Literature and the Interior of Life

By Tony Hughes-d’Aeth, The University of Western Australia

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Credit: Tony Hughes-d’Aeth

That emotions could be the subject of history is the bold premise of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (CHE). My own work has been to examine the transformation of the region of the world where I live – the southwest of corner of the continent of Australia – from the point of view of the literature that has been written about it. Specifically, I have written a ‘literary history’ of the wheatbelt of Western Australia, an area of land roughly the size of Britain that was cleared of its native vegetation (and the wildlife that lived with it) for the production of grain during the course of the twentieth century. Where my work intersects with the interests of CHE is that my study was not directed, finally, to how and why this socio-ecological event happened. Instead, the historical question I asked was: What did it feel like? What did it feel like to eradicate a world – one of the most ancient and highly evolved ecosystems on the planet – and institute another, the world of grains and sown pastures built for agricultural production?

To answer this question, I turned to literature – the creative writing of people who lived in the wheatbelt for at least some period of their life and then wrote about it. These included nationally significant writers like Albert Facey, Dorothy Hewett, Jack Davis and John Kinsella. I looked at poetry, plays, novels, short stories and memoirs from the 1920s to the early 2000s. My book, Like Nothing on this Earth: A Literary History of the Wheatbelt (UWAP, 2017), had 11 chapters and each chapter was devoted to a different author. The book moved chronologically through the creation of the wheatbelt at the turn of the last century, to the turn of the millennium. In this 100 years – and really, in just two 30-year phases (1900–1930; 1945–1975) – the wheatbelt was brought dramatically into existence. And equally dramatically, a vast mosaic of wodjil scrub, open woodland and sandplain that supported a biodiversity the equal of a rainforest canopy passed out of existence.

So why literature? What does literature tell us that we cannot find in other sources? There is, after all, no shortage of wheatbelt histories. Indeed, almost every shire in the wheatbelt has its own history, and these began to appear with methodical regularity from the 1950s onwards. The wheatbelt has been studied by geographers, plant and animal biologists, restoration ecologists, agricultural scientists and social historians. But something is still missed, and that is the question I posed at the outset: What did it feel like? This is where literature comes in.

When a writer undertakes to write imaginatively they redraw the everyday contract that binds language to experience in particular ways. This is because normally we use language to describe our activities in the world, but imaginative writing explicitly creates a virtual (i.e., fictive) world outside the consensual world of lived reality.

But why does this matter? Isn’t literature just a kind of escapism or a form of entertainment?

Yes … and no.

men against the earth

The wheatbelt, it needs to be remembered, was a major social project. Close agricultural settlement of south-western Australia was the founding dream of colonisation. It was the raison d’etre of the Swan River colony when it was created in 1829: a network of yeoman farms and idyllic country villages that would house the surplus population of industrialising Britain and feed the world (or at least the Empire) with the surplus agricultural production that would flow from the mixture of a conducive climate and the enterprise native to the British migrant.

When the Western Australian gold-rushes of the 1890s finally generated the critical mass of population and capital to surmount the obstacles that had thwarted this agricultural dream, the newly independent colonial government wasted no time. Survey teams fanned out and the land was classed and parcelled up into 1000-acre farms that were made available on very generous terms. Dams and wells were built, railways constructed, dozens of new one-teacher schools popped across the landscape, and an Agricultural Bank created to fund these new entrepreneurs. And, intimately bound up with the wheatbelt, was the rounding up and incarceration of Aboriginal people whose lands were being radically re-purposed. The wheatbelt hosted an inland gulag system of missions and ‘Native Settlements’ that robbed Indigenous people of their culture, land, language and basic civil liberties – even their own children.

On the side of the settlers, thousands took up what was seen as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become a land-owner. Between the decline of the goldfields in the early 1900s and the commodity collapse of the Great Depression in 1929, the wheatbelt dominated the hopes and aspirations of the Western Australian imagination. Those involved in creating the farms of the wheatbelt did not see themselves as just farmers but as world creators. They felt they were on the front line of a bold venture to transform the very substance of society. They were not only creating a farm they were securing a future – a future for their children and a future for the nation.

These themes are omnipresent in the early literature of the wheatbelt – the early portions of Albert Facey’s A Fortunate Life describe the excitement that came with his uncle selecting his land near Wickepin in the early 1900s. Lesser-known writers of the time – Cyril E. Goode, James Pollard, J. K. Ewers – all capture the spirit of adventure that animated the creation of the wheatbelt in the early decades of the twentieth century. But this is not where literature is most valuable. One could just as easily open any copy of newspapers like The West Australian or The Western Mail from this period and find it peppered with stories about the bold pioneering ventures of the ever-expanding wheatbelt. Where literature has a distinct value as a document of record is in the way that it opens up a space for doubt and the cross-currents that give texture to actual lived life.

To put this another way, literature creates an interior space– whether it is in the direct address and aural qualities of lyric poetry written by Jack Davis or John Kinsella, or the dialogic interchange that marks theatrical works like Hewett’s Man from Mukinupin and the novels of Ewers, Peter Cowan, Elizabeth Jolley and Tom Flood. This interior space is connected to, but not finally answerable to, the exterior space of public life – perhaps most especially to public fantasy life, such as that which I term in my book the ‘ideology of wheat’. The ideology of wheat designates all the ways in which farming was more than just farming; all the ways that the idea of farming sustained its participants, just as certainly as the products of farming sustained the material needs of an international grain and fibre market.

To understand the wheatbelt as an interior space we need literature, and if we don’t understand the interiority of the wheatbelt we, in fact, don’t understand it at all. This was the basic premise of Like Nothing on this Earth. Since I published this book in March 2017 I have given numerous talks in wheatbelt towns (Wagin, Toodyay, Northam, York, New Norcia) and on country and national radio stations. In delivering these talks and broadcasts, to audiences that are made up of farmers and others who have spent years living in the wheatbelt, I have been struck by two things. Firstly, that ordinary people have read my book, which is over 600 pages long and published by a university press; and secondly, that in the questions that follow my talks invariably someone asks a question about the overall value of the wheatbelt as a social and economic enterprise. In short, they will ask me, was it worth it? Was all the pain and suffering, loneliness and privation of the farmers and their families worth it? Was the decimation of Aboriginal society and the extinctions caused by habitat loss worth it? Was the mass loss of land and waterways to secondary salinity worth it? In the end, and most poignantly, was my life worth it?

I tell each of these questioners that I cannot answer these questions. What, finally, is this ‘it’ whose worth I am being asked to judge and weigh against such deep losses? These fundamental questions of value are questions we must all strive to answer as a society. The fact that we might exhibit doubt in this regard is a very good thing. The ideology of wheat sought to remove doubt around this existential question and it was literature that captured all the ways in which this doubt could not be eradicated without a significant cost – just as the native biota that was cleared for the wheatbelt was not eradicated without a significant cost. Literature restores gravity to the false weightlessness of ideological solutions. It is in this sense that we need a history of emotions, not to provide a description of how the past felt, but to provide the present with an emotional anchorage from which to make adequate decisions about our future.

Tony Hughes d’Aeth is the Discipline Chair of English and Cultural Studies at The University of Western Australia. His research focuses on Australian literature and film, psychoanalytic criticism and comparative media studies. In addition to Like Nothing on this Earth: A Literary History of the Wheatbelt (Crawley: UWA Publishing, 2017), he is the author of Paper Nation: The Story of the Picturesque Atlas of Australasia, 1886–1888 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2001). Paper Nation was awarded the Ernest Scott Prize for the best work of Australian or New Zealand History and the Hancock Prize for best first work of Australian History.

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