State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 63 Autumn 1999


Library Profile
Stephen Murray-Smith

Great Australian that he was, it is appropriate that Stephen Murray-Smith should have been singled out for recognition in a lecture series named in his honour by the State Library of Victoria. There is no doubt that Murray-Smith's achievements as historian and man of letters, an activist, a public intellectual, an environmentalist and as the founder and editor for many years of the literary magazine Overland were of singular importance on the national stage. Indeed, Manning Clark remembered him as a man of simple virtues — courage, integrity and compassion — and as ‘one of Australia's great native sons’. In a larger context again, he was an internationalist, a believer in the brotherhood of man and a citizen of the world.
But it was in Melbourne, after an absence abroad from 1948 to 1951, that he lived and worked and it was in Melbourne that he grew up and was shaped and nourished. Even so, it was not until he began the climb to his intellectual maturity in the years after the Second World War that he could finally acknowledge what he later called a sense of ‘belonging’ to his country and to his country's culture — of which Melbourne was a particular and an integral part. In returning to the University of Melbourne to complete academic studies which had been interrupted by the war, Murray-Smith later recalled that suddenly things had started to fall into place. He found himself for the first time, this boy of the Melbourne suburbs who had been exiled to a great private school set in the Australian countryside (but shaped in the traditions of another country), to be an urban dweller surrounded by a rich metropolitan culture. On this second exposure to university life, enriched now by his participation in the essential democracy of the Australian army in wartime, Murray-Smith began to develop a sense of a richer, more diverse world as he discovered friends who spoke foreign languages at home, friends who had come through the state school system, friends who had heard of Eisenstein and ‘Jelly Roll’ Morton and teachers like Max Crawford and Manning Clark who spoke of Joseph Furphy and Henry Handel Richardson. Murray-Smith's discovery of his Australian culture was set within the broader parameters of other cultures and other places.
Stephen Murray-Smith was a polymath with a larger than life presence to match his many talents and interests. A big man with a daunting patrician presence and an impatience with inefficiency and delay, it was easy, on first meeting, to misread him. Perhaps it was the hyphenated name (‘Stephen Murray hyphen Smith’ as he would sometimes announce himself on the telephone) or the aura of his Toorak upbringing and his schooling at Geelong Grammar or his public persona, as I then knew it, as a radio personality, a player of quiz games and a master of words and arcane knowledge. Stephen was a man whose public veneer concealed but did not hide his democratic temper or his Australian bias, but my discovery of this did not come until later.
Perhaps the difficulty I first encountered with Stephen had nothing to do with him but was a reflection of other things. I was a young staff member who had only recently joined an august Melbourne cultural institution which was, however, very much fraying at the edges as the combined effects of government neglect and poor leadership were beginning to leave it, once one of the great assets of Melbourne, gloriously marooned in its grand but then profoundly inefficient Swanston Street building. I worked at that time in the Manuscripts Section of the La Trobe Library, the State Library's specialist Australiana department, under the inspired leadership of Patricia Reynolds who introduced me to Stephen Murray-Smith and encouraged me to assist him in any way I could.
Stephen's relationship with the State Library seemed to me then and later to be ambivalent. As a Melbournian and a former student (and later senior academic) of the University of Melbourne, he recognised the Library as a cultural icon of the state, an institution which had played a critical role in shaping the education and expanding the intellectual horizons of generations of students, of writers of all kinds, of painters and of ordinary citizens. He was certainly fond of senior members of its staff, in particular Patricia Reynolds but also of Barrett Reid, poet and intellectual, who was at that time head of the Public Libraries Division of the Library Council of Victoria as well as poetry editor at Overland. And Stephen was a great friend of the historian Geoffrey Serle whose family links to the State Library were strong and who was, in any case, committed to the development of the La Trobe Library as a centre for research and writing about Australia and in particular about the history of Victoria. And beyond his personal friendship with Geoff, but also because of it, Stephen was a member of the Friends of the La Trobe Library and a regular guest at State Library functions. But Stephen was also aware that for a range of reasons the Library's great days had been eclipsed and that, despite the enthusiasm and commitment of its small staff and a few dedicated scholars, the institution then faced an uphill battle to rehabilitate itself.
Nevertheless, in 1967 despite earlier appeals from the Mitchell Library in Sydney and the National Library in Canberra, Stephen Murray-Smith initiated an arrangement to place with the La Trobe Library the first instalment of what was described as the Overland records. The following year he extended this arrangement by depositing a large collection of both his personal and Overland archives arranged in two distinct series. In consolidating the arrangement commenced in 1967, Murray-Smith emphasised that he saw his two collections as representing the ‘savings’ of a large part of a life's work and that while he hoped he might one day be in a position to deed them to the Library as a gift, he wished to reserve to himself or his dependents the right to sell the material should circumstances compel this. He also sought to clarify his motives in depositing this material, revealing a sense both of personal modesty and of historical purpose:
I deposit this material with you, especially the personal files, not because I believe my own life and career to have been remarkable or significant, but because I have always had a kind of ‘historical’ sense, have always kept virtually every scrap of paper that has come
into my possession, and I believe that this is comparatively rare, and that the material so collected may some day be of interest to historians, not because of the person it is connected to so much as because of its volume and completeness as a record of one family's life.
In the years that followed, I had a number of encounters with Stephen Murray-Smith during his regular visits either to deposit additional parcels of material or to borrow records which he needed to consult in the course of his busy life as editor of Overland. These visits were initially somewhat daunting, partly because of Stephen's superficially autocratic manner but more so, as I reflect upon it now, because of the rather quaint conditions under which the Manuscript Section in the La Trobe Library then operated.
