Cultural Memory in Postcolonial Fiction: The Uses and Abuses of Ned Kelly
Huggan, Graham, Australian Literary Studies
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. These items, and many others like them, suggest that it matters less how faithfully Kelly and his legend have been remembered than how effectively they have been remodelled to meet a variety of changing ideological interests and consumer needs. In what follows, I want to focus on two recent literary representations: Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang (2000), and Robert Drewe's less well-known but equally intriguing fictive exploration of the Kelly legend, Our Sunshine (1991). These novels, I shall argue, illustrate the importance of the literary text in structuring the individual/collective memory process, while also drawing attention to the ways in which memory is dependent on metaphor--more specifically, metaphors of the body--to actualise remembered experience. (4) Both works, I shall also suggest, are postcolonial renderings, not just of one of Australia's most powerful national narratives, but also one of its most enduring and yet paradoxically amnesiac cultural myths. In remembering Ned Kelly, both writers draw attention to alternative histories inscribed upon the wild colonial body, through which the nation's chequered past can be creatively transformed and its present critically reassessed. The conclusion of the essay goes on to offer reflections on the malleability (and current fashionability) of the legend of Ned Kelly, assessing its implications for a Western ex-settler society whose own thriving memory industry bears so many of the contradictory signs of the nation's colonial past.
Robert Drewe's novel Our Sunshine (1991) ranks as one of the most inventive literary attempts to date to grapple with the Kelly legend. Drewe's `chronicle of the imagination' (183) rejects the standard teleological account of Ned Kelly as doomed folk-hero; instead, it employs a pared-down style to assemble a collage of impressionistic fragments in which the Kelly legend, in keeping with the visceral language used to relate it, is not just effectively dismantled but violently torn apart. More specifically, the text stages a struggle over the uses and abuses of Kelly's memory, a struggle in which the fictionalised figure of Kelly himself claims the right to remember people and events that others have appropriated in his name (5). It soon becomes clear, however, that Kelly's memories are themselves impossibly belated. Even the most private of reminiscences has been reassigned in advance as public property, as in the ironically patriotic claim--our sunshine--implicit in the novel's title. (5) The legend has outstripped the life, dictating the pattern in which it is …
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Publication information: Article title: Cultural Memory in Postcolonial Fiction: The Uses and Abuses of Ned Kelly. Contributors: Huggan, Graham - Author. Journal title: Australian Literary Studies. Volume: 20. Issue: 3 Publication date: May 2002. Page number: 142+. © 1999 University of Queensland Press. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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