Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Seeking a Fugitive

Our collection of the Printed Catalogues of the Institute is complete with one very important exception. We have access to copies of all but the very first catalogue. It appeared in late 1849 or early 1850, and does not seem to be held in any Australian library, nor to be listed by Ferguson.

There is however clear evidence that it existed. Firstly, in an announcement in the Launceston Examiner on 21 April 1849 that a "catalogue will shortly be printed". Then in the same newspaper on  19 Jan 1850,  an announcement that "Catalogues of the library are now printed, and may be obtained from the librarian, during the hours the library is open - price one shilling."

According to the accounts of the LMI for 1849-50, two hundred and fifty copies of the catalogue were printed and sales of catalogues to Oct 1850 had realised income of £3/5/- (i.e. 65 copies had been sold.)

The Annual Report for 1850 gave the total size of the collection as 1293 volumes, and the "fugitive" catalogue would be an invaluable guide to the principles upon which the early collection was organised.

Because a second catalogue appeared in 1858, the original had relatively brief currency and no doubt most copies were discarded at that time. It can only be hoped that a copy may have survived somewhere.

One publication which has survived from 1850 is a pamphlet of nineteen pages entitled 'The Intellectual improvement of the working classes: a lecture delivered at the Launceston Mechanics' Institute, April 4th, 1850', by the Rev. Charles Price. Copies of this pamphlet are held in the National Library, the State Library of Victoria and by LINC Tasmania.

The pamphlet has been digitised by SLV which holds a copy formerly belonging to the Melbourne Public Library (title page illustrated).

The statement of publication is particularly interesting – "Reprinted by desire and at the expense of tradesmen and mechanics of Launceston" – as it goes directly to the original aims and objects of the institution.

Perhaps the mechanics of Launceston were responding to a call to arms from Rev. Price in his lecture. Speaking of Mechanics' Institutes and Schools of Arts he said:

If such institutions do not flourish in every community where the arts of life are practised, it must be the fault of the mechanics themselves. If they do not flourish in any spot, there the labouring classes are falling behind in the onward spirit of the age. The facilities of their formation and maintenance are so many and cheap, that nothing but idle indifference or sordid demoralisation can prevent their rise and progress. Let the will to improve be present, and the way is wide open.(p9)

Sunday, 1 November 2015

In the Launceston Library

The article reproduced below was discovered through the agency of those two most valuable Australian resources, Austlit which indexed it and TROVE which digitised the source publication.

In the Launceston Library

Monday’s Mercury contained a letter by a member of the anonymous staff, who signed himself J.B. It contained an extract from what is vulgarly called a "slating" critique of the poems of Essex Evans, a critique which appeared in an English paper. Of the extract, the two or three lines snipped and appended give a fair idea.
A full third of the “ Secret Key ” is mere thundering rant, with no particular meaning, no sense of poetic style, only a delight in rapid movement, as though the writer were gotten upon a pegasus, and galloped full tilt, devil take the hindmost.
The reader will note that this is merely the abusive outpouring of a literary back who expresses his contempt - real or affected - without literary art of any sort. Iago was nothing if not critical, this man is nothing if not dogmatic. And his dogmatism lacks distinction, it is the dogmatism of the nobody. The somebody does very indifferently what the SATURDAY REVIEW in its palmy days used to do very skilfully.

But why does J.B. quote this poor stuff, and thrust it on the notice of Mercury readers, not one in a hundred of whom could tell you who Evans is or what he has written? That is the question I asked myself as I lay back in the Launceston express on Monday (1). Is it malice? Is J.B. a disappointed poet, one whose still born verse no bilious writer in another hemisphere has cared to scarify. For, after all, it is something to be abused 12,000 miles from home : it signifies at least that one’s voice has been distinctly audible at that distance. Perhaps so, for he opens his letter thus:
I have elsewhere called attention to the widely-exaggerated estimate of our local verse on the part of a Sydney coterie, and their fierce resentment of English criticism.
What is the Sydney coterie to J.B. unless it has flung his epic or his lyric into the waste paper basket?
But the initials suggest Joe Bagstock, the famous Major of Dombey and Son, who was wont to inform his friends “J.B is tough, Sir, tough and devilish sly.” Is this J.B. sly: is his seeming attack on Mr Essex Evans a mere puff in disguise. Anyway, it reminded me that recently, incited thereto by favorable notices in the English press, I bought the “ Secret Key,” read it, liked much of it, and proposed to review it. It reminded me also that a number of us, shocked by the scant regard for Australian authors shown by the book committee of our Public Library, had resolved to fill the blank on shelves where seven volumes represent Australia’s poets and essayists of the 19th century. And the next idea that occurred was that possibly the people of Launceston were a little kinder to our poets from Harpur to Hebblethwaite, than are our Hobart literary censors.

