Inside Story

The Legend turns fifty

Still in print after five decades, Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend has survived its critics, writes David Andrew Roberts

David Andrew Roberts 27 November 2008 2935 words

The “typical Australian,” according to Russel Ward, was “a practical man, rough and ready in his manners.” The photo shows a man on horseback droving a herd of sheep, thought to be at Kimbombi, Queensland. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

IN 1938, the extreme nationalist and Anglophobe, Percy Reginald Stephensen, yearned for someone “who can project Australian history on to an Australian plane.” “[U]nless Australians learn to be self-respecting, by devising a legend, or an illusion, of their own history,” he wrote, “then this community is doomed and doubly damned to colonialism and inertia forever.”

Twenty years later, amid the political and intellectual tumult of the height of the Cold War, and during a great but contested awakening of national cultural consciousness in Australia, a group of historians and literary scholars set out to articulate what was most distinctive and formative about this land and its people. Among these, arguably the most important and influential was Russel Braddock Ward, whose landmark work, The Australian Legend, this year celebrates its golden jubilee.

Published by Oxford University Press in 1958, The Australian Legend was a polished and provocative examination of Australian national identity. It charted the origins and evolution of those traits that are popularly assumed to define the “typical Australian” and the manners and mores that characterise the “Australian ethos” or “mystique.”

That “typical Australian,” in Ward’s oft-quoted view, was “a practical man, rough and ready in his manners.” He (the legendary Australian was characteristically masculine) was pragmatic, stoic, “taciturn rather than talkative,” and sceptical of pretension and authority. He was a restless, drinking, swearing, irreligious gambler, capable of great energy and resourcefulness but habitually inclined to laxity. And though hospitable by nature, he was implacably distrustful of outsiders and “new chums.”

Ward located the embryo of this “ethos” in the convicts, Celts and “Currency lads” of the early colonial period, specifically those who faced the peculiar privations of the Australian bush in the service of Australia’s great pastoral industry. It was there, “up-country,” that environmental and economic conditions moulded a particular “old-hand-outback tradition” among a largely itinerant workforce. Life beyond the Great Dividing Range demanded ingenuity, versatility and endurance, and it encouraged an interdependence that was manifested, most famously, in a cult of bush hospitality and mateship.

This outback culture survived the mid-nineteenth century influx of gold-seeking immigrants, because they, facing the same need to acclimatise, adopted the manners and survival methods of the “old hands” (though it was also infused from this time with a “crude racism,” mostly in response to the presence of the Chinese on the gold-fields). The Bushman’s ethos “came of age” later in the century, but grew somewhat more nostalgic as the nature of rural life and labour began to change. And as the bush became less remote, rural traditions came increasingly to the attention of city-dwellers.

But the ethos reached its “apotheosis” during the 1890s – the heyday of Australian nationalism – when it pervaded the culture of a militant trade union movement, and perhaps more significantly, became idealised and popularised in the prose and verse of nationalist literati such as Paterson, Lawson and Furphy, especially via that “Bushman’s Bible,” the Bulletin. Thus codified and packaged in writing for a national audience, the archetypical Bushman became the symbol of an emerging nation, a “culture-hero on whose supposed characteristics many Australian tend, consciously or unconsciously, to model their attitude to life.”

So according to Ward, the true Australian ethos was essentially the product of a frontier/rural experience – of an encounter between man and nature on the fringes of settlement, where Europeans became Australians – which came to have a disproportionate impact on what was, and had always been, a largely urbanised society. The result was to forge a quintessentially collectivist, egalitarian and democratic nation whose most distinctive home-grown values were born of, and belonged to, the lower and coarser elements of Australian society rather than the Anglo-Australian elite.

Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend thus sits within a long tradition of Australian radical-nationalism. He expressed and embraced those particular and perhaps special features of our culture and historical experience which perceivably made us unique and auspicious, and he championed Australian literature and history as a primary means of generating self-understanding and self-respect. Furthermore, Ward aimed to define and demonstrate how Australianess had evolved in a sometimes uncertain contradistinction to our British heritage. In the contemporary Cold War politics of Menzies’s Australia, it set him in the opposing camp to conservative intellectuals like James McAuley, who railed against “Australianity” and “the ugly nineteenth-century vice of cultural nationalism.”

Ward’s was one of a number of works in the 1950s which endeavoured to rediscover and recast the Australian experience in order to describe and interpret those idiosyncratic traditions and ideals that defined Australianess. Others working with similar ideas included the literary critic Arthur Phillips, Vance Palmer (author of the 1956 book, The Legend of the Nineties), and Professor R. M. Crawford of the University of Melbourne, who first coined the term “Australian Legend” in his 1952 work Australia and later examined Ward’s PhD thesis.

