Academic journal article Australian Literary Studies

Australian Literary Lives

Academic journal article Australian Literary Studies

Australian Literary Lives

Article excerpt

As I know from my own recent experience with the Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature (2000), being invited by an international publisher to edit a major reference work on Australian Literature, aimed at an international audience, can be a mixed blessing. There is the personal pleasure of having been chosen plus the pleasure of an acknowledgment of the status of Australian literature by an external academic institution. And then there is the responsibility: what authors should be included and who should write about them? How does one introduce Australian writing to overseas readers and at the same time produce something of value for Australian readers? And there is always the fear that, however hard one tries, the final product will include errors as well as omissions and so will be given highly unpleasant reviews, especially from those who weren't invited to contribute.

I was in fact asked to contribute to the 1788-1914 volume of the Dictionary of Literary Biography (hereafter DLB), on an author I did not have much interest in or expertise on, and declined. Fortunately for Selina Samuels, her publishers and readers of these volumes, many leading experts on Australian Literature did not. So one has the pleasure and profit of reading Veronica Brady on Judith Wright, Ken Stewart on Banjo Paterson, Julian Croft on Joseph Furphy and R.D. FitzGerald, Delys Bird on Miles Franklin and Katharine Susannah Prichard, Brian Kiernan on A.G. Stephens, Richard Fotheringham on Steele Rudd, Susan Lever on Mary Vidal and Henry Handel Richardson, to name only a few. The prize for both quantity and quality, however, goes to Michael Ackland, who does a sterling job on no less than ten authors, ranging all the way from Henry Savery to Patrick White.

As anyone who has consulted volumes of the DLB would know, the standard entry here is not confined to a few hundred words but ranges across many pages. Each entry begins with a list of the author's publications, including in many cases uncollected ones from periodicals; each ends with a list of references and information on manuscript holdings. In between one gets, in the best examples, an informative and entertaining account of the life and work, and of the ways in which these have interacted. And, unlike most reference works of this kind, there are also many illustrations: not just portraits of the authors but images of book covers, of manuscripts, of houses, of family and friends. As the DLB Advisory Board notes in the 'Plan of the Series' included in each volume: 'Just as an author is influenced by his surroundings, so is the reader's understanding of the author enhanced by a knowledge of his environment.' A worthy aim and one especially valuable in cases where readers and authors inhabit very different environments, ones distanced through time or space, as with both the Australian volumes. Unfortunately, the illustrations here appear to have been chosen by the publishers rather than the authors of the entries and so much of their potential value is lost, not to mention the numerous errors that have also been introduced, about which more later.

As can be seen from the production of thirty other volumes between these two dealing with Australia, the DLB is a major enterprise which has been running since 1975. Like the Cambridge Companions to Literature, volumes of the DLB are usually organised by topic, period or genre. The initial fifty or so naturally dealt with American and British authors, with a volume on Canadian Writers Since 1960, First Series, edited by W.H. New in 1986, the first widening out to other national literatures. Volumes on French and German novelists were introduced soon after, and by the 1990s the series had grown to encompass Italian and Spanish poets, Latin-American and Japanese novelists, Caribbean, Black African, South Slavic, Danish, Eastern European and Russian writers, as well as volumes on Ancient Greece and Rome, medieval Europe and even one devoted to Ernest Hemingway alone. …

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