Before the Nation: Rolf Boldrewood and the Problem of Scale in National Literatures


While Babes in the Bush is an artefact of Federation nationalism, the original serial, An Australian Squire, belongs to an earlier, pre-Federation era of colonial writing. That fine distinction is germane to my purpose in this essay, which explores the cartographic imaginary of that time before the nation. My reading of An Australian Squire is routed through the novel’s many allusions to James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers (1823), among other British and American classics. My purpose is to view citational writing as an aesthetic practice that defines colonial literary culture prior to its self-consciously national period. Intertextuality is an aesthetic strategy by which colonial writers, in the absence of a felt national tradition – though in deliberate anticipation of one – set about using the classic works of British and American literature from the perspective of a new society. In the absence of such a tradition, An Australian Squire is a text whose cartographic imaginary is intra- and inter-colonial rather than national, albeit located within broader transnational or trans-imperial horizons. Finally, I use this case study of transnational fictions to reflect on the problem of scale in literary history and literary criticism, especially in the relationship between Australian literature – as an academic discipline – and world literature. What is the appropriate scale for the study of Australian literature? Is it desirable or even possible to study it on a ‘global’ or ‘world’ scale? What are the consequences of approaching a pre-national literature from the scale of the nation, or a national literature from the scale of the world?

Rolf Boldrewood’s early novel An Australian Squire was serialised in the Australian Town and Country Journal in weekly instalments between 6 October 1877 and 1 February 1878. In 1900, it was reset in single-volume Crown 8vo. with a new title, Babes in the Bush, and issued as a Colonial Edition by Macmillan in London and New York, and in Toronto by W. Briggs. The republication of Boldrewood’s early serials had become financially viable because of the international success of Robbery Under Arms.1 As Paul Eggert demonstrates, a national canon or ‘proto-canon’ began to emerge around the Centenary year of 1888, largely as a consequence of the cheapness and availability of the new Colonial Library editions. Despite their earlier publication as serials and three-deckers, the classic trio of Kingsley’s The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn (1859), Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life (1874), and Boldrewood’s Robbery Under Arms

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Published 31 October 2015 in Volume 30 No. 3. Subjects: Colonial literature & writers, Rolf Boldrewood, Transnationalism, James Fenimore Cooper, Victorian Literature.

Cite as: Dixon, Robert. ‘Before the Nation: Rolf Boldrewood and the Problem of Scale in National Literatures.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 30, no. 3, 2015, doi: 10.20314/als.c93f1b250e.