Academic journal article Antipodes

Douglas Stewart and the Fragility of Things

Academic journal article Antipodes

Douglas Stewart and the Fragility of Things

Article excerpt

DOUGLAS STEWART WAS THE LEADING MAN OF LETTERS IN the Australia of his day. His life and work are of particular significance for the cultural phase that extended from the 1930s to the late 1960s and constitute a central point for the study of Australian literary life and its intersections during that period. Stewart was probably the last of his kind in Australia.

In addition to being a poet, dramatist, short story writer, and critic, Stewart was the editor of "The Red Page" of The Bulletin from 1940-1960, a page brought into Australian literary importance by the work of A. G. Stephens and the many others who appeared there for the first time. The Bulletin, incidentally, appealed much to D. H. Lawrence during his Australian sojourn and which he featured in Kangaroo (1923). Throughout his writing life, Stewart was also associated with the publishing house of Angus 6k Robertson, and from 1960 until his retirement, worked there as a reader and commissioning editor. He promoted its annual series of volumes, Australian Poetry, and the short story collections Coast to Coast, as well as inaugurating the Sirius Paperback collections of Australian "classics." Both these now-defunct Sydney institutions gave Stewart a particular position and authority among the writers of his time.

Stewart belongs to a very different literary Australia from the one that prevails today. Even the world of journalism in which he was able to sustain a literary career has changed irrevocably, as has the status and position of the writer. The university study of Australian literature was just gathering momentum during the last decade of Stewart's life, but a future was unimaginable where there would be Australian professors of creative writing and honorary doctorates readily available for poets, playwrights, and novelists. The cult of the launch, the festival, and the literary prize was scarcely known. Writers had not yet become TV celebrities and were not expected to be public performers, traveling around the country to give readings of their work or to promote the sales of their latest volume. But Stewart had an acknowledged place as one of the leading writers of his day; he did his stint of public service for the Commonwealth Literary Fund; he was a guide and mentor to the younger generation of writers he published in the Bulletin and at Angus and Robertson.

Although Stewart is now considered - if he is considered at all - a middle-of-the-road conservative writer who seems by contemporary taste to have sidestepped the major issues of modernism, he actually belonged to the avant garde of his time. His verse dramas, Ned Kelly and Shipiweclc, his experiments with the radio play, The Fire on ate Snow and The Golden Loi>er, and the verse sequences Glencoe and Worsley Enchanted, as well as his attempts to write poetry for film as in The Birdsville Track, were all at the cutting edge of the experiments of the period. The fact that these particular forms have been superseded, at least for the time being, may account in part for the eclipse of interest in his work, but that is only part of the story. Australian poetry has moved in new directions since Stewart's heyday; the questions of Australian identity, that so preoccupied him and other writers and painters of his time have now taken on different forms. Nevertheless, Stewart's work anticipates many later developments, and the ecopoetics now engaging many poets are already present in earlier forms in his work, and in that of a number of his contemporaries.

Some aspects of his work still need investigation. The whole range of his editing has never been examined, and his literary journalism, influential in the circulation and stimulation of opinion in its time, has worn exceptionally well. His engaging memoirs of Norman Lindsay, Kenneth Slessor, and the Bulletin years are key documents of the times. Apart from the literary journalism of Vance and Nettie Palmer, there is no other body of work like his in the Australia of the period, and like them, he has left a substantial archive. …

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