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Stephens, Alfred George (1865–1933)

by Stuart Lee

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Alfred George Stephens (1865-1933), by unknown photographer, 1906

Alfred George Stephens (1865-1933), by unknown photographer, 1906

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23513757

Alfred George Stephens (1865-1933), literary critic, editor and publisher, was born on 28 August 1865 at Toowoomba, Queensland, eldest of thirteen children of Samuel George Stephens, a storekeeper from Swansea, Wales, and his Scottish wife Euphemia Tweedie, née Russell. Samuel was later a successful businessman and part-owner of the Darling Downs Gazette who helped to found Toowoomba Grammar School in 1877; Alfred was the first student enrolled there.

Educated under John Mackintosh, a capable headmaster, Stephens passed the senior public examination of the University of Sydney in 1880. He was apprenticed to William Henry Groom, proprietor of the Chronicle, and was soon transferred to A. W. Beard of George Street, Sydney. He completed his course through Sydney Technical College (obtaining certificates of merit in French and German) and was admitted to the New South Wales Typographical Association in 1886. Otherwise Stephens was self-educated; he was well-read in contemporary and classical literatures, political science, moral philosophy and history.

From 1888 to 1893 Stephens was exceptionally busy: he edited two country newspapers, the Gympie Miner (1888-90) and the Cairns Argus (1891-92); wrote leaders for Gresley Lukin's Brisbane Boomerang (1891), and published two spirited and cogent political pamphlets; and went on a world tour, sending back syndicated articles which became A Queenslander's Travel-Notes (1905). He wrote literary supplements for both the Miner and the Argus while his column, 'The Magazine Rifle', in the Boomerang was a precursor to the 'Red Page'. His pamphlet The Griffilwraith (Brisbane, 1893)—about an opportunistic political coalition between Sir Samuel Griffith and Sir Thomas McIlwraith—described Griffith as 'the prodigal child of Australian politics', spending his nation's substance 'on riotous legislation'. Impressed by his journalistic flair, Jules Francois Archibald invited Stephens to join the Bulletin as junior sub-editor; he did so in January 1894. At the Sydney Unitarian Church on 19 December Stephens married Constance Ivingsbelle Smith whom he had met at Cairns.

In his creative period, from 1894 to about 1916, Stephens wrote the criticism and produced the books on which his literary reputation now stands. Within two years he had transformed the inside front cover of the red-jacketed Bulletin from advertising space for books into the fully-fledged literary column with which his name is now linked. In the process the anonymous 'A.G.S.', described by Joseph Furphy as 'the three-initialled terror', became the country's most influential, widely read and respected literary critic.

What readers could expect in the 'Red Page' was a potpourri of articles, reviews, extracts, letters, paragraphs, anecdotes and notes, occasionally with photographs or cartoons. The poem of the week, starred to indicate its quality, appeared in a top corner and in the bottom corner might be blunt, cruelly witty advice to rejected contributors. Stephens' common practice was to spark controversy by attacking an established writer, such as Burns, Thackeray, Kipling, or Tennyson, thereby enticing correspondents as varied as Chris Brennan or George Burns to attack and counter-attack, sometimes over weeks. It was heady stuff.

As literary editor, Stephens broadened the basis of work chosen for initial and subsequent book publication by including writers of serious literary intent, like Bernard O'Dowd and Furphy, as well as popular bush balladists and comic prose writers like 'Steele Rudd'. Significantly, Stephens persuaded the Bulletin management to issue a literary journal which he called the Bookfellow (Series 1) and which supplemented and drew on the 'Red Page'. The small, dilettantish magazine did not pay its way and ceased publication after only five monthly issues in 1899.

