Literary Nationalism and the 1890s


In 1892, readers of the Sydney Bulletin saw the beginnings of an argument which developed into the single most significant event in the history of Australian literary nationalism. This controversy, with Henry Lawson at its centre, was in fact a coherent debate about the nature of Australia and the role of literature in shaping a colonial society. It was not the only debate in the Bulletins columns, nor was it regarded at the time as an influential contribution to Australia's intellectual history, but the literary issues it raised later provided a focus for other non-literary debates, and helped draw them together into a distinguishing cultural dialogue. Perhaps because it was not conducted at any particularly lofty level, the importance of the debate has been underestimated in Australian literary and social history. It began as a duel in doggerel between Henry Lawson and 'Banjo' Paterson, and their biographers, among others, have been content to accept Paterson's recollections written nearly forty-seven years after the 'undignified affair'. But it did not stop there, and its literary results have become in the twentieth century a primary source of the Australian 'identity' itself.

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Published 1 May 1971 in Volume 5 No. 1. Subjects: Literary controversies, Radical Nationalism, Henry Lawson, A.B. 'Banjo' Paterson.

Cite as: Nesbitt, Bruce. ‘Literary Nationalism and the 1890s.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 5, no. 1, 1971, doi: 10.20314/als.8c839619ab.