The Unknown Judith Wright

The Unknown Judith Wright
By Dr Georgina Arnott
Book event

Recording date: 
11 May 2017

Judith Wright (1915-2000) remains a giant figure within Australian art, culture and politics. Her 1946 collection of poetry, The Moving Image, revolutionised the genre in Australia. She helped establish the modern Australian environmental movement and was a key player in early campaigns for Aboriginal land rights.

Drawing on the Library’s extensive collection of Judith Wright’s papers, Professor Tom Griffiths and Dr Georgina Arnott reflect on her status as a historian, exploring what can be learnt from her life’s work.

Transcript

Speakers: Kathryn Favelle (K), Tom Griffiths (T), Georgina Arnott (G)

Location: National Library of Australia

Date: 11/05/2017

 

 

A:            Good evening and welcome to the National Library. I’m Katherine Favell, the Director of Community Outreach and I really appreciate that you're all here tonight to talk about art history, poetry, literature, life when you could be at home listening to the budget reply speech. I know how riveting that can be.

 

As we begin this evening I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land that the Library is very privileged to stand on. I thank their elders past and present for caring for this land that we have the privilege to call our home.

 

Tonight we’re going to be spending the evening celebrating the life and work of one of Australia’s best loved and most respected poets, Judith Wright. But tonight I think we’re going to look at her from a different - through a different lens. She remains a giant figure within Australian art, culture and politics and here at the Library we’re very, very privileged to be the custodians of her personal papers. Her papers are diverse, reflecting the breadth of her interests. As well as correspondence there’s research relating to conservation and Aboriginal concerns, poems and drafts of her books, newspaper cuttings and financial records. Her papers are complemented by the Library’s collection of her published works, by portraits and by oral history recordings.

 

The collection offers rich rewards for researchers and I'm sure we’re going to hear tonight about some of the excitement, the delights, the frustrations of working with Judith Wright’s personal papers. Here to discuss her beautiful new biography, and it is beautiful, it’s just one of those books that you want to pick up and hold, The Unknown Judith Wright, is Dr Georgina Arnott. Georgie works in the History Department at Monash University and she’s dedicated a doctorate and now her first book to the life of Judith Wright.

 

Joining Georgie in conversation is Professor Tom Griffiths and Tom, I know is no strange to any of you, he’s a Canberran, he’s one of ours and he’s also Director of the Centre for Environmental History at the ANU. Tom’s most recent book, The Art of Time Travel, includes a chapter on Judith Wright and congratulations, Tom, it’s been shortlisted for the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction in the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards which is a wonderful achievement.

 

Please join me in welcoming Georgie and Tom for a discussion about the beloved Judith Wright.

 

Applause

 

T:            Well good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you, Katherine, for that introduction. Yes so we’re here this evening to talk about Judith Wright and Judith Wright as a historian and particularly these two books of hers, The Generations of Men published in 1959 and a rewriting of that family history or aspect of it, A Cry for the Dead in 1981, and we’re going to be talking ‘specially about Judith’s early life, aren’t we, Georgie? Because that’s really the focus of your book so perhaps we could start by you explaining how you became interested in Judith Wright?

 

G:           Okay, thank you and good evening, everyone. I came to Judith Wright through her poetry, I loved a lot of her poetry and I was really I guess intrigued by the dilemma that she faced about whether poetry could make anything happen, whether it could change the world and she seemed to in the middle period of her life believe that it couldn’t and she put it aside and engaged as we know in all sorts of activities, environmental activities and so on and history writing. So the more I read about those parts of her life and the more I read of that material I thought I really agree with Jennifer Strauss who’d said in 1995 that Judith hadn’t been recognised as properly as a public intellectual and that she needed to be, that’s who she had been. She’d shaped debate on a number of key issues in – on a large number of key issues in Australian society.

 

So I decided that I would do a biography, an intellectual biography of her life and take her seriously as a public intellectual and then I started researching a bit about her background – I thought it would just be a little bit about her background you know family life and then I came to see how profoundly influential this background had been to her life and decided to do a bit of my own investigation into that history and then found I suppose a bit of a gap between her accounts and some of the material that I was coming up with about her family and I suppose it just illuminated to me the narrative that she had, the particular narrative she had about her family. And so I decided to focus on that, yeah.

