STEPHENS, Alfred George (1865-1933)


STEPHENS, Alfred George (1865-1933)
critic and miscellaneous writer
was born at Toowoomba, Queensland, on 28 August 1865. His father, Samuel George Stephens, came from Swansea, Wales, his mother, originally Euphemia Russell, was born in Greenock, Scotland. He was educated at the Toowoomba Grammar School until he was 15, and had a good grounding in English, French, and the classics, but his education was later much extended by wide reading. His father was part-owner of the Darling Downs Gazette, and in its composing room the boy developed his first interest in printing. On leaving school he was employed in the printing department of W. H. Groom (q.v.), proprietor of the Toowoomba Chronicle, and later in the business of A. W. Beard, printer and bookbinder of George-street, Sydney. He was learning much that was to be invaluable to him in his later career as journalist and editor. He returned to Queensland and in 1889 was editor of the Gympie Miner. A year or two later he became sub-editor of The Boomerang at Brisbane, which had been founded by William Lane (q.v.) in 1887, but though this journal had able contributors it fell into financial trouble, and in 1891 Stephens went to Cairns to become editor and part proprietor of the local Argus. On the Boomerang he had had valuable experience as a reviewer of literature, on the Argus he enlarged his knowledge of Queensland politics. In 1892 he won a prize of £25 for an essay Why North Queensland Wants Separation, published in 1893. and in this year was also published The Griffilwraith, an able piece of pamphleteering attacking the coalition of the old rivals, Sir Samuel Griffith (q.v.) and Sir Thomas McIlwraith (q.v.). In April 1893 having sold his share in the Cairns paper he left Australia for San Francisco, travelled across the continent, and thence to Great Britain and France. He had begun to do some journalistic work in London when he received the offer from J. F. Archibald (q.v.) of a position on the Bulletin. He returned to Australia and arrived at Sydney in January 1894. His account of his travels, A Queenslander's Travel Notes, published in that year, though bright enough in its way suggests a curiously insensitive Stephens. To him the "ordinary London sights are disappointing", there is nothing to suggest that he had entered the doors of the national gallery or the British Museum, or that he found any interest in London's churches and architecture. But he was taking in more than he knew, and after a second visit to Europe in 1902 he wrote with wisdom and knowledge on other arts beside literature.
Stephens began work on the Bulletin as a sub-editor, and it was not until after the middle of 1896 that he developed the famous "Red Page" reviews of literature printed on the inside of the cover. They were at first little concerned with work done in Australia, but as the years went by Australians were given their due share of the space. But Stephens was also acting as a literary agent, and in this way came in touch with and influenced much the rising school of Australian poets. He prepared for publication in 1897 a collected edition of the verses of Barcroft Boake, with a sympathetic and able account of his life, and during the next 20 years he saw through the press, volumes of verse by A. H. Adams (q.v.), W. H. Ogilvie, Roderick Quinn, James Hebblethwaite (q.v.), Hubert Church (q.v.), Bernard O'Dowd, C. H. Souter, Robert Crawford (q.v.), Shaw Neilson (q.v.) and others. In prose he recognized the value of Joseph Furphy's (q.v.) Such is Life, and succeeded in getting it published in spite of the realization of the Bulletin's proprietary that money would be lost in doing so.
In October 1906 Stephens left the Bulletin, the exact occasion for the break has never been known. Possibly Stephens had begun to think himself of more importance to the journal than the proprietors were willing to allow. For the remaining 27 years of his life Stephens was a free-lancer except for a brief period as a leader writer on the Wellington Post in 1907. While he was with the Bulletin he had published a small volume of his own verses, Oblation, in 1902; The Red Pagan, a collection of his criticisms from the "Red Page" appeared in 1904, and a short but interesting biography of Victor Daley (q.v.) in the same year. He had also brought out five numbers of a little literary magazine called The Bookfellow in 1899. This was revived as a weekly for some months in 1907, and with variations in the title, numbers appeared at intervals until 1925. It was always an interesting production, but its proprietor could have gained little from it. He supported himself by free-lance journalism, by lecturing, he visited Melbourne and gave a course of four lectures on Australian poets in 1914, and by acting as a literary agent. His quest of a living was a constant struggle, but he never complained. He was joint author with Albert Dorrington of a novel, The Lady Calphurnia Royal, published in 1909, in 1911 a collection of prose and verse, The Pearl and the Octopus, appeared, and in 1913 "Bill's Idees", sketches about a reformed Sydney larrikin. A collection of his Interviews was published in 1921, School Plays in 1924, a short account of Henry Kendall (q.v.) in 1928, and just before his own death a biography of C. J. Brennan (q.v.). He died suddenly at Sydney, on 15 April 1933. He married in 1894, Constance Ivingsbelle Smith, who survived him with two sons and four daughters. A collection of his prose writings with an introductory memoir by Vance Palmer, A. G. Stephens, His Life and Work, was published in 1941. An interesting collection of his manuscripts is at the Mitchell library, Sydney.
A. G. Stephens wrote a fair amount of verse, for which he claimed no more than that it was "quite good rhetorical verse". He was an excellent interviewer because he was really interested in his subjects, and he was a remarkably good critic, largely because he had an original analytic mind, and also because he fully realized how difficult the art of criticism is. He was not infallible and occasionally made a bad mistake, but he helped numberless writers, he set a standard, and he strongly influenced the course of Australian literature. In this respect there is no other writer who may be set beside him.
Vance Palmer, A. G. Stephens, His Life and Work; P. R. Stephensen, The Life and Works of A. G. Stephens; E. Morris Miller, Australian Literature; The Sydney Morning Herald, 17 April 1933; personal knowledge. Bibliographies will be found in Manuscripts No. 10 and Vance Palmer's A. G. Stephens.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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