1. Themes
  2. A to Z

Literary Criticism

Ken Stewart wrote of the latter decades of the 19th century that 'literary Australia was largely a journalist's Australia'. Certainly in Melbourne, literary criticism was ventilated through ephemeral journals and especially in the weekend editions of the newspapers the Age (the Leader) and the Argus (the Australasian). James Smith was drama, literary and fine arts critic of the latter from 1856-96. Marcus Clarke wrote for both papers, on subjects as diverse and contemporary as French novels, Dickens (in an obituary), American literature and Henry Kendall's poem 'Orara'. Literary criticism was an important element of these writers' paid work, as well as contributing to public awareness and discussion of literature in Melbourne. Such criticism was cosmopolitan and non-academic in nature. The former is an indication that colonial literary culture neither was, nor sought to be parochial; the latter could hardly be avoided, but set a pattern that would obtain for much of the next century.

Much of the vibrant literary criticism in Melbourne has been impromptu, conducted in such places as the Yorick Club, founded in 1868 and frequented by Clarke, Kendall, Adam Lindsay Gordon and the English littérateur R.H. Horne. Café life flourished in Melbourne. Fasoli's, established in 1897, was the first famous literary café. The magazine Native Companions was launched there in 1907. Other gathering places for authors and critics (in a local tradition often one and the same) included the Ishmael Club, a favourite of the Lindsays and the Dysons, the Café Latin and the Swanston Family Hotel.

Melbourne has hosted more literary journals than Sydney. H.H. and Belle Champion ran Book Lover from 1899 to 1921. Meanjin, Australia's primary outlet for literary criticism before, and for a while after, the institutionalisation of such writing in the universities, moved from Brisbane in 1945 with its founding editor Clem Christesen. The other long-lived Melbourne journal is Overland, founded in 1954. Theoretically inflected literary criticism found a home in Scripsi (1981-93). Now a ubiquitous presence as reviewer and literary commentator, Peter Craven was one of its founding editors.

Some of the most important literary (and cultural) criticism was produced in Melbourne from outside the academy. Vance Palmer, author of The legend of the Nineties (1954) - a dissection rather than a promotion of the material of its title - never held a university position. A.A. Phillips' analysis of The Australian tradition (1958) was written by a trenchant, erudite critic who taught English at Wesley College. Phillips also had a long career as a book reviewer, principally for the Age newspaper. That paper remained hospitable to this form of criticism under such enlightened literary editors as Stuart Sayers, and in the short-lived, ambitious imitation of British and American journals, the Age Monthly Review.

The piecemeal origins of Phillips' book were shared by such works of literary criticism produced from within the Melbourne academic world as Vincent Buckley's Essays in poetry, mainly Australian (1957). Some of its chapters (like Phillips') had first appeared as public lectures (under the Commonwealth Literary Fund scheme) and/or as articles in Meanjin. That journal, like Buckley, was long associated with the University of Melbourne. Its Department of English has employed a line of poet-critics from Buckley to Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Peter Steele, Philip Mead and Kevin Hart.

In the 1960s and 1970s Melbourne (especially the University of Melbourne and La Trobe University) was the last redoubt of Leavisite criticism and critics in Australia. Many of the fruits of so-called 'Melbourne English' were published in the journal The Critical Review. There has, however, been no school of Melbourne literary criticism; nothing comparable to the Melbourne School of History. Rather there has been a feisty tradition of occasional commentary - on authors, books, movements - well served by both newspapers and literary magazines based in the city. Much of this criticism has been the work of non-academics and that explains some of its distinctive character. An empirical spirit, the writers' own artistic practices, a sense of local and international literary traditions, and scepticism towards theory have given literary criticism in Melbourne much of its savour.

Peter Pierce