Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 29, 2022

New Literary History of Australia (1988), edited by Laurie Hergenan (Decolonising a Blog… a work in progress #4)

Cultural warning: this post contains the names of First Nations authors who have died.

Laurie Hergenan PhD AO FAHA(1931 – 2019) was an Australian literary scholar. Educated at the University of Sydney and Birkbeck College in London, he held academic positions in Tasmania and Queensland.  He was the founder and former editor of Australian Literary Studies (1963) and he published on Xavier Herbert.

And he was also the editor of the 1988 Penguin New Literary History of Australia. 

This literary history, published in Australia’s bicentennial year, has been sitting on the shelf for a while.  I picked it up to see what it had to say about Frank Moorhouse (and The Electrical Experience in particular) and ended up reading it, chapter by chapter, at bedtime.  (Yes, a tad nerdy, I know.)

Even at university, I was not a scholarly reader.  I’ve always been much more interested in the book than in what scholars have to say about it, and I’d always rather know a little about a lot, than a lot about a little.  But this literary history of Australia is fascinating, capturing at a certain point of time, the currents and tides that have ebbed and flowed over two centuries of the written word in this country.

There is a chapter about Aboriginal literature.  Stephen Muecke writes about oral storytelling, and Noongar man Jack Davis and Adam Shoemaker about written texts. Nothing in this book captures more clearly its moment in time than this chapter because it was written before the wealth of First Nations writing that exists today. Acknowledging that Aboriginal writing had gained a foothold in the Australian literary camp, it nevertheless remained unknown and invisible to most Australians.  Based on my own reading experience I would say that was true. The first book I ever I read by a First Nations author was Sally Morgan’s revelatory My Place, and I read it in 1988. I went on to read half a dozen Stolen Generations memoirs in the 1990s, but it was not until 2005 that I read a novel: it was Butterfly Song by Wuthathi/Meriam woman Terri Janke.

The New Literary History of Australia‘s chapter focusses on Aboriginal playwrights (Kevin Gilbert, Robert Merritt, Gerry Bostock, Eva Johnson and Jack Davis); and on David Unaipon, the true father of Aboriginal Literature who produced a significant body of work starting in the 1920s, and the activist poet Kath Walker.  Today, we know her as Oodgeroo Noonuccal, but though she announced her change of name in 1987, it isn’t used in this history. The work of only two novelists are discussed: starting with Wild Cat Falling (1965) by the first Aboriginal novelist, Colin Johnson, a.k.a. Mudrooroo, (a claim that is contested today because Johnson’s Aboriginality is disputed), and Archie Weller‘s The Day of the Dog (1981).

Life writing isn’t mentioned at all, and this omission gives a skewed portrait of Black Writing, and women’s prose writing in particular.  To quote my own exploration of the emergence of Indigenous life writing:

Between the 1967 Referendum and the mid-1970s, however, the [2008 Macquarie PEN] Anthology’s Introduction notes that there was a sudden growth in Aboriginal authorship across a broad range of genres.  As far as I can make out, it was in this era that life writing and autobiographical fiction began to be published in book form for a general readership, and in 1977, Tucker’s autobiography If Everyone Cared was published.  Among her contemporaries who are included in the PEN Anthology were Monica Clare (1924-1973) whose autobiographical novel Karobran: the story of an Aboriginal Girl was published posthumously a year after Tucker’s in 1978, and (almost a decade later) Ida West (1919-2003) who in 1987 published her autobiography Pride Against Prejudice: Reminiscences of a Tasmanian Aborigine.  (See Jennifer’s review at Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large.) Through my current reading of Black, White and Exempt, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Lives Under Exemption (2021) edited by Lucinda Aberdeen and Jennifer Jones(see my review), I stumbled on another early autobiography called Through My Eyes by Biripi woman Ella Simon (1902-1981). It was published a year after Tucker’s.

Nevertheless, this chapter in the New Literary History of Australia makes a case for Black Australian writing that is, IMO, still true today.

Considering Black Australian writing, one is initially preoccupied with those who break new ground: the first Aboriginal novelist, the first Black playwright, the author of the first Aboriginal best-seller.  There is the temptation to invest Black Australian writing with significance merely because it is something different, an indication of the expanding horizons of Australian literature.  But to stop at this point is to do Aboriginal authors an injustice—it is not simply the fact of their writing which is noteworthy, but the style, content and talent of that writing.