In the early 1970s, the State Library was still very poorly staffed in terms of numbers of people to meet the more ambitious programs which had been suggested as desirable by the Jungwirth Inquiry which had been completed only a few years before. I was in fact the first of a series of new appointments made during the 1970s which were intended to bring into the Library a new generation of professionally trained staff who also brought with them a specialist subject expertise. In my case, I came as a product of the Monash University History Department school directly influenced by academics like Professor A. G. L. Shaw, Geoffrey Serle and Ian Turner who saw the La Trobe Library as an important resource for the research and writing of Australian and especially Victorian history. I was recruited to work in the Manuscript Section under the kindly direction of Clarice Kemp who nevertheless kept a watchful eye on how the collection in her charge might be used.
At that time, the Manuscript Section was tucked away behind closed doors on the third floor of the La Trobe wing; it was a determined and resourceful visitor who sought entry to this exclusive domain. Stephen Murray-Smith's arrival would be heralded by his loud cry of ‘Shop! Shop!’ as he sought to attract attention in order to deposit his latest addition to the accumulating body of his records. Gradually I overcame my embarrassment at what seemed to be a strange way for the Library to work with an important donor or vendor and in time I settled into a friendly relationship with Stephen, gratefully accepting his deposits which were always impeccably packaged and clearly labelled and described.
But as my own appreciation grew of the value of the material which Stephen was placing with the Library, I also became uneasily aware that this was a collection which might be lost to the institution which continued to face serious pressures on its accommodation and its capacity to meet the growing public demands on its services. From time to time it was clear that Stephen was irritated by what he felt was the inadequate housing of his collection. In thinking aloud, he would sometimes seek reassurances that the Library did in fact place a value on the material. In conversations with me, he began to stress that the collection was held only on deposit and that he saw it as an asset which would protect his own and his family's need for financial security in later years. Later, he began to put these questions, always
carefully qualified, into writing, evidence I think that he was beginning to have second thoughts about his preferred destination for the collection.
It is my personal feeling that the Meanjin settlement, which placed the rich Meanjin archive in the Baillieu Library at the University of Melbourne, providing the unsuperannuated editor, Clem Christesen, with the resources he needed to enter into retirement, gave Stephen Murray-Smith some cause to ponder the options he faced in finally placing his own papers and the superb accumulation of records that was the Overland archive. Together, Overland and Meanjin at that time dominated the Australian ‘little magazines’, and in their different but complementary ways their founding editors had exercised an influential role as cultural arbiters, as nurturers of talent and as literary entrepreneurs. Their complementary but also their competitive relationship found its metaphor in the annual Overland-Meanjin cricket match which became a famous Melbourne tradition.
Another factor in Stephen's thinking about his collection was his own strong association with the University of Melbourne which had commenced in 1941 and which eventually had flowered in his senior academic appointment in the School of Education.
For a range of reasons, the University perhaps came to be seen by Stephen as a more appropriate repository for his important literary and personal archive. Certainly, Stephen's worries that the State Library might no longer be interested in his collection or that it might be unable to afford to purchase it when the time came began to be more consciously defined. Not long before he died, he initiated inquiries with the Baillieu Library to see what value that institution might place on the collection. But with Stephen's sudden death at the end of July 1988, no resolution had been arrived at and it was left to his widow and to her legal representatives to bring the matter to closure. This was achieved in October 1990 when the State Library of Victoria announced the purchase of the collection it now identifies as the Stephen Murray-Smith Archive, a remarkable holding of 460 boxes which covers the period from Stephen's schooldays at Geelong Grammar in the 1930s until the time of his death. The Archive is divided into three major components which document Stephen's personal life, his career and association with the University of Melbourne and, of course, Overland. Acquisition of this major collection by the State Library sent out a powerful signal that it was seriously committed to its role as a key cultural centre and that it was determined to recover its rightful place amongst Australia's great research libraries. I think it also indicated a recovery of confidence by the Library and that it was making good progress towards its rehabilitation.
An impressive by-product of the State Library's feisty and determined effort to secure the Murray-Smith Archive against its possible alienation to other repositories was its decision, negotiated in discussions with Stephen's widow, Nita Murray-Smith, to establish an annual lecture which might honour and perpetuate Stephen's name and celebrate his achievements and his contribution to Australian intellectual life.
In the first lecture, given in April 1992, Geoffrey Serle's purpose was to remember Stephen Murray-Smith by inference as a member of the Melbourne
intellectual tradition but also as one of a company of Australian ‘Stirrers and Shakers’, those who out of love for their country ‘criticise and abuse it constructively.’ Serle had chosen the theme of ‘stirrers and shakers’ as the best means of honouring Stephen who, he recalled later, ‘on any issue at the drop of a hat, would write to the papers or telephone someone in authority.’ Reference in the lecture to Stephen himself was brief since Serle's purpose was to proffer his own pantheon of giants. Yet clearly it was a pantheon which already included Stephen Murray-Smith. Serle concluded that for sheer range, the honours probably belonged to Stephen:
…for wherever did he draw the line? Metrication, lighthouses, remote island communities, Antarctica, quiz shows, bawdy songs — almost nothing was beyond his ken, as his innumerable published as well as unpublished letters to the papers also show. To say nothing of his campaigns on behalf of individuals in distress…
In honouring the name of one of Melbourne's own, the State Library has paid Stephen the highest compliment of all. It has opened its doors as a free, democratic institution to offer itself as a forum for debate and discussion and the exchange of ideas. Stephen Murray-Smith would surely have approved.
[Note: In the preparation of this profile, I am grateful for the help provided to me by Nita Murray-Smith and especially by Dianne Reilly and Jock Murphy, members of staff of the State Library of Victoria and long-standing and cherished friends.]
John Thompson

Michael Meszaros. Stephen Murray-Smith 1922–1988. Plaque. La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection.