P. R. Stephensen

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P. R. Stephensen
P. R. Stephensen in Sydney, circa 1934.jpg
Stephensen in Sydney, circa 1934
BornPercy Reginald Stephensen
(1901-11-20)20 November 1901
Maryborough, Queensland, Australia
Died28 May 1965(1965-05-28) (aged 63)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Education
Alma materUniversity of Queensland
OccupationWriter, publisher, political activist
Spouse(s)Winifred Sarah Venus
Children1

Percy Reginald Stephensen (20 November 1901 – 28 May 1965) was an Australian writer, publisher and political activist, first aligned with communism and later shifting support towards far-right politics.[1] He is most notable for being the author of The Foundations of Culture in Australia and for being the co-founder of the fascist Australia First Movement, alongside businessman William Miles.

Stephensen was born in Queensland to Swiss immigrants. Studying his Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Queensland, Stephensen joined the Communist Party of Australia in 1921. Upon winning the Rhodes Scholarship in 1924 he left for England and joined the university branch of the Party. Graduating, he would join the Fanfrolico Press alongside fellow author Jack Lindsay, releasing an assortment of their own writings as well as translated works. After the press ceased operation, Stephensen would establish his own press, lasting only a year. During this time he cohabitated with former ballet dancer Winifred Sarah Venus (née Lockyer), whom he would later marry in 1947 following her first husband’s death.

Upon returning to Australia with Winifred in 1932, Stephensen would partner with magazine The Bulletin to found another publishing press, the Endeavour Press, in the same year alongside fellow Norman Lindsay. Splitting from the press in 1933, he would found yet another press, P. R. Stephensen & Co., which published more Australian works before failing in 1935 due to financial stresses. Despite the repeated collapses of his publishing companies, Stephensen became a recognised figure in Australian literature, becoming vice-president of the Fellowship of Australian Writers.

During the Moscow Trials, Stephensen became disillusioned with communism. In 1936 Stephensen would pen his most famous work, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, sparking the emergence of the Jindyworobak movement. Founding the monthly publication The Publicist alongside businessman William Miles, he would lay down the fundamental frameworks of the Australia First Movement, which the two would establish in October 1941. After five months of activity, Stephensen and his colleagues in the movement, suffragette Adela Pankhurst being among them, were detained by the Australian government. Being released after the war’s end, Stephensen would continue to write until his death in 1965.

Stephensen was a prolific author. He published over 30 books, as well as translations of works by Vladimir Lenin and Friedrich Nietzsche. He also produced nearly 70 books ghostwritten for historian Frank Clune. He was a friend of D. H. Lawrence and edited the first uncensored version of Lady Chatterley's Lover. He was also friends with author Aldous Huxley.[2]

Early life and education[edit]

Percy Reginald Stephensen was born on 20 November 1901 in Maryborough, Queensland. He was the eldest son of Swiss immigrant Christian Julius Stephensen and his wife Marie Tardent, daughter of journalist Henry Tardent. In his youth he attended Biggenden State School and later Maryborough Boys Grammar School. Though sustaining mediocre performance at Maryborough, Stephensen displayed an affinity for polemics.

Stephensen’s parents intended to send him to university, however his lack of success in physics or mathematics restricted his choices to the liberal arts. Nevertheless, in 1919 Stephensen begun studying for a Bachelor’s Degree in Arts at the University of Queensland. Stephensen worked odd jobs during his time at the university, and he was given the lifelong nickname “Inky” by his peers. Reflecting his involvement in student activities while at Maryborough, Stephensen was simultaneously engaged in sports, debating, drama, librarianship, and unionism. He would also take up a teaching job with no prior training at Ipswich Grammar School.

In his final year of study in 1921, Stephensen would join the Communist Party of Australia alongside fellow and future Member of Parliament Fred Paterson. Three years later in 1924, to the disbelief of his peers, Stephensen would reapply for and win the 1924 Rhodes Scholarship for Queensland. Now studying at the University of Oxford he would study philosophy, politics and economics. Stephensen was still active within the Communist Party, operating within its Oxford university branch alongside fellows A. J. P. Taylor, Graham Greene and Tom Driberg.[1] During this time his activity with the Communist Party drew ire from faculty, culminating in an ultimatum being handed down to him in 1925: either he would leave the party, or cease study at Oxford. While choosing to leave the party, his devotion to communism would remain the same, learning Russian in order to visit the Soviet Union in June of that year.

This plan however changed when Stephensen met his future wife, former ballet dancer Winifred Sarah Venus. While still legally married to her first husband in the United States, Venus left with her son Jack to Australia in 1918, returning to England four years later. Stephensen began to live with her and develop a relationship. It would not be until 7 November 1947, upon Venus’ husband’s death, could she and Stephensen legally marry.

Publishing activities[edit]

Stephensen graduated from Oxford in 1927 with second class honours, after which he joined a publishing company called the Fanfrolico Press, managed by publisher Jack Kirtley. They would publish Stephensen’s first book, a translation of The Antichrist by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, in 1928. As Kirtley left England to move to Australia, Stephensen assumed ownership of the press where he would be joined by author Jack Lindsay.

Stephensen’s time as a publisher would be influential in the formation of his political views later in life. During his time at the press, Stephensen was exposed to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a text purporting the existence of a Jewish conspiracy for world domination, though discredited as a fabrication as early as 1921. Stephensen was convinced of the document’s authenticity and attributed its authorship to Russian Jews.[3] He would go on to found his own publishing house, the Mandrake Press in 1929. Ironically Stephensen would receive his funding for the press from a Jewish bookseller, Edward Goldston. With Goldston’s funding he would publish the first uncensored version of the controversial novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence, whom he would either befriend later or had been friends with beforehand.

