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Reviewed by:
  • Impact of the Modern: Vernacular Modernities in Australia 1870s–1960s
  • Tanya Dalziell
Impact of the Modern: Vernacular Modernities in Australia 1870s–1960s. Robert Dixon and Veronica Kelly, eds. Sydney, NSW: Sydney University Press, 2008. Pp. xii + 294. $43.00 (paper).

A quick glance at a handful of recent Australian publications would suggest that there is a new interest in Australian modernity in the air. Ann Vickery's Stressing the Modern: Cultural Politics in Australian Women's Poetry (2007) examines women's poetic careers in Australia during the early twentieth century; Jill Julius Matthews offers an account in Dance Hall and Picture Palace: Sydney's Romance with Modernity (2005) of the ways in which modernity was negotiated as a series of everyday practices in Sydney during a similar time. Marcus Clarke's Bohemia: Literature and Colonial Modernity in Melbourne (2004) by Andrew McCann focuses on a particular author to throw into relief ideas of modernity within the bohemian turn-of-thecentury literary culture of Melbourne as well as tracing the influence of non-Australian writers on Clarke's work. Anne Stephen, Andrew McNamara, and Philip Goad have brought together a number of Australian modernist source texts across various genres and forms in their anthology, Modernism and Australia: Documents on Art, Design and Architecture 1917–1967 (2006). In the recent Cambridge History of Australia Literature (2009), edited by Peter Pierce, Peter Kirkpatrick counsels in his overview of poetry, popular culture, and modernity from 1890 to 1950 that "we need to acknowledge that there are many ways of being modern," while Susan Lever, whose subject is Australian fction since 1950, concurs with many other critics when she singles out Nobel Prize winner Patrick White as Australia's eminent "high modernist."1 It [End Page 254] is within this context of renewed interest in all things modern in Australia that Impact of the Modern arrives.

This flurry of volumes concerned with "the modern" in Australia arguably says as much about "the modern" as it does about imaginings of Australia and its place in the (colonial, global) world. While Norman Lindsay (1879–1969) celebrated Australia's geographical distance from Europe as a kind of buffer against what he perceived as the puerile influence of continental modernism, women's magazines such as The Home (1920–1942) celebrated "the modern" in commodities, design, architecture, household furniture and music. The magazine featured contributions by artists including Thea Proctor and Margaret Preston, the latter mentioned in Kerry Heckenberg's contribution to Impact of the Modern. An article published in The Home in 1929 reads: "It is most encouraging to find that it ["the modern"] appeals to Australians, and makes me feel that we are not so much in a backwater as some people think."2 This idea, which sees "the modern" as a desired import and denies Australia coevalness with apparent centres of cultural innovation, is rehearsed nearly thirty years later by the poet and critic Vincent Buckley. In a very different context, Buckley wrote in 1957 that: "We are not quite modern, as other literatures understand modernity. Yet we are on our way to being mature."3 These recent volumes, including Impact of the Modern, seek to examine, readjust, and overturn such apologetic, colonial-hued models of "the modern," and indeed of "Australia".

As the editors of Impact of the Modern explain, the nineteen (shortish) essays found in this book collectively, if not altogether consciously, address "the modern" and "the nation" by focusing expressly on "the modern vernacular as defned through Australian social knowledges, consumption patterns, economic and political initiatives, popular pastimes and cultural practices" (xix). It is an ambitious brief that first found life as a conference theme, and one that the volume as a whole encompasses with some success, even as, or perhaps because, the enduring tensions between "the nation" and "modernism" largely shape these contributions. The editors' stated wish is for the book to present itself in terms of "a more outward-looking, internationalising phase of Australian studies" (xiii), one that moves away from frameworks based on nationalism, with their presumable inward focus. Yet the nation is not something that can be easily sidestepped when speaking about "the modern" in Australia.

In part...