Review of The Writer in Australia 1856-1964, edited by John Barnes
The neutral title of this anthology of writing about Australian literature might well obscure the fact that the editor sees it as providing some of the documents necessary to the accomplishment of a quite specific task—the investigation of 'the progress of Australian writing in relation to the central struggle to achieve an independent literary tradition'. This sentence in John Barnes' introduction gave me the first, but by no means the last, jolt as I read through his selection of literary writing of the last 100 years. So perhaps it is only fair to say at the outset that what I chiefly gained from The Writer in Australia was a firm conviction that the history of Australian literature needs to be rewritten. Ideally, the job would be done by someone (critic? historian?) who could produce undeniable proof that he had never read a single word about Australian literature (or for that matter English literature of the last 150 years), and who would solemnly promise not to do so. Such a man, never having read a word of any of the writers represented in The Writer in Australia, might have some chance of seeing Australian literature steadily and seeing it whole. He might, even, produce a history tolerably free from misconceptions, partial interpretations, arbitrary judgments, special pleading and historical blindness. He might, in fact, arrive at that condition of disinterestedness Matthew Arnold thought essential to the proper function of criticism.
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