Inside Story

The Lucky Country turns fifty

The genesis of Donald Horne’s classic helps explain why it mattered

Carl Reinecke 1 December 2014 3392 words

“Chapter by chapter – speed essential!”: detail from Albert Tucker’s cover painting for the first edition of The Lucky Country.

Although the story of The Lucky Country usually begins with a long conversation over lunch in Adelaide between its author, Donald Horne, and the South Australian poet and bookseller Max Harris, in reality the book was the product of a much longer sequence of events. As editor of the fortnightly magazine, the Observer, between 1958 and 1961, and of the Bulletin in subsequent years, Horne had begun dissecting Australia as he saw it, and those views were finally and fully articulated in The Lucky Country.

During that period an important group of writers had begun to gather in the offices of the Observer, including Harris and Geoffrey Dutton, who was engaged in establishing the Australian wing of Penguin Books. With Penguin Australia’s managing director, Brian Stonier, this group helped to develop what would become The Lucky Country. Their ardent commitment to Australian writing was distinctive even at a time when Australian authors had suddenly grown popular once again. During the time Horne was clarifying his ideas, the value of Australian publishing increased eightfold and the number of Australian publishing houses almost doubled from thirty-seven to sixty-seven. As the Sydney Morning Herald’s H.G. Kippax wrote, “A book about Australia? The bookshops are loaded with them!”

The Lucky Country fits closely into a broader re-evaluation of Australian national identity in the 1960s. Stuart Ward and James Curran have argued that this “ferment about refashioning the national image” resulted partly from “the relatively sudden collapse of Britishness as a credible totem of civic and sentimental allegiance in Australia.” Britain’s attempts to enter the European Economic Community during the 1950s were seen as nothing less than the “abandonment of Australia,” as one characteristic editorial in the Australian Financial Review put it. Without recognising these sudden changes, and the consequent re-evaluations, it is difficult to grasp why this polemical criticism of Australia’s elite, written by a working journalist and published by a blinkingly new outpost of a British publishing firm, was so enthusiastically received.

Nor, without that background, would it have made sense for Horne to write such a book. In the years before The Lucky Country, he was far from being the republican cultural critic he would later become. Until 1964 he worked in the court of the media magnate Sir Frank Packer, and he had helped found the conservative quarterly Quadrant with his close friends James McAuley and Peter Coleman. During his years living in Britain he had stood for election as a candidate for the Conservative Party. Although Horne would attempt to link these political positions with his education at the hands of the famed University of Sydney philosopher John Anderson, who emphasised “free thought,” they are better understood as part of a “radical conservative” political position. The changing tides of identity and nationalism in the period also help explain Horne’s shift from conservative firebrand to reformist advocate. But The Lucky Country was more than just a product of its historical conditions; the stewardship of Max Harris and Geoffrey Dutton was the key to the book’s production.

When Dutton wrote warmly to Horne in January 1963 – “I hear from Max that you have an idea for a Penguin. It seems a damn good one to me” – he was encouraging a talented if unproven author to dive into an ambitious project. Harris, for his part, congratulated Horne on “rising to my original bait,” and suggested that the as-yet-unnamed book would work well as an Australian version of the “English specials.” Many of the Penguin specials of the 1960s were popular criticisms of the English political elite – an archetypal volume was Kingsley Martin’s The Crown and the Establishment – usually of between 60,000 and 80,000 words. Dutton agreed, and wrote to Horne in March 1963 suggesting that he write something “somewhat after the style of Anthony Sampson’s Anatomy of Britain,” adding that this was “just a suggestion, very vague at this stage, but I think there could be some very interesting results.” Dutton was partly responding to pressure from Penguin executives in Britain, who wanted the Australian branch “to produce something that would,” in Brian Stonier’s words, provide a “a fairly useful critical survey of Australia.”

But Dutton had other motives in commissioning an Australian special. In an article for Nation in April 1963, he railed against Australia’s paradoxical relationship with Great Britain – “we accept this patronising pseudo-patronage at a time when our national identity is at last emerging in full adult strength” – and argued that Australia was unaware of British self-criticism and was in need of something along the lines of Anatomy of Britain.