 

T:            She was a very powerful storyteller about her own life and her own ancestry, wasn’t she? And so when I was reading your book I was thinking how it grows out of your admiration for her, very – that comes through very strongly – your admiration and respect for Judith. But you're also chafing against her control of the narrative, that she in a sense chose her first biographer, Veronica Brady, she of course wrote memoirs and matched family histories. There’s an interview with her here in the National Library and autobiography and so part of what comes through the book is your tension between the admiration and the feeling that but somehow one needs to get beyond that control, be a little bit subversive, look behind the public storytelling. And so, that drew you to her early life particularly so that’s been less – she kind of dismissed that as influential?

 

G:           I think absolutely she dismissed her teenage years and her - aspects of her childhood and her university years which I found so interesting and that’s what the book largely concentrates on because I think in the account of any writer’s life biographers tend to really focus on those years of becoming a writer and becoming –and discovering the world through a paradigm like academia. And she had not discussed that at all really or very – only very marginally in her autobiography and Veronica hadn’t discussed it much in her wonderful biography so that took me to those areas. And it absolutely was a tension because I do hold great respect for Judith and I didn’t want to be seeming as if I was being critical of her but I feel you know that at the end it’s a different story of her life and it is charting a development, how she changed over the course of her life, how her thinking changed on a number of issues. But how it was inevitably, as everyone’s is, sort of bound by her early experiences and her family experiences and to me that makes her I suppose a more admirable person because she’s more human.

 

And if I can just tell that little story about the irony of the admiring biography that Veronica Brady had written of Judith. Judith was pressured by her publishers to choose a biographer, in the end she agreed to Veronica writing her biography and said well at least she’ll stay on the other side – she’ll be on the other side of the country, she won’t be too much of a nuisance. And Veronica was so incredibly respectful of Judith’s account of her life and it’s one of the wonderful things in the archive, is seeing the correspondence between Judith and correspondence which all took place via a fax machine and often Judith would write in capital letters for some reason. I think she said at one point I couldn’t turn the caps off and so all these faxes coming through seeming very urgent and she – Veronica would consult her on the most – the smallest of issues, should I include this? Should I not include or how would you phrase this? And of course the big – one of the big issues was how to represent her relationship with Nugget Coombs. And Veronica took her lead from Judith on everything and when the book came out I sure – Judith and Veronica had a fantastic relationship and I think Judith probably appreciated the book on lots of levels but she was also a bit appalled that she’d come across as she said St Judith and then at that point she was hoping another biography would actually be written which would actually be – slightly modify that position after having not wanted a biography in the first place .

 

T:            Yeah. ‘Cause in many ways Judith was scarifyingly self-critical, wasn’t she? So St Judith was definitely not who she wanted to be seen as. Can I take you to the frontier in early New South Wales in the 1830s when her family – her ancestors, George and Margaret Wyndham, arrive in the Hunter Valley in the late 1820s, isn’t it? And what you unearth through your historical work is that they were much more directly involved with dispossession of Aboriginal people in Hunter Valley than Judith perhaps was ready to admit. And this is so interesting because we rightly identify Judith with the discovery really of the violence of the colonial frontier and that’s part of what she develops through the two books we’re talking about. In the later book Cry for the Dead, she returns to her family history and feels that in Generations of Men, she was too nostalgic and romantic and she missed a big story and that story is the story of the frontier. Therefore, even though she is someone who subjects her pastoral dynasty to this examination, this scrutiny, even so you find that perhaps she couldn’t look full in the face of what was going on in the 1830s.

