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As with all forms of Australian cultural activity, it would be easy to inflate local critical endeavour (its novelty, its scintillations, its martial tendencies) and to forget that the history of acerbity is longer than that of our peppy federation. Hundreds of years before Hal Porter carved up Patrick White, critics were pillorying artists with a deftness and wit that can surprise modern readers. Samuel Johnson said, ‘If bad writers were to pass without reprehension, what should restrain them?’ Even a writer as famously suave and tempered as Henry James did not hesitate to wound. Reviewing Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps in 1865, he wrote: ‘It has been a melancholy task to read this book; and it is a still more melancholy one to write about it.’ Ten years later, George Bernard Shaw began writing the theatre and music journalism that would forever change criticism, and forever change the public’s perception of criticism’s freedom and indispensability. Open any of Shaw’s pages from the next seventy-five years and you will find passages that present-day editors would clamour to publish. Try, ‘I have no idea of the age at which Grieg perpetrated this tissue of puerilities; but if he was a day over eighteen the exploit is beyond excuse.’

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