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Anderson, Hugh McDonald (1927–2017)

by Frank Bongiorno and Warwick Anderson

With the death of Hugh Anderson on March 3, aged 90, Australia lost one of the last of the postwar generation of literary nationalists, those radical promoters of a distinctive Australian culture.

As a friend of writers Bernard O'Dowd and E. J. Brady, nationalist progenitors from the 1890s, Anderson's personal engagement with Australian literary culture connected figures from the 19th century with those of the 21st.

From the late 1940s, he wrote prolifically on folklore and literary history, publishing more than 40 books and almost 100 articles. Such productivity is astounding, especially as he wrote in time left over from his duties as a school teacher and principal.

One of the few remaining instigators of the folklore revival of the 1950s, Anderson was the leading scholar of folksong and 19th-century popular culture in this country. 

Born in Elmore, Victoria, in 1927, Hugh McDonald Anderson was a child of the depression. His father, Jack, struggled to maintain his boot shop, and his mother, Elsie (nee Osborne) had to take up work in the local post office.

Particularly "good with his hands", Hugh would travel each day by bus to the Bendigo School of Mines, unlike his more intellectual brothers John and Ray, who attended the high school. Fortunately, at the School of Mines young Hugh encountered Spencer Lake, an inspiring teacher who introduced him to classical music, Russian novels, Australian poems and socialism.

Lake encouraged him to read P.R. "Inky" Stephensen's The Foundations of Culture in Australia (1936), which guided the trainee surveyor towards literary nationalism.

A lifelong pacifist, Anderson did alternative service as a surveyor in the Victorian Forestry Commission during the last six months of World War II. Bored with technical work, he then began training at Bendigo Teachers' College but soon transferred to Melbourne Teachers' College, where he focused on special-needs education.

Drifting toward the writers clustered around Meanjin and Farrago at the University of Melbourne, Anderson fired at the magazines a barrage of articles and short stories. In 1949, he started a BA degree part-time, studying English literature. The coursework offered little succour for an aspiring literary nationalist, and he felt poorly prepared for university studies, so after a few years he dropped out.

The intellectual fervour of the postwar years at the university nonetheless shaped his writing career. Having joined the Communist Party in Bendigo in 1943, Anderson participated in the realist writers' group in Melbourne, associating himself with Stephen Murray-Smith, Ian Turner, Frank Hardy and Judah Waten, among others.

Further afield, he came to know novelists Eleanor Dark and Katharine Susannah Pritchard. Around 1950, the realist writers' "commissar" forced him to resign from the party, condemning him for collaboration with Bruce Muirden on the supposedly reactionary Austrovert magazine. But Anderson continued to hang out with literary radicals in Melbourne, writing for the first issue of Overland. He became a freelance Marxist.

For close to 30 years, Anderson was a primary school teacher and principal, moving from Melbourne to Apollo Bay, then to Ballarat and back to Melbourne. In the late 1960s, he collaborated with L. J. Blake on the mammoth history of the Victorian education department, Vision and Realisation (1973).

Many of his books opened up fields of cultural history that are still being developed today.

From the early 1950s, Anderson wrote unremittingly, mostly in the evenings after work, on weekends and during vacations; sometimes he wrote all night. Among his pioneering contributions to Australian folklore scholarship are Colonial Ballads (1955), Farewell to Old England (1964) and (with John Meredith) The Folk Songs of Australia (1967). Time Out of Mind (1974) is a biographical narrative of the folk singer Simon McDonald of Creswick, Victoria.

Generally he pursued an historical approach to folklore, which his friend Russel Ward also followed. As he came to concentrate on literary history, Anderson wrote biographies of the goldfields songwriter Charles Thatcher (1960) and poets Bernard O'Dowd (1968) and (with Les Blake) John Shaw Neilson (1972). He edited works of Adam Lindsay Gordon, Thatcher, O'Dowd, Neilson and Louis Esson; he compiled and annotated 10 or more bibliographies; and he contributed a dozen entries to the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Additionally, he wrote books about historical figures as different as John Pascoe Fawkner (Out of the Shadow, 1958) and Squizzy Taylor (Larrikin Crook, 1971) – the latter recently revived through the Underbelly television series.

In the 1960s, Anderson began to write local histories: the first, The Flowers of the Field (1969), a history of Ripon Shire, is a model for social micro-history. Historian Patricia Grimshaw recalls that "we were thankful for this book that opened up women's stories at the level of everyday life".

Retiring early from the education department, Anderson went on to write more than 20 school textbooks and multiple commissioned histories, which supported his career as an independent author.

As a scholar, Anderson had the ability, industry and confidence to steer his own course. He did not isolate himself from other researchers, nor did he succumb to the latest twist or turn in academic fashion. The result is a body of writing famously formidable in quantity, but also in its originality, variety and quality. He wanted to tell Australian stories, in an Australian way – without gumnut parochialism but rather with the "relaxed erectness of carriage" that Arthur Phillips offered as an alternative to the cultural cringe.

Anderson did not enjoy the benefits of an academic post; he wrote in time snatched from an already busy life. Sometimes he reminded those who did possess these advantages of how much they should be cherished, but this message was never delivered with conceit, bitterness or rancour. The implication was that one should not squander such opportunities.

After launching three books in 1974, Anderson's writing pace slackened to a more conventional amble. He founded the Red Rooster Press – motto, from the convict bard "Frank the Poet": "While I live, I'll crow" – in order to publish books on Australian folklore, and he served on the editorial board of Australian Folklore. His last major folklore study, the magisterial Farewell to Judges and Juries, appeared in 2000.

In 1986, Anderson chaired the federal government's Commission of Inquiry into Folk-Life in Australia, which proved influential internationally. Additionally, he served on the councils of the Australian Society of Authors and the Royal Historical Society of Victoria (of which he was vice-president for a time).

In 1981, he accompanied Nicholas Hasluck and Christopher Koch – an unlikely ensemble – on the first Australian writers' delegation to China, igniting an obsession with that country and its culture. Returning annually, he fostered the translation of much contemporary Chinese literature into English. His hospitality toward Chinese writers visiting Melbourne was legendary.

Conventional awards came late to him, but they therefore seemed all the more valuable. He was elected to fellowship of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria and the Australian Academy of the Humanities; and he was appointed a fellow in the Australian Centre at the University of Melbourne. Perhaps most gratifyingly, the University of Melbourne awarded him the D.Litt in 2008 in recognition of his scholarly accomplishments.

Hugh Anderson's life and achievement would be unimaginable without the love and labour of his wife Dawn (nee Main), an educationist and author in her own right, whom he married in 1952. She was his research assistant, editor and inspiration. Their children Warwick and Marcia (and her husband John M. Davies) survive him; as do their grandchildren, Ian, Claire, and Hugh Davies; and his brothers John and Ray.

Six months before his death, Hugh Anderson completed the editing and annotating of the journals of goldfields commissioner Joseph Anderson Panton; and just a week before his swift decline he finished his last project, a light opera called The Operatic Servant Girl, based on the music of Charles Thatcher.

While he lived, he crowed. 

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 May 2017

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Frank Bongiorno and Warwick Anderson, 'Anderson, Hugh McDonald (1927–2017)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/anderson-hugh-mcdonald-27184/text34707, accessed 24 November 2017.

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