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- THE HEART OF JAMES McAULEY
THE HEART OF JAMES McAULEY
Jim had only recently died when I wrote The Heart of James McAuley. He was still widely honoured - as the Quadrant memorial issue of March 1977 attests. I was able to assume a general good-will towards him - an assumption which most reviewers of the book confirmed.
How much has changed in the past 25 to 30 years! OzLit scholars are almost unanimous that McAuley is now deservedly forgotten – even while they compete to entrench his memory in book after book about his allegedly poor poetry, bad character and reactionary politics. No calumny is now too gross but someone will pass it on.
The attack on McAuley has come from several quarters. One is the literary modernists seeking revenge for the enormous success of the Ern Malley hoax. They pretend that Ern’s gabble is not only high art but McAuley’s best work. They entirely miss one of the great creations of Australian fiction - the story of the dying, despairing bohemian poet nursed by his loving sister Ethel as he coughs out his last masterwork, sixteen spasms of gibberish.
Another is the Left, still enraged that McAuley’s anti-Communism turned out to be right all along . He was one of the very few Australian writers who engaged with the great theme of the age - the totalitarian temptation that gave the world Auschwitz and the Gulag; They also know that, if he were alive today, McAuley, like Irving Kristol, would see a new Cold War beginning - the struggle not against Communism but against American-style left-liberalism and political correctness. They will never forgive him for his prescience.
Another is the swarm of the godless humanists. In the early 1950’s McAuley abandoned his atheism to return to Christ, to become indeed a Roman Catholic. Some of the great poems of “the middle period” are Christian in inspiration. But as Les Murray has shown, the non-god of Australian atheism is a jealous absence. His followers will smite the Christian faithful, hip and thigh. They will tolerate any belief from astrology to scientology to the Da Vinci code rather than the faith of our fathers. Allied with the atheists are some Catholic Liberals, appalled that McAuley’s Catholicism was traditional.
The deliberate and shameful neglect of McAuley’s achievement has extended beyond his poetry and literary essays (many of which have at least been collected and re-published). There has been no attempt to collect and republish most of his superb reviews, in magazines and newspapers, of the work of his formative influences or contemporaries - from, say, W.B.Yeats to Hal Porter. His many essays on New Guinea - some of the most enduring in the history of decolonization - remain uncollected. His brilliant and moving correspondence still awaits a publisher. There is not even a comprehensive bibliography of his works.
This neglect is the more scandalous that McAuley is one of the few Australian poets, perhaps the only one, whose work is informed by a comprehensive and hard-fought vision of the world, life and society. His poetry, poetics, politics and criticism all hang together. But his vision is against the Australian grain.
When he died, Judith Little wished we lived in a country where children bow their heads, and Harbour sirens sound in salute, when a great poet dies. It is too late for that but I am glad now to be able, once again, to place in the public square my modest reappraisal of a great Australian writer. Jim McAuley spoke to the hearts of men and will speak on.