A Great Man of Letters

coleman smallIn today’s Queens 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 that 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 22 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 magazine, of which Peter was editor from 1964 to 1967. When 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.

The same is true of his role in preserving in Australia the high culture of Western civilization. Peter’s approach made Quadrant a major source not only of literary essays but also 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 skepticism 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 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 The Last Intellectuals: Essays on Writers and Politics (Quadrant Books, 2010), 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, Melbourne, 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, New York, 1989) is an intellectual tour de force that remains the definitive work on the topic. His biographies of three important contributors to Australian cultural life, poet and essayist James McAuley, satirist Barry Humphries, and film-maker Bruce Beresford, are major achievements in themselves.

Along the way, he also managed to co-author a biography of the economist Heinz Arndt and to write his autobiographical Memoirs of a Slow Learner (Angus and Robertson 1994, Connor Court 2015), a chronicle of his journey from student bohemianism and radicalism to anti-censorship liberalism and anti-communism in the Cold War. At 80 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 age 86, 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.


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