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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The founding of a tradition : Australian/American literary relations before 1868 Headon, David John


In the eighty years from the arrival of English convicts and their gaolers in Australia to the death, in 1868, of Australia's first major writer, Charles Harpur, an Australian/American literary tradition was born. This dissertation traces the development of that tradition, one which few scholars have recognized. Even before the arrival of the First Fleet of convicts, many Britons saw Australia as potentially another America; consequently, Australia's early inhabitants did so too. A few radicals and idealists even contemplated Cook's Pacific discovery as a new and potentially greater America. Botany Bay's first decades naturally witnessed some changes in these initial perceptions. Up to Darling's period of governorship (1825-31), Australia's ruling elite, though forced to trade with busy--and, at times, ruthless--Yankee merchants, considered the continuing presence of American boats to be a threat to the colony's security: American captains aided in the numerous escapes of convicts otherwise doomed to spend the terms of their natural life in New Holland. Reaction to Americans and American influence, then, depended on one's position in the colonial hierarchy. However, after Governor Brisbane decided to allow freedom of the Press in 1824, significant shifts in the Australian/American relationship began. An expanding Australian middle class, chafing under the strictures of colonial rule from London, began to identify its situation with that of the citizenry in pre-revolutionary America. Led initially by W.C. Wentworth, who published his Statistical Description in 1819> demand for self-government grew. This dissent should be viewed as Australia's first lively and recognizably indigenous literature. It draws heavily on American precedent. In the 1830's, '40's and 50's, revolutionary writers such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, James Otis and Patrick Henry became increasingly popular amongst Australians in search of political sovereignty. America came under scrutiny as a country experiencing parallel growing pains, but at a more advanced stage of development. At the same time, the example of American independence was of rhetorical and political value for Australians when dealing with a rigid Colonial Office in London. While "Brother Jonathan," as America was often affectionately labelled, was a popular political weapon up to the 18501s, he was also of great literary significance in the later 1830's. Consumption of American books in Australia increased dramatically as the population expanded and books became cheaper. In I838, John Dunmore Lang's Colonist reprinted William Ellery Channing's essay, "On the Importance and Means of a National Literature. Conscious of the efforts of Americans such as Channing, Emerson, Brownson, Fuller and Parker to establish a strong national literature in the United States, a small group of dedicated Australians strove to assert their own creative independence. They recognized not only Australia's political affinity with America, but social, intellectual and literary attachments as well. Connections between Australia and America became far more sophisticated in the 18401s, 1501s and '60's for a variety of reasons. One was the goldfields in California and Australia, with the subsequent interchange of population. Another was the more advanced system of communications between the two countries--the American Civil War, for example, was exhaustively covered in all Australian colonies. Third, and for this thesis most importantly, three Australian writers, John Dunmore Lang, Daniel Deniehy and Charles Harpur determined to consult a wide range of American sources in their quest to establish both a highly principled nation and a truly Australian literature. Yet, as the works of Lang, Deniehy and Harpur indicate, Australians of the time rejected the path of easy imitation of Brother Jonathan. All three writers envisaged their country as a future world leader. Rejecting both despotic colonial government rule and America's abhorrent institution of slavery, they wanted to establish an ideal republic in the south--a Utopia of yeoman-farmers. Shaped by these republican musings, democratic sentiments and Utopian speculations, a literary tradition of energetic interaction between Australian and American writers, enlarging on socio-political roots as old as the colony itself, was founded.

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