“An Anatomy of Australia,” as Horne’s book was now referred to, had a suggested length of 70,000 words. Contracts were exchanged after Penguin received Horne’s synopsis in October 1963. Penguin’s quick response to a half-suggestion from Harris and Horne shows how committed Dutton and Stonier were to helping create a new Australian literary identity. The minutes of Penguin’s board meetings and correspondence between Dutton and potential authors reveal the huge workload and ambition of Penguin’s Australian office in those early days. Dutton helped to publish a vast number of vital works in the period, editing and compiling The Literature of Australia, publishing Sumner Locke Elliot’s Careful, He Might Hear You and Robin Boyd’s groundbreaking The Australian Ugliness, and hounding Robert Hughes to finish The Art of Australia. The Lucky Country was just one piece, albeit an important one, in Penguin’s cultural agenda and its attempt to assert an Australian literary identity.

With the outline, length and working title of the book established, all that was left was for Horne to write it. Having waited for the long summer holiday of 1963–64, Horne later described how he “put a long, lined, foolscap writing pad on my knee, got out my felt pen and began writing a book about Australia.” His account of a “continuing sensation of imaginary conversations – I was arguing in my head with Henry Mayer [the Sydney University political scientist], R.G. Menzies, and other front players” suggests that the book was as easy to write as it is to read.

The truth is that the book, like most literary works, was the product not of an immaculate, unfolding chain of interlocked ideas, but rather of hard, unyielding work. Horne started work in early December 1963, writing to Geoffrey Dutton, “I have written the first two chapters. I feel quite pleased with them. I find I like writing books. Perhaps I might take it up.” But the rest of the book didn’t take shape so easily, and it took him until April 1964 to have a finished manuscript ready for the publishers. The in-between months, as shown in the rapid development of the many drafts he later deposited in the State Library of New South Wales, were absorbed in relentless effort. The clarity of Horne’s style and the full articulation of his ideas came slowly through this period; and most of the book’s signature sections – a prologue listing international perceptions of Australia, the images of the South Sydney RSL, the phrase for which the book is famous – took form only in the final months.

Some of the insights came as a surprise even to Horne himself. As he wrote in one letter, “I have come out with a more favourable opinion of ordinary Australians than I thought I would and an even more scathing assessment of their leaders than I had expected.” His focus on “readability” at the expense of detailed evidence was to prove challenging for his English publishers; but for the efforts of Dutton and Stonier, it may have stopped The Lucky Country from reaching publication.

Dutton was delighted by the draft text. “I think the book is extremely good, and it reads as if you had quite grown into it as you wrote it,” he wrote to Horne. “It exposes faults and absurdities in our national set-up (many of which I certainly didn’t know about), clearly analyses tendencies scarcely suspected by many people, and also (more important) suggests new ways of looking at things and new things to look at.” Ninette Dutton, adding to her husband’s views, wrote to Horne in the same month: “It puts into words a number of half-formed ideas and perhaps formed, but not generally expressed ideas, which gives voice to this particular era, and so will be discussed and be a direct part of this era from now onwards.”

Excitement was building at Penguin. “I think this is the particular book for a particular time, and we mustn’t miss the bus,” Dutton wrote to Stonier, assuring him that “we have a winner here.” Dutton’s immediate support for Horne’s manuscript didn’t stop him from suggesting a number of important changes, including a new title – “Better than any you’ve suggested is that you’ve given to the last section of the book – The Lucky Country.” Along with Stonier, though, Dutton was concerned that the book lacked sufficient figures to support its argument. He suggested that Horne include, among other things, the number of visitors to the Adelaide Festival of Arts. Horne’s insistence on “readability” came to the fore in his response to these suggestions: “As you know,” he wrote, “there is nothing like facts and figures to take the meaning out of something and to detract from its readability.” In his assessment, “What keeps people reading is a kind of this paragraph leading to that paragraph thing, a pseudo narrative effect.” Horne eventually relented and included a number of examples in The Lucky Country, as it was now known, but maintained that, rather than more “out of date statistics,” what was needed were “just here and there, a few more concrete images.”

