State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 82 Spring 2008


John McLaren
Stephen Murray-Smith: his legacy

It Is Difficult with a man of as many parts as Stephen Murray-Smith to identify his most important legacy. For his friends and students, it is probably the memory of the man himself, with his magisterial authority, polymathic knowledge, unswerving principle, compassion, generosity and conviviality. These qualities changed the world by changing uncounted lives, but, after the deaths of those who knew him, his tangible legacy will be found in the word-hoard he has left in his published works, in the papers of those who received his letters, and in his own papers now in the State Library.1
These comprise a great range of forms and subjects. He left diaries, letters, histories, criticism, reportage, essays and reviews. He was a great editor and anthologist. He wrote about Australian literature, England, war-time experience, education, cultural studies, the history and natural history of island communities, travel and the Antarctic. He recorded his ideas on Australian art and artists. His letters, particularly those to Ian Turner, include the most intimate expression of personal concern and friendship that I have read, while his accounts of the turmoil of Overland's early tribulations are as entertaining as they are insightful. But as well as his own writings, there is the great collection of letters and other messages he received from writers, friends, colleagues and other acquaintances. He used to sweep into a box all the official memoranda and other communications he received in his office, and at the end of each year would add these to his store in the State Library. He explained to me once that it was his intention to leave an archive that would document exactly what it was like to be an academic in Melbourne in the later part of the twentieth century. This he believed would be shown only by placing the significant in the context of the quotidian and the trivial.
His letters and diaries demonstrate this quality. The diaries he wrote daily are not yet available to the public, but we have a foretaste of them in the war diary now kept in the Australian War Memorial, in the Erith Island diary he published privately under the title of Many Moods and Many Voices, and in letters he wrote to friends abroad and from his own many travels. His three brief memoirs, Indirections: a literary biography, and 'Messages from Far Away: recollections of an Australian childhood', and his essay for the Bi-centennial History of Australia, supplement these sources by showing the genesis of his humanist ideals. They show a childhood lived in comfort in the midst of the Depression, a privileged schooling that combined noble ideals with critical thought, and an involvement in postwar politics that demonstrated both the possibilities of democratic action and the ill effects of dogma and unchallenged authority. They also pay tribute to his wife Nita, and to the importance to him of the European Jewish tradition to which she introduced him.
The diary of his experiences behind the lines in New Guinea was written after the
events it describes, but the details suggest that he was writing from notes he had made at the time. Although it has not been separately published, much of it is incorporated in Commando Double Black: an historical narrative of the 2/5 Independent Coy—2/5 Commando. His accounts of the travails of the track, the disastrous attack on a Japanese post, the hazards of allied air support, and the hilarious mismanagement of the retreat from Wau describe vividly what it was like to be an infantryman in trying conditions and at the end of a long chain of command. His portraits of the officers he admired and those he despised show his life-long understanding of proper authority and his contempt for those who abuse it. The account certainly merits separate publication as a record of the nature and effects of the war as experienced by one particularly thoughtful and articulate participant.
In the same manner, the letters he wrote during his time in Prague, where he worked for the Telepress, the official Czech newsagency, give a vivid picture of the joys as well as the discomforts of life in a Peoples Democracy while hope was still possible and the underlying brutality of the regime had still to be revealed. His visits to youth and arts festivals in Budapest and Berlin are exhilarated by his feeling of solidarity with a generation that has turned its back on war and is committed to the creation of a new society where all will share in the goodness of life. This freshness of feeling does not extend to his official reports on life behind the Iron Curtain, which are filled with lifeless rhetoric cleaving closely to the official line. Yet he apparently continued to chafe against authority, for his files also contain a letter written by a friend after he left Prague, reporting that his former supervisor had pondered whether she should have had him executed after all. His time at Geelong Grammar and in the army had taught him how to live in an absolutist institution, to appreciate its virtues, but not to tolerate its failings, even if, for a time, he kept his doubts largely to himself.
