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date: 21 August 2017

Australian-American Literary Connections

Summary and Keywords

Within the literary connections between Australia and the United States, the more traditional notion of “influence” gained a different kind of intellectual traction after the “transnational turn.” While the question of American influence on Australian literature is a relatively familiar topic, the corresponding question of Australian influence on American literature has been much less widely discussed. This bi-continental interaction can be traced through a variety of canonical writers, including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Charles Brockden Brown, through to Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Henry Adams, and Mark Twain. These transnational formations developed in the changed cultural conditions of the 20th and 21st centuries, with reference to poets such as Lola Ridge, Karl Shapiro, Louis Simpson, and Yusef Komunyakaa, along with novelists such as Christina Stead, Peter Carey, and J. M. Coetzee.

To adduce alternative genealogies for both American and Australian literature, Australian literature might be seen to function as American literature’s shadow self, the kind of cultural formation it might have become if the American Revolution had never taken place. Similarly, to track Australian literature’s American affiliations is to suggest ways in which transnational connections have always been integral to its constitution. By re-reading both Australian and American literature as immersed within a variety of historical and geographical matrices, from British colonial politics to transpacific space, it becomes easier to understand how both national literatures emerged in dialogue with a variety of wider influences.

Keywords: transnational, antipodean, twinning, transpacific, Australian literature, American literature

The Question of Influence

The question of literary “influence” is an old one within academic annals, one that flourished particularly during the heyday of comparative literature as an academic subject in the middle of the 20th century, when scholars would address, for example, the influence of French literature upon Goethe, or of Petrarch upon the Elizabethan sonneteers. What Shelley Fisher Fishkin has called the “transnational turn” since about 1990, however, introduced the idea of literary connections across national borders in a more dynamic fashion.1 Such transnational theoretical momentum has tended to problematize the autonomy of national literatures rather than, as the old-style comparatists tended to do, implicitly shoring up their epistemological parameters. For example, Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic (1993) took issue conceptually with the nationalist emphasis of the Black Arts Movement in the United States through the way it aligned Richard Wright not so much with the New York or Chicago school of writers but with various existentialists thinkers in Paris, a city where Wright lived from 1946 until his death in 1960.2 Gilroy’s argument was that the intricacies and ambiguities of Wright’s texts over the latter part of his career arose from a dialogue with French philosophers, rather than just emerging—“naturally,” as it were—from a home-grown, experiential context. In some ways, this might be seen as merely an extension of old modernist arguments about whether authors such as Henry James or T. S. Eliot should properly be categorized as English or American, but in its challenge to the very idea of ethnic identity, and in its openness to the creative possibilities of transposition and transgression, Gilroy’s transnational intervention cut across the traditional identification of literature with discrete national or racial formations.

Both American literature and Australian literature arose academically in the 20th century from under the shadow of English literature, striving to create curricular space for themselves in a situation where classic English writers enjoyed institutional hegemony. In this sense, it is hardly surprising that advocates of both American and Australian literature at this time were wary about ceding intellectual authority to transnational pressures, since such a development would serve potentially to diminish the integrity and autonomy of their subject. The most common treatment of transnational themes in the early days of this critical field emerged through analysis of the effects of a hegemonic culture upon its supposedly junior partner, as in Robert Weisbuch’s Atlantic Double-Cross (1986), which considered the ways in which British romantic writing helped to shape the formation of American transcendentalism, or Joan Kirkby’s The American Model: Influence and Independence in Australian Poetry (1982), which traced the increasing influence of American poets—from William Carlos Williams to John Ashbery—on Australian writing in the years after World War II.3 One familiar story in Australian history is how there was a greater hospitality to American rather than British cultural influences after 1941, when the United States, unlike Britain, dramatically intervened to safeguard the military security of Australia in the Pacific. Loyalties to Britain continued to be widespread and powerful, of course, but books by Kirkby and others reflected a new level of interest and receptivity, particularly after the late 1960s.4 Valuable though such critical works were, however, they tended to gloss over questions of reciprocity, of ways in which the process of literary influence is by definition a two-way affair, with more securely established cultural formations being impacted by the process of transnational exchange as much as their global trade partners. This is one crucial difference between postcolonialism and transnationalism as critical methods: whereas the former categorizes social fields in terms of a dominant and subordinate axis, the latter tends instead to emphasize issues involving mutual exchange across a broader cultural spectrum.

Over the past two centuries, America has had a significant impact upon English literature, just as Australia has had a significant impact upon American literature. However, such forms of complex reciprocity have not been so commonly addressed because of assumptions about the all-consuming and all-encompassing nature of political power, assumptions that have often been derived theoretically from a postcolonial rubric. But the marked geopolitical inferiority of Australia to the United States during the second half of the 20th century did not necessarily mean that American literature simply imposed itself upon the Australian domain without any symmetrically recursive influences, just as English literature of the 19th century was surely shaped in part by implicit dialogues with an embryonic American empire.