But a number of things set Ward apart and above his contemporaries. His work was conspicuously original, for example, in its masterful exploration of Australian bush ballads and folklore, and in the way it mined the lives and labours of the ordinary people or common folk. Certainly Ward’s interests contrasted with the preponderance of political and economic themes in the work of his Australian colleagues, including the doyens of the radical-nationalist persuasion such as Brian Fitzpatrick. In fact, The Australian Legend was, in a way, an accomplished exposition of “history from below,” long before the term and practice were popularised by Anglo-French historians in the 1960s. Some of Europe’s leading social historians, like E. P. Thompson and Asa Briggs, would acknowledge Ward in their own groundbreaking works of the 1960s and 1970s.

Moreover, The Australian Legend contained some important comparative, transnational elements, contrasting with the insularity of the work of many of Ward’s contemporaries (and successors). This was evident, in some measure, in his understanding of Imperial or “British-world” history and his sensitivity to the nuances of the Anglo-Australian relationship.

It was even more evident in Ward’s use of the early-twentieth century writing of Frederick Jackson Turner. In the final chapter of The Australian Legend, Ward drew on the American “frontier theory” to explain the “underlining forces” that have caused new settler societies to eulogise and embrace the imagined values of their “noble frontiersmen.” Like Turner’s American West, the Australian Bush was, for Ward, a wellspring of distinctive national values. But to Ward, Turner’s thesis provided not just an explanation, but an example of how national cultural-heroes become romanticised and ennobled. Although Ward’s account of Australian history may today seem glossy and overly-celebratory, he was not an entirely uncritical advocate or apologist for the stereotypical Australian.

RUSSEL WARD WAS in some ways an unlikely author for a work championing Australian rural and working-class culture. He was born in 1914 into a solidly Protestant, middle-class heritage. In his autobiography, dramatically titled A Radical Life, he described himself as “a person of incurably respectable bourgeois manners.” He was the son of a teacher (later headmaster) of Adelaide’s prestigious Prince Alfred College, where he himself was educated, emerging, in own recollection, as a sound scholar and fine sportsman. He moved around with his family, to Charter’s Towers in northern Queensland and Perth, then back to South Australia where gained Honours in English Literature at the University of Adelaide in 1936. Thereafter he wondered and worked around the Northern Territory, before accepting teaching positions at Geelong Grammar and Sydney Grammar, all the while reading, conversing and thinking. It was a phase of his life that exposed him to both “frontier life” and urban radical politics, guiding him on what he later termed his “pilgrimage to the Left.”

It was to the great chagrin of his family that, in 1941, Ward joined the Australian Communist Party, at a time when the party was an acceptable magnet for young, progressive, idealists with international visions of peace and justice. He formally quit it in 1949, apparently to soothe the anxieties of his wife, who was prone to imagining she was being spied on by secret policemen. Ward remained committed to the Left, however, and while The Australian Legend contained little of the conventional concerns or methods of Marxist history, it was nonetheless an attempt to promote and praise Australia’s “pastoral proletariat” as the true possessors of Australian values and identity.

The second world war provided Ward with “the most inglorious military career in Australian history” (second only, he quipped, to that of Robert Menzies). He served on the home front as a censor in military intelligence, and then with what he called “the psycho-service” or “the giggle house,” assessing soldiers for the Australian Army Psychological Unit. He was later told that his army file marked him as a “Dangerous Communist: never to be sent to an operational area.”

Ward returned to teaching in NSW state secondary schools after the war, a means, he said, “of earning an honest living while snobbishly looking for more prestigious work such as journalism or writing.” He returned to the University of Adelaide to complete a Masters thesis on the “Social, Political and Historical Content” of modern English poetry (accepted on the second submission, after the first version was rejected for containing absolutely no footnotes). In 1952 he published his first book, Man Makes History, intended as a textbook for high school history students.

Ward’s entry into the formal study of Australian history began in 1953 when he obtained a scholarship at the fledgling Australian National University in Canberra, which at that stage had no English Department. Supervised by the stirring and talkative L. F. Fitzhardinge, and inspired by his good friend, Vance Palmer, Ward began examining Australian folksongs, then turned to study the lives of those old-time Australians who wrote and sang them. Canberra afforded a stimulating environment for forty-year old student. He had access to a small but vibrant community of young scholars and poets and a hub of talented history students and fellows including Bob Gollan, Bernard Smith, Allan Martin, Eric Fry and Margaret Kiddle. On many nights he revelled late in the company of his neighbours, Bert and Alice Evatt. In 1956 he completed his imposing 160,000 doctoral thesis on “The Ethos and Influence of the Australian Pastoral Workers.”

But Ward’s communist associations then came to haunt him. He was blackballed by the State Public Service Board and denied a post at Wagga Wagga Teachers’ College (now Charles Sturt University), and was controversially refused an appointment to the University of Technology (now University of New South Wales) after the unanimous recommendation of a selection committee was vetoed by the vice-chancellor. Although the reasons for this were never explicated, the federal government was secretly informed that Ward’s character and reputation were such “that no Australian university would possibly employ him.”