Satisfied with Horne’s changes, Dutton sent a copy of the book to Tony Godwin, chief editor at Penguin in Britain, for his approval, adding, “I am tremendously pleased with the book, which says all sorts of good things in a sharp but not knocking way, and has plenty of positive suggestions.” After a month’s delay, Godwin declined to support publication of the manuscript as it stood, recommending that it include more concrete examples to support its argument. While Dutton attempted to placate him, the mounting delays created a sense of panic in Penguin’s Australian office. When Godwin suggested that a better model for Horne’s book would be John Gunther’s 618-page Inside Russia Today, Dutton informed Stonier that such a plan was “absurd” and that, “Tony or no, I think we should go ahead one way or another pretty soon.” Horne suggested to Dutton that Godwin might have “some dim Australian expatriates on his stay.” Geoffrey Dutton became increasingly angry at the delays, describing Godwin’s position as “crap,” and telling Stonier that he was “fuming with rage” at Godwin’s “whims.”

Frustrated by the obstruction but confident the book would be a success, Dutton and Stonier decided to risk publishing it without English support. After Dutton fired off an impassioned letter to Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin, and pointed out to Stonier that Horne might sue Penguin under the clause “which specifies that the publisher shall make every effort to sell the book as widely as possible,” Godwin reluctantly relented. This was not the first time the Australian staff of Penguin had decided to go it alone – it had published The Australian Ugliness on its own initiative – but it was testament to Dutton’s belief and support for The Lucky Country that they took a stand in this case.

“OK chapter by chapter – speed essential!” Dutton wrote to Horne, and the final months between Penguin Australia’s decision to publish and the release date of 2 December rushed by. Albert Tucker, chosen as a last-minute replacement for Les Tanner to illustrate the cover, drew the book’s signature sun-bronzed figure. As Horne and the editorial team finalised the copy, Penguin was equally absorbed in building publicity. This “crash job” was made easier by Dutton’s astute judgement that “it will provide happy hours for all the TV and radio boys, and many inches of discussion space in the newspapers.” Thanks to Max Harris’s contacts at the recently launched national daily, the Australian, featured extracts from The Lucky Country prior to the book’s publication, with one headline reading, “Read the Book of the Year – in The Australian.” Such coverage, alongside a reproduction of the book’s cover on the front page of the Australian Book Review and an episode-long discussion on the ABC television program The Critics, helped to ensure that The Lucky Country was well-known prior to its release. This large-scale publicity was matched by Stonier and Dutton’s belief that “this book is going to be a wow.”

Unsurprising, then, was the general demand for the book on its release, with The Lucky Country selling 18,000 copies in its first nine days. But a better indication of the book’s cultural impact were the 100,000 copies that had sold by the end of 1965. Although part of Dutton’s plan had been to “follow up by reaching the schools in large numbers,” the stunning sales of the book came as something of a surprise.

The popular reaction, as recorded in readers’ letters to Horne, was very positive. Most wrote to Horne to thank him for providing, as one young writer put it, “rational explanations where I have up to now been floundering in intuitive reactions.” This sense that The Lucky Country had articulated a set of as yet unexpressed feelings dominated the letters, seemingly regardless of readers’ backgrounds. As Gwen Spicer, a suburban housewife, wrote to Horne, “In many parts of [the book] you expressed opinions which I felt but hadn’t put into words, and my thoughts are more coherent now thanks to you.” “The book contains so much confirmation of one’s feelings,” wrote advertising executive George Lynch. The depth of the feeling in readers’ letters helps to dispel the idea that the book’s popularity was a random event or the result of an effective marketing campaign led by a three-word slogan. It seemed proof that Horne had managed to articulate the rapid changes in Australia’s national identity and had done so at a time when it was most needed. Like all great artists or thinkers Horne explained a complex set of cultural ideas with grace and style; his focus on “readability” seemed to have paid off.

The critical reaction to the book failed to match this enthusiasm, however. Equivocal at best, most reviewers agreed that the book “runs a gamut of generalisations,” with “over-compression, leading to over-simplification,” and accused Horne of being either a “left-of-centre journalist” or “an extreme right winger.” The most balanced of the critical reviews came from the former (and future) Sydney Morning Herald editor John Douglas Pringle, whose main criticism was a fair one: “Throughout the book he makes a distinction between the masses of the people, who are full of good qualities, and their leaders, who are deplorable. But this is surely too easy.”

