An extract on #cringe
In 1894, Australian bush poet Henry Lawson wrote in his preface to his Short Stories in Prose and Verse:
The Australian writer, until he gets a "London hearing," is only accepted as an imitator of some recognized English or American author; and, as soon as he shows signs of coming to the front, he is labelled "The Australian Southey," "The Australian Burns," or "The Australian Bret Harte," and lately, "The Australian Kipling." Thus no matter how original he may be, he is branded, at the very start, as a plagiarist, and by his own country, which thinks, no doubt, that it is paying him a compliment and encouraging him, while it is really doing him a cruel and an almost irreparable injury. But mark! As soon as the Southern writer goes "home" and gets some recognition in England, he is "So-and-So, the well-known Australian author whose work has attracted so much attention in London lately"; and we first hear of him by cable, even though he might have been writing at his best for ten years in Australia.
Lawson clearly writes here from bitter experience, evidence enough that the Gestalt of psychological servitude, cultural anxiety and entrenched peer-cruelty which was later to become labelled "the cultural cringe" was pervasive in nineteenth-century Australia, and is thus a fundamental element of Australian self-identity.
The term "cultural cringe" was coined in Australia after the Second World War by the Melbourne critic and social commentator A. A. Phillips, and defined in an influential and highly controversial 1950 essay of the same name. It explored ingrained feelings of inferiority that local intellectuals struggled against, and which were most clearly pronounced in the Australian theatre, music, art and letters. The implications of these insights potentially applied to all former colonial nations, and the essay is now recognised as a cornerstone in the development of post-colonial theory in Australia. In essence, Phillips pointed out that the public widely assumed that anything produced by local dramatists, actors, musicians, artists and writers was necessarily deficient when compared against the works of their British and European counterparts. In the words of the poet Chris Wallace-Crabbe (quoted by Peter Conrad), Australia was being made to rhyme with failure. The only ways local arts professionals could build themselves up in public esteem was either to follow overseas fashions, or, more often, to spend a period of time working in Britain.
As Lawson continued in his 1894 preface: "The same paltry spirit tried to dispose of the greatest of modern short-story writers as 'The Californian Dickens', but America wasn't built that way neither was Bret Harte!" The cultural cringe of Australians and the cultural swagger of Americans reflects deep contrasts between the American and the Australian experiences of extricating themselves from English apron-strings. Dealing specifically with Australia, Phillips pointed out that sport has been the only field in which ordinary people accepted that their nation was able to perform and excel internationally. Indeed, while they prided themselves on the qualities of locally produced athletes and sportsmen, whom they invariably considered first rate, Australians behaved as if in more intellectual pursuits the nation generated only second-rate talent. Some commentators believe that cultural cringe contribute to the perceived anti-intellectualism that has underpinned public life in Australia.