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Australian language, letters and literature

Portrait of C. J. Dennis (1876 - 1938).

Portrait of C J Dennis (1876 - 1938), photograph: gelatin silver. Photograph courtesy of the State Library of Victoria: H81.204/4.

Australian language, letters and literature in Australia has been influenced by Aboriginal storytelling, convict tales and the desire by colonists to relate their experiences in a new country.

Some of those early works have remained part of the Australian ethos. Marcus Clarke's For the term of his natural life , for example, is still being published today, more than 100 years after it was written.

Similarly, the bush ballads of Henry Lawson and Andrew 'Banjo' Paterson have become so ingrained in Australian history, that most Australians are word-perfect when singing Waltzing Matilda . C J Dennis's The Sentimental Bloke remains another favourite with its use of slang language.


Some famous writings include the Jerilderie Letter, which was dictated by Ned Kelly to Joe Byrne in February 1879. It is the only document providing a direct link to the Kelly Gang and the events with which they were associated. The letter articulates Kelly's pleas of innocence and desire for justice for both his family and the poor Irish selectors of Victoria's north-east.

The Coranderrk Letter was written in 1882 by William Barak, an Aborigine living on Coranderrk Station. Barak wrote the letter protesting about the management and treatment of Aborigines. He and other Aboriginal Elders continued to petition, including a letter to Queen Victoria.

Barak, Chief of the Yarra Yarra Tribe. Barak drawing a corroboree, 1898.

Talma and Co, Barak, Chief of the Yarra Yarra Tribe. Barak drawing a corroboree, 1898, photograph: gelatin silver. Photograph courtesy of the State Library of Victoria: H91.258.

Another famous petition was by the Yolngu people. In 1963, the Yolngu sent the Yirrkala Bark Petitions to the House of Representatives in protest against the Commonwealth's granting of mining rights to Nabalco over land excised from Arnhem Land reserve. The result was a parliamentary inquiry which recommended that compensation was owed to the Yolngu.

In another vein, the letters of Judith Wright, published as With Love and Fury (2006) explore the complex relationships that fed the poet's creative life. The correspondence with Jack McKinney (later her husband) between 1945-46, coincides with the most fertile periods of her poetic career. Judith's correspondence with Queensland poet, Jack Blight 'constitute a running commentary on the Australian literary scene as well as what she was reading and thinking about poetry and writing in general' (Meredith McKinney, 2007).

Gwen Harwood's letters published as A Steady Storm of Correspondence: Selected Letters of Gwen Harwood 1943-1995 (2001) are described as:

Spirited and witty, warm, reflective, at times enraged, often overcome by laughter, the letters are so varied that this large volume can be read as one might read a novel or an autobiography. It would be a pity just to dip in at random: this is the story of the making of a poet.

The yellow scarf , portrait of Henry Handel Richardson, by Rupert Bunny, 1920s.

Rupert Bunny, The yellow scarf , portrait of Henry Handel Richardson, 192-, painting: oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an8136809.


From the 1830s, distinctive early Australian poetic voices began to emerge. Charles Harpur was regarded as the country's leading poet. Harpur wrote of the solitude and grandeur of a landscape that dwarfs its people. Henry Kendall, encouraged by Harpur, was the first Australian poet to draw his inspiration from the life, landscape and traditions of Australian, and its influence on human beings. George Gordon McCrae incorporated Aboriginal themes into his poetry. The English-born Adam Lindsay Gordon, with his Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes (1870), 'revitalised the traditional ballad form by infusing it with bush themes'.

The names of early Australian poets and authors are well known today. Indeed they conjure images of a time of exploration, adventure and excitement, as well as a poignant reminder of the hardships of living in the newly formed colonies. Adam Lindsay Gordon, Dorothea MacKellar, Harry 'Breaker' Morant, Barcroft Boake, Henry Kendall and Henry Handel Richardson, chronicled the early settlement days in poetry and prose.

Modern poets

Modern Australian poets were influenced both by the 'literary nationalism' of the late 1890s which espoused Australian values as well as the contemporary modernist writings which challenged writers to use their imagination and be innovative in describing what was 'real'. AD Hope and Judith Wright were seen as the giants of post war poetry circles in Australia. Hope wrote about love, faith and spirituality. Wright was regarded as 'marvelously lucid ... rich and clear' as well as being the first white Australian poet to publicly name and explore the experiences of its Indigenous people.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Melbourne verse expressed a solemn, ironic, concern for social and moral issues and, in the work of Vincent Buckley and Chris Wallace Crabb, an academic literariness. Whereas in Sydney, where Kenneth Slessor, R D Fitzgerald and Douglas Steward were influential, a more relaxed, popular, and various style of poetry flourished. Kenneth Slessor was probably the most talented poet to have written in Australia at this time.