 

G:           Yes and I think there’s a lot of unanswered questions; and it’s hard to be really sure about these things but I certainly came to the conclusion that she was able to really critically examine that inheritance -- that pastoral inheritance -- but when it came to discussing the role of her first Australian forebears, George and Margaret Wyndham, I don’t think she could fully confront their involvement. Their very probable involvement in dispossession. And I guess the clearest example I came across of this was some letters in which the English family, the English Wyndhams had written to George about his – an incident he has described where he had been shooting at the blacks and over a number of letters this incident is described and it seems as if there are a number of incidents and this is when they travelled north to Queensland and were taking up new land there. And this was of course a period of great violence in Queensland history in the mid-19th century so it was of course likely that they were engaged in very direct battle.

 

Judith had seen those letters and she mentioned them in Cry for the Dead but she mentioned them in this way which I just – I could not really understand and I just – it still boggles me because I think she says something like it’s not clear who he was shooting at and not clear who was doing the shooting and the rifle anyway was a present from the English relatives as if well it was their fault. And you know maybe there is some other source that will explain to me how she came to those conclusions but to read the letters it just seems very clear that they were engaged in this warfare. And yet, in Cry for the Dead they still come across as these fairly you know romantic figures and at a distance to that violence. And so I think partly that is also because the focus of the book, the geographical focus which I’ve also puzzled over quite a lot because the book is really mainly focused in Queensland where they actually settled initially.

 

After deciding they didn’t want to take up land in Tasmania they went on to the Hunter Valley and that’s where they occupied vast acreages originally in the 1830s and 1840s and that was also the scene of a lot of violence. And there’s just a bit of evidence, a few sources here and there which suggest that they had some sort of relations with Aboriginal people, that they weren’t – that Aboriginal people were still living on their land and there certainly were a lot of violence incidences in that period but it’s hard to be clear. I guess the other thing that made me really sit up and you know take notice was his very close association and friendship with Robert Scott who was recorded as having killed 17 Aboriginal people in a massacre and – according to The Australian and also being involved in a lot of other awful incidents where they would go out and seek retribution. So they were the best of friends and it seems unlikely that George was not also having some sort of involvement, engagement with those issues, yeah.

 

T:            Yeah so Robert Scott – this is the Singleton magistrate, isn’t it? In the Hunter Valley –

 

G:           Yes.

 

T:            - and really quite – as you show – quite closely allied, family – close family friend –

 

G:           Absolutely.

 

T:            - and they’re together there as this frontier is around them, isn’t it? And so it’s very hard not to see that there’s – that George Wyndham is implicated and thereby – that Judith’s family more implicated in that act of dispossession. And yet she went searching for that you know this is the author of Born of the Conquerors, this is the poet who wrote Niggers Leave New England, the remarkable early poem about effectively a massacre driving Aboriginal people in New England off a cliff face to their deaths. She revisited that – The Generations of Men, and then turned herself into a historian in order to tell the story in The Cry for the Dead so what’s happening that – what’s happening that she is not willing perhaps to go back to the quite - the founding figures in her dynasty?

 

G:           I think so, I think that – oh it’s hard – I suppose one has to be as imaginative as one can be in these situations and try to imagine what her upbringing was and I think in her family the mythology of those – the story of their lives, those Wyndhams and how they came to Australia and created well the beginning of a great pastoral dynasty and - that continued for many generations. That was so strongly reinforced throughout her childhood particularly by her grandmother, May Wright, Judith’s grandmother who was the Wyndham’s favoured granddaughter and May had had a very reverential relationship with the Wyndhams and had tried to write a family history. She did publish the edited letters.

 

So I think to me maybe – well to me certainly it says something about the strength of our upbringings, our family history and the way in which we’re able to read bigger histories through those and I – or the difficulty of reading bigger histories through those because I think Judith is able to tell a really important bigger history in Cry for the Dead for it’s just I suppose when it comes to her family, to me it kind of tends to fall back on that mythology, that original mythology. So I certainly wouldn’t say that Judith was unique in that respect, I’d say it’s probably a human condition but I’d be interested to know what you thought about that question too.

