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26 August 2020updated 05 Aug 2021 9:12am

From the NS archive: The bush fire

5 September 1959: Pioneer life, battles with nature, and the new world of the 19th century.

By VS Pritchett

In this 1959 review, then-literary editor of the New Statesman, VS Pritchett, reviews two new books exploring the new world in the 19th century. The first is a translation of a collection of letters by the Polish journalist Henryk Sienkiewicz from his travels in the US from 1876 to 1878. He recalls the filth and chaos of America’s cities, the promise of its small towns and the beauty of its landscape. The second is an account constructed from family diaries by Judith Wright. Her grandfather, Albert Wright, tells tales of battles with nature in 19th-century Australia: drought, flood, dust and “the fierce hot wind from the south-western deserts”, and his reckoning with his conscience as he realises the horrors of driving out native communities.

***

In 1875 a group of educated Poles meeting in Warsaw talked themselves into a plan to establish a small Utopian colony on the Brook Faun model, in California. Oppressed by Tsarist Russia, forced into the Russian mould, their own culture stultified by alien censorship and direction, these Polish friends decided for liberty, democracy and the promised land. Tocqueville and Fenimore Cooper had converted them. One of them, a distinguished actress, later expressed her feelings in these words:

“Oh, but to cook under the sapphire: blue sky in the land of freedom. What joy! To bleach linen at the brook like the maidens of Homer’s Iliad. After the day of toil, to play the guitar and sing by moonlight, to recite poems or listen to the mocking bird. . . And, we should be so far away from everyday gossip and malice, nearer to God, and better.”

A few words with Nathaniel Hawthorne on the subject of the deadening effect of manual labour upon idealism, intellect and talent might have forewarned them. Farming is not emancipation; it is the enslavement by nature. Worse than the secret police are other people’s cows; worse than frontiers are fences. And then the US itself was a shock. Henryk Sienkiewicz, a brilliant young journalist who was later to write Quo Vadis?, recorded what he saw in a series of letters to a Warsaw paper.

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These have now been translated for the first time. For us, they have the interest of being written from outside the Anglo-Saxon quarrel. (For example, Sienkiewicz on the whole disliked American women for being ostentatious, spoiled, personally so forward and emotionally so mild as to be sometimes sinister: but he said they derived these defects from the English, and from Anglo-Saxon habit.) At first he was just as severe as Mrs Trollope and Dickens had been. Thirty years after Dickens’s visit New York was still a filthy city, with sewage in the streets and ownerless and brawling pigs rooting in the refuse. The men chewed tobacco and spat all day. They sat in the splendid hotels at lunchtime with their jackets off and their hats on, eating stale food; they put their feet on the tables, were rude to strangers, and at the end of the day’s chase for dollars, they were speechless and sat whittling bits of wood and grunting, while the ladies looked on in despair. Chicago was much better, he thought; and as he moved westward his spirits lightened, his feelings warmed; he discovered that if political corruption was general and violence common, in social relationships there was the democracy he had been taught to believe in. The class barriers of Europe were down and he warned his fellow Europeans against applying standards which were founded on their own class systems. The real, promising US was in the small towns and the remarkable women were the schoolmistresses. After two years he was a convert, though he returned to Poland. Perhaps Sienkiewicz only says very intelligently what other thoughtful successors have said. But there is one exceptional part to his book. This describes his long stay with a Californian squatter, in the almost uninhabited wilds. Whether the old feeling for nature still sustains Americans in the West, I do not know; Sienkiewicz caught it and one gathers from these chapters not only what amazed and enchanted the pioneers but what they had to contend with. In a few hours the interest of an American city, he found, was exhausted. Such descriptions of natural sights have almost died out of American literature and there is no continent now whose land is so little described.

Equipped as we are nowadays, we get a shock when we read of the primitive and naked struggle against nature in the new countries in the nineteenth century. It is a grinding, monotonous war, accumulating its casualties, impoverishing some lives, hardening others, operating with all the brutality of a fate. This is the subject of a scrupulous and sensitive Australian family history written by an Australian poetess. From family diaries she has constructed an account of the year-by-year lives of her forbears who were opening up New South Wales and Queensland from 1820 onwards. The book may not enlighten us about the growth of Australian society, but in the intimacy of its account of the daily struggle, it gradually becomes an absorbing document. We are made to see what is done to a man who by temperament and gift was unsuited to the solitude, the natural disasters, the sheer physical claims that were made on him. Born for the study, he had to live on the remote grazing lands, see drought and floods pile up his debts, watch his wife and children sicken with fevers and wilt under malnutrition, travel hundreds of miles every year-on horseback, deal with the rough, the tough, the mad in the bush, and spend a large part of bis life alone with sheep, horses and cattle.