Other influential poets outside of the east coast capitals were the 'Sandgropers and Islanders' - Dorothy Hewett (1923 - 2002) and Jack Davis (1917 - 2000) from the sand country of Western Australian and Oodgeroo (Kath Walker) (of the tribe Noonuccal) (1920 - 1995), born Kathleen Jean Mary Ruska, on Minjerribah, of the Stradbroke Islands.

John Tranter describes the focus of the 1980s and 1990s in Sydney as being a mood 'of passive recollection' which tells of an 'adult life tormented by decay, women gained and lost and dead animals'. Dorothy Hewett's Greenhouse (1980) has love and betrayal, death, travel, politics and passion as its subjects.

Dorothy Porter.

Dorothy Porter. Photograph courtesy of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Dorothy Porter is credited with Australian poetry making a comeback in the late 1990s by re-visiting one of the oldest forms of literature - the verse novel. David Malouf's first poetry collection in 26 years, Typewriter Music, was released at the Sydney Writers Festival in June 2007, selling out of its print run of 3,000 in three days.

Other leading contemporary poets include: Les Murray, John Tranter, Fay Zwicky and Billy Marshall-Stoneking and Indigenous authors Bobby Sykes and Samuel Wagan Watson.


Like other literary forms, early and many later novels were often concerned with the 'quintessential' Australian qualities: convicts, the bush, bushrangers, folklore, tales of pioneering, family sagas, floods, droughts, bushfires, battlers, Aboriginal people, Irishmen and lost children.

Early Australian novelists included: Marcus Clarke, (Stella Maria Sarah) Miles Franklin, Clarence (Clarrie or Den) Michael James Stanislaus (CJ) Dennis, Edward Dyson and Doris Pilkington. The slow, or non-existent, rate of publication did not deter them from continuing to write their poems, books and plays.

Portrait of Patrick White, Centennial Park, 1983.

Alec T. Bolton, 1926 - 1996, Portrait of Patrick White, Centennial Park, 1983, photograph, gelatin silver. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an14600815-1.

A new breed of writers was born in the 20th century. They redefined what could be expected from writing even if they used the same backdrop of the bush as early writers had done. Published in 1901, My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin is often said to be the first authentic Australian novel.

The most eminent fiction writer after 1945 was Patrick White, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1973. In a dozen novels from Happy Valley (1939) to Memoirs of Many in One (1986), White examined, often satirically, the conflict between inner consciousness and social existence.

In the Miles Franklin tradition, other novelists, particularly the women, relied upon both social realism and also a surreal or imaginary life linked to the everyday lives of their characters.

Christina Stead (1902 - 1983) highly praised novel The Man Who Loved Children appeared in 1940. Ruth Park (b. 1922)'s most famous books are the trilogy of Missus, The Harp in the South and Poor Man's Orange, along with Swords and Crowns and Rings which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 1977. The Newspaper of Claremont Street: a Novel by Elizabeth Jolley (1923 - 2007) relates the story of an old cleaning woman known as The Newspaper, who dreams of escape from the parasitic demands of both her past and her present.

These were followed by David Malouf's Remembering Babylon (1996) which was considered by the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award judges to be the best novel written by anyone, anywhere, in any language, in the last three years. Richard Flanagan's (b. 1961, Tasmania) three novels adopted a similar form with great lucidity. Peter Carey's novel True History of the Kelly Gang, which evokes the tradition of literary nationalism and the imaginary life of Ned Kelly, was short-listed for the 2001 Miles Franklin Award and won the 2001 Commonwealth Writers Prize, and the 2001 Man Booker Prize.

Children's literature

A drawing of May GibbState Library of Victoria: H42549/47.

Australia has a strong tradition of children's books. The earliest books published for children were mostly instructive tales - stories to teach children how to behave. By the late 19th century, Australian writers began to focus on stories showing real life experiences and everyday adventures, such as settling in Australia and family life. Ethel Turner is a well-known writer of that time - her highly successful book, Seven Little Australians , was published in 1894.

Some children's books of the early 20th century are now Australian classics, such as Norman Lindsay's The Magic Pudding and May Gibbs' Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. Ruth Park also wrote the famous children's series The Muddle-Headed Wombat. In the last few decades there has also been a steady growth in the writing of children's literature by authors like May Gibbs, Nan Chauncy, Mem Fox and John Marsden. People such as Pamela Allen, Kerry Argent, Jeannie Baker, Graeme Base, Louise Elliott, Bob Graham and Junko Morimoto have displayed creative abilities as both storytellers and artists.

