Settling in the Land of Wine and Honey: Cultural Tourism, Local History and Some Australian Legends

By Lee, Christopher | Journal of Australian Studies, January 2006 | Go to article overview

Settling in the Land of Wine and Honey: Cultural Tourism, Local History and Some Australian Legends


Lee, Christopher, Journal of Australian Studies


Rural mythology has historically provided an important focus for cultural explanations of Australian national identity. Since the early 1960s, however, rural myths-especially those represented through the Australian Legend-have been subjected to searching critiques from different positions within and outside the academy. (1) Research using theoretical models interested in the politics of identity exposed the racial and gender bias of the rural legends associated with key Australian writers from the 1890s, in particular. (2) At the same time, the apparent adoption of a form of identity politics in government policies related to migrants and the Indigenous community, along with a simultaneous enthusiasm across the political spectrum for privatisation, deregulation, and globalisation, enabled a populist identification of the academic and intellectual class promoting these critiques with politicians, their policy advisers, and the forces of global capital. (3)

Commentators in the metropolitan press and the academy have tended to argue that the new 'racist' and anti-intellectual political force mobilised by Pauline Hanson's One Nation phenomenon represented an outdated Anglo-Celtic conservatism, which could be sourced to provincial cultures and their affinities with the Australian Legend. Paul Kelly has characterised Hansonism as 'an echo of our Anglo-Celtic origins; the claims of the once mighty bush to define the Australian Legend; a descendant of the romanticism and racism of Henry Lawson whose hold on national identity was once so comprehensive ... the latest manifestation of our reflex to distrust authority, abuse our elites and damn our leaders'. (4) Phillip Adams called it a 'mess movement of bigotries, disappointments, indignations, resentments, neo-fascism, old fascism, Christian fundamentalism, conspiracy theories, hopelessness, hysteria and good old-fashioned belly-aching'. (5) Adams's essay is rhetorically interesting because it uses the metaphor of a shopping-bag lady to ridicule Hanson and her supporters and, while the caricature is entertaining, it also suggests both an intellectual and a class-based contempt for 'ordinary Australians' which analyses of opinion polls, and the One Nation party itself, found were part of the problem that Pauline Hanson and her followers were addressing. (6)

The academic response to One Nation and its claims upon the authentic traditions of the Australian Legend has sometimes taken a similar path to the metropolitan press by setting up an ethical opposition between Anglo-Celtic culture, and Aboriginal or multicultural Australia. The unfashionable identification of Anglo-Celtic Australia with an Australian Legend tarnished by the critiques of the last forty years has been played out at the level of discursive style where style, as it is in Adams, is a display of a linguistic competency that guarantees the subject's implicit claim to the forms of distinction required to participate as an intellectual in the public sphere. Richard Nile's Introduction to The Australian Legend and Its Discontents, for example, deploys 'Henry Lawson' as a trope for a particular version of the Australian Legend, critiqued as a set of images that helped to licence a narrow and outdated version of Australianness. Nile's essay, 'Tell Them that Henry Lawson is Dead', includes subheadings such as 'He Died Without a Bottle of Beer in His Hand' and 'There's Something About Henry', and thus works rhetorically and logically to dismiss Lawson's contemporary value.

Lawson seems particularly unfashionable now, but it needs to be recognised that arguments against him have received regular airings from left-wing nationalists and their opponents since Lawson's earliest reception in the 1890s. (7) The need to discredit Lawson through exposes that take the form of biographical anecdote or rum quotation has long been a symptom of the threat that his reputation has posed to preferred versions of Australianness.

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