‘A Reading People?’: Global Knowledge Networks and Two Australian Societies of the 1820s


This essay is primarily concerned with two Australian societies of the 1820s: the Philosophical Society of Australasia, 1821-22, and the Useful Book Society, around 1828 to 1831. The problems faced by both societies were exacerbated by the geographical isolation of New South Wales, but the 'tyranny of distance' should not disguise the fact that they were an extreme instance of the general case of the relative scarcity of books directing human behaviour. Moreover, both societies self-consciously keyed themselves into the 'uneven global network' that linked colony and metropolis in an evolving middle-class discourse of improvement (Lester 24). Given that at least one of the founding members of the South African Literary Society, John Fairbairn, moved from the literary and philosophical society in Newcastle-upon-Tyne to the association in the Cape, explicitly bringing his experiences in the one to bear in the other, one might nuance this picture by insisting that not everything went through the metropolis (Botha 8- 9, 27-28). If debates about improvement constituted key sites in middle-class identity formation that were starting to challenge traditional aristocratic power in the early nineteenth century (Johnston 16), then the creation of networks that did not necessarily route through London was a key part in this process."

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Published 1 October 2014 in Reading Communities and the Circulation of Print. Subjects: Literary societies, Reading, Romantic period.

Cite as: Mee, Jon. ‘‘A Reading People?’: Global Knowledge Networks and Two Australian Societies of the 1820s.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 29, no. 3, 2014, doi: 10.20314/als.a0fcfe8202.