As editor, Murray-Smith's most important legacy is the literary magazine Overland, now in its sixth decade of continuous, if at times irregular, publication. The journal, with its motto of 'Temper Democratic, Bias Australian', was established to give a voice to the working class who were, in his opinion, the true silent majority of Australians. This caused difficulty with the magazine's immediate sponsors, who, as he was at the time, were members of the Communist Party and believed they had the right and duty to decide what was the true voice of the proletariat. Workers were never to be portrayed as getting drunk; the Party was never to be shown as anything less that all-knowing and all wise; the Soviet union was always to be seen as peace-loving and benevolent. But two years after Overland's foundation, the Communist movement was torn apart by Khrushchev's speech to the 1956 Congress, which revealed the truth about Stalin's tyranny, and by the Soviet Union's invasion of Hungary. In Australia, the Party denied that the speech had ever been delivered, although its General Secretary, Lance Sharkey, had been at the Congress and presumably had heard it. Murray-Smith freed the magazine from Party control, and it became a conscience as well as a voice of the left. His wise editorship, as well as his shrewd politics, in conjunction with Ian Turner's clear theoretical analysis, established its command of these roles. The magazine,
partly as a consequence of changes in the nature of work and of the working class, failed to attract quality writing from traditional workers and came to appeal to formally rather than self-educated readers. At the same time, it developed the mixture of fiction and poetry, reportage, analysis and review, and black-and-white art, that became its defining characteristic.
Murray-Smith's editorial legacy includes the long sequence of the annual Melbourne Studies in Education that he edited for ten years from 1973. He continued the practice of leavening the publication's record of research in the fields of educational history, philosophy, sociology and psychology with memoirs of principals and teachers who had contributed to the practice of schooling in Victoria. One of the most significant of these is the essay by Lou Socio on the story of his family in Brunswick. Socio and his sister had been born in Australia, where his father, a baker in Italy, had become a greengrocer. The essay traces the family's progress from poverty to prosperity, and contrasts the lives of the four children born in Italy with those of their Australian-born siblings. In showing the effects of education, language, church and marriage on a particular family, it gives concrete substance to the abstractions of ethnicity, education and multiculturalism that concern other contributors to the series. By publishing it, Murray-Smith confirmed his humanist commitment to the principle that theory must always be grounded in the individual experience.
His doctoral thesis on the history of technical education in Australia illustrates the same principle. While it starts by discussing the importance of technology to the first establishment of European settlement in New South Wales, it moves rapidly to the people who applied the technology, and whose needs shaped the first schooling in the colony. The rest of the thesis is given its unity by this theme of education developing through a dialectic between the needs of society and the ideals of community leaders anxious to implant European civilisation in a new country. At one level this led to the conflict between the democratic intentions of the universities established in Sydney and Melbourne and the democratic practice of the technical institutions—Mechanics Institutes, Schools of Mines and the Working Mens' College. The latter were themselves torn between the desire of their founders to provide education in technology, the sciences and the arts and the practical aspirations of their students to take courses that would get them better jobs. The technical institutions had to contend with the continuing hostility of the universities, who feared that these upstart institutions might threaten their monopoly of education for civilisation and the professions.
Although a dispute over the cover prevented Murray-Smith's thesis from appearing in book form, the continuing demand for it from users of the Baillieu Library is evidence that the issues Murray-Smith identified in his history continue to be pertinent to education today. The library has had to make photocopies of the original, and it remains one of the most sought after theses in the university.
Much of the thinking that went into the thesis illuminates The Tech, the history of RMIT that Murray-Smith wrote with Tony Dare. Like the thesis, this work is enlivened with pen-portraits of the people who made it all happen. These included politicians, philanthropists, unionists, churchmen and teachers, but to his regret he was unable to include many individual students.
The commitment to a democratic Australia that he showed in his editing of Overland continued into his critical work. As a reader he had wide tastes. He had a passion for Samuel Johnson, and valued Gilbert White's Natural History and Antiquities of Selbourne for its warm pictures of the English countryside and people as much as he did accounts of exploration and travel in Australia. He wrote an entertaining but spurious interview with 'the most world-famous of Englishmen', Sherlock Holmes, when he was about to 'achieve the incredible feat of entering upon his hundredth year.' He edited and published an account of Matthew Flinders' cat Trim, who was born on His Majesty's Ship Roundabout and died in 1803 on Mauritius. Murray-Smith presumably found this account while engaged in on of his favourite occupations, fossicking among the papers in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. He took however a particular pleasure in writers who provided an insight into landscape and life in Australia. He did not argue that their nationality or politics established literary excellence, but rather that these gave their works further value for the Australian reader.
