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Uses of the Past: Settler Culture, Regional Identity and the Modern Nation

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Complete Citation: Lee, Christopher (1988) Uses of the past: settler culture, regional identity and the modern nation. Australian Studies, 13 (2), pp. 55-69. This is the final manuscript version of the article. Accessed from USQ ePrints Over six days from the eighteenth to the twenty-third of March in 1924 the regional city of Grenfell coordinated a sustained civic celebration that it called the 'Back to Grenfell Week'. A commemorative festival of substantial proportions, 'Back to Grenfell Week' was intended to encourage former residents to return to the district, honour the pioneers, and promote the central New South Wales region. 1 The week of celebrations incorporated all the generic features of the civic festival: processions, art, craft and sporting competitions, race meetings, carnivals, concerts and street entertainments. To mark the event and confirm for posterity the historical claims of the place two monuments were unveiled. The first of these was a memorial to the pioneers of the district; the second, an obelisk marking the birthplace of Australia's most popular national writer, Henry Lawson. Settler-invader cultures such as Australia have always had a particularly urgent need for a past. The process of discovering an autonomous field of historical reference has been one important move in the gradual development of a claim to national legitimacy. 2 Early days in a colony are full of speculations over prosperous futures. A glance backwards is a recollection of 'Home': England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales; or else an intimidating experience of an ancient but timeless land. The regional pioneering festival in Australia represents a particularly significant use of the past as a putatively ethical claim to land stolen from its traditional custodians, the indigenes. More often than not such a claim takes the form of the celebration of a race for its successful transformation of an unfamiliar place. In 1924, Grenfell used its pioneering past to write itself into a national history of enlightened and industrious development, which presaged for the place a bright and prosperous future. In the late fifties and early sixties, however, the town was forced to return to this theme for quite different reasons. In the intervening thirty odd years economic and cultural shifts and an associated population drift towards the coast had left little hope for the expansive development claimed in 1924. Contemporary Australian rural and regional cultures have themselves been relegated to 'History' by a nation increasingly obsessed with modernity, the metropolis and the cultures of its coast. My discussion of the 'Back to Grenfell Week' Festival of 1924 and the 'Grenfell Henry Lawson Festival of the Arts' from 1958 is an exploration of the expressed tension between these two imperatives and their effects upon the strategically shifting social identities of a regional Australian culture.

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... 37 This is important, for in the sphere of tourism at least, the boot is on another foot, and the regional settler identities which have so often erased native association are now themselves being cheerfully consigned to the cosmopolitan nation's colourful past. 38 Nevertheless, the tourist's interest in the Wiradjuri is not reported in 'The Wallaby Track' column because it is thought to disable the local claim to originality. It is used to confirm the importance of the Foundation's search after local truths. ...
... 37 This is important, for in the sphere of tourism at least, the boot is on another foot, and the regional settler identities which have so often erased native association are now themselves being cheerfully consigned to the cosmopolitan nation's colourful past. 38 Nevertheless, the tourist's interest in the Wiradjuri is not reported in 'The Wallaby Track' column because it is thought to disable the local claim to originality. It is used to confirm the importance of the Foundation's search after local truths. ...
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