It was therefore seemingly incongruous that Ward was finally accepted to a position in the Department of History at the University of New England in Armidale – the blue-ribbon heartland of Country Party Australia. At least there his “incurably respectable bourgeois manners” served him well. But in the distinct and propitious New England region he found a wealth of matters and materials to suit his abiding enthusiasm for the study of regional/rural identity and folklore. Ward spent the remainder of his academic career at the UNE, writing several more books, serving as head of the Department of History between 1966–74 and rising eventually to the post of deputy chancellor. He died in Armidale in 1995, and was buried to the strains of The Wild Colonial Boy.

IT WAS IN THE FIRST YEAR of his appointment at the UNE that Ward set about pruning his 700-page thesis (reputedly through some sixteen versions) into the form which was published by OUP as The Australian Legend in 1958. For a book that has had such a profound and lasting impact on Australian scholarship, its initial reception was surprisingly flat. Non-academic reviewers thought it turgid, dull and laden with jargon; “indigestibly over-referenced,” wrote one, and it was “essentially an academic work,” according to another. Ward’s academic contemporaries pointed to other apparent flaws, such as his underestimation of the importance of urban influences on Australian identity, or his overly romanticised view of convicts and bushrangers. It was a predictably mixed response to a book that sought to reach both an academic and a popular audience.

Ward’s work, however, grew in stature and importance in the 1960s and 1970s. But alongside this recognition came the beginnings of a virulent attack from a young generation of radical, New Left revisionists. Most notable of these was Humphrey McQueen, whose A New Britannia (1970) countered Ward’s sentimental and positive take on the Australian identity by arguing that Australian working-class traditions were in fact inherently individualistic, avaricious, militaristic and racist. McQueen’s aggressive, confrontational criticism of the Old Left, especially of Ward and The Australian Legend, spilled over into the pages of leading Australian journals such as Labour History and Overland. Ward was deeply offended by McQueen’s rancour, and sincerely unsettled by what he saw as an unconscionable breach of the normally polite etiquettes of scholarly debate.

Subsequent critics, usually with more politeness, found in Ward’s work a surprising array of faults and frailties, honing in on whatever his Legend had omitted or marginalised – namely the role and experiences of women, Aborigines, ethic migrant minorities, the landed elite and urban dwellers. Henry Reynolds, for example, though “deeply influenced by Ward’s book,” wondered how such “a fine, creative historian” could have overlooked “the pistols nonchalantly thrust through the belt of his noble frontiersman.” Reynolds subsequently built a career on illuminating the extent and nature of interracial violence in Australian history, such that Ward’s handling of the Aboriginal experience must now and forever be seen as inept and incomplete.

Similarly, Ward’s UNE colleague, Miriam Dixson, was highly critical of Ward’s failure to appreciate the role of women in Australian history. At UNE in 1976 she established one of the country’s first courses in women’s history (in the face of Ward’s vigorous opposition) and in the same year published The Real Matilda (1976), in which she re-characterised Ward’s Australian Legend as “misogynist to the core.”

Indeed, The Australian Legend provided a point of departure for some of the best scholarship produced in this country over the last fifty years. If at times it seemed more-or-less obligatory for young scholars to launch their careers by tearing it apart, then such debate and disagreement is only testimony to its importance and influence. In any event The Australian Legend has enjoyed one of the most remarkable publication records of any work of Australian history. It had been re-issued and republished continuously over fifty years, an astonishing achievement for a work based on a PhD thesis.

The Australian Legend has survived its critics in the sense that it remains a vital point of reference for the study of Australian historiography and intellectual history. Yet it remains relevant too, because the set of assumptions and self-images it describes are still identifiable to many Australians. Ward’s “typical Australian” continues in some measure to define how Australians see themselves, and how we choose to be seen by others. Baz Luhrmann’s new epic, Australia, will undoubtedly provide further proof of this, if any were needed. Indeed, so deep are resonances of this national mystique that political conservatives, thanks to John Howard’s elevation of the battler and the bush, have now successfully appropriated what was once the preserve of the Labor Party and the Left.

Its survival and relevance seems assured in other ways as well. Russel Ward popularised Australian history and made it accessible. Now, fifty years later, we see Australian history returning to the forefront of public attention and debate, and practicing historians must answer the call of an audience yearning for grand narrative and an instructive, recognisable national story. Ward was radical enough to attract the suspicion of a government that was excessively apprehensive of his potential to sway the minds of impressionable youths. Now, half-a-century later, we work again in a highly politicised atmosphere, where critical history and the integrity of its practitioners are subjected to sustained scrutiny and attack.

All this points to the book’s status as a true Australian classic. Percy Stephensen implored Australians to develop “a legend, or an illusion, of their own history.” Ward agreed. A people “cannot feel really at home in any environment,” he wrote, “until they have transformed the natural shapes around them by infusing them with myths.” Such myths were required to bring people together, a challenge particularly pertinent in such a large, sparsely populated land as ours. Ward’s own role in fulfilling this quest is itself legendary. •