On the first page of his Henry Lawson, published in 1962 in the Lansdowne Press series on Australian Writers and their Work, Murray-Smith remarks that Lawson's 'long and ragged shadow falls across much of Australian life. Few men in our country have achieved in their time such popularity; certainly none have had so many willing to judge them'. He then contrasts the responses Lawson has elicited from different readers, noting that his 'generous, humanitarian, inconsistent views have served as a reach-me-down religion to many good-hearted people'. But he also sees the way his influence has cramped fresh thought, inspiring instead a 'thousand tired and hackneyed sermons on mateship and national character, as well as the 'poor and pallid reflections of Lawson's original work, which arrive in the daily mail of every Australian literary editor'. He notes that the waspish and resentful have blamed Lawson for all the defects of Australia's intellectual life, and quotes AD Hope's disparaging lines about 'marsupial bards'. This brings him to the nub of his argument:
To talk of Lawson as 'tragic' figure is to miss the point that the existential tragedy is a component of all our lives; in one sense Lawson's achievement marks him as a far from tragic figure. The greatest of his tragedies is that the often bitter debate about him has been more concerned with the facades woven around his name than with the man himself and his work; and that the result of this diversion is that he is too little read and studied in Australia today, especially among younger people. They [the critics and the neglectful readers] are impoverishing our national life, through this neglect.
Murray-Smith is passionately concerned with Lawson as an Australian whose work
enriches our national life. In order to realise this value, we must see the writer and his work for what they are, not already shaped by the mythologies to which they have contributed. The rest of his monograph endeavours to show this. Building on the biographical, editorial and critical labours of Colin Roderick and Arthur Phillips, he provides an informative account of Lawson's life, makes a not altogether convincing case for his verse, and identifies the qualities of his fiction. Such later critics as Brian Kiernan and Brian Matthews have added greatly to critical understanding of his work, but this monograph retains its value not only as an introduction but as a placing of Lawson in the tradition his work has helped to shape. Murray-Smith is by no means uncritical of this tradition, and sees that the dreams of independence that crushed Lawson, as well as his parents and grandmother, continue to act as a 'wrecker's light to every Australian who ever starts a milk-bar, buys a ticket in Tatts, or takes up taxi-driving'. He recognised that Lawson's range of subjects and characters was limited, but praised the originality and insight the Lawson brought to his accounts of people and incidents who fell within this range. His stories work out values that could only be shown in the kind of fiction he wrote. In them he concentrates his gaze on the broken-down bush woman, the failed marriage or the Sydney down-and-out with a power of understanding that we can still feel undiminished. His true subject is 'all humanity in suffering and fear and agony of the spirit'.
When Murray-Smith returned to the democratic themes of his Lawson book in 'The Novel and Society', his 1964 essay for Geoffrey Dutton's Penguin collection, The Literature of Australia, it was with the same concern for the problems of the common people. He condemns equally the tired reworking of radical postures and the escape into private worlds of the spirit that he finds in writers like Patrick White, alongside his social protest. He finds hope in contemporary realists like David Martin, Dorothy Hewett and George Turner, whose work he places in the tradition going back to Lawson and Furphy. He vigorously defends the role of the Communist Party and the work produced by members of the Realist Writers Groups it sponsored, but at the same time abandons the idea that writers should be expected to give answers to the problems their writing shows. The essay is a bold reworking of an earlier tradition, but although it shows an awareness of issues of race and nationality, it fails to engage with the underlying concerns of subjectivity, gender, post-nationalism, ethnicity and textuality that were coming to pre-occupy critics and were leading even the writers he praises in new directions. The essay's importance today is more as a slice of the history of Australia seen though its literature than a study of the literature itself, but it is also a fine example of humanist criticism that takes it for granted that literature provides direct access to human truths.
These humanist values pervade also the two major reference works he published towards the end of his life. His editing of The Dictionary of Australian Quotations (1984) unfortunately brought him into conflict with the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, which had sponsored a rival project that became the Macquarie Dictionary of