 

T:            Yes well I’m interested in her in my book which is – looks at – over the shoulders of 14 historians at work and it includes professional historians, academic historians but also poet, Judith, a farmer, an archaeologist so looking at history, the practice of history broadly and what interests – what attracts me to her work is this moment in the 1970s when she decides that – and we often I think see this moment as Judith turning away from poetry, even from kind of writing in a way towards her activism which – she was such a committed and dedicated activist on behalf of Aboriginal people, environmental causes, against wood-chipping, campaign against nuclear power, Australian Conservation Foundation, call for a treaty, working with Nugget Coombs on that and – but she feels in the ‘70s that she needs a different kind of writing to go out and do battle with you know that she needs to go beyond poetic or metaphorical truth to something where she can – which is empirical, grounded in evidence and she can literally do battle with it.

 

And so she – and you can tell this from the letters in the archive that she decides well I'm going to go back to history you know I studied history but I'm not a historian and I want to make myself a historian and I want to produce a book, a history. And I’m just so admiring of this process and we can follow it through the archive and that what she does is she doesn’t turn her back on poetry or writing of course, it’s just the different kind of writing emerges and it’s non-fiction and it is history and Cry for the Dead is one of our pioneering histories of the frontier in Australia. It comes out in the same year as Henry Reynolds, The Other Side of the Frontier, they were in communication with one another. It’s pioneering environmental history too, it’s a really forgotten dimension of this work, The Cry for the Dead, I think is that she really wanted to tell the story of the land as well as of its people.

 

And partly it’s because she felt in trying to research the Aboriginal experience that the sources are not telling her enough so she decides well I need to tell the story of the land as well because the land is witness to its people if you like. So it’s an environmental history, it’s a history of Aboriginal people and of course it is at the same time a history of her forbears and all the people like her forbears who were out there on that frontier and grappling with very difficult moral challenges. So – and I think in The Cry for the Dead I mean she was disappointed it didn’t make more of a splash, wasn’t she? You know she really hoped that this would help change people’s attitudes but it didn’t sell particularly well and she didn’t get a lot of response to it.

 

And one wonders if it’s partly ‘cause she pared it back to be so lean and you know it’s lean, careful prose, she’s carefully playing the historian to the enth degree in a way, she doesn’t write herself into it at all. She gets rid of the emotional dimensions that suffuse Generations of Men which was popular because she really wants this frontier history to accompany the work she’s doing with Nugget Coombs on calling for an Aboriginal treaty, yeah in the 1970s. And one of her early – one of the things I learnt from the archive is that she was – had an early title for the book which was A Right to the Soil question mark and so that’s at the heart of her book so yeah so I – I mean but what I found so interesting about your work is I hadn’t investigated that earlier period of the Wyndhams so you’re telling us a really interesting new story here. And also you talk about her relationship with history at university so I didn’t go back and look at that either but how interesting that is. Can you talk a little bit about – she failed history?

 

G:           Yeah, sure. Yes, yeah. Well so that’s obviously satisfying to find out something like that when you’re a biography that’s not on the public record, she’d written in her memoir that she’d studied history, that she didn’t like it and it was under Stephen Roberts and Stephen Roberts was an early Australian historian who wrote about the occupation of Australia, pastoral occupation and he was really scathing about the squattocracy and I mean really scathing, it’s hard – he writes about them being hungry and having this voracious desire to – for land and ‘cause in land there was money. And he’s very uncomplimentary, he says these were the spoilt sons who came out from Cambridge or Oxford from England and they just wanted to recreate their little Englands in – on the land and that - he mentions that involves conflict with Aboriginal people at some time – at some points. He doesn’t really go into that extensively. But he does include that.

 

He was writing these works which were ground-breaking in themselves in the 1930s and 1940s and Judith studied history, came along to Sydney University in 1934 and did a first year history course and – under him. She didn’t enter the exam, that’s recorded in her archive at Sydney Uni. She hadn’t mentioned that so she failed history, that was the only subject she failed. And she didn’t do it again. And that really interested me as als – and then I – so I went to Veronica Brady’s biography and what was her explanation for this? And she said oh well Judith didn’t like the subject, didn’t want to pursue it because it was not about – it wasn’t really about Australia, it wasn’t Australian history. I thought oh hang on, that’s a bit strange considering he was this pioneering Australian historian but what she meant and – was that it wasn’t really about the Aboriginal people of Australia and their experience of that occupation.