As Lady Chatterley's Lover was not legally able to be published until 1960, Stephensen could only clandestinely distribute the title, no doubt tightening the profit the Mandrake Press could attract. By 1932 Stephensen was heavily indebted, and upon receiving an offer from Norman Lindsay to partner with Australian magazine The Bulletin, he left for the country with wife-to-be Winifred on 3 September. On arrival at Fremantle on 4 October he was offered a managerial role at Endeavour Press and began to publish works by Australian authors such as Banjo Paterson and Miles Franklin.

Stephensen grew disenchanted with The Bulletin, criticising what he thought of as a tendency of the magazine to prioritise crude literature over more substantial, enriching works. Shortly before his yearly contract would elapse, Stephensen left the company in 1933. Disgruntled, he founded his second attempt at a publishing company. Named P. R. Stephensen & Co., he would again fall into financial difficulties as a result of a successful suit against the Bulletin for damages, sparked by a review of a book published by P. R. Stephensen & Co. – Mezzomorto by Vivian Crockett – which Stephensen stated damaged its sales to the extent where it forced the firm into bankruptcy. Though he received £750 (equivalent to £46,767 in 2016) in damages – down from the original £5,000 (equivalent to £311,778 in 2016) the majority of the award was taken by his lawyers.

As well as the suit, several other events factored into P. R. Stephensen & Co.’s failure: Stephensen’s attempt at producing a serialised magazine, the Australian Mercury, was blocked due an unwillingness for printers to run the second issue of the magazine until his outstanding debts were settled. Furthermore his dispute with author Xavier Herbert over the whereabouts of his debut novel Capricornia’s final chapters saw a prospective source of income, amid being sued by authors for royalties unpaid, go unrealised.

Australia First Movement[edit]

Between the world wars, his Fellowship of Australian Writers released a document that advocated disconnection with the United States and stated, "US comics promoted demonology, witchcraft and voodooism, with superman part of a raving mad view of the world." And of American musicals and minstrel shows, "the American negro, with his jungle is not welcome here."

He was a member of the Australia First Movement whose magazine The Publicist he helped found in 1936 and edited from 1941–1942. He was noted for his anti-semitic views in this period.[1] At this time, Stephensen and his colleague J. B. Miles financed the first Aboriginal publication, The Abo Call, which was written and edited by Aboriginal activist Jack Patten.

He was interned without trial from 1942 to 1945 for pro-Japanese and Axis sympathies.

Later life and death[edit]

Legacy[edit]

Bibliography[edit]

Fiction

  • Bullets and Ballots (1928)
  • Seducer (1928)
  • Permanent (1928)
  • Policeman of the Lord: A Political Satire (1929)

Non fiction

  • The Antichrist of Nietzsche: A New Version in English (1928)
  • The Bushwackers: Sketches of Life in the Australian Outback (1929)
  • Norman Lindsay Does Not Care: An Outburst (1929)
  • The Well of Sleevelessness: A Tale for the Least of these Little Ones (1929)
  • The Legend of Aleister Crowley: Being a Study of the Documentary Evidence Relating to a Campaign of Personal Vilification Unparalleled in Literary History (1930)
  • The Foundations of Culture in Australia: An Essay Towards National Self Respect (1936)
  • Japan’s 2,599th Anniversary: A Plea for a Better Understanding, and for More Peace, Trade & Friendship Between Australia and Japan (1939)
  • The Life and Works of A. G. Stephens (“The Bookfellow”) (1940)
  • Fifty Points for Australia: An Exposition of a Policy for an Australia-First Party after the War (1941)
  • Kookaburras and Satyrs: Some Recollections of The Fanfrolico Press (1954)
  • The Viking of Van Diemen’s Land: The Stormy Life of Jorgen Jorgensen (1954)
  • The Cape Horn Breed: My Experiences as an Apprentice in Sail in the Full-Rigged Ship British Isles (1956)
  • Flynn’s Flying Doctors: An Artist’s Journey Through the Outback and the Story of the Flying Doctor Service in Australia (1956)
  • Philip Dimmock: A Memoir of a Poet (1958)
  • Sail Ho! My Early Years at Sea (1958)
  • Nationalism in Australian Literature: Commonwealth Literary Fund Lecture at the University of Adelaide, 30th Sept. (1959)
  • The Pirates of the Brig Cyprus (1962)
  • Sydney Sails: The Story of the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron’s First 100 Years (1862-1962) (1962)
  • The History and Description of Sydney Harbour (1966)

Secondary sources

  • The Australia-First Movement and the Publicist, 1936–1942 by Barbara Winter (Interactive Publications, 2005) ISBN 978-1-876819-91-0
  • Inky Stephensen: Wild Man of Letters by Craig Munro (UQP, 1992) ISBN 0-7022-2389-1

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Munro, Craig (2000). "Stephensen, Percy Reginald (1901 - 1965)". Melbourne University Press. Retrieved 2013-10-28.
  2. ^ "Achiever's Walk: Ordinary Australians doing extraordinary things" (PDF). Fraser Coast Regional Council. 2007. Archived from the original (PDF) on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 22 November 2015.
  3. ^ Winter, Barbara (2005). The Australia-First Movement and the Publicist, 1936–1942. Interactive Press Australia. p. 271.