The first settler in this family out from England in the 1820s was the traditional younger son. He had quarrelled with his father and absorbed the ideas of Godwin and Shelley. Australia was the promised land. But once there his ambition was to reproduce English country life. With convict labour he built a fine stone house. He lived like a squire, became almost a Tory squire. He did well; but as he grew older and richer he was shocked to see that his children were Australians. He returned to England, leaving them to fight the aborigines, rob them of their hunting grounds and speculate in the cattle trades and the new lands. The dreams of Godwin and Shelley had vanished in the successful struggle to maintain tradition and dignity in the face of the economic scramble. Another younger son, from Cornwall, came out and married into the squire’s family, was quickly swindled. It is this man’s son, Albert Wright, who is the centre of the longest and most vivid part of the book.

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The story of Albert Wright must have occurred in varying forms in all the new countries. It is the story of the making of a new man at the expense of his spiritual life, a process of hardening and martyrdom. At the point where he is racked no longer and has triumphed over his own character; he dies. It is a fable of the breaking or numbing of a civilised man. (I remember this was also the subject of a very good Australian novel, written in the Thirties, called Landtakers by Brian Penton.) Albert Wright was bookish, brilliant, sensitive, like so many clever men, unsure of himself. But when he was 14, the Gold Rush began; shepherds and cattlemen abruptly left their herds and the boy was taken from school and sent up for six years to work on the half-deserted runs in almost complete solitude. In the saddle all day, at night physically exhausted and utterly lonely and frightened in his hut, he gave up his books  or rather, the ants ate them  saw his youth mangled and stunted. One or two shepherds, half-crazed by a life of isolation, or one or two cattlemen with violent, guilt-born ideas about the aborigines they had robbed, were his only occasional acquaintances. He came back hardened, fine to look at, speechless. Marriage healed the wound to some extent but when he set up as a cattleman, buying arid driving “mobs” from one remote pasture to the next, spurred on by the idea of fortune or a sound, settled life, nature met him head-on. Drought and flood, drought and flood, grass fires, disease, cattle and horses dying, debts piling up, sick children, a wife worn out: the struggle with nature is epic, but he met the rankling grind, the sheer sourness of the epic existence. At 50, his marvellous body gave out. The muscles could stand no more. Awakening again, in his last weeks, his mind rediscovered its early doubts. The white man had stolen; he had crime and blood on his conscience. He had been fortune mad. If there had ever been an Australian dream, it had been betrayed. It is one of the savage jokes of his situation that after he had died, broken, his remarkable wife saved the family fortunes, by character and hard work, but also because the rise in land values had, almost frivolously, wiped out years of debt in a few months.

In his loneliness Albert Wright kept diaries and wrote letters and from these Judith Wright has carefully made a strong picture of the people and the country.

“The fierce hot wind from the south-western deserts had blown for weeks, and this morning was a lid pressed down on the country, of strangely brassy light; he could hear the dry protests of the thinned trees outside, from the little office where he sat. He had begun to notice, too, a strange grittiness in the air, like a fine metallic dust rasping between the teeth and eyelids; the light seemed curiously darkened and muffled.”

There was a cloud in the sky and he hoped it was the longed-for rain but this cloud was there, greenish and brownish, “hanging on the heights of the wind, filtering the sunlight into a diffused and menacing glare”. Not a rain cloud, but the first of the great dust storms which were to come from the far west “where the sharp hooves of millions of sheep had loosened the light soil, tearing up the thin veil of grass and roots that held it. It had been another sign, another wound delivered in the unceasing struggle between man and the land  the struggle whose marks Albert himself bore more deeply year by year.”

As a diarist Albert Wright spent more time putting down worry than recording easier times. After all, rain did fall without flooding, the grass was sometimes green, the lambing was good, there were landscapes of rapturous beauty. In time, the aboriginals became comprehensible; through the diaries, one gets the small details that make an empty scene distinct. The twanging of Jews’-harps or some other home-made instrument on the verandahs, when the drovers and shepherds were resting, annoyed Albert Wright. He felt himself under surveillance in the bush and, once or twice, imagined that some black warrior beckoned to him to “come over” from the fret of the white man’s life. Self-absorbed, he was a long time unaware of the new Australians growing up, pitiable but hopeful. When we turn to those passages that come from the records of his remarkable widow, there is more serenity. Albert Wright’s one positive achievement, perhaps, was to have informed and supported and equipped someone really stronger than himself. At any rate, she emerges as the clever, confident, bossy, charming and cunning widow who in the end reigns, like a queen.

It is odd and a great relief to read a book of pioneer life which scarcely mentions religion, and which does not push down our throats the conventional colonial optimism or the thick porridge of moral self-commendation. Judith Wright is a sceptical writer, or at any rate, one who is austerely aware that a price has to be paid for new worlds. She is also free of that family complacency which affects so many writers when they are describing their pioneer forbears. She has avoided the patriotic cliches, she has genuinely uncovered the daily life of a century and offers us no moral. A good style and a graceful, independent mind have given a dramatic interest to a subject which is usually overburdened with moral sobriety.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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