Settler modernists: Dan Tout, ‘A gumtree is not a branch of an oak’: Indigenising settler nationalism in 1930s Australia, PhD dissertation, Swinburne University, 2018


Abstract: Questions over what, whether and when the Australian nation is or might be have been of consistent concern throughout most of Australia’s settler-colonial history and remain so today. In attempting to construct a national culture and identity, settler Australians, like settlers elsewhere, have invested in the establishment of a national literary tradition. This project of national cultural construction has emphasised a dual process of acclimation and maturation to claim the settler collective’s attainment of maturity and legitimacy within the metropolitan domain of world literature and belonging to the land that provides the underlying imperative for settler colonisation itself. In the standard story of inevitably unfurling national cultural development towards these two ends, Britain has played the part of ‘the mother country’ (or parent oak), while Australia is the child (or seedling) that eventually and inevitably reaches maturity in the new soil. In Manning Clark’s famous application of Henry Lawson’s phrase, Britain was ‘the Old Dead Tree’, Australia ‘the Young Tree Green’.

Yet these narratives of national maturation operate to conceal the nature and the complexity of the environment the national literary culture was supposed to be acclimatising to, and becoming expressive of. In constructing narratives of Australian national cultural development in terms of bilateral oppositions between colony and metropole, such narratives neglect the complexities of the settler-colonial, as distinct from the colonial, ‘situation’. On the contrary, this thesis is premised on the central proposition that the settler-colonial situation is fundamentally conditioned by a triangular system of relationships involving settler, metropolitan and Indigenous agencies. In this schema, the settler is compelled towards both indigenisation and neo-European replication, while both trajectories are similarly founded on the prior displacement — both literal and symbolic — of pre-existing Indigenous populations.

The 1930s was a crucial moment in the project of national identity construction, in which prevailing circumstances combined to make settler nationalism simultaneously more urgent and increasingly problematic. In particular, the demise of the ‘doomed race’ ideal, which had until then envisaged the inevitable and imminent resolution of the triadic relations of settler colonialism into the dyadic ones of ‘franchise’ or ‘dependent’ colonialism, meant that settlers, and especially settler nationalists, found themselves confronting the prospect of a persistent Indigenous presence within the boundaries of the settler nation. They were therefore compelled to negotiate the more complex — for the nationalist project, at least — trilateral relations characteristic of settler colonialism, rather than the relatively more straightforward bilateral ones of colonialism proper.

This dissertation focuses on this historical and cultural context, and on three exemplary settler nationalists working within and responding to it: writer, editor and publisher, Percy Reginald ‘Inky’ Stephensen (1901–65); poet and editor, Reginald Charles (Rex) Ingamells (1913–55); and writer and polemicist, Alfred Francis Xavier Herbert (1901–84). At a historical moment marked by ambivalence in Australia’s relationship with metropolitan England, Stephensen, Ingamells and Herbert sought to establish settler Australia’s national cultural independence. In doing so, they each encountered, and responded to, the reality of a persistent and resistant Indigenous presence within the settler nation. While Stephensen posited himself and the Australian national culture he sought to construct as inheritors of both European and Indigenous traditions, and Ingamells engaged in a project of radical indigenist appropriation that separated and usurped a symbolic indigeneity from its bearers, Herbert celebrated instead the potentiality of ‘Euraustralian’ hybridity to overcome his own, and by extension his compatriots’, illegitimacy. While these approaches are ostensibly at odds, the central argument advanced in this thesis is that they share a drive towards settler indigenisation and independence as their common, overriding concerns.


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