Cultural Memory in Postcolonial Fiction: The Uses and Abuses of Ned Kelly

By Huggan, Graham | Australian Literary Studies, May 2002 | Go to article overview
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Cultural Memory in Postcolonial Fiction: The Uses and Abuses of Ned Kelly


Huggan, Graham, Australian Literary Studies


Remembering Kelly

THE story of the Irish Australian bushranger Ned Kelly has become paradigmatic for the selective retelling of history as folk legend, and for the ideological processes by which social memory may be reworked into the fabric of a nation's founding cultural myths. As John Ryan--among others--has pointed out, the 1880s, a period of radical nationalism in Australia, allowed Ned Kelly to be brought into conjunction with a number of more or less compatible legends (101). Among these were the twin legends of the `noble bushranger' and the `noble convict': victims both of a palpably unjust penal code, these figures could be grafted--with the help of a little historical sleight of hand--onto a long line of morally ambivalent `good badmen' whose romanticised outlawry embodied libertarian ideals within an oppressive colonial system (102-03). (1) To these might be added a number of legends surrounding Irish nationalist insurgency, (2) not forgetting the now-stereotypical `bush legend' itself with its virtues of endurance and self-reliance, and its celebration of mateship as a marker of loyal adherence to the bushman's code (106). These legends, needless to say, have been endlessly reinterpreted and challenged, with revisionist accounts variously puncturing the Kelly myth by stressing the vicious criminality of the gang, stripping them of their (self-) glorified guise as frontier-society `Robin Hoodlums' (Greenway); by using the camp theatrics of some gang members to upset the standard narrative of ragged male adventure-heroism; and by emphasising the racism underlying Kelly's mythicised status as a `moral European' (Rose), a racism now generally acknowledged as being built into the structure of the so-called `Australian legend' itself.

As with other mythic narratives surrounding oppositional figures like the outlaw, the Kelly legend continues to depend on a manipulation of collective memory more notable for its strategic omissions than for its `keeping alive [of] pasts that history [has] obliterated' (Hamilton 14), and for its highly selective reading of a number of often far from reliable historical sources. At the same time, the sheer quantity of Kelly material currently available on the market testifies not just to the durability of the legend, but also to its continuing profitability as a commodity circulating within an increasingly globalised memory industry. These products indicate the powerful role played by popular culture and its representations in shaping social memory (Hamilton 25). Among them we might include several Kelly films and television programs, ranging in quality from the abysmal Ned Kelly (starring Mick Jagger as Ned), to the widely acclaimed 1980 TV mini-series The Last Outlaw; a wide array of popular songs, from contemporary ballads such as Midnight Oil's `If Ned Kelly Were King' and Redgum's `Poor Ned', to the recently revived Ned Kelly, the Musical; and an even larger number of books and other printed works, many of them designed for mass-market distribution, including Thomas Keneally's children's tale Ned Kelly and the City of Bees (1995), and Monty Wedd's hugely successful comic-strip Ned Kelly, which ran uninterrupted for over two years in the mid 70s. Meanwhile, as one might expect, the Internet has become a fertile source for Kelly memorabilia, spawning a variety of electronically connected Kelly fan clubs and helping to produce that latter-day variant on the figure of the Victorian collectomane, the starstruck nerd. (3)

A feature of the Kelly industry has been its ability to mobilise popular sentiment for ostensibly high-brow representations, such as--probably most notably--Sidney Nolan's vivid paintings or, more recently, the New York-based novelist Peter Carey's fictionalised account True History of the Kelly Gang (2000), winner of many literary awards, among them the 2000 Commonwealth Writers Prize and the 2001 Booker Prize, and his most commercially successful work to date.

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Cultural Memory in Postcolonial Fiction: The Uses and Abuses of Ned Kelly
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