Westraliana #1: Upsurge by J.M. Harcourt

In 1934, Perth’s most controversial novel was published. It was Upsurge, by the socialist J.M. Harcourt. The book’s original blurb stated:

…the Author takes us to Perth, the capital of Western Australia, and paints for us a powerful picture of post-war conditions. There are strikes, lockouts, riots and sudden deaths… He shows us the undermining of morals, loose-living and so forth among the upper and middle classes, and the retribution which follows in its wake.

 The novel sold well when it was first published, but reviews in The West Australian and The Daily News criticised its morality and radical politics. The storm was only just starting.

 According to the anti-censorship website The File Room

 In July 1934, a group of detectives removed copies of the novel from a Perth bookstore and requested that further copies be handed in to them. Later in the month, the investigation branch of the Attorney General’s Department received complaints about the book from the police. All copies were removed from Perth bookstores and Harcourt had to leave Perth (where he lived) under threats of prosecution. Other cases involving the removal of the book sprung up in other Australian cities and federal authorities received complaints from numerous organizations that the novel was “Communist propaganda” and filled with obscene sexual content.

The novel was completely banned throughout Australia by the end of the year. For a country in Depression,  the writing about life in relief camps and corrupt officials was considered potentially incendiary. These were the days when novels were thought to be much more dangerous than they are today. (The last novel to have stirred much public outrage was Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho in the early nineties; after that novel, there probably isn’t much left that can shock.)

Sadly, Harcourt wrote only one more novel and it was a failure. He died in New South Wales in 1971, not living to see his novel republished in a facsimile edition by UWA Press in 1986. Outside rare-book shops and the State Library, even the facsimile is a little difficult to find in 2007. But you can read chapters 2, 4, 5 and 20 in the wonderful ‘W.A. Writing : an online anthology’ published online by UWA.

If you can get hold of the facsimile edition, Richard Nile has written an excellent introduction summarising the novel, its history and the life of Harcourt.

2 thoughts on “Westraliana #1: Upsurge by J.M. Harcourt

  1. You can search for copies in the State Library of WA at http://www.slwa.wa.gov.au or you can look for copies held elswhere in Ausutralia using Libraries Australia http://librariesaustralia.nla.gov.au (or if you are outside Australia have a look in your own online library catalogues…)
    Wherever you are you can search for a second- hand copy at http://www.abebooks.com (7 reasonably priced copies for sale when this comment was written!).

    Sorry, don’t seem to be able to get hyperlinks into this comment so you’ll have to cut and paste and explore yourself!

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