‘Adjusted’ Vision: Interwar Settler Modernism in Eleanor Dark’s Return to Coolami

Abstract

This essay uses the interwar writing of Eleanor Dark to destabilise the binary between nationalist-realism and experimental modernism in accounts of Australian literature. Dark’s novels mix modernist and experimental styles with middlebrow and vernacular forms, while also legitimating settler nationalist desires. This constellation was not unique to Dark but was part of a broader phenomenon which I call interwar settler modernism: the modernism produced by settler artists and writers between the wars, often through a promiscuous engagement with elite, middlebrow and vernacular forms of culture. Dark’s novel Return to Coolami (1936) exemplifies interwar settler modernism, combining recognisably modernist techniques with middlebrow romance, elements of vernacular culture such as photography, cinema and motor travel, and cultural-nationalist ideas. This study traces some of the contours of interwar settler modernism through examining Dark’s ideas about visual perception, time, memory and interior psychological states. It will explore the implications of settler modernism for studies of Australian literature and, more broadly, for global modernism studies.

Fixed in a sweet meniscus, out of Time,

Out of the torrent, like the fainter land

Lensed in a bubble’s ghostly camera . . .

– Kenneth Slessor, ‘Out of Time’, 1939

In 1958, Patrick White famously distinguished between the experimental styles of his own novels and the ‘dreary, dun-coloured offspring of journalistic realism’ that he associated with the Australian novel (‘Prodigal’ 270). White’s comments reflect the values of cultural elites in the post-war period; nonetheless, they have remained remarkably persistent in shaping accounts of Australian modernism. According to White’s terms, in the decades leading up to the 1950s, Australian literature consisted of either nationalist-realism, or the literary modernism that would emerge from expatriate writers such as White himself, or Christina Stead. We might conclude that Australian literary modernism was missing between the wars, or that it only took place overseas, as ‘the only novelists who can really be said…

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Published 9 July 2018 in Volume 33, No. 2. Subjects: Modernism, Settler colonialism, Eleanor Dark, vernacular modernism, Cultural nationalism, mobility, Cinema.

Cite as: Cooper, Melinda J.. ‘‘Adjusted’ Vision: Interwar Settler Modernism in Eleanor Dark’s Return to Coolami.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 33, no. 2, 2018. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.6a06a548d6.