Richard Trembath reviews Jim Davidson, Emperors in Lilliput: Clem Christesen of Meanjin and Stephen Murray-Smith of Overland, (Melbourne: The Miegunyah Press, 2022).
I don’t want to go back to the days of Tony Abbott, but I have always thought that anybody who attempts a biography deserves at least a minor order of knighthood. Autobiography is easier, the threshold questions being what to include, what to emphasise and what to hide. Biography, on the other hand, strikes me as pitted with difficult choices in terms of structure, narrative, sources, and trying to get inside the mind of the subject.
In Emperors in Lilliput Jim Davidson has set himself a true challenge – two biographical subjects in the persons of Clem Christesen, long serving founding editor of Meanjin, and Stephen Murray-Smith, long-serving founding editor of Overland. As the author explains in the Introduction, the book ‘explores how two figures . . .sought to advance the cultural front at home in Australia’. Here, Davidson is placing Emperors in Lilliput as ‘the third book of a loose trilogy’, the first two focussing on famous Australian expatriates – WK Hancock and Louise Hansen-Dyer. Meanjin commenced in Brisbane in 1940 before coming to Melbourne in late 1944; Overland grew out of what sounds like a truly dismal Communist organ and commenced, also in Melbourne, in 1954. Each editor served for 34 years, something which would be unimaginable these days.
Davidson is about as qualified as one can get for this task. He worked with Christesen at Meanjin and succeeded him as editor, he knew both his subjects well and he is a long-term analyst of the cultural world of this country. Every judgement and evaluation is informed by the author’s extensive knowledge of the events and the people involved. Emperors in Lilliput is both highly readable and heavily researched. This is not a universal conjunction of historical virtues. Too often depth of research overwhelms the need to communicate with those handing over their hard-earned cash for the book. Not in this case though. Emperors in Lilliput bounds along and, though it has a huge cast of characters, – just about everybody in the literary and academic worlds in the period gets a mention – the central spine is strong and clear. From personal experience I know that Jim Davidson has a taste for the telling phrase and this penchant is well represented in Emperors. Alas, there is only space for two examples. After falling out with Christesen, which was only too easy to do, Judith Wright said that she ‘wouldn’t trust him any further than a snake under the house’. And now one in Davidson’s own words. Poet and academic Vincent Buckley is described as one ‘who habitually looked at the world across acres of self-regard.’ I know a few people who would find that an accurate description.
There are a lot of chaps in Emperors in Lilliput but as Davidson notes it was a chap’s world. Where women played a role in keeping the two journals afloat, or were significant influences, they receive their due. (I would have avoided describing the women of the post-war Labor Club at the University of Melbourne as ‘feisty’. No man gets that dubious epithet.) The most important women in this story are the two wives: Nina Christesen (nee Maximov) who was Russian, and Nita Murray-Smith (nee Bluthal), Polish-Jewish from Galicia. Different backgrounds for the time in Australia, though their flight from totalitarian Europe was also typical of the times. Davidson emphasises how the dynamics of the two marriages were significant in their husband’s careers and essential to the longevity of the magazines. Nina and Nita also had to bear the considerable drain on their family finances in keeping Meanjin and Overland going. A major theme in the book is the constant battle, or begging, to secure funding. The University of Melbourne may have thrown a lifeline to Meanjin in 1944 but it did not shower the magazine in golden doubloons. Print publications, then as now, are not cheap to produce.
In the Australian Book Review Graeme Davison wrote that by ‘the late 1960s, the two journals were running out of steam’. The editors’ ‘conception of national culture’ was ageing, and the ‘new forms of popular culture’ escaped their attention. In a fascinating chapter, ‘Power Struggle in the Clemlin’, Davidson adopts the first person as he describes his succession as editor of Meanjin and the sapping in-house civil war this involved. Christesen is long dead and cannot speak for himself, but his difficult personality is revealed at its worst here. Academia and the literati in general do not come out very well. But in 1974 his long reign ended and Jim Davidson could set out on attracting new and younger contributors.
At Overland Murray-Smith lasted another fourteen years. Overland was more obviously left than Meanjin with a high proportion of radicals of various sort as contributors, though its disconnect with say the Australian Labor party was at times quite marked. Murray-Smith’s ill thought-out twaddle from 1980, criticising the former Whitlam government, shows someone out of touch and bombastic. Then again, his views of what the ‘true’ Australia was, or had been, were based to a large extent on a romantic view of past glory days, the 1890s for example, that might never have existed in the first place. But Overland continued to offer a wide range of writers a chance to be published, even me. As it does today. Jim Davidson said at a memorial to Murray-Smith in 1988 that his ‘significance as an Australian literary figure seemed to be fully revealed for the first time.’
Again, I am conscious of space considerations. I cannot touch on what Davidson does much better – tracing the changing contents and outlooks of the two magazines. The mere fact that both continue shows that they still occupy significant places in the intellectual sphere, though not, I think, as significant as before. There have been, and still are, rivals – Arena, Quadrant, The Conversation, Quarterly Essay, and of course Australian Policy and History. The digital revolution is just one of many challenges as are funding constraints, the current state of Australian universities, globalism. These are themes covered in the ‘Afterword’ to Emperors in Lilliput. I do not share Davidson’s conclusion that the ‘country is in danger of losing its memory, if not its mind’. But there are challenges and there have already been casualties.
Final comments then. Janet McCalman told me she thought this ‘a very clever book.’ Spot on. It intertwines the biographical with intense study of how two journals with limited readership strongly influenced literary and social debate within this country between the 1940s and the 1980s. To refer to Graeme Davison again, it offers fresh perspectives on the intellectual contributions of such well known figures as Ian Turner and Geoff Serle. With the high production values of Miegunyah, and excellent illustrations, this is indeed a very clever book.
Disclaimer: I am friends with Jim Davidson and once worked as his research assistant.