 

So – and then Judith in an essay and I think in – certainly in an essay she talks about Stephen Roberts and I think in a letter she refers to him as that terrible historian. And so she – I think what she – she made her interpretation later in life and certainly Veronica’s interpretation was that Judith objected to the subject ‘cause it wasn’t Australian enough, that it didn’t include this Aboriginal history. I came to the conclusion – I feel confidently that that probably wasn't the most confronting aspect of it for Judith when she came along as a 20 year old to Sydney University. Probably the most confronting aspect was his criticism of the squattocratic class and how Australia had been settled. So there weren’t other historians talking about Aboriginal history at the time as we know although Elkin who she also studied under was starting to write about that a bit.

 

So I think that’s sort of just a small like example and I – in some ways it’s not hugely significant but it’s not – yeah, I guess the point of an example like that is it demonstrates how her thinking changed over time and perhaps how – what her mindset was as a 20 year old and what it might have been and how it would have been for her going into those lecture halls and hearing also John Anderson, the philosopher – Communist at that stage – speak. Her family absolutely could not stand Communists and that was their concern, that when she went to Sydney, that she might encounter them let alone sit in a lecture hall with them. And so these really radical thinkers must have been such a shock for her coming from New England, never having left New England much, going to boarding school there. And coming from a family of conservative rural politics. So I guess I wanted to try and recreate that world a little bit of her experience and then to also underline what a – incredible thing it was that she did change her thinking, that her thinking changed over those years.

 

T:            That’s right, yes. Well I love what you did with the Stephen Roberts story, you rescued him for me because it’s true, with hindsight we look back - and that’s what historians - always working against hindsight, aren’t we? You know it’s so powerful that we use it but we have to also go against the grain of it to get back to the integrity of the time itself and that’s what you’re doing, you’re reminding us that Stephen Roberts, dismissed by Judith in later life as an awful old man, was actually only a dozen years older than her when she met him, he was a dynamic teacher, he was – he wrote his first book at the age of 20 – that book that she’s talking about, she – he wrote when he was 24, it was his masters thesis and then he wrote the squatting age one about the time Judith would have known him, again in his 30s you know he was young, dynamic, very international, rather anti-English as you detect, European rather than British so quite critical of the British empire so – and so there’s a lot to admire in Stephen Roberts and also that you would expect Judith might have admired.

 

So it’s very interesting to go back to see what – well how her own personal history-making has kind of dismissed him. And of course his work from that you know when we look back today at it it does – it’s missing at least two huge stories, the stories of the other side of the frontier and the stories of the land itself as more than just commodified parcels to be handed out to colonists you know it has an environmental story that he was blind to as well. So of course that’s what history does, we go on reinterpreting but I really like the way you take that window into her university years and argue that really they’re more influential than Judith herself was willing to remember. And you also rescue some of her early poetry, don’t you? So that’s where the book finishes, really, isn’t it? With your analysis of her early poetry. What do you learn from her early poetry?

 

G:           I think now it’s – I think it’s her early poetry, that hasn’t been confirmed so I did a kind of forensic examination of all the poetry that was studi – that was published by Sydney Uni students in their publications in the period that she was there. She’d said that I – she published anonymously in those – or under a pseudonym in those publications but she said I would never reveal my pseudonym even if wild horses dragged me. So that was a bit of bait, I had to go and look then. What – there was one pseudonym which was JW that – but I - bit obvious but I looked and part of why I forensically examined those poems is because I want to show how they’re connected or I want to prove to myself that they were connected with the poetry she wrote later, that’s I guess - and I find a number of phrases that are repeated. And what I argue is the first draft of her most famous poem, arguably, Bullocky, that she wrote during those years. The – another pseudonym was Margaret J and that was – there was no student at the University at the time called Margaret J. Margaret J was Margaret Wyndham’s maiden name and the poem, the one poem that Margaret J wrote, was about - it has images of wine and blood dripping through the fingers so – and a sort of gothic sense of the Australian landscape so that was very interesting.

