Literary studies has for some time now been rediscovering the value and interest of an analytical style of literary history, one that tries - not without some inferential synthesis and speculation - to place literary texts and events in richer, more finely differentiated relations to their immediate cultural milieux than were envisaged by earlier critical tendencies, whether (in the Australian instance) formalist exclusions or nationalist over-generalisations of historical context. There is now, it would seem, an assured place on the academic agenda for historical arguments which, while not seeking to write the spiritual history of the nation in its literature, are more than merely descriptive of documented facts and relations concerning the processes of transmission, interaction and transformation of texts. Internationally, I am thinking especially of the sparkling essays of Robert Darnton on French book culture, and of work by Cathy Davidson and others on North American (Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre, The Kiss of Lamourette; Davidson, Reading in America). On the Australian scene, elements of this approach are present.
This paper is a contribution to analytical literary history in that sense. In it I analyse a single aspect of Australian literary culture in a particular historical period, namely its interest in 'greatness' - great books and great authors, especially the latter - in the years between the Depression and the end of the Second World War. But I try to do so in a way that makes some connections with a broader and longer process of discursive transformation over time, thereby illuminating (both by analogy, and even, perhaps, by weak causalities of certain kinds) similar interests in different periods, notably our own.