James McAuley’s New Guinea : Colonialism, Modernity and Suburbia

If, as Roger Silverstone argues, 'Suburbia has remained curiously invisible in the accounts of modernity' (4), then it is also true that colonialism has remained an equally invisible term, if not in very recent accounts of modernity, then certainly in discussions of suburbia. This essay is an attempt to triangulate these three terms - colonialism, modernity, suburbia- in the exemplary career of James McAuley. From the late 1940s to the mid 1960s, a generation of Australian intellectuals, among them McAuley, Robin Boyd, A.D. Hope and Donald Horne, mounted a sustained critique of suburbia. For McAuley, like F.R. Leavis and T.S. Eliot in the 1930s and 40s, this amounted to an attack on 'modernity' in all its manifestations: commodification, industrialisation, standardisation, secularisation, the 'levelling down' effect of mass culture. It was normally accompanied by the nostalgic projection in time and/or space of a prelapsarian organic community that modernity has displaced. For Leavis and Eliot, that organic community lay back in time, in the centuries before the industrial revolution, before Eliot's 'dissociation of sensibility'; for McAuley, however, it was still visible in contemporary Melanesia. McAuley's association with New Guinea as a Senior Lecturer at the Australian School of Pacific Administration (ASOPA) has generally been neglected by critics and biographers in favour of the poet's role as editor of Quadrant from 1956, his role as Reader and then Professor of English at the University of Tasmania from 1961, and as the author of two conservative books of cultural and literary commentary, The End of Modernity (1959) and The Grammar of the Real (1975). McAuley's criticisms of modernity were notorious. As one reviewer said of The End of Modernity, his essays on 'the cultural anarchy of the modern West' were marred by 'a mass of scathing sarcasms, apocalyptic images, and [an] irritatingly aggressive arrogance towards the Philistines - the inhabitants of his "twilit Tom Tiddler's ground of shallow humanism'" (Rosalie 54). What has been forgotten, however, is that McAuley's criticisms of modernity were largely formulated, and in many cases written and originally published, at the same time as he was doing fieldwork in New Guinea and publishing prolifically on colonial affairs. My interest in recovering the history of McAuley's involvement with New Guinea is part of a broader study of primitivism and modernity in Australia between 1930 and 1960. For this purpose, I will take the modernist critique of suburbia in the 1960s not as the beginning, but the end point of a repressed connection between modernisation and colonialism whose starting point is McAuley's formulation, in the late 1940s, of the myth of an organic community in Melanesia ruined by modernity.

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Published 1 November 1998 in Writing the Everyday: Australian Literature and the Limits of Suburbia. Subjects: Colonialism & imperialism, Government policies, Papua New Guinea.

Cite as: Dixon, Robert. ‘James McAuley’s New Guinea : Colonialism, Modernity and Suburbia.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 18, no. 4, 1998. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.b4e573d3cf.