 

I think mainly the poems are – they show me that she was still at that stage very influenced by the Victorian style of poetry that her mother really revered and it makes a lot of sense, she was only in her early 20s. And they also show her writing about sexuality in a very frank way for a woman of her time and even in the context of Sydney Uni where those student publications – there was a lot of poetry which was erotic, I guess you might say but it was always from the male perspective and there’s at least one poem which I ascribe to Judith which was talking about that from a woman’s perspective. And that was really interesting to me, it showed that she was – she wasn’t a kind of – well she was a controversialist from early on, that was part of her personality and she was wanting to challenge mythologies from early on.

 

And the other thing – and I suppose that’s very significant too because when - her collection of poems came out in 1949 called Woman to Man. That was celebrated as oh this is the first real poetry about sex from a woman’s point of view and – Australian poetry anyway and I think you know and critics often said well this is partly – has come out of her experience of having a child and having a relationship with Jack McKinney. But I think the earlier poems, the student poems suggest that actually she had a kind of more challenging perspective or critical perspective on those mythologies about women and sex from a much earlier time, even before she met Jack.

 

The other thing I found was some student journalism she’d written for the newspaper and they also show that she was not a mild figure to put it mildly, she could be really rude and raunchy and funny and critical of people as well. And I think yeah, just once again it demonstrates how these were personality traits which went on to be critical about other things, not just about students being too earnest which was one of her major bugbears when she was at university.

 

T:            I feel Judith would have welcomed your study if she could have read it you know because she – I think ‘cause she was self-critical she would have welcomed a sympathetic but also critical study that takes - at its centre your work scrutinises her lifelong passion to understand her ancestry and its – the way it’s embedded in the moral challenge of Australian settlements, really. So that’s something she wanted to be talked about and she wanted – she would surely have welcomed I think the way you’re pushing the boundaries of that, even taking it into her own life and reinterpreting aspects of her own perspective.

 

We thought we might rea – I might read this letter. There’s a letter in the archive which I think Judith would have loved to have received and it’s a letter – wonderful thing about personal papers, isn’t it? That they preserve these kind of letters and so this was from – it’s a letter written in response to the publication of A Cry for the Dead so this is 1981 and it – I think Judith would have welcomed this letter because like your work it grapples with this central aspect of her writing. So it’s from a man called James Henry, he’s writing from London and his family – his father was born not far from the frontier in Queensland where Judith’s grandparents were in the 19th century and he writes to her in response to the book and this is an extract:

 

The odd thing is you know that we always knew the theme in our bones as only children can, those legendary unspoken horrors, those sins cherished by successive generations were essential to us, they added value to our conspiracy of silence, our annual dues at the Bushman’s Club. We suffered much from a simpleton’s concept of loyalty, lived our lives at very exalted levels of guilt and fear. Ours was I suppose an odd inheritance, the preservation in silence of truths suppressed by our elders and betters, the old pastoral nomads who in their way did have something to hide. We valued that legacy rightly. Without it we might have seen ourselves for what we were, dusty industrialists masquerading as bushmen, spending our lives gambling tooth and nail again the climate, the markets, the neighbours.

 

There was – it’s hard to say this but it’s so – more style to any one of the old hands who also helped to destroy the blacks than there is to be found among their successors who with demonstrable imbecility destroy the lands stolen on their behalf. There are I gather some honourable expectations, I have not met them. I read The Generations of Men and The Cry for the Dead once more in that order after I wrote to you. The two books, though separated by 30 years in execution, make a beautiful diptych, don’t they? A special form for conveying a sort of truth to people at a particular time especially to those who fear it most. Like me and the bushpeople, still in thrall to our imaginary audience of fine old pioneers and other phantoms.

 

As you see you have revived my memories and put upon the past a set of values which I had despaired of ever being able to experience as my own though I knew of their existence. I am profoundly grateful to you. PS. It looks to me reading this rather incoherent letter as if the belief systems I acquired as a boy are breaking up or down as the case may be. There are many like me to whom this will occur when they catch up with the passion ironies which form like holograms in the angle between your two books. I expect there’ll be the devil to pay but there’s a rare elation I quite like in the air.