Australian Quotations. Murray-Smith's work was revised in 1994, but the original edition remains an invaluable source of half-forgotten phrases and words of wisdom, as well as showing his sometimes quirky sense of humour. His eye caught, for example, three words on the spine of the Australian Encyclopaedia: 'Marsupials to Parliament'. Immediately above this entry is one from the Australian Dictionary of Biography, a correction that reads '… for died in infancy, read lived to a ripe old age in Orange', with Peter Porter's comment, 'It makes you wonder which you'd prefer'. On the same page we find a verse that he claims may well be the worst four lines of verse ever published in Australia, and a salutary reminder from the first platform of the Australian Labor Party that it stood for the 'Total exclusion of coloured and other undesirable races'. The inclusion of such items indicates not only his keen eye for the pertinent and the off-beat, but also the lightness with which he wore the huge learning that brought them to his attention.
His other work of reference, Right Words: a guide to English usage in Australia, is similarly light in its approach to a weighty subject. His advice is based on a lifetime of reading and editing, but is guided by the belief, which he shared with George Orwell amongst others, that the function of language is clear and economic communication. Without pedantry, he identifies the problems that face experienced as well as novice writers, and provides simple guides to the choices that can or should be made.
Perhaps his most original research, after his work on technical education, was on the life and histories of small island communities. This is driven by the problem of what brings about the demise of some, like the islanders of St Kilda off Scotland, while others, like the people of Tristan da Cunha or the Straitsmen of Bass Strait, survive. Murray-Smith was led in this direction by his interest in Bass Strait and its people, particularly the sealers and whalers who settled with native women on Cape Barren Island, and by his experience of the transient communities that joined him on his annual expeditions to Erith Island in the Strait.
His first book in this field was Mission to the Islands: the missionary voyages in Bass Strait of Canon Marcus Brownrigg, 1872–1885. It was not co-incidental that this publication was launched among Murray-Smith's friends on Flinders Island, not far from the site of the chapel built for Robinson's Wybalenna settlement for Tasmanian Aborigines deported to the island. That this chapel still stands is partly due to Murray-Smith's energetic campaigning for its preservation. The book comprises Brownrigg's own accounts of his thirteen annual voyages, with Murray-Smith's introduction and notes. The introduction draws attention not only to Brownrigg's support for the Straitsmen, but also to the role of Aboriginal women in developing the moral and economic basis of the community. Their tale is finally tragic, as mercantile interests undermine the people's autonomy. Nevertheless, their years of success formed the basis of a tradition that nurtured their community to the present day.
This book was preceded by a bibliography of Bass Strait 1797–1971, which Murray-Smith had prepared with JH Hope and FI Norman, his Bass Strait: Australia's last frontier,
and his paper on the islander community of Bass Strait in the nineteenth century. These publications, informative as they are, give only an indication of the work he might have published had he lived long enough. This would have included the results of his visit to Tristan da Cunha, and of the studies he made in preparation for his aborted visit to Pitcairn Island. We are left with Sitting on Penguins: people and politics in Australian Antarctica, which joins this interest in small communities with his interests in Australian history, exploration, the Antarctic, ecology and natural history in a work that is as important for its study of the politics of science and technology as for its study of people living together in constricting conditions. Tom Griffiths deals elsewhere in this issue with the broader politics and the scientific implications of the work, but its contribution to our understanding of the politics of small, task-driven communities also deserves attention. Its portrayal of two of these communities, on shipboard and on the continent, is presented with insight and humour, and framed by the potential and the splendours of land, ice and ocean that dwarf the human aspirations that threaten them.
What, then, is the continuing value of this legacy Murray-Smith has left us? It is unfortunate that the range of his interests means that specialists are often aware only of the part that mainly concerns them. Yet each part gains by reference to the others. His work on education is informed by the humanity he drew from Australian writers. His practical experience of politics illuminates his essays on Australia's democratic tradition. The breadth of learning illustrated by his Dictionary, and the precision and common-sense of Right Words, enhance all his writing. His passionate but critical nationalism shines through all his histories. His magisterial authority is tempered by his sense of human limitations and his own mortality. His humanity makes him tolerant of human weakness but unforgiving of acts of tyranny and cruelty. His work as a whole gives a picture of him as he was, no common man but representative of the best of his time.

