Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Bushman and the Farmer

I am teaching a Centre College class on Australian National Identity in Australia this month.

In 1958 Australian historian Russel Ward published The Australian Legend. He argued that the bushman -- the men who worked in the Australian bush at whatever was to be done, mostly on sheep stations -- loom large as icons in the Australian national identity. Ward's book was a landmark in Australia's thinking of its own national identity. The easy-going, egalitarian, earthy, matey bushman has been read as the foundation of a society of similar virtues. Ward's thesis has been controversial for 50 years, but it is still a powerful starting point for thinking of the Australian-ness of Australians.

Ward explicitly compares the Australian frontier legend with the American version, as articulated by Frederick Jackson Turner. There are similar types in the two frontiers, the cowboy having much in common with the bushman. Still, Ward concludes that the American emphasis on the independent yeoman farmer led to American individualism. The Australian outback, though, was just drier and harsher than the American plains. Instead of family farms, Australian agriculture rested on sheep stations controlled by rich owners. The bushman is an employee. The distinctive virtue that bushman developed in those more difficult geographic and economic circumstances is that distinctive Australian virtue of "mateship." Ward sees this as the foundation of Australia's greater collectivism, when compared with American individualism.

Ward makes a rich argument, which I think holds up in its main points.


SPWeston said...

Most American cowboys can't have succeeded in becoming yeoman farmers. They, too, must have spent their lives herding cattle owned by others, roaming from one station to another owned by the few who managed to claim and keep the land. It sounds to me like the Australian version lined up with an accurate understanding of the prospects and led to a better understanding of the importance of sticking together.

Columbia man said...

I believe the correct American model is the farmer not the cowboy. From the first individuals went out to create frms in the wilderness. Overall these individual efforts succeeded. Cowboys came late and were enhanced by the media. Thus individual success is the American model not that of the mate.