Review: ‘Frank Hardy and the Literature of Commitment’

edited by Paul Adams & Christopher Lee

by Marea Mitchell

© all rights reserved

Happily, efforts are being made to activate that sense of concern and humanity, a part of the Australian character which, to me, has been marred in many by the rat-race of affluence and consumerism.

– Vera Deacon in Depression Down Under ed. Len Fox, 1992.

Complex senses of what commitment meant to Frank Hardy emerge from his interview with Tony Morphett for the ABC, originally conducted in 1967, reprinted here in this new collection of essays. Hardy presents different kinds of commitment as influencing his life and his work, including commitment to writing at a political level, to ‘literature as a weapon,’ to telling ‘the story of the battler,’ a commitment ‘to politics,’ and ‘a commitment to express myself’ (24). It may not be simple or easy to describe what shapes and forms these commitments took, but that they represented attempts to activate concern and humanity in an economic climate which valued consumerism and self-advancement is clear. Much the same could be said of this collection of essays, which form a heterogeneous group of discussions about the role of Hardy, of socialist realist and communist writers, historical contexts and ways of understanding the relationships between writing, politics and society in Australia in the last fifty years.

Of the sixteen contributions here, two are from Hardy himself: Morphett’s interview, and Hardy’s ‘Last Blast in the Defence of Truth.’ These two pieces and three others have appeared elsewhere: John Frow’s ‘Who Shot Frank Hardy,’ Peter Williams’ ‘Interventions and Obsessions,’ and David Nadel’s ‘Key to Power Without Glory,’ which has been updated. While this may involve a degree of familiarity for those experts in the fields of Australian literary or cultural studies, particularly in terms of the very influential essays by Williams and Frow, their inclusion amongst predominantly new work enables highly productive re-readings. In terms of prospective audiences for this collection, the inclusion of the already read is important. For newcomers to Hardy or socialist realist writing this book provides a valuable starting point; for those who already have encountered some of the earlier debates there is plenty of fresh material.

One of the things that most impresses me about the collection is the variety of contexts in which Hardy’s work can be seen, revealing the contributions that it has made to Australian cultural, intellectual and political life. The contributions may not be without contradictions, but, as Carole Ferrier argues in her essay, Hardy himself ‘saw contradictory impulses as an inevitable part of the lives of communist writers; tensions “between activity in the struggles of the people on the one hand and, on the other, the need to transmute that vital human and political experience into creative literature,”‘ (75). Some of the essays position Hardy’s work in the context of other writers at the time who were engaged in communist politics, specifically Jean Devanny, Katherine Susannah Prichard, and Dorothy Hewett, and in doing so examine issues of gender, sexuality, race, class and religion (Ferrier, Delys Bird, Cath Ellis, Paul Genoni). Allan Gardiner and John McLaren provide very helpful analyses of how what was written was shaped by different kinds of social and political structures, and different cultural institutions, looking at the Australasian Book Society, realist writers’ groups in Melbourne and Sydney, and the journal Overland. These two essays in particular provide historical contexts for understanding writing and literature as material productions, located in particular times and places.

A further dimension is added in essays such as those by Paul Adams, Cathy Greenfield and Peter Williams and David Carter. Adams’ revisiting of Frow’s 1982 arguments is particularly useful in emphasising what could be identified as specifically Australian about Hardy’s textual politics, including as it does an investigation of how the ‘yarn’ contributed both to the construction of narrative and to ‘moving the interpretive grids of the book’s reader into some positive relation to their own practical experience of power in the political and social system’ (p. 168). This is a suggestive approach to thinking about national identity in literature that avoids the parochial. So, too, Greenfield and Williams’ work with the notion of ‘strangerhood’ provides a compelling way of bringing together very different aspects of thinking about the position of writers who are political activists, such as Frank Hardy, forever risking abuse as ‘declassed’ on the one hand – ie not politically committed enough – and as biased, or too politically interested on the other.

The juxtaposition of previously published material with new material of Hardy’s own ideas with those of critics and academics, also produces, as a side interest, some amusing contradictions of its own. While Frow’s essay took a side-swipe at the perceived backwardness of so-called liberal humanists at Sydney University, Hardy himself castigates the prevalence of right-wing postmodernists, illustrating how the same targets were found to be divergently at fault. Perhaps the introduction to the collection could have afforded to be a little more self-reflexive in analysing shifts and changes in critical debates. It would also have been interesting to see an essay on where politically committed fiction, or fiction which takes some kind of oppositional stance, is today. Nathan Hollier’s essay on Australian masculinity provides a historical context for more recent novels such as Roger McDonald’s Shearers’ Motel and Elliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, which both relate human conflicts and personal relationships to broader social, economic and political structures. If Hardy was an ‘organic intellectual,’ what exactly does that mean and does the notion have any currency today?

One important way in which this book contributes to Australian studies is in making a series of different approaches to writing which is committed to ‘fighting the ongoing battles’ (Gardiner, 53) available to students. When I included Dorothy Hewett’s Bobbin Up on a third year university course a couple of years ago – something made possible by The Vulgar Press’s edition – two contradictory aspects of student responses struck me. On the one hand, the majority of students saw it as challenging, exciting, and important. They reacted warmly to its energy, to its vivid evocation of a Sydney that was both familiar and alien to them. On the other hand, for the majority of students what Hewett had produced in literary terms in this novel struck them as entirely new – they generally did not have contexts of other literary works and political debates in which to see it. This collection of essays and The Vulgar Press’s other publications, such as Nicole Moore’s edition of Jean Devanny’s Sugar Heaven and the reprint of Amanda Lohrey’s The Morality of Gentlemen, go some way to making the richness and controversies of Australian writing available to a wider public, to re-invigorating debates about the politics of Australian history and who has written it, and to breaking down the ‘glib distinctions’ (133) between literature and politics.


Frank Hardy and the Literature of Commitment, edited by Paul Adams & Christopher Lee is published by The Vulgar Press in North Carlton, Vic. in 2003.

Marea Mitchell is a senior lecturer in the Department of English at Macquarie University. She has a longstanding interest in marxism, feminism, cultural materialism and the connections between literature and politics.

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