Cultural Artefact: Literature


By 1862, when Emily Dickinson wrote 'If only centuries delayed/I'd count them on my hand,/Subtracting till my fingers dropped/Into Van Diemen's land', there was no longer such a place. Renamed Tasmania in 1855, the convict colony of Van Diemen's Land would live on as an indelible memory, an often confused metaphor for cruelty and romance, as the island's main claim to a place in history, and as its shame. Dickinson's specific reference was to a child's game, and riddle: 'where have they gone?' Its answer: 'down under'. Did she intuit how the island's past would so invigorate, and limit, its literature?

There already was a Tasmanian literature when Dickinson wrote of the antipodes. The convict balladist Frank MacNamara exclaimed ambivalently 'Farmers' Glory! Prisoners' Hell!/ Land of Buggers ! Fare Ye Well!' (c 1839). There were more formal productions. Thomas Wells' account of the bushranger Michael Howe in 1818 was the first book of general literature to be published in Australia (and now one of the rarest). Henry Savery wrote the first volume of Australian essays, The hermit in Van Diemen's Land (1830), and the first novel, Quintus Servinton (1831), while David Burn's The bushrangers (1829) was the first Australian play to be staged, albeit in Edinburgh. Poetry was typically published in magazines and newspapers, which flourished from early in the history of the colony. Writing of a visit to a Hobart cemetery in the Colonial Times in 1826, Mary Leman Grimstone pondered a place 'where all is young, save grief and crime'. In the Hobart Town Courierin 1847, 'Auster' sympathetically imagined, in 'The Tasmanian Aborigine's Lament', the fate of the supposed last of the Aboriginal Tasmanians. Exiled to Flinders Island, they believe 'Our race is fast decaying', and long to die in their native places.

The convict past, rather than the destruction of Aborigines, exercised such novelists as Caroline Leakey, who began the line of fiction about the penal system with The broad arrow (1859). She was succeeded by Marcus Clarke's serial, published in book form as For the term of his natural life (1874). Pioneer of an Australian Romanticism, Clarke invested an historical period, whose horrors he darkened, with an ambiguous allure that it has never really lost. Another pioneer was the Irish political prisoner, John Mitchel, whose Jail journal (1854) is a diatribe against the British, but also a paean to the beauties of the Tasmanian (especially the highland) landscape. In these two great colonial prose works much of the literary business of Tasmania down to the present is figured forth: a double focus on colonial history and the natural world.

Mitchel's story inspired Christopher Koch's novel Out of Ireland (1999), a recent treatment of the convict era. For Tasmanian-born Koch, 'the convict past is like a wound', and one which remains central to the consciousness of the place. More opportunistic use of that period was made in the short fiction of 'Price Warung'. It was treated more complexly by William Gosse Hay and in the series of novels, dealing particularly with the Arthur administration, which Roy Bridges produced in the first half of last century. The evident fecundity of this colonial time for fiction led Robert Drewe, in The savage crows (1976), to write of the efforts to save the surviving Aborigines by their 'Protector', GA Robinson.

More recent appropriations of the colonial past of Tasmania include Richard Flanagan's Gould's book of fish (2001) and novels by two English authors, English passengers (2000) by Matthew Kneale, which treats of the end of the Aborigines and the coincident search for an earthly paradise in Tasmania, and Andrew Motion's Wainewright the poisoner (2000). Wainewright, convict and artist, also featured in Hal Porter's novel The tilted cross (1961). At the end of the twentieth century, Tasmania was receiving more fictional attention than ever before. Both Heather Rose's White heart(1999) and Julia Leigh's The hunter(1999) imagined the possible rediscovery of the Tasmanian tiger. It was as if the most vital material that Tasmania offers is extinct, or at least of the past: Aborigines, convicts and gaolers, the thylacine.

In the century between Clarke's novel and Drewe's, the history of the Tasmanian novel is modest. 'Tasma', Jessie Couvreur, was born in Hobart in 1848, but little of her fiction is set in Tasmania. Louise Mack and Isabel Dick enjoyed long careers, as did Marie Bjelke Petersen. Bridges apart, the beginnings of a revival date from Koch's debut and Porter's sojourns in Hobart. These hardly prepared for the recent quickening of interest in Tasmania as fictional subject (if not always for the native-born). This did not mean much interest in contemporary life, or in politics. Exceptions to the latter are Amanda Lohrey's first novel, The morality of gentlemen (1984), which was concerned with a 1950s waterfront dispute, and Dennis Altman's Comfort of men (1993), which analysed the treatment of homosexuality before legal reforms in Tasmania. Modern Hobart is the backdrop for David Owen's crime fiction series featuring the detective nicknamed Pufferfish.

Tasmania at large has inspired such children's authors as Beth Roberts, whose lost child story Manganinnie (1979) was later filmed. Most celebrated is Nan Chauncy, author of such works as They found a cave (1948), which became one of the world's first colour films for children. Since Mitchel's time, expository prose has been one of the hallmarks of Tasmanian literature. While working as a pastor in Launceston, the anti-transportationist John West wrote The history of Tasmania (1852). In our time Henry Reynolds' contact histories have included The other side of the frontier (1982). Among notable autobiographies are Graham McInnes' The road to Gundagai (1965) and Porter's The paper chase (1966), which recalls how his arrival on an icy night in 1946 made him feel like 'an Ishmael in the London of Dickens'.

Poetry has had a more vigorous, less sporadic life in Tasmania than fiction. Louisa Anne Meredith, who arrived in 1840, wrote three volumes of verse. Leakey was also a poet, publishing Lyra Australis (1854). Prominent at the turn of the century were Hubert Church and James Hebblethwaite.Vivian Smith's first book of verse, The other meaning (1956), announced the start of a long career. Before then, Gwen Harwood (acclaimed by Clive James as the greatest Australian poet) moved to Hobart, as - in 1960 - did James McAuley. Their influence on the next generation of poets, and on the wider cultural life of Tasmania, was of signal importance. Other poets to settle in the island include Margaret Scott, Andrew Sant, Stephen Edgar, Anthony Lawrence and Sarah Day. Each has established a durable career. All of those mentioned here have found constant refreshment from the light and the terrain of Tasmania. A number of the authors discussed taught or studied at the University of Tasmania. It was there that the leading academic journal in its field, Australian Literary Studies, was founded in 1963. It moved to the University of Queensland with Laurie Hergenhan in 1975. The University has also given support to the long-running magazine Island (latest of its names).

Literary visitors have commented memorably on Tasmania. Martin Boyd briefly went to school in Hobart; Port Arthur he reckoned to be 'Australia's Glastonbury'. In Following the equator (1895), Mark Twain remarked 'how beautiful is the whole region', but added that 'in this paradise… yellow-liveried convicts were landed… and the wanton slaughter of the kangaroo-chasing black innocents consummated'. He would not be alone in descrying a dichotomous Tasmania, 'a sort of bringing of heaven and hell together'. The phrase has taken potent forms: prison and paradise is another set of extremes that the literature of Tasmania has sometimes courted. Yet this has not been a parochial literature. Clarke's was the only Australian novel to become a Classics Illustrated comic, but it is a cosmopolitan classic. Tasmanian poets and novelists have taken the riches of what is local in history and place immeasurably to increase the store and the standing of the national literature.

Peter Pierce