The fraught publication of The Lucky Country was one of the final straws in Geoffrey Dutton and Brian Stonier’s relationship with Penguin. They departed in 1965, establishing the successful Sun Books and continuing to publish Australian books. With the onset of sudden fame, Horne was able to begin a career as a writer, publishing some twenty-four books over the next forty years. And yet he was defined, to the end of his life, by the success of The Lucky Country. As the Guardian’s obituary began, “The best known book of Donald Horne, who has died of complications resulting from pulmonary fibrosis aged eighty-three, was The Lucky Country.”

Horne was acutely aware of how his first book was central to his reputation as a public intellectual and cultural critic, and he was a forceful defender of its legacy. Characteristic was his article “Reviewing the Reviewers,” published in the Bulletin in February 1965. Attacking The Lucky Country’s critics for focusing on himself instead of the book, he went on to suggest that most reviewers were attempting to advance partisan rather than intellectual interests. His desire to clarify the book’s message persisted; at one point, for example, he wrote to Australian National University academic Bruce Macfarlane to complain about a misrepresentation of his book in an undergraduate essay question.

In 1966 Horne sent a three-page document to Geoffrey Dutton with bullet points listing the agreed history of the production of The Lucky Country. That Horne included letters and photos (one of which was of him and Max Harris at that initial lunch) to support the document is remarkable. His intent was clear – to ensure his version of the creation of The Lucky Country was the agreed one. Not surprisingly, this became the foundation of the stories told about the book, with whole sections of the document quoted in Horne’s autobiography and in Dutton’s history of Penguin Australia.

This kind of clarity is welcomed by researchers and can only add to our understanding of the book. What makes this case distinctive, however, is that there is no reference to the document in Horne’s extensive archive at the State Library of New South Wales. Making his first donation to the library in 1978, Horne diligently, even obsessively, arranged his own papers. He divided them into a sequence of increasingly specific folders, displaying a level of care that is unusual for such a large amount of material, and even went so far as to arrange his documents on The Lucky Country according to the list he sent Dutton. Horne’s careful arrangement of his papers was characteristic. He also included nearly every playbill from student productions he was involved in, yet he failed to insert a copy of this key document or any reference to it. The only real conclusion available is that Horne was attempting to guide the story of The Lucky Country, even after his own death, without making the guidance explicit. That this history has shaped most interpretations of the book and the man would indicate that his approach was a success.

The Lucky Country is an ambiguous book. Horne criticises Australians for their “limited view of the possible” and overreliance on the impulse “to give it a go,” yet his own final message is more optimistic: “Many problems threaten the future of Australia. But we might have good luck. It’s worth giving it a go.” While Horne argues that an Australian outlook has become “a genuine philosophy of life,” he is critical of this outlook when “it has penetrated many areas of power in the community.”

Throughout his long career as an author and intellectual, Horne made explicit his desire for drastic changes of thinking within Australia’s political and cultural class. His belief in a reliable, intelligent national character suffuses his writing; in his final book, Dying: A Memoir, he writes how “everyone has faiths of some kind – without them we can’t think or act.” Horne’s faith was that of a “secular, liberal humanist,” a faith that was bolstered by a “strong belief in Australian humanism,” as it was, “a humanism without doctrines.” But such ambitions went hand in hand with his desire to be read by a broader public. At some points in his writing, and several times in The Lucky Country, Horne’s desire to be read overpowered his desire to be right. These competing desires have helped to ensure, at least, that his book is still read, debated and misquoted fifty years after its publication.

Why, then, did this book matter? A critical evaluation of Australian cultural trends in the early 1960s is beyond the scope of this article. But it is possible to see how a book, written by a talented author and thinker with the direction and support of an able publishing team, arriving at a moment of national re-evaluation, could articulate exactly what was at stake. Australia could stay as it was or it could change. Donald Horne helped to furnish a credo for a redefined Australian identity. In doing so he provided the words for a compelling view of Australia: a country that was wealthy and successful, urban and parochial, racist and unimaginative, conservative and democratic, a country that was, above all, a “Lucky Country.” •