Vale, Peter Coleman, Great Man of Letters


Four years ago, when Peter Coleman was honoured with the order of Australia, Keith Windschuttle marked the occasion in Quadrant’s July 2015 edition. We reprise the current Quadrant editor’s reflections on a predecessor on a day when all who value integrity and intellect mourn the passing of a man who embodied those qualities and so much more.

In 2015’s Queen’s Birthday Honours list, Peter Coleman received an AO, making him an Officer of the Order of Australia, a much deserved and long overdue accolade. The list said the award was for services “to the print media industry as a noted editor, journalist, biographer and author; to the parliaments of Australia and New South Wales; and to the community”.

Peter’s best-known contribution to Australian society is his role as magazine editor, in particular as editor of Quadrant. Peter became editor in May 1967 and held the position continuously from then—with only two brief breaks—until January 1990. It was during the twenty-two years of his editorship that Quadrant became a monthly magazine of national standing. It was he who largely defined the publication that it has been ever since.

One of his critical roles was to ensure Quadrant became Australia’s most prolific publisher of poetry and short fiction. Before Quadrant, this role been filled by the Bulletin, of which Peter was editor from 1964 to 1967. When its owner Frank Packer converted the Bulletin into a weekly news magazine, Peter resigned and transferred its literary responsibilities to Quadrant, where they have stayed ever since. In short, since 1967, Peter’s efforts have ensured there has always been a widely-read, national, monthly publication deeply involved in nurturing and shaping high-quality Australian poetry and fiction.

Peter Costello: Peter Coleman’s Journey

The same is true of his role in preserving in Australia the high culture of Western civilisation. Peter’s approach made Quadrant a major source not only of literary essays but also of art criticism, film criticism, theatre criticism, autobiography, and essays on history, philosophy, politics and religion. Within each genre, he helped preserve a distinctively traditional yet creative set of values. As Prime Minister Tony Abbott observed in October 2013 at a dinner to celebrate the magazine’s 500th edition:

Quadrant has consistently displayed a scepticism of new paradigms and panaceas, a willingness to put forward a rational counterpoint to the breathless enthusiasm of the next big thing, an empirical philosophy that judges ideas not by their source or popularity but by the strength of the evidence and argument, and above all else a deep regard for the lessons of the past and the institutions and traditions that build and protect our society.

In June 2008, when the University of Sydney awarded him the degree of Doctor of Letters (honoris causa), its citation acknowledged Peter’s contribution “to the intellectual life of Australia and to its world of letters for more than fifty years”. It said of his writings that they “constitute a remarkable analysis of civic society in Australia … they address the philosophical and moral underpinnings of international civic life”. His speech in reply, “The Whirligig of Time”, was published in Quadrant, September 2008.

It also needs saying that Peter has long been one of Australia’s finest essayists. There is a distinction between essays and feature articles in journalism that is probably impossible to define, but the University of Sydney citation above captures the difference in its notion of writing that bears “the philosophical and moral underpinnings of international civic life”. Most of Peter’s writings contain something of this, even the regular 1000-word columns he has contributed in recent years to Spectator Australia. The best of his essays, forty-two of which were collected in The Last Intellectuals: Essays on Writers and Politics (Quadrant Books, 2010. Click here to order), are beautifully crafted works from a master of the art. They constitute an invaluable record of cultural and political life in Australia in the especially turbulent period of the Cold War and its aftermath.

Peter embellished his editorial career by publishing six collections of essays by other writers that have themselves become important in defining Australian civic life. Two of these books are now widely acknowledged as classics of their time: Australian Civilisation: A Symposium (Cheshire, 1962) and Double Take: Six Incorrect Essays (Mandarin, 1996).

As well as spending most of his working life as a full-time editor, Peter also distinguished himself as a politician. From 1968 to 1978 he was a member of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly, where he rose to become both a minister and Leader of the Opposition. When he lost the 1978 election to Labor’s Neville Wran, he left parliament to become administrator of Norfolk Island from 1979 to 1981. He was then elected to the federal House of Representatives as member for the Sydney seat of Wentworth, where he served from 1981 to 1986.

During his political career Peter also found time to write several major books of cultural and intellectual history and biography. His book on the international cultural politics of the Cold War, The Liberal Conspiracy: The Congress for Cultural Freedom and the Struggle for the Mind of Postwar Europe (Free Press, 1989) is an intellectual tour de force that remains the definitive work on the topic. As he noted in The Last Intellectuals, the struggle from 1946 to 1989 between Western civilisation and communism was waged not only by political confrontation in Central Europe and Latin America and overt warfare in Asia. There was also a global cultural war fought by writers in magazines, newspapers and books. Peter was one of Australia’s central figures in this great contest. The Liberal Conspiracy recorded how journalists, essayists, poets, novelists and editors defended cultural freedom and contributed to the eventual collapse of communism. More than any other movement, this culture war embodied the moral dimension of the Cold War. “It was,” he says, “an historic success.”

Along the way, Peter also managed to write the biographies of three important contributors to Australian cultural life: poet and essayist James McAuley, satirist Barry Humphries, and film-maker Bruce Beresford. He also co-authored a biography of economist and fellow editor of Quadrant, Heinz Arndt. He followed this with his autobiographical Memoirs of a Slow Learner (Angus & Robertson 1994, and a revised and updated edition published by Connor Court in 2015). This is a chronicle of his journey from student bohemianism and radicalism to anti-censorship liberalism and anti-communism in the Cold War. At eighty years of age, he took on the daunting task of co-authoring with his son-in-law, the former Commonwealth Treasurer Peter Costello, an account of the robust politics of the eleven years of the Howard government, The Costello Memoirs (Melbourne University Press, 2008). These books alone rank him an important figure in Australian cultural and political literature.

As the University of Sydney’s citation for his honorary doctorate recorded, Peter’s contribution to the intellectual life of Australia and its world of letters over more than fifty years has been remarkable. In fact, it remains remarkable today when, at eighty-six, he continues his career as a columnist and essayist on Australian life in his weekly column for Spectator Australia and frequent contributions to Quadrant. He still rates as one of the best-read authors in both publications.

In short, Peter Coleman is one of Australia’s truly great men of letters.

Keith Windschuttle is Editor-in-Chief of Quadrant.


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