 

G:           Yeah, I think it sort of sends a shiver down the spine, doesn’t it, though? That’s such a wonderful letter and so beautifully expressed. His term our odd inheritance is so powerful and he really shows like Judith does I think that very difficult position that those more direct inheritors of dispossession nonindigenous people have in Australia, those descendants of the squatters. And I suppose yeah, all non-indigenous people share this same inheritance but they have that particular directness to that and they also understandably have that – those – that fondness for that culture, so many wonderful things about that pastoralist culture and I think Judith felt a great sense of sadness in some ways in her life as that was sort of decaying, that pastoral inheritance.

 

T:            Isn’t that fascinating? So you know that poem she wrote in 1973 I think, Two Dreamtimes and it’s a poem she writes for Oodgeroo Noonuccal, her friend, Kath Walker, the Aboriginal poet and it talks about our shared grief for lost country. You have lost your land, your inheritance and strangely enough so have I you know to the stock exchanges and the traders and the mortgagees and that’s kind of the double story that she tells not only in that poem but in The Cry for the Dead which means it’s a double lament. I mean The Cry for the Dead is the Aboriginal lament for the dead in the morning at dawn and her book surprisingly – ’cause the story stays with the land. I mean Generations of Men follows the family story to New England but in The Cry for the Dead, she stays with the land in Queensland and tells that story and that reveals a greater depth with this other unexpected paradox, that those white people who dispossessed the Aboriginal people were themselves dispossessed and that’s a lament that goes to the heart of a lot of Judith’s work, don’t you think?

 

G:           Absolutely and it’s a fallout that she didn’t seem to really know how to quite deal with because she – for example she was very uncomfortable about being connected with the Family History Society of her forebears and her correspondence in the archives shows that and she said I’ll be a member, I’ll be a paid member but I don’t want my name printed on your membership list. So, she did –

 

T:            You’ve just lost your microphone. Let me help you.

 

G:           Perhaps I’ll just hold it like this, is that okay? Seems a lot more simple. She did revere that past but yet – and she was very sad about its loss and I think another poem that expresses that is for a pastoral family which was published in the mid-1980s when she talks about Land Rovers have replaced horses and the sort of – the approach of mining companies and fast food companies on the land and how the banks now own the land and really that’s what ended up happening with the Wyndham land. The banks in the end took over and – well certainly that’s the family perspective today and they took over unfairly so they do feel a sense – her greater family I think do feel a sense of being dispossessed and –

 

T:            And that’s what James Henry’s letter spells out too, doesn’t it?

 

G:           Yes.

 

T:            Says you know the old hands, in spite of what they did somehow there’s more to admire about them and that what the commercial frontier, corporate frontier of 20th century is what feels this is so sickening in a way in - as he expresses it in his letter. And I think you know about a decade ago we had those robust debates about the Australian frontier and deaths on the frontier in warfare and there was a lot of counting of the dead being done and one of the things that was overlooked I think at the time was the powerful continuous stream of settler memory that James Henry’s letter gives voice and that Judith’s work gives voice to, that there’s a continuous history of anxiety about the frontier that was denied by some parts of that debate as if this had all been reinvented whereas in fact concern about dispossession was there at the beginning and continued through this sort of moral – difficult moral inheritance. And that’s the incredibly difficult thing that Judith was prepared to face up to and scrutinise so – with you know there was nothing beyond the bounds of where she was prepared to go except what you reveal perhaps at the beginning.

 

G:           Well it’s interesting because it just strikes me there’s also an irony in the way that history, that frontier history has now turned especially with your work might I say where increasingly it’s about reading those sources of those early settlers and looking for the gaps and the silences in their work and what they can tell us about that history. And I guess looking at their – how they unconsciously represented that history. So it almost requires the skill of a literary critic to unpack those stories yet for Judith, she felt that she had to go right to the other end and put aside literature and those analytic skills and go right to the empirical sort of research as a means of uncovering that history. So I mean if she were alive today who knows? But she may be a master of it, she may yeah –

 

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