Alter Egos

The manifestation of Australia as a spectral force within U.S. culture can, indeed, be traced back to the moment of the new nation’s founding. At the end of the eighteenth century, as America was contemplating the prospect of political independence after its War of Independence with Great Britain, Benjamin Franklin’s article “On Sending Felons to America” (1787) draws a stark comparison between Britain’s old colony of America and what he ironically calls “their promising new Colony of Botany Bay.”5 Franklin implicitly highlights here the brutal prewar conditions of political control organized around a power structure of center and periphery, whereby Britain would as a matter of course dump its felons on the edges of empire. The British system of punitive transportation to America had effectively been ended by the Revolutionary War, of course, and this indeed was the primary reason Australia was officially brought into being in this same year, 1787, to provide alternative accommodation for British convicts.6 The skill of Franklin’s writing, though, lies in the way it exemplifies how, in his eyes, Australia appears as America’s alter ego, the kind of abject colonial country America would have remained if the American Revolution had never taken place. This sense of Australia as an uncomfortably repressed alternative domain also manifests itself in Thomas Jefferson’s projects, which were similarly driven in part by a fear that the British colonization of Australia would serve strategically to encircle North America. Jefferson began planning a journey west across the American continent as early as 1783, not purely out of a disinterested love of discovery but because, as Jefferson put it in a letter to George Rogers Clark, of rumors that the English were raising “a very large sum … for exploring the country from the Mississippi to California.”7 In this sense, as Robert D. Hunt observed, the Lewis and Clark expedition that Jefferson eventually sponsored as president in 1803 was impelled in part by his anxiety that the world was “closing in on the Pacific Northwest” and that the American west coast, if left unprotected, would become vulnerable to an English fleet based in the Pacific Ocean.8 All of the founding fathers were alive to the global balance of power as well as their own national interests, and their writings tend to reflect these kinds of oscillation in scale between different geographical perspectives. This planetary dimension also manifests itself in writers of the Revolutionary era. The French aristocrat Hector St. Jean de Crèvecoeur, frequently extolled for his promotion of “the American” as a “new man” in his Letters from an American Farmer (1782), explicitly deploys antipodean perspectives in his Journey into Northern Pennsylvania and the State of New York (1801), where he compares and contrasts the indigenous aspects of the North American civilization he witnesses around him to what “one sees on the beaches of Zealand and New Holland as well as those dwelling on the Pacific Ocean Islands.”9

Like Jefferson, Crèvecoeur thus seeks to reposition North America within an expansive transnational matrix, and so to illuminate the global dimensions that the popular republican rhetoric of U.S. national independence at this time was tending to suppress. American studies, as that interdisciplinary field developed in the second half of the 20th century, tended to privilege ways in which the new United States cast itself as an exceptionalist nation, taking its cue from Jefferson’s 1797 letter to Elbridge Gerry, where he expressed the wish “that there were an ocean of fire between us & the old world.”10 However, many of Jefferson’s own political foes in the rival Federalist Party at the turn of the 19th century were much less committed to this kind of utopian republicanism, with novelist Charles Brockden Brown being prominent among those who mocked what they saw as Jefferson’s unworldly idealism. Brown’s unfinished narrative Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist, written in 1798 as a sequel to his successful novel Wieland, features a land mass in the geographical vicinity of Australia, which is used in Carwin to ridicule the more abstract ambitions of the radical visionary, Ludloe, who plans to install a “scheme of Utopian felicity” in this uncharted territory. Brown’s narrator emphasizes how “the incidents of this narrative are supposed to have taken place before the voyages of Bougainville and Cook,” and Carwin is organized structurally around both a temporal and a spatial double bind, where Ludloe’s fanciful projection of the South Pacific as a site exempt from imperial power struggles is ironized by what Brown’s readers would have recognized as the realpolitik of colonial and economic struggle in this area of the world at the turn of the 19th century.11 Australia was on the Federalist Party’s radar at this time because their leaders were fully cognizant of the likelihood of further engagement with Great Britain over trade, slavery, and other controversial topics of the day, and they regarded Jefferson’s preferred stance of isolated geopolitical aloofness as entirely unrealistic. The Federalists almost entirely lost their power base after the War of 1812 with Britain, and they have subsequently been more or less been written out of U.S. cultural history, but Brown was one of the many Federalist sympathizers in the first decade of the 19th century who regarded Australia, along with other fraught colonial sites such as the Caribbean, as important places for the working through of these political conflicts.12

Many celebrated American authors later in the 19th century also had significant connections with Australia, even though they did not themselves have the opportunity to visit the country. Herman Melville actually served on an Australian whaling ship, the Lucy Ann, in 1842, and this experience shaped the writing of his second novel, Omoo (1847), which the author described in a letter to his publisher as involving “an eventful cruise in an English Colonial Whaleman (a Sydney Ship).”13 It is interesting that Melville here classified the Lucy Ann as an “English Colonial” vessel, and this reflects one of the central themes of his novel, which turns on how national identities of all kinds get crisscrossed on the ocean waves. The migration of peoples across continents—the narrator’s companion, Long Ghost, is said to have gone out originally to Sydney as the assistant surgeon of an emigrant ship—becomes commensurate with the transposition of locations that makes Melville’s fiction in general so disorienting. In this sense, the Pacific Ocean is represented in Omoo as a mirror image of the Atlantic, one where colonial conflicts between Britain and the United States are systematically repeated on the other side of the world, just as Melville’s first novel, Typee (1846), alludes to the way Captain Porter seized the Pacific island of Nuku Hiva for the United States in 1813, during the war with Britain, thereby making the island America’s first colony.

In the 21st century there has been some fine environmental criticism that has focused on the attention paid by Melville to the phenomenology of the sea, a natural world that exceeds domesticated constraints, but it is important to recognize how Melville’s multidimensional narratives effectively politicize the ocean, treating the way in which Pacific locations at this time became key sites of contest between rival imperial powers.14 Geoffrey Sanborn has also shown how Melville drew heavily for his portrait of Queequeg in Moby-Dick (1851) upon George Lillie Craik’s The New Zealanders (1830), and how Craik’s portrayal of the magnanimous Maori chief Te Pehi Kupe helped to shape Melville’s representation of this Indigenous character whom Ishmael eventually calls his “inseparable twin brother.”15 One characteristic of Melville’s highly idiosyncratic style is the way it evokes parallelisms and affinities between different ontological categories—land and sea, human and animal—and the contradictions of national identity incumbent upon representing a Yankee and a Maori as each other’s doppelganger extend this idiom of hybridity into a more edgy political realm.

