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Phillips, Angell Arthur (1900–1985)

by Jim Davidson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Arthur Phillips, by Norman Wodetzki, 1975

Arthur Phillips, by Norman Wodetzki, 1975

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/​I/​2275

Angell Arthur Phillips (1900-1985), literary critic and schoolteacher, was born on 15 August 1900 at Armadale, Melbourne, younger son of Victorian-born parents Morris Mondle Phillips, solicitor, and his wife Rebecca, née Ellis. Both Arthur’s father and grandfather were lawyers with a literary bent, and his mother, in addition to the usual social preoccupations, wrote pseudonymously for the weekly press and published a novel. It was an urbane household, showing its Jewishness in its concern with culture, rather than in religious practice.

After attending Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, Phillips followed the family path (including that of his elder brother (Sir) Philip Phillips) in studying law at the University of Melbourne, but switched courses and graduated (BA, 1923) with first-class honours in English. Not long afterwards he went to the University of Oxford where he began a bachelor of letters. Soon dissatisfied, he was rescued by the master of University College, Sir Michael Sadler, who tutored him in a special reading course leading to a diploma in education (1927). Phillips did not care much for Oxford: he felt regarded as a ‘colonial oddity’, and later distanced himself from the experience.

Shortly after returning to Melbourne in 1925, Phillips began teaching at Wesley College. He brought more of Oxford with him than he realised: a trim moustache, the accent, and a tendency to dismiss wrong answers as ‘Tosh!’—his nickname for the forty-six years he remained at the school. The boys treated him mercilessly at first, for his slight build only seemed to emphasise his lack of experience, but acute intelligence and quirky humour soon earned him their respect and affection. Later he would enter matriculation English with walking stick and cushion, place himself comfortably, make a few announcements, and then proceed to talk to members of the class singly or in small groups. A rigorous teacher and a great encourager, he coached sporting teams, but his real aptitude lay in imparting techniques of debating (then new in schools) and producing plays. On 8 January 1935 at All Saints Church of England, Geelong, he married Mary Nicholson, also a schoolteacher.

Schoolmastering was Phillips’s prime activity, and much of his early published work consisted of anthologies and textbooks. His 1932 anthology with Ian Maxwell, In Fealty to Apollo, was the first that added Australian verse to the standard English fare. In 1937 he joined the Dolia Ribush Players as business manager, and acted in the first performance of Douglas Stewart’s Ned Kelly (1944). He singled out this period as one of the most stimulating in his life, both intellectually and for the enduring friendships made.

When Clem Christesen arrived from Brisbane in 1945, bringing Meanjin with him, Phillips helped to give the magazine a distinctive Australian voice. The short essay was his métier: erudite, terse, and enlivened by a wry wit. Over the years Meanjin published most of his important pieces, including ‘The Cultural Cringe’ (1950)—a term which was quickly taken to summarise Australian deference to English taste. Literary criticism, however, remained incidental to his teaching. He also reviewed new books in newspapers and for the Australian Broadcasting Commission.

The Australian Tradition, Phillips’s first published collection, was widely acclaimed when it appeared in 1958. ‘I was deliberately flying a skull-and-crossbones’, he said of the title, challenging the view that no such heritage existed. In 1970 his monograph on Henry Lawson appeared—an author for whom he held no particular brief, but whom he saw, along with Joseph Furphy, as best expressing a distinctively Australian democratic, egalitarian, even proletarian perspective. Despite his exposition of this tradition, late in life he owned to having wanted to write a book on G. B. Shaw. Reading widely and always aware of the broader context, he was once struck by the apt suggestion that his being Jewish in Gentile society might have helped him to articulate what was particularly Australian within a broader Anglophone culture.

Retiring from Wesley in 1971, Phillips joined the Meanjin editorial staff. Widowed in 1968, he lived with Rosa Ribush (d.1987), Dolia’s widow. He was awarded an honorary D.Litt. (1975) by the University of Melbourne, made a patron (1978) of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, and awarded the OAM in 1980. Frail but still sharp and writing, Phillips died on 4 November 1985 at Malvern and was cremated, survived by his three daughters and a son. He is commemorated by a Victorian premier’s literary award, and another from ASAL.

Select Bibliography

  • A. A. Phillips, Responses (1979)
  • A. Lemon, A Great Australian School (2004)
  • Overland, no 60, 1975, p 57
  • J. Davidson, ‘A. A. Phillips’, Meanjin, vol 36, no 3, 1977, p 286
  • Meanjin, vol 49, no 3, 2000, p 28
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Jim Davidson, 'Phillips, Angell Arthur (1900–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/phillips-angell-arthur-15438/text26653, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 25 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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