The Launceston Library is a big one. It has five and twenty thousand volumes, whereas Hobart has but thirteen. The books make a formidable array, completely lining the available wall space, and towering high above the head of the would be reader. Of course, many of them are literary ephemera—novels which had their day, and that a brief but not particularly merry one—but with these there are a great many valuable books, and of those latter not a few are up to date. Somebody displays considerable judgment in selection: for example, to take the author who concerned me last, Charles Dickens; the recent criticisms of the great novelist, works by Chesterton and Gissing were there, and these in Hobart, one had to purchase.

But this is a digression and our main concern is with Australian authors. Mr----- admitted that his committee has not impoverished itself by spending excessive sums on local works. But, for all that, they are better represented than in the Hobart library. There are some very curious gaps in both collections, for example, of the three poets whom Sutherland and Turner selected as our foremost, two — Kendall and Brunton Stephens—are missing. This seems to me unpardonable, and to betray a lack of the literary sense. Poetry is very largely a description and an interpretation of Nature, and in Australia such description, if at all accurate, must create a language of its own. Fifty years ago a shrewd observer noted this, and pointed out that right down to the leaves of the gum trees, and to the whisper of the wind as it swept them, the sights and sounds of the new world were unlike those of the old. But that does not trouble your “superior” person of the merely booky sort. He is nothing if not conventional. If the words which fall on his ear are euphonious, and are sanctioned by long usage, such a trifle as that they have become wholly inappropriate does not vex him.

We want an Australian literature, because neither nature nor human nature at the antipodes are what they are — still less just what they were — in London.

We enthuse a little insanely concerning our cricketers and prize-fighters, we grow wholly mad in deification of our footballers, and we atone for this by undervaluing our writers. Launceston is kinder to these last than is Hobart, it has several volumes by Lawson, several by Paterson, several by Steel Rudd. And Steel Rudd, the librarian tells me, is the favorite of the subscribers to the Mechanics’ Institute. His books circulate constantly, and are endorsed by those imprints so highly valued by all authors fortunate enough to secure them—the thumb marks of the many. Then there are Gordon, Boake, Dyson, Ogilvy, Green, Slade, and of course, Ada Cambridge aud Rolph Boldrewood, whose novels find their way through Mudie’s into all the ordinary libraries. There are two or three others. It is a rather larger and better selection than we in Hobart have, but that is all it is possible to say.

NSW Bookstall Co. Ltd. (1920)

The thing is the more curious in Launceston, as Mr Pritchard, the editor of the Examiner, is occasionally guilty of verse, and is not without a fellow feeling for more hardened rhymsters. On Monday he showed me some fine verses for which he paid Mr Evans five pounds—a high price for a very short poem “made in Australia.” He and Mr Balfe, of the Courier, have done what they could to encourage the muses, and are fairly versed in Tasmanian verse. Neither of them is to be reckoned amongst those whose literature, like the wine of the connoisseur who affects the French vintage concocted in London, must be imported.

And it is the more curious again, because the Launceston Library is a business concern, and the book committees of such concerns usually support the author whose books circulate merrily. There is, the librarian tells me, a growing interest in Australian periodical literature. Some of that literature is very poor stuff, as most of the stuff which appears in the STRAND, the WINDSOR, and the rest is. But it is increasing in quantity and improving in quality, and will increase the faster if Australian magazines are decently supported. Even the poet and the novelist must keep the pot boiling, and whether they send copy to London, to Sydney, or to Melbourne is, in the main, a matter of money.

That there are a number of reading people in Launceston is clear. The Library has over six hundred subscribers, and has paid so well that £2000 is available for reconstruction, which will put all the books within reach of the readers. The librarian and his assistant cater for the six hundred subscribers to the circulating library, look after the two reading rooms - one free, the other for members only, and they see to the letting of the hall. In the annual report salaries are down for only £260, and the £260 is well-earned. But to return to our text a little, Tasmania's coterie must do for Australian literature what J.B.’s terrible “coterie in Sydney” is doing for it in N.S.W.
(The Critic, 2 Nov 1907, p4) 

(1) Although this article appeared without a by-line, it is surely no coincidence that a review of "The Secret Key" appeared in the next issue of The Critic, contributed by Milner Macmaster, editor of The Critic at that time.