The idea of Emily Dickinson, who hardly ever left Amherst, Massachusetts, engaging with Australia might seem at first far-fetched. However, her poetry deliberately internalizes the various discourses of geology, evolution, and astronomy that were circulating widely in the United States between the 1850s and 1880s, so as to expose her imaginative projections to a longue durée that breaks through domestic constraints of space and time. Many of Dickinson’s poems trace a transition between local and global, between the subjective imagination and a world that appears more unpatterned and intimidating:

  • I saw no Way—The Heavens were stitched—I felt the Columns close—
  • The Earth reversed her Hemispheres—I touched the Universe—16

Throughout Dickinson’s work, there is a consistent emphasis on geographical equinoxes, latitudes, points of the compass, and what another poem refers to as the “Divisions of the Earth.”17 One particular poem, “If you were coming in the Fall,” uses the image of “Van Dieman’s land” (the old name for Tasmania) as a spatial correlative to the temporal conception of “Eternity,” just as Edgar Allan Poe in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838) uses his fictional account of a voyage to the Southern Ocean as an epiphenomenon of the disturbing shift between home comforts and more expansive planetary orbits.18 Dickinson, like Poe, thus appropriates Australia as an emblem of the enigmatic and unknown, of spatiotemporal dimensions that cannot comfortably be incorporated within an emollient rhetoric of American transcendentalism, and throughout her work she draws on developments in geophysical science to scrutinize skeptically both the old Calvinist wisdom of New England and the culture of domestic sentimentality that was coming to supplant it. This is not, of course, a version of 19th-century Australia that the inhabitants of Sydney or Melbourne would necessarily have recognized, but it emphasizes how the virtualized image of Australia as a site of colonial alterity and environmental enigma threw significant shadows over the 19th-century American literary domain.

Literary Tourism

Henry Adams became the first major American author to actually visit Australia, where he spent time in July 1891, during his trip across the Pacific with the painter John La Farge. Adams was exercised at this time not only by intellectual questions about the nature of human society in the wake of scientific developments such as evolution but also by the political issue of how the United States would position itself strategically within an expanded global environment. Adams was not himself a professional politician, of course, but he came from a very distinguished political family and was friendly with John Hay, who served as secretary of state in the 1890s, and with other influential figures in Washington, DC. Adams instinctively distrusted the British colonial legacy that he found still predominant in Australia, which he described as merely a “second-rate United States,” writing to his old college friend Henry Cabot Lodge that he considered America’s “best chance” in the Pacific to be not Australia but Siberia: “Russia will probably go to pieces; she is rotten and decrepit to the core, and must pass through a bankruptcy, political and moral. If it can be delayed another twenty-five years, we could Americanize Siberia.”19

Adams’s comments throughout his Pacific expedition are typically patronizing and indeed at times racist, the voice of an old-style Boston grandee. However, The Education of Henry Adams, which was published privately in 1907, uses the force field of the Pacific Ocean in a more modern manner to gain a certain distance from the contingencies of human affairs, with Adams here correlating “the glaciation of the Southern hemisphere” with “a horizon more remote.”20 Adams achieves in The Education a strategic distance upon U.S. national narratives through his philosophical commitment to a cyclic “sense of history” (p. 355), where empires rise and fall. Appropriately enough, he cites with reverence here the work of “his idol Gibbon” (p. 386), and this model is consistent with the impersonal impetus underlying Adams’s writing, where distance, both spatial and temporal, implicitly guarantees the notion of imperial decline and fall in which, as an acolyte of Gibbon, he was intellectually invested.21

In this sense, the medievalism in The Education and in Adams’s other works becomes a temporal correlative to his representation of the Pacific as a spatially distant realm. Just as he correlates in this work the American industrial age with the collective culture of the Middle Ages, the dynamo with the Virgin, so Adams uses the vast space of the Pacific region to set contemporary history within a larger cyclic framework, one in which human civilizations rise and fall not according to a triumphalist eschatology of religious salvation but in line with more abstract patterns determined by classical fates. It is precisely the burden of Adams’s text to bring temporal distance (through medieval and classical analogies, references to Nero, Seneca, and so on) into alignment with spatial distance, as epitomized in the image of the Pacific: “One might mix up the terms of time as one liked,” writes Adams in The Education, “or stuff the present anywhere into the past, measuring time by Falstaff’s Shrewsbury clock, without violent sense of wrong, as one could do it on the Pacific Ocean.”22 This reference to Falstaff’s notorious disregard for clock time and historical sequence fits with the representation here of the Pacific Ocean as a site of pastoral retreat from the burdens of history: “Adams would rather, as choice, have gone back to the east, if it were only to sleep forever in the trade-winds under the Southern stars, wandering over the dark purple ocean, with its purple sense of solitude and void.”23 Hence this vast Pacific environment speaks for the author of The Education to an overwhelming of his rationalist mind by oceanic matter. Just as Charles Darwin described the geology of the Southern Hemisphere as introducing a different kind of time scheme that dwarfed Victorian daily measures, so Adams appropriates “the Southern stars” not only to envision human “solitude” but also to shed an ironic light upon the contingencies of human affairs, as his text repositions the rise and fall of British and American empires within a larger spherical framework. Adams does not simply dehistoricize the Pacific or gloss over its imperial politics, but he uses a geological perspective to frame these political issues on a different spatial and temporal scale.

