The Tank Stream Press: Urban Modernity and Cultural Life in Christina Stead’s Seven Poor Men of Sydney

Abstract

In Seven Poor Men of Sydney (1934), Christina Stead evokes the city’s history in her naming of the Tank Stream Press, the novel’s central location. The fresh water Tank Stream assured the colony’s survival in its fledgling years; however, it soon became an open sewer and was buried as a stormwater drain in order to maintain public health. This essay argues that Stead uses the Tank Stream’s watery history to shape a narrative about cultural life and urban modernity in early twentieth-century Sydney. The functioning of the business is informed by the stream’s various identities of essential water supply, sewer and drain: at times, it seems as if culture and learning may usher in an intellectual and internationalist utopia in the city, liberating the minds and bodies of those who inhabit it; at others, all such hope is lost. The narrative Stead develops around the printery and its employees brings local place into contact with transnational socialist and other intellectual discourses, and links both to culture as a material, interactive force within the urban milieu. Through a close reading of the Tank Stream Press, this essay explores the novel’s conflicted vision of culture, politics and urbanity in modern Sydney.

Christina Stead’s first novel, Seven Poor Men of Sydney, was published in 1934. It was also, as critic H.M. Green noted at the time, the first to envision Sydney as a ‘world city’, with all the accompanying social economic and cultural complexities (qtd in Blake 37). As its title suggests, the book centres on a group of young people from the working and lower-middle classes of 1920s Sydney, navigating the turbulent worlds of work and politics. In Stead’s narrative, the rapidly modernising city is revealed by the movement of the characters, who circulate through its spaces via a fluid, multi-strand narrative. There is only one location through which each of the main characters passes on their various wanderings: the Tank Stream Press, located in the symbolic heart of the city in Lachlan Place, Stead’s toponym for the old town square, Macquarie Place. The Tank Stream Press is also central to…

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Published 7 December 2016 in Rediscovering Christina Stead. Subjects: Cities, Modernity, Sydney, Sydney Harbour, Christina Stead.

Cite as: Brayshaw, Meg. ‘The Tank Stream Press: Urban Modernity and Cultural Life in Christina Stead’s Seven Poor Men of Sydney.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 31, no. 6, 2016. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.7bf74a095c.