In October 1906 Stephens left—or was pushed from—the Bulletin and his days of security and power were ended, but not his achievement. He devoted much of his remaining time, talent and energy to producing the high-class literary journal which eventually ruined him financially and broke his spirit: the 'Bookfellow was his dream and our curse', wrote his daughter, Constance, a journalist. In all, and almost single-handedly, Stephens brought out 123 issues between 1907 and its demise in 1925, with fifty-one of the best issues between 1911 and 1916. The Bookfellow represents an idealistic and courageous attempt to satisfy the need for a quality literary journal, and when it failed there was a cultural gap until the appearance of Southerly and Meanjin in the 1940s. Although not as lively or provocative as the 'Red Page', and padded with a good deal of non-literary material, the Bookfellow is more mature, balanced and reflective. That much of the criticism (especially of overseas writing) is significant in the literary canon was illustrated when Leon Cantrell in selecting seventy-six essays from a life-time's work for preservation in book form—as A. G. Stephens: selected writings (Sydney, 1977)—chose twenty-one from the Bookfellow. (Dame) Mary Gilmore, Hugh McCrae and John Shaw Neilson were Stephens' most important protégés; he edited and published Neilson's first four volumes of verse.

Obsessed by the Bookfellow and determined to finance the glossy weekly (Series 2) which appeared from January 1907, Stephens went into business as a bookseller from October 1906 until May 1907, but the venture failed, as did a 'giant' two-day sale of stock and valuable books and manuscripts from his library. Bookfellow abruptly ceased publication in August; in an attempt to recoup his finances, Stephens went to Wellington, New Zealand, where he worked as leader-writer on Lukin's Evening Post until 1909. Back in Sydney next year he negotiated the syndication of a literary feature, 'The Bookfellow Column', which appeared in Sydney in the Sunday Sun from 24 July 1910. From this naturally followed the Bookfellow (Series 3) which appeared monthly from December 1911 to January 1916, with the financial help of Mary Gilmore from 1913.

The years of comparative decline after 1916 were frustrating and bitter for a man as proud and previously influential as Stephens. In 1919 he revived Bookfellow (Series 3), but it had a small audience and little impact, and finally disappeared in 1925 without a seeming ripple. He published over fifty articles in journals and newspapers, though they added little to his reputation, generally being backward-looking, or rehashes of earlier work, or out of touch and sympathy with the vital new writing of younger contemporaries. This is best illustrated in 'Satyrs in slops', a fierce condemnation of 'The alleged new poetry in Sydney' by poets of the calibre of Kenneth Slessor and Robert FitzGerald. Stephens was invited by the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia to edit An Anzac Memorial (Sydney and London, 1916, 1917, 1919); he produced two well-written monographs on Australian writers: Henry Kendall (1928) and Chris Brennan (1933). He also published under the Bookfellow imprint seven more volumes of verse, three by Neilson. Otherwise he was involved in lecturing on Australian literature for the Workers' Educational Association, in unrealized plans for publishing anthologies and school texts, and in writing inferior potboilers, short stories and verse pamphlets, some of which he published.

Stephens' historical importance in relation to the then emerging Australian literature is widely recognized. Thus Tom Inglis Moore has described him as the strongest single force in the shaping of Australian literature, an opinion endorsed by Vance Palmer who thought his criticism was 'a lucky gift' for the writers of the day and by Henry Mackenzie Green who wrote that no other critic had 'so strong, so wide, so beneficial an influence'. As a critic Stephens achieved eminence for establishing the 'Red Page' and Bookfellow as literary forums; in the process he created a body of criticism that is both substantial and distinguished. His work is marked by a confident pragmatism that enabled him to argue from first principles and to rely on the integrity of his own independent responses. His fervent nationalism led him to respond generously to works redolent of the Australian spirit, but he insisted always that standards must be maintained by measuring the local product against the best being written elsewhere. His critical writings convey a firm impression of native intellect, practical common sense and keen devotion to letters, and are expressed in a mature, flexible, energetic and often picturesque prose style. His essays, taken separately, seem fragmentary: they are characterized by flashes of brilliance and insights eloquently expressed, rather than by construction on the larger scale. In part this bittiness is because of the circumstances under which he worked and published as a hard-pressed columnist, but, significantly, he left no major book. It is also argued that he lacked a coherent rationale or theory of criticism, but this allegation is refuted by his many perceptive comments on the subject, including what he wrote to Kate Baker:

Criticism is in the nature of a bridge between art and the public. Its function is to set up a standard, and to guide the public to self-use of that standard. It demands in its construction minds fully trained to understand and appreciate the aesthetic laws which underlie art, and with a grasp of psychology which enables the critic to know what the public wants and what degree of improvement it will stand in its wants. It suffers from a divorce in these qualities.