Mark Twain arrived in Australia in 1895, four years after Adams, as part of the world tour that he chronicles in Following the Equator (1897). Like Adams, Twain professes himself struck by the physical size of the country and by the way its geographical scale challenges the spatiotemporal preconceptions he had brought over from the Northern Hemisphere: “Glancing at the maps,” Twain observed ruefully in an interview with a Tasmanian newspaper, “I had an idea that there was probably a small ferry boat running eighteen or twenty times a day between Melbourne and New Zealand.”24 It is this capacity for self-contradiction, for turning irony back creatively upon the subject, which attracts Twain to the antipodes in an aesthetic sense. Following the Equator portrays Australia not primarily in terms of naturalist description but through styles of analogic parallelism and inversion, by which the familiar world is turned on its head. For example, when citing the mayor of Ballarat’s remark on how local maidens have “smiles as charming as November flowers,” Twain glosses this as having “the seeming of a rather frosty compliment, but that is apparent only, not real. November is summer-time there.”25 Similarly, on a sweltering day in Sydney on December 20, 1895, he jokes: “If you in Australia have this kind of weather in the middle of December, what must you have in July?”26 The comedy here depends upon a position of feigned ignorance, with the geographical reality of Australia’s situation on the other side of the world upending the mask of faux naiveté that Twain performatively assumes here.

All this is consistent with Twain’s artistic style of burlesque, organized around rhetorical forms of twinning and punning, which he explores in all of his mature fiction, from the camaraderie between the adolescent boys in Huckleberry Finn (1884) to the twins swapped at birth in Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894). Twain’s writing, in other words, flourishes through a system of transposition, through which he introduces the prospect of exchange to see what the world might look like the other way around, and in this sense Australia functioned for him as an externalization—an “objective correlative,” as T. S. Eliot would have said—of his own antipodean consciousness.27 Australia, for Twain, thus offered a way of embodying his burlesque style in geographical form. Following the Equator also draws an explicit parallel between systems of slavery in Queensland and the American South, with Twain commenting on the way “recruits” for manual labor on the Queensland plantations were taken from Pacific islands and how “vessels fitted up like old-time slavers came here and carried off the natives to serve as laborers in the great Australian province.”28 As with Adams, this British colonial context in Twain induces a sense of philosophical pessimism, suggesting that such power politics of domination and exploitation are doomed to be perpetually self-replicating, rather than being susceptible, as in the preferred American model, to a state of radical amelioration. Twain’s comedy, particularly in his later works, is linked to an apprehension of fatalism, and in this sense the Australian context introduces a darker dimension that more conventional tributes to Twain as a homegrown apologist for “our geography, our spaces, rivers, mountains,” as playwright Arthur Miller put it, have tended to overlook.29 Twain, like Adams, thus reconfigures Australia to alienate domestic perspectives and to frame U.S. national narratives within an alternative global matrix, and the style of twinning that is endemic to his mature comic work finds a suitable stage in Australia, where the projection of a world upside down takes on for American writers philosophical as well as humorous dimensions.

20th-Century Mobility

Over the course of the 20th century, there were many more examples of writers moving physically between the United States and Australia on either a temporary or a permanent basis. The poet Lola Ridge, who was born in Ireland but brought up in New Zealand and educated in Sydney, subsequently moved to Greenwich Village and became heavily involved during the 1920s with avant-garde poetic circles in New York, where she worked for a while as American editor of the little magazine Broom. Though Ridge was committed to radical socialist politics, her own poetry combined an awareness of new urban machinery with a distinctively planetary consciousness, as in her poem “The Dream,” which recasts sunrise in Sydney as an “up-turned” phenomenon, with memories of childhood turning the poet’s mind upside down just as the earth itself rotates around the sun.30 A few years later, Karl Shapiro, who served with American forces in the Pacific during World War II, spent considerable time in Australia; indeed, in 1942 he actually published his first collection of poems, The Place of Love, with a small press in the Australian state of Victoria. As Shapiro himself observed in his preface to The Place of Love, this work “was written from the inside out,” with the author’s meditation here on the idea of a divided self, anticipating the themes of contradiction and doubling that permeate his mature writing, even though this book suffered the ignominious fate of being banned by several Australian bookstores because of what they regarded as its erotic and blasphemous content.31 In 1972, Allen Ginsberg visited Australia to attend the Adelaide Arts Festival, and while there he mentioned during an interview his admiration for the “ancient form of poetics” that was “Australian aborigine practice,” something he saw as analogous to “the body of rhythms and chant patterns” integral to his own work.32

Another American poet, Louis Simpson, best known for his poems commemorating dark memories of World War II, came to Australia in 1979 as a writer-in-residence at the University of New England. In the same year, Simpson also published a short book of poems, Armidale, based upon his Australian experiences.33 Some of his later material was also clearly shaped by his time in Australia, with the most striking example of this being “A Clearing,” published as the final summative work in Simpson’s “new collected poems,” The Owner of the House (2003). “A Clearing” deploys the pastoral landscape of the Southern Hemisphere to reorient his sense of spatiotemporal and cosmic dimensions:

  • I stood in the middle of the clearing
  • looking at the sky. It was glittering
  • with unknown constellations.
  • Everything I had ever known
  • seemed to have disappeared.
  • And who was I, standing there
  • in the middle of Australia
  • at night? I had ceased to exist.
  • There was only whatever it was
  • that was looking at the sky
  • and listening to the wind.
  • After a while I broke away
  • and went back to the lights and the party.
  • A month later I left Australia.
  • But ever since, to this day,
  • there has been a place in my mind,
  • a clearing in the shadows,
  • and above it, stars and constellations
  • so bright and thick they seem to rustle.
  • And beyond them … infinite space,
  • Eternity, you name it.
  • There’s nothing that stands between me
  • and it, whatever it is.34

This is, in its purest form, the principle of disorientation that Australia often brings to American literature: a sense of spatiotemporal dimensions being realigned within a prospect of “infinite space,” and of the familiar markers of the Northern Hemisphere being turned on their head.

