutions and individuals made Sydney the real powerhouse of the development of the legend. White also used census data to show NSW's cultural vitality. Glynn argues that literary evidence of the emergence of national character is “suspect and dangerous” and does not give enough credence to the economic upheavals and political flux that dominated depression-ridden Australia in the 1890s. That disillusionment was particularly felt in Melbourne which had grown wealthy on the back of Victoria’s goldfields. According to White, the depression caused the old faith in constant progress to decline which was matched by a new vitality in art and literature. It was this Sydney-led vitality that reached out to the Bush to capture a new image of Australia in the 1890s.

No one outlet was as much responsible for that image as the Sydney Bulletin. This year, the newspaper (now a magazine) closed down after 128 years of continuous publication. While the publication had a mostly long and undistinguished adulthood, Sylvia Lawson described the Bulletin’s first 20 years as “an astounding conflagration of cultural and journalistic energy”. The Bulletin’s influence can not be understated; by the turn of the century its circulation was around 100,000 in a population of three million. Again, White, Davidson and Glynn all acknowledge its critical role in the distillation of the legend. Glynn noted how the newspaper encouraged “larrikin literature” which portrayed social extremes. According to White, the Bulletin created its own legend as sensible commercial enterprise, a sort of self-advertising in keeping with the brash, new journalism of the era. But as Davison notes, all but a few of staple contributors and occasional correspondents lived in the coastal littoral, especially Sydney and Melbourne. The Bulletin’s writers were also deeply influenced by London trends and especially by the penmanship of Charles Dickens. The bush myth was brilliantly packaged by the Bulletin with its vibrant brashness, city-centric contributors and its Dickensian contextualisation.

The Bulletin was successful because it filled a crucial niche for its audience. Glynn states that the acceptance of the bush legend is more related to the ideological needs of a highly urbanised population. The very title of Davison’s article “Sydney and the Bush” made a play on words on what he described as two important literary touchstones to 1890s writers. According to the Macquarie Dictionary of Australian Slang, the phrase “Sydney or the Bush!” means “all or nothing, as in making a do or die attempt, gambling against the odds, etc”. Many of the legend's formative writers made that do or die attempt both literally and figuratively to the bush. Davison notes how Paterson fled “from the horrors of the city” and allowed his imagination to permanently reside on permanent vacation with “the western drovers”. White points out that other artists found the reality of the bush did not live up to their hopes. He described four self-styled Bohemians whose bush journey left them depressed by “soul-destroying sameness” which was relieved only by “dreams of city pleasures and delights”. Nevertheless, this dichotomy of Sydney or the bush produced much creative endeavour; what these artists created was a new moral universe that fulfilled a great need in Australia’s urbanised population.

The bush legend they created remains an enduring force to this day. Russel Ward anointed the legend and the “bush mystique” that goes with it. The timing of the legend’s birth was crucial; occurring as it did when Australia was in a depression and on the precipice of great political change. The Sydney Bulletin drove it forward with energetic and entertaining writing. But its writers and most of its audience were city folk all looking for ways to escape, however fleetingly, from the economic depression of the times. The bush legend was an experience imagined and packaged by city folk, but no less true or powerful for it.

No comments: