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date: 30 April 2017

The Environment in Australian Literature

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Please check back later for the full article.

The European colonization of the Australian continent in the late 18th century initiated dramatic environmental change, and the creative writing of Australia since that time provides a record of that change. Even inasmuch as the task of colonization involved the forcible displacement of Australia’s indigenous people from their land and livelihood, the battle quickly became imagined as one against the natural world. The formal study of literature and environment, though, is a relatively recent development and comes about with the dawning of a global environmental consciousness in the early 1960s, and even more particularly with the evolution of “eco-criticism” in the 1980s. Studying the relationship between Australian literature and the environment requires a careful negotiation between the environmental sensibilities of our current time and those of earlier eras. Nature, for instance, modulates radically, from the Enlightenment ordering of First Fleet observers like Watkin Tench and the bemused irony of Barron Field, to the Romanticism of mid-19th-century poets like Charles Harpur and Adam Lindsay Gordon, to the baroque Gothicism of Marcus Clarke in the 1870s.

The centrality of the natural environment to the Australian literary imaginary became entrenched in the 1880s with the advent of the “bush nationalism” of the Bulletin-school. In the coterie of writers connected to the Sydney Bulletin—Henry Lawson, “Banjo” Paterson, Barbara Baynton, Joseph Furphy, Miles Franklin—the natural world was encrypted in the “bush.” In Australia, this term is a shorthand for the interface of human and nature, and the cult of the bush contains within it significant (post)colonial ambivalence. The belated advent of literary modernism in the 20th century did not, as might be expected, cause the environmental topos to be replaced by urban settings. Instead, in the writing of Eleanor Dark, Patrick White, the Jindyworobaks, Judith Wright, and Dorothy Hewett, the natural world—now as a medium for the crisis of modernist subjectivity—continued to be pronounced. In the contemporary post-modernist (post-natural) era, nature might seem to have been divested of the last remnants of its metaphysical grandeur. Yet, whether in the anti-pastoral wheatbelt of John Kinsella, or the regionally inflected works of Thea Astley, Alex Miller, Richard Flanagan, Alexis Wright, Rohan Wilson, and Kim Scott, the natural world has remained a persistent feature of Australian writing. The work of Wright and Scott, moreover, indicates that the issue of environment in Australia is transected by the relationship between indigene and settler. The indigenous universe introduces an entirely different being-in-the-world, where the idea of nature as somehow beyond and outside of everyday life is inconceivable.