1865-1933 | NSW
Journalist, newspaper editor, publishing editor and author, Stephens became Australia’s chief literary critic with his widely read Sydney Bulletin “Red Page”. He was also the company’s book publisher, launching the careers of Steele Rudd, Joseph Furphy and other notable Australian writers. At the turn of the century he published the rollicking On Our Selection followed by Furphy’s masterpiece, the novel Such Is Life. He later edited and published The Bookfellow. His reviews could be brutal, sarcastic and uncompromising but his restless energy and professionalism were respected by those writers whose work he took seriously.
Printer’s ink ran in Stephens’ veins from boyhood as his father owned Toowoomba’s Darling Downs Gazette during the 1870s. The year his businessman father became proprietor of the Gazette, the first English news cable, from Reuters, reached the Sydney Morning Herald, bringing the far-away world to Australian doorsteps daily.
Until the age of eleven, Stephens frequented his father’s Gazette office, a short stroll from the family home. Fascinated by the complex processes of copy-writing, editing, typesetting, proofing and printing, he may even have helped distribute copies of the finished newspaper every Wednesday and Saturday. Matriculating from grammar school at 15, Stephens embarked on a printing apprenticeship with rival newspaper the Toowoomba Chronicle before transferring to a Sydney printery.
By the time he was admitted to the NSW Typographical Association at 20, Stephens was the proud possessor of a full beard, an eye for the ridiculous, and a forthright personality. Ideas intrigued him, especially in print. His technical training had given him a pragmatic cast of mind, while his wide reading armed him with handy French and Latin phrases, Shakespearean quotations and biblical references despite being a confirmed atheist.
While still in his early twenties, Stephens was appointed editor of the Gympie Miner (1888–90), throwing himself into the political, intellectual and cultural life of the booming gold-rush town where his friends included future Labor Prime Minister Andrew Fisher.
Relishing editorial power, Stephens challenged and entertained his Gympie audience, drawing material from his extensive reading of British and American newspapers. He became a remarkably fearless political commentator – even by the demanding standards of late nineteenth century journalism. In his second year at the Miner, he used a lengthy editorial to criticise the long-time mayor – who happened to be a director and one of the largest shareholders of the Gympie Newspaper Company which owned the Miner.
As a provincial newspaper editor, Stephens developed not just his political and literary instincts but also his feel for popular humor which he later used to such brilliant effect in the editing of Steele Rudd’s On Our Selection. His models included American frontier journalism along with humorist Mark Twain whose book, A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur, was described by the republican Stephens as “a scathing satire on monarchy”.
He then spent almost a year on The Boomerang in Brisbane as a sub-editor, contributing his own column, the Magazine Rifle, a precursor to the Red Page. A youthful Henry Lawson was at that time also working for the Boomerang. Stephens’ widely published expose of working conditions on a British ship led to his being offered the editorship of the Cairns Argus which he co-owned in