Apart from his criticism, Stephens' strength as a writer lay in belles-lettres, factual articles and literary biography. He was, as well, a superb journalist who elevated the 'interview' to an art form. His creative writing illustrates his own theory—that the critical and creative faculties are not necessarily complementary—and is best ignored. Stephens' fine achievement as editor was to have published in his lifetime over forty meticulously produced books which are now part of our literary heritage.

His diary and an unpublished biography by Constance Robertson reveal Stephens as a difficult and demanding head of household whose relationship with his wife deteriorated over the years. After leaving the Bulletin he was often hard-pressed for money and his 'brood of seven children' placed strains on him as provider. He was said to be aloof and irascible with the children to whom he showed little overt affection. He rarely sat down at the table with the family, but had his meals sent to his room with the meat finely cut so he could eat with a fork one-handed, hardly taking his eyes from the page he was reading. His daughter commented that as 'he walked alone on his literary path so to a great extent he was alone among his children'.

A solidly-built, handsome man with wide-open blue eyes, Stephens had a blond beard and a proud, erect bearing. Some found his manner intimidating, but those who knew him well agree with Norman Lindsay that 'the head thrown back, the jutting beard, the resolute walk and the expanded chest' concealed a nervous, sensitive and vulnerable nature which was easily moved by evidence of feeling in a poem or story. His dress was distinctive, somewhat like that of a bushman in town: an open-necked Crimean shirt with rolled-up sleeves and an old reefer-jacket with seams much stretched due to frequent chest expansions. His voluminous manuscripts are written in vivid purple ink and in a large, confident, fluent hand that reinforces the imperious effect of the ink. He was anticlerical and an acknowledged free-thinker in youth and middle age; he chose the title, The Red Pagan (1904), for a book based on articles from the 'Red Page'.

Stephens' death in St Luke's Hospital, Darlinghurst, on 15 April 1933 was associated with mitral regurgitation and anaemia; he was cremated. His wife, two sons and four daughters survived him. The eldest son John Gower Stephens graduated brilliantly from the University of Sydney (B.Sc., with first-class honours and the University medal for chemistry, 1919; M.B., 1924; Ch.M., 1925); he became a radiologist and lived mainly overseas. Nettie Palmer complained about 'the appalling lack of public response' to the news of Stephens' death. Mary Gilmore wrote an obituary tribute, entitled 'The last of the giants', which concluded:

Only those who were intellectually shaped by his hand, only those who stood on the strong steps of his work, know with what a sense of loss the words were uttered, 'A. G. Stephens is gone'.

Select Bibliography

  • P. R. Stephensen, The Life and Works of A. G. Stephens (‘The Bookfellow’) (Syd, 1940)
  • V. Palmer (ed), A. G. Stephens (Melb, 1941)
  • J. Barnes, The Writer in Australia (Melb, 1969)
  • B. Bennett (ed), Cross Currents (Melb, 1981)
  • W. H. Wilde, Courage a Grace (Melb, 1988)
  • Texas Quarterly, 5, no 2, 1962, p 96
  • Australian Literary Studies, 1, no 4, 1964, p 219, 8, no 1, 1977, p 82
  • Southerly, 8, no 4, 1947, p 246, 24, no 3, 1964, p 161
  • Meanjin Quarterly, 27, no 4, 1968, p 459, 38, no 4, 1979, p 495
  • C. Maguire, An Original Reaction from Art: An Analysis of the Criticism of A. G. Stephens in the Red Page of the Bulletin (M.A. thesis, Australian National University, 1973)
  • S. E. Lee, The Self-Made Critic: A. G. Stephens (M.A. thesis, University of Sydney, 1978)
  • J. R. Tyrrell papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • C. Robertson papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • L. Hayes papers (University of Queensland Library)
  • A. G. Stephens letters (University of Queensland Library)
  • Stephens papers (State Library of New South Wales and National Library of Australia and National Library of New Zealand).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Stuart Lee, 'Stephens, Alfred George (1865–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stephens-alfred-george-8642/text15107, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 2 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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