Today, there is a large diversity of children's books for all ages, including picture books, and books for young and older readers. Awards for children's books, such as the Children's Book Council of Australia Awards, celebrate the high quality of children's literature.

Plays and theatre scripts

Australian playwrights were largely ignored for a hundred years or so. Betty Roland had to wait 70 years to see her play performed, as the theatre owners were much more interested in bringing new overseas plays to Australia than taking a risk with local material. The Lighthouse Keeper's Wife by Mary Wilkinson was performed briefly in 1922, but the work of Tasmanian Catherine Shepherd has not been performed since its debut in 1942. However, the ABC began radio broadcasts of live drama in 1932, which focused attention on plays.

Since the late 18th century, there has been a number of prominent scripts written for theatre. Notable plays were Alfred Dampier's His Natural Life in 1886, Steele Rudd's On Our Selection in 1912, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll in 1955 and Louis Nowra's Capricornia in 1988.

Literary magazines

Australia's literary magazine industry developed rapidly in the late nineteenth century through popular titles such as The Bulletin . Australian poetry and writing, in general, in the period from 1890 to 1919 was dominated by a feeling of optimism about Australia's federation, democratic potential and pride in Australia's distinctive society and national character. The weekly magazine The Bulletin, founded in Sydney in 1880, reflected this spirit and encouraged the development of a national literature by inviting its readers to contribute fiction and verse of Australian interest.

The bush ballad was the poetic form favoured by The Bulletin. The characteristic subjects developed from the early ballads about convict life, gold mining, bushranging, and campfire themes. Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson, the duelling banjos of late 19th century Australian writing, came to the fore - explaining and exploring the Australian landscape in verse, ballads and stories.

Meanjin magazine,

Meanjin magazine, 'Meanjin Does Drugs' issue. Image courtesy of Meanjin.

Meanjin began its publishing life in Brisbane in 1940. The magazine attracted a high calibre of Australian and international writers which, during the 1950s and 1960s, included Xavier Herbert, Katherine Susannah Pritchard, Anais Nin and Jean-Paul Sartre. A range of prints and designs from influential artists such as Margaret Preston and Noel Counihan also appeared in these early editions.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Meanjin continued to support both established and emerging writers. Writing by women and migrants to Australia were acknowledged as two important community issues for Australia. Contributors during this period included Bruce Dawe, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Tom Shapcott, Marion Halligan, Les Murray, Patrick White, Tim Winton and Frank Moorhouse.

Quadrant was founded as an initiative of the Australian Committee for Cultural Freedom in 1956 to protect liberty and creativity in the face of the perceived threat of communism. Many of Australia's most prominent poets have appeared in the magazine, however fiction has also been regularly published.

Southerly magazine quickly grew from a four-page bulletin in 1932. Under Kenneth Slessor's editorial stint in the late 1950s, the sub-title a review of Australian literature was added and the publication continued to develop as an outlet for academic discussion of local literary issues. It now produces regular editions of up to 200 pages.


Australia's first newspaper, the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser first printed in 1803, was followed by a succession of government and privately-produced newspapers.

By the late 1800s, cheaper wood pulp, improvements in printing technology, railways and streamlined news services all enabled a more efficient and influential newspaper industry. The passing of legislation making education compulsory for children over the age of six years, such as the Education Act 1872 (Vic) and the Public Instruction Act of 1880 (NSW), led to increases in literacy as more of the population learnt to read and write.

The Sydney Sun was the first daily paper to carry a news story on its front page in 1910 and Melbourne's Sun News-Pictorial was the first daily pictorial tabloid (newspaper with pictures) in 1922. Four prominent daily newspapers emerged during this period - the The Age , the Argus, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Daily Telegraph .

Clashes with government were not unusual, and newspapers increasingly expressed anti-authoritarian opinions. The Age was launched in 1854, during the turmoil of Victoria's gold rush era and prided itself on voicing a radical viewpoint, including support for the miners at Ballarat, the eight-hour working day and reform of land laws.

Australian historian Clive Turnbull proposed that the era of modern journalism began in the 1920s as companies took over control of newspapers and the popularity of a news story became increasingly important. (Source: Turnbull, Clive, 'Journalism' in C H Grattan (ed.) 1947, Australia, University of California Press, Berkeley.)

In any form, stories about the 'Australian experience' are still much sought after, despite declining publication lists. Dorothy Porter's verse novels and David Malouf's recent poetry collection outsell their print runs. An increasing number of hopeful novelists attempt their hands at the elusive 'bunyip of Australian Literature ... The Great Australian novel' (A D Hope). The joy is that, in the attempt to capture the congruities and contradictions, there are some wonderful works of literature created.

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Last updated: 27th November 2007
Creators: Kathryn Wells