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Modernism in a modern nation
Australia’s foundation as a secular democratic state in 1901 made it a nation committed to modernity and the principles of the Enlightenment. Rational principles of state organisation and an accompanying confidence in scientific and technological progress have established Australia as a stable nation-state that provides considerable material benefits to its people. Even in such an isolated place as Australia, however, the experiences of the 20th century – particularly two world wars and intervening economic depression – undermined confidence in the powers of democratic order and the future promised by technology. The novel, the literary genre most associated with the Enlightenment in Europe, has often carried progressive ideas to a popular audience. After World War II it also became a source of challenge to those ideas. Modernism in Australian art emerged relatively late in the 20th century, but its critical attitude to modernity and its distrust of rational thinking is evident in many Australian novels written after the war. The ambivalent attitude of Australian writers to modernity is expressed repeatedly in the novels published after Patrick White’s in the 1950s, and White is a pivotal figure in the development of the Australian novel since World War II.
White transformed the possibilities for the Australian novel by demonstrating that it was a place to test ideas against complex spiritual, psychological and emotional experience, not only an avenue for national storytelling. His series of brilliant novels established the form as the dominant literary mode to express the shifting intellectual debates and allegiances of contemporary times. It has remained a source of opposition to dominant assumptions about Australian life, and a means of wayward commentary on the more rational and established ideas about what such life may mean.
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© Cambridge University Press 2015.