Arthur Phillips, who died last month at the age of eighty-five, was one of the major figures of the democratic nationalist tradition in modern Australian literary criticism; and his collection of essays, The Australian Tradition (1958; second edition 1966) epitomises the strength of this school. These essays are marked by the perception of the reading behind them, the clarity of the writing in them, and, the enthusiasm for his subject which shows throughout them.
But Phillips was no mere enthusiast for writing which happened to be Australian. He came from a family rooted in the tradition of English literature, and with an almost hereditary claim on the presidencies of the Melbourne Dickens and Shakespeare societies. In choosing not to follow in this succession, he demonstrated a catholic rather than any parochial interest, and indeed he successfully conveyed his interest in English literature to generations of schoolboys at Wesley College. His essay ‘Three Schoolmasters’ (Melbourne Studies in Education, 1976) is both a notable piece of autobiography, racing the origins of his own ideas about teaching and humanity, and a record of the wisdom he obtained from his own career as a teacher and which tempers the nostalgia with which he looks back at his youth.
One element of the schoolmaster which informed all Phillips’s discourse was his concern for accuracy in expression. This in turn gave him an eye for the niceties of style which he nowhere better demonstrated than in his essays on ‘The Craftsmanship of Lawson’ and ‘The Craftsmanship of Furphy’. These essays effectively destroyed the myth of naïve storytellers whose success was solely due to their reflection of bush people and their yarns. Phillips points out that other critics had earlier seen the fallacy of this view, but none had demonstrated it as effectively through close analysis of the text. In ‘The Democratic Theme’, Phillips links this artistry to the spirit of democracy, strongest in the bush but not found only there, which he saw as giving Australian writing its originality. He shows that at its best this theme went beyond class solidarity to show a ‘triumph of human sympathy over social prejudice’, and also examines the falling away from these standards and the loss of the earlier confidence. Later critics have modified these views, and in particular have questioned the degree of confidence and have analysed the complex relationships between the culture and its literary expression, but Phillips’s central perceptions of what was important about Australian writers retain their essential validity.
Phillips always worked on the periphery of professional literary activity in Australia, being published and broadcast as a freelance contributor and receiving academic recognition only after his retirement. Yet the freshness of his work may owe much to the perspective given by his position as outsider. Certainly, Australian literature owes him much, for his own writing and for the encouragement he gave to others. His friends will long remember how he would turn his head slightly on one side as he apologetically began one of those discourses in which wit and learning were the graces of a mind as keen as it was cultivated.