Select bibliography2

  • McLaren, John, 1996: Writing in Hope and Fear, Cup, Melbourne.

  • McLaren, John, 2002. 'Peace Wars', Labour History, May, pp.97–108.

  • McLaren, John, 2003. Free Radicals of the Left in Postwar Melbourne, Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing.

  • Murray, Smith, Stephen. 1962. Henry Lawson, Melbourne: Lansdowne. [Second edition, Melbourne: OUP, 1975.]

  • Murray, Smith, Stephen. 1964. 'The Novel in Society', in Geoffrey Dutton (ed.), The Literature of Australia, Penguin, Ringwood.

  • Murray, Smith, Stephen. 1966. 'A History of Technical Education in Australia: with special reference to the period before 1914', PhD thesis, unpublished, University of Melbourne.

  • Murray, Smith, Stephen. 1977. Introduction to Trim (edited from journals of Matthew Flinders), [Sydney]: Collins. First published in fuller version, 'A Biographical Tribute', with introduction by T. M. Perry, Overland, no. 55 Winter 1973, pp.2–11.

  • Murray, Smith, Stephen. 1981. 'Messages from Far Away', The Colonial Child, Melbourne: RHSV, pp.73–87.

  • Murray, Smith, Stephen. 1981. Indirections: a literary biography, Townsville: Foundation for Australian Literary Studies, monograph no. 6, 1988.

  • Murray, Smith, Stephen. 1984. The Dictionary of Australian Quotations (editor), Richmond, Vic.: Heinemann.

  • Murray, Smith, Stephen. 1986. Right Words: a guide to English Usage in Australia, Ringwood, Vic.: Viking/Penguin.

  • Murray, Smith, Stephen. 1987. Behind the Mask: technical education yesterday and today, Beanland Lecture, Footscray: Footscray Institute of Technology.

  • Murray, Smith, Stephen. 1987, with Tony Dare. The Tech: a centenary history of The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Hyland House, Melbourne.

  • Murray, Smith, Stephen. 1988. Sitting on Penguins: people and politics in Australian Antarctica, Surry Hills, NSW: Hutchinson.

  • Murray, Smith, Stephen. 2001. The Most Famous of Englishmen: an exclusive interview, with an epilogue by John McLaren, North Carlton: Black Jack Press.

  • Pirie, A. A. ('Andy'), 1953. Commando Double Black: an historical narrative of the 2/5th Australian Independent Company, later the Commando Squadron, 1942–1945, Sydney: 2/5th Commando Trust.


MS 8272. Other important collections that include his letters are the Ken Gott papers, also in the State Library of Victoria (MS 13047) and the Ian Turner papers in the National Library of Australia (NLA MS 6206).


Editor's note: see also the bibliography of Stephen Murray-Smith's writings about the Kent Group and Bass Straight compiled by David Murray-Smith on pages 118–19 of this issue.