This internalization of Australia inducing both psychological transformation and the sense of a split self also works through the poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa, who was born in Louisiana but spent a significant amount of time in Sydney during his marriage between 1985 and 1995 to the Australian writer Mandy Sayer. In “Mumble Peg,” Komunyakaa evokes “brain divided hemispheres,” where the constitution of the psyche mirrors that of the cosmos, while in “Under the Harbour Bridge” he extends this sense of division to trace analogies between the two former British colonies, America and Australia:

  • America rhymes with Australia
  • as I watch the Southern Cross’s
  • sequins fall. Fruit bats
  • & rifle birds brush
  • the sky vermilion & banksias
  • flare slow torches helping me to see
  • my blues on your canvas.35

The “blues” here emerge from a sense of pain that derives in part from his empathy as an African American with disenfranchised Indigenous communities. In “Bennelong’s Blues,” the poet similarly entertains the notion that he and the Indigenous Australian who acted as a mediator in the eighteenth century between Governor Phillip and the Eora tribes have “known each other for years,” so that “Each memory / returns like heartbreak’s boomerang.”36 Komunyakaa thus reconstructs Australian history as a site of trauma, with the recursive nature of this image speaking to ways in which pain doubles back on itself at both a psychic and a political level.

The Transnational Dynamic

A similar kind of transnational dynamic was also reflected in the significant number of novelists born in Australia who went on to spend the most productive years of their writing careers in the United States: Christina Stead, Shirley Hazzard, and Peter Carey, among others. Proselytizers for Australian literature as a nationalist phenomenon have sometimes regarded this as a betrayal of the authors’ native country, with Miles Franklin—whose critical work Laughter, Not for a Cage (1956) made the case for an Australian exceptionalism in relation to its literary tradition—lamenting how Stead’s exile made her “lost to Australian novels.”37 In fact, though, many of Stead’s works thrive artistically through a sense of displacement, with The Man Who Loved Children (1940) gaining particular resonance from the way it superimposes the author’s own Sydney childhood upon Louise Pollit’s fictional Baltimore, thereby engendering a dialectical style whose power involves the way it comes at recognizable worlds from unfamiliar angles.

This style of radical displacement and transnational mutability becomes theorized explicitly in the work of J. M. Coetzee, as befits a writer who was born in South Africa and educated in England and the United States before being denied a green card, returning to Cape Town, and then emigrating from Africa to Australia in 2002. Alienation, in every sense of that word, is crucial to Coetzee’s fiction, and his work treats in complex ways the ambivalent relationships between mind and body, abstract consciousness and spatial location. Coetzee published in 2013 a selection of his correspondence with the New York novelist Paul Auster, in which discussions about culture and politics emerge explicitly in dialogue both between authors and across national borders. Auster here writes to Coetzee: “You have lived here long enough and often enough to understand American life as well as I do, but at the same time you stand apart from this place (and why shouldn’t you?) in ways that are not possible for me.” In this sense, Coetzee’s transnational perspective on both Australia and America allows him the imaginative freedom that comes with a double helix of simultaneous engagement and detachment.38

This aesthetic of contradiction manifests itself clearly in the fiction of Peter Carey, who was born in 1943 in Australia but who has lived since 1990 in New York. In a 2004 interview with Andreas Gaile, Carey admitted that William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, “with its conflicting points of view, had a huge effect” on him, and Carey associated this style with what he called a “mischievous streak” and “contrarian tendency” in his own work, which tends to delight in assuming “contradictory positions.”39 Many of Carey’s narratives oscillate intertextually between alternative cultural and geographical positions, for example with Jack Maggs (1997) rewriting Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, retelling the classic Victorian novel as what Carey called “an Aussie story” through its revisionist focus on a “person who has been brutalized by the British ruling class.”40 Likewise, Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America (2009) comprises a magisterial rewriting of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America through the parallax lenses of European revolution and antipodean unrest. As with so many of Carey’s other works of fiction, this novel creates its own parallel universe, using quotations from Tocqueville for its epigraphs and citing Hugh Brogan’s biography of Tocqueville in its acknowledgments, but at the same time creating a world that operates alongside rather than inside historical prototypes.41 By contrasting the radical affinities of the Englishman Parrot—who comes from a radical family of Devon printers, where he was brought up to read Rousseau and Tom Paine—to the French aristocratic family loyalties of Olivier, Carey complicates the conventional understanding of Tocqueville, in the Cold War American academy, as someone who was both a spokesman and advocate for the American democratic experiment.

In a 2010 interview about his novel, Carey, who spent several years studying Tocqueville’s work, said the suggestion that he made the “very posh” Frenchman more of a “snob” than he actually was is “bullshit”; instead, Carey took issue with the traditional college curriculum in America whereby students tend to read only the “good” bits of Tocqueville—the passages generally favorable to the United States—while in fact the tenor of the whole book, according to Carey, is “much more mixed.”42 Parrot and Olivier in America thus represents, as the author acknowledged, a specific effort to write about the country where he has lived for twenty years, though his work interrogates U.S. cultural norms through a defamiliarizing transnational prism. Hence the antipodean impulse operates for Carey above all as a formal principle—“Sir, the world is topsy-turvy, I do admit,” says Parrot—where the transposition of history into art becomes analogous to the theme of a world upside down, as signaled here by the emergence of a newly democratic America within which the class hierarchies of the ancien régime have been dissipated and where Parrot will no longer be locked into the role of Olivier’s servant.43 While Australian critical patriots sometimes take umbrage at Carey’s modes of principled deracination, it is in fact the style of his transnational metafiction, reimagining English and American literature through an antipodean imaginary, that constitutes the author’s most compelling achievement.