Aboriginal literature in English is in part fascinating because of its relative newness, but it is worthy of serious public and critical attention for a number of reasons.  Almost all Black Australian writing has a strong socio-political dimension, even when this aspect is only implicit or allusive.  In addition, Aboriginal writers transform Australian history in many of their works; for example, Colin Johnson’s Doctor Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the Endling of the World (1983, see my review) is a creative revision of the accepted history of race relations in Tasmania.  Aboriginal literature stems from an oral tradition which in longevity dwarfs Western literature and which influences the style, form and dialogue of contemporary Black Australian writing.  Black literature gives non-Aboriginal readers a view of the contemporary face of a prior and foreign culture in their midst, with distinctive attitudes towards authority, sexual relations, identity and humour.  Finally, Aboriginal literature is a post-colonial manifestation of what has been termed the Fourth World.  Even if Aboriginal poets have never had contact with North American Indians or Swedish Laplanders, their verse can be said to share more with the poetry of those minority groups than with the literature of the dominant Euro-Australian culture.

These aspects of contemporary Black writing are not exhaustive but they do illustrate that the corpus of work being produced is far more than counter-cultural.  It is, rather, pro-Aboriginal; a reflection of a strong and adaptive Black culture in modern Australia.  (pp. 39-40)

I don’t claim to be an expert in this field at all, but even from my own reading I can see how so much of this is true.  The strong socio-political dimension is there in Philip McLarne’s There’ll Be New Dreams, (2001) and we can see a transformation in the telling of Australian history in a wealth of novels from Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance (2010) to Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray (River of Dreams) (2021) by Anita Heiss. We see a creative revision of race relations in Marie Munkara’s satirical A Most Peculiar Act (2014) and in Benevolence, (2020) by Julie Janson; and we see a view of the contemporary face of a prior and foreign culture in their midst in Larissa Behrendt’s After Story (2021).  The Swan Book, (2013) by Alexis Wright celebrates an oral tradition which in longevity dwarfs Western literature and which influences the style, form and dialogue of contemporary Black Australian writing. Melissa Lucashenko showcases distinctive attitudes towards authority, sexual relations, identity and humour in all her work, but especially in Too Much Lip (2018) which won the Miles Franklin Award in 2019.  None of these books were available to the authors of New Literary History of Australia in 1988, and yet they could see the trends.

I hope somebody is writing an up-to-date History of OzLit that’s written in a similarly accessible and engaging way as this one.

For a discussion about other aspects of this history, do also read Sammy’s review at Goodreads.

Editor: Laurie Hergenan
Title: New Literary History of Australia
Publisher: Penguin Australia, 1988
ISBN: 9780140075144, pbk., 620 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased second-hand $10.00


  1. I’m envious. Not that I have your stamina/determination to read encyclopaedias before I fall asleep. The closest i have is the Oxford History of Aust.Lit. (1981) Leonie Kramer ed. which doesn’t appear to discuss Aboriginal Lit. at all.

    Though Kath Walker, unlike David Unaipon and Jack Davis, at least makes it into the index, one entry, p.425 where I find, in the middle of a paragraph, “More profound has been the renewed interest in the situation and plight of the Aboriginals, with the emergence of a number of Aboriginal poets of whom Kath Walker and Kevin Gilbert are the best known” and goes on “Les Murray’s superb use of Aboriginal forms and approaches suggest rich possibilities for future development.” [!]


    • I don’t have that one. I have two editions of their Companion (the Harvey, and the Wilde, Hooten & Andrews) and I have Kramer & Mitchell’s Anthology, and Peter Pierce’s Literary guide to Australia, but this is the only one that is a *history* and I find it fascinating…
      But you know, I’m prepared to cut a little slack on this issue. It’s good to see where we’ve come from, even if it is a bit cringeworthy.
      Would I be right in guessing that Kramer is more poetry-orientated than fiction-orientated? There’s quite a lot of focus on poetry and drama in the other chapters as well, plus a survey of publishing and its local history as well as authors published overseas.


      • The Contents are –
        Introduction, Leonie Kramer, 1
        Fiction, Adrian Mitchell, 27
        Drama, Terry Sturm, 173
        Poetry, Vivian Smith, 269
        Bibliography, Joy Hooton, 429
        so yes, Poetry is the longest.


        • I wonder if that’s Adrian Mitchell whose fiction I’ve reviewed?


  2. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    Sounds intriguing and significant.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the link! I intend to resume blogging in January, and will include some reviews of great books from this year… and possibly craft photo spam ;-)


  4. Interesting stuff, and yes, I hope an update is being written!


    • It would be great. I think I perceive trends, but of course I don’t/can’t read everything…


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