Shopping at Last!: History, Fiction and the Anti-Suburban Tradition

The well-known line of anti-suburban criticism that we associate with the Barry Humphries of the 1950s actually had its beginnings as a manifesto of the late-nineteenth-century international bohemianism that gained momentum in Australia from the early years of this century. Artists of various kinds became intensely conscious of art as a lifestyle, and bohemianism, sanctioned by the city cultures of Paris and London, defined itself against the growing reality of bourgeois modernity. In Australia, artists commonly formed bohemian cliques, such as the Darlinghurst and King's Cross groups in Sydney, or the Heidelberg School or the Meldrumites in Melbourne, who alternated between camping forays into the bush to seek inspiration in Nature, and inner-city cafes and studios, where in fact, under artificial lighting, they completed many of their most realistic landscapes. The philosophy they advocated was Nietzsche's 'live dangerously' (which might mean nothing more heroic than acquiring syphilis) and pour contempt on the desire for comfort, safety and conformity that they identified with modern suburban life. The playwright Louis Esson, reflecting the sentiments of nearly every artist and poet of his era, set the pattern in his notorious diatribe. The suburban home, he wrote, 'must be destroyed. It stands for all that is dull and cowardly and depressing in modern life ... It would be better to live in a slum area than a bourgeois suburb. The slums have more character, and decidedly more potentialities. Life is more vivid and picturesque there' (Esson 73). The politics that many of these people professed was socialist, but it was a socialism that sentimentalised poverty, scorned the desires of the majority, and believed that everybody ought first and foremost to be connoisseurs of Good Taste. In this creed, the TB-infested slums of the inner cities were 'picturesque'.

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Published 1 November 1998 in Writing the Everyday: Australian Literature and the Limits of Suburbia. Subjects: American (USA) literature & writers, Australian culture, Australian literature and writers, Class differences, Country vs city, Growing up, Melbourne, Suburbs.

Cite as: Kinnane, Garry. ‘Shopping at Last!: History, Fiction and the Anti-Suburban Tradition.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 18, no. 4, 1998.