Alternative Genealogies

To trace patterns of influence in this way is to adduce an alternative genealogy for both American and Australian literature. To suggest ways in which Australian literature functions as American literature’s shadow self, the kind of tradition American literature might have become if the War of Independence had never happened, serves to highlight the elements of colonial interaction that were officially canceled when the British forces surrendered and the Loyalist faction disappeared in 1782. The 1780s was the decade when American literature as an independent entity was invented and when the myths of its national culture as endorsing values of individual liberty were legally codified.44 Support for republican independence was, however, never a unanimous position in the new United States: it is easy to forget that, according to the second U.S. president John Adams, fully one-third of the American population opposed political independence in 1776.45 Hence when Washington Irving published in 1809 The History of New York, which has been described as “the first American book to question directly the civic wisdom of the Founding Fathers,” he was offering a counter-history of the national condition that resonated widely, particularly among Americans living in rural areas who saw events in Philadelphia as remote from their own interests.46 Many of Irving’s later works treat the theme of topsy-turvydom, and in his Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828), he explicitly endorses the “doctrine of antipodes,” showing how the rotation of the terrestrial sphere trumps both the theological objections of Saint Augustine and the worldly Eurocentrism of the fifteenth-century papacy, which could not encompass the idea of global passage. Irving here makes merry with the papal bull issued in May 1493 decreeing that all possessions west of a line one hundred leagues to the west of the Azores were to belong to Spain and all land to the east to Portugal: “It seems never to have occurred to the pontiff,” remarks Irving wryly, “that by pushing their opposite careers of discovery, they might some day or other come again in collision, and renew the question of territorial right at the antipodes.”47 The burlesque temper of this image implies how the antipodean theme is not merely a geographical phenomenon in American literature, but also a formal influence, one that exposes narratives to the expansive possibilities of self-contradiction.

In the case of Australian literature, to track its American affiliations is to suggest ways in which transnational influences have always been a formative influence on its constitution. The notion of an autochthonous discourse sustained by national mythologies—the bush, mateship, egalitarianism—was always a fabrication, one that was shored up in the 20th century for institutional purposes, largely to support academic interests and the local publishing industry. This antiquated nationalist model is now largely discredited, of course, but there has been a continuing reluctance to trace ways in which Australian literature has intersected with other forms of writing across a global spectrum, and this has served to truncate the subject’s sphere of influence radically by unduly circumscribing its terrain in unconscionably narrow ways. Notoriously, Australian literature cannot sustain a definition predicated upon national identity (“British subject” was the sole civic status noted in the 1901 Australian Constitution, and Australians relinquished this category only in 1984, with the legal concept of Australian citizenship not being created until 1949), nor upon site of authorial residence (many celebrated works by writers born in Australia have been written in Europe or America). Moreover, the transnational conditions of the 21st century, where multiple allegiances across the domains of nation and religion have become an everyday fact of life, have undermined still further any notion of the civic realm as a discrete space embodying immanent value, or, by extension, of nationhood as in itself a source of stable meaning. Indeed, the attempt to correlate national identity with an idea of authentic belonging now seems a metaphysical conceit as outdated as was the appeal to racial identity throughout the 19th century. This is not to say that material conditions of environmental factors or local politics should simply be ignored, of course, but they need to be calibrated against a more nuanced understanding of how transnational influences always intersect in complicated ways with the representation of national interests. To say that Australia and America have mutually exerted influence on each other’s literature and culture is not, of course, to suggest they comprise a homogeneous entity but, rather, that they have always mirrored and refracted each other’s preoccupations across a geographical divide.48

Review of the Literature

The theme of transpacific connections between the United States and Australia has received more attention from historians than literary critics. Notable works since the late 1990s include Bruce Cumings, Dominion from Sea to Sea: Pacific Ascendancy and American Power, and Ian Tyrrell, True Gardens of the Gods: Californian-Australian Environmental Reform, 1860–1930. Perspectives from political science are developed in the work of New Zealand–born J. G. A. Pocock, particularly in The Discovery of Islands: Essays in British History, although a more contemporary and radical perspective can be found in Christopher L. Connery, “Pacific Rim Discourse: The U.S. Global Imaginary in the Late Cold War Years.” In the world of art history, Bernard Smith’s European Vision and the South Pacific, 1768–1850: A Study in the History of Art and Ideas remains both exemplary and foundational, although also useful is Erika Esau’s Images of the Pacific Rim: Australia and California, 1850–1935. Peter Fuller’s The Australian Scapegoat: Towards an Antipodean Aesthetic offers a provocative account of the development of antipodean art.49

Academic perspectives on transpacific literature deriving from worlds of literary criticism and cultural studies in the 21st century include Rob Wilson, Reimagining the American Pacific: From South Pacific to Bamboo Ridge and Beyond; Paul Lyons, American Pacifism: Oceania in the U.S. Imagination; and Yunte Huang, Transpacific Imaginations: History, Literature, Counterpoetics. Wilson, Lyons, and Huang address the Pacific more generally, but a more specific focus on Australasia can be found in Geoffrey Sanborn, Whipscars and Tattoos: The Last of the Mohicans, Moby-Dick, and the Maori; Birgit Brander Rasmussen, Queequeg’s Coffin: Indigenous Literacies and Early American Literature; and Paul Giles, Antipodean America: Australasia and the Constitution of U.S. Literature. Questions of slavery in the Pacific islands are expertly addressed in Gerald Horne, The White Pacific: U.S. Imperialism and Black Slavery after the Civil War.50

Theoretical discussions around the emerging subject of world literature are also relevant to the theme of Australian/American literary connections. Prominent among these critical works are David Damrosch, What Is World Literature?; Wai Chee Dimock, Through Other Continents: American Literature across Deep Time; Laura Doyle and Laura Winkiel, eds., Geomodernisms: Race, Modernism, Modernity; Lisa Lowe, The Intimacy of Four Continents; Pheng Cheah, What Is a World? On Postcolonial Literature as World Literature. Particularly useful for its transnational account of early American literature is Hsuan L. Hsu, Geography and the Production of Space in Nineteenth-Century American Literature.51

Traditional treatments of Australian/American literary connections tended to lay emphasis on the American influence on Australian literature. We see this in Joan Kirkby, ed., The American Model: Influence and Independence in Australian Poetry, and in Verna Coleman, Miles Franklin in America: Her Unknown Brilliant Career. Western representations of indigenous culture are treated insightfully in Patrick Brantlinger, Dark Vanishings: Discourse on the Extinction of Primitive Races, 1800–1930, and by Elizabeth Hutchinson in The Indian Craze: Primitivism, Modernism, and Transculturation in American Art, 1890–1915. Historical aspects of miscegenation are discussed in Katherine Ellinghaus, Taking Assimilation to Heart: Marriage of White Women and Indigenous Men in the United States and Australia, 1887–1937. There are also many valuable books on transpacific dimensions of particular writers, for example, Graham Huggan’s Peter Carey and Brigitta Olubas’s Shirley Hazzard: Literary Expatriate and Cosmopolitan Humanist.52

Further Reading

Aubin, David, Charlotte Bigg, and H. Otto Sibum, eds. The Heavens on Earth: Observatories and Astronomy in Nineteenth-Century Science and Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Bartlett, Norman. 1776–1976: Australia and America through 200 Years. Sydney: Fine Arts, 1976.Find this resource:

Bell, Philip, and Roger Bell, eds. Americanization and Australia. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Cheah, Pheng. What Is a World? On Postcolonial Literature as World Literature. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Dimock, Wai Chee. Through Other Continents: American Literature across Deep Time. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Dixon, Robert, and Nicholas Birns, eds. Reading across the Pacific: Australia-United States Intellectual Histories. Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Eperjesi, John R.The Imperialist Imaginary: Visions of Asia and the Pacific in American Culture. Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Fischer, David Hackett. Fairness and Freedom: A History of Two Open Societies, New Zealand and the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Gascoigne, John. Encountering the Pacific in the Age of Enlightenment. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Giles, Paul. Antipodean America: Australasia and the Constitution of U.S. Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Horne, Gerald. The White Pacific: U.S. Imperialism and Black Slavery in the South Seas after the Civil War. Honolulu: University of Hawai‛i Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Huang, Yunte. Transpacific Imaginations: History, Literature, Counterpoetics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Kirkby, Joan, ed. The American Model: Influence and Independence in Australian Poetry. Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1982.Find this resource:

Lyons, Paul. American Pacifism: Oceania in the U.S. Imagination. New York: Routledge, 2005.Find this resource:

Sanborn, Geoffrey. Whipscars and Tattoos: The Last of the Mohicans, Moby-Dick, and the Maori. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Smith, Bernard. European Vision and the South Pacific, 1768–1850: A Study in the History of Art and Ideas. Oxford: Clarendon, 1960.Find this resource:

Wark, McKenzie. “Antipodality.” Angelaki 2.3 (1997): 17–27.Find this resource:

Williams, Glyndwr, and Alan Frost, eds. Terra Australis to Australia. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1988.Find this resource:

Wilson, Rob. Reimagining the American Pacific: From South Pacific to Bamboo Ridge and Beyond. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Yao, Steven G. “The Rising Tide of the Transpacific.” Literature Compass 8.3 (2011): 130–141.Find this resource:


(1.) Shelley Fisher Fishkin, “The Transnational Turn in American Studies—Presidential Address to the American Studies Association, November 12, 2004,” American Quarterly 57.1 (2005): 17–57.

(2.) Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 146–186.

(3.) Robert Weisbuch, Atlantic Double-Cross: American Literature and British Influence in the Age of Emerson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986); and Joan Kirkby, The American Model: Influence and Independence in Australian Poetry (Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1982).

(4.) Julian Murphet, “Postcolonial Writing in Australia and New Zealand,” in The Cambridge History of Postcolonial Literature, ed. Ato Quayson (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 1:448.

(5.) Benjamin Franklin, Writings (New York: Library of America, 1987), 1144.

(6.) Alan Atkinson, The Europeans in Australia, vol. 1 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 48.

(7.) Barry M. Gough, Distant Dominion: Britain and the Northwest Coast of North America, 1579–1809 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1980), 80.

(8.) Robert R. Hunt, “Of Rivers and Oceans: Comparing the Lewis and Clark Expedition with That of Lapérouse,” in Explorations into the World of Lewis and Clark, ed. Robert A. Saindon (Great Falls, MT: Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, 2003), 158.

(9.) J. Hector St. Jean de Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer and Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America, ed. Albert Stone (New York: Viking Penguin, 1981), 70; and St. Jean de Crèvecoeur, Journey into Northern Pennsylvania and the State of New York, trans. Clarissa Spencer Bostelmann (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1964), 21.

(10.) Thomas Jefferson, The Works of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Paul Leicester Ford (New York: Putnam’s, 1904–1905), 8.287.

(11.) Charles Brockden Brown, Wieland, or The Transformation: An American Tale: Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist, ed. Sydney J. Krause (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1977), 277, 279.

(12.) Andy Doolen, Fugitive Empire: Locating Early American Imperialism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 63–65.

(13.) Herman Melville, Correspondence, ed. Lynn Horth (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1993), 58.

(14.) See, for example, Lawrence Buell, Writing for an Endangered World: Literature, Culture, and Environment in the U.S. and Beyond (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 196–223.

(15.) Geoffrey Sanborn, Whipscars and Tattoos: The Last of the Mohicans, Moby-Dick, and the Maori (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 106; Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, or The Whale, eds. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1987), 320.

(16.) Emily Dickinson, The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, ed. R. W. Franklin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 284.

(17.) Dickinson, Poems, 462.

(18.) Dickinson, Poems, 161–162.

(19.) Henry Adams, The Letters of Henry Adams, eds. J. C. Levenson, Ernest Samuels, Charles Vandersee, and Viola Hopkins Winner (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982–1988), 3:19–20.

(20.) Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, ed. Ernest Samuels (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973), 400.

(21.) Adams, Education, 355, 386.

(22.) Adams, Education, 229.

(23.) Adams, Education, 316.

(24.) Gary Scharnhorst, ed., Mark Twain: The Complete Interviews (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006), 245.

(25.) Mark Twain, “Following the Equator: A Journey around the World,” in Following the Equator and Anti-Imperialist Essays, 1891–1910, ed. Mark Twain (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 237.

(26.) Miriam Jones Shillingsburg, At Home Abroad: Mark Twain in Australasia (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1988), 187.

(27.) T. S. Eliot, “Hamlet” (1919), in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, ed. Frank Kermode (New York: Harvest, 1975), 48.

(28.) Twain, Following the Equator, 81.

(29.) Arthur Miller, introduction to Chapters from My Autobiography, ed. Mark Twain (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), xxxv.

(30.) Lola Ridge, Sun-Up and Other Poems (1920; repr. Marston Gate, U.K.: Bibliobazaar, 2006), 62.

(31.) Karl Shapiro, The Place of Love (Malvern, Australia: Bradley, 1942), 5.

(32.) “Allen in Australia 1972—Juene Pritchard Interview,” The Allen Ginsberg Project (blog), July 18, 2011.

(33.) Louis Simpson, Armidale (Brockport, NY: BOA Editions, 1979).

(34.) Louis Simpson, The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems, 1940–2001 (Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2003), 396–399.

(35.) Yusef Komunyakaa, Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001), 365, 239.

(36.) Komunyakaa, Pleasure Dome, 383–384.

(37.) Miles Franklin, Laughter, Not for a Cage: Notes on Australian Writing, with Biographical Emphasis on the Struggles, Function, and Achievements of the Novel in Three Half-Centuries (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1956), 180.

(38.) Paul Auster and J. M. Coetzee, Here and Now: Letters 2008–2011 (New York: Viking Penguin, 2013), 205.

(39.) Andreas Gaile, “The ‘Contrarian Streak’: An Interview with Peter Carey,” in Fabulating Beauty: Perspectives on the Fiction of Peter Carey, ed. Andreas Gaile (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005), 7–8, 13.

(40.) Ramona Koval, “The Unexamined Life,” Meanjin 56.3/4 (1997): 669.

(41.) Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in America (Camberwell, Australia: Hamish Hamilton, 2009), 455.

(42.) John Freeman, interview with Peter Carey, Sydney Writers’ Festival, May 22, 2010.

(43.) Carey, Parrot and Olivier, 406.

(44.) William C. Spengemann, A Mirror for Americanists: Reflections on the Idea of American Literature (Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 1989), 26.

(45.) John Patrick Diggins, introduction to The Portable John Adams (New York: Viking Penguin, 2004), xvii.

(46.) Robert A. Ferguson, Law and Letters in American Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), 158.

(47.) Washington Irving, The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, ed. John Harman McElroy, Complete Works of Washington Irving 9 (Boston: Twayne, 1981), 50, 169.

(48.) For a more extensive treatment of this theme, see Paul Giles, Antipodean America: Australasia and the Constitution of U.S. Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

(49.) Bruce Cumings, Dominion from Sea to Sea: Pacific Ascendancy and American Power (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009); Ian Tyrrell, True Gardens of the Gods: Californian-Australian Environmental Reform, 1860–1930 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); J. G. A. Pocock, The Discovery of Islands: Essays in British History (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Christopher L. Connery, “Pacific Rim Discourse: The U.S. Global Imaginary in the Late Cold War Years,” boundary 2 21.1 (1994): 30–56; Bernard Smith, European Vision and the South Pacific, 1768–1850: A Study in the History of Art and Ideas (Oxford: Clarendon, 1960); Erika Esau, Images of the Pacific Rim: Australia and California, 1850–1935 (Sydney: Power Institute Foundation for Art and Visual Culture, 2010); and Peter Fuller, The Australian Scapegoat: Towards an Antipodean Aesthetic (Nedlands: University of Western Australia Press, 1986).

(50.) Rob Wilson, Reimagining the American Pacific: From South Pacific to Bamboo Ridge and Beyond (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000); Paul Lyons, American Pacifism: Oceania in the U.S. Imagination (New York: Routledge, 2005); Yunte Huang, Transpacific Imaginations: History, Literature, Counterpoetics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008); Sanborn, Whipscars and Tattoos; Birgit Brander Rasmussen, Queequeg’s Coffin: Indigenous Literacies and Early American Literature (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012); and Giles, Antipodean America; Gerald Horne, The White Pacific: U.S. Imperialism and Black Slavery after the Civil War (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2007).

(51.) David Damrosch, What Is World Literature? (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003); Wai Chee Dimock, Through Other Continents: American Literature across Deep Time (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006); Laura Doyle and Laura Winkiel, eds., Geomodernisms: Race, Modernism, Modernity (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005); Lisa Lowe, The Intimacy of Four Continents (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015); Pheng Cheah, What Is a World? On Postcolonial Literature as World Literature (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016); and Hsuan L. Hsu, Geography and the Production of Space in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

(52.) Kirkby, American Model; Verna Coleman, Miles Franklin in America: Her Unknown Brilliant Career (London: Angus & Robertson, 1981); Patrick Brantlinger, Dark Vanishings: Discourse on the Extinction of Primitive Races, 1800–1930 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003); Elizabeth Hutchinson, The Indian Craze: Primitivism, Modernism, and Transculturation in American Art, 1890–1915 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009); Katherine Ellinghaus, Taking Assimilation to Heart: Marriage of White Women and Indigenous Men in the United States and Australia, 1887–1937 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006); Graham Huggan, Peter Carey (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1996); and Brigitta Olubas, Shirley Hazzard: Literary Expatriate and Cosmopolitan Humanist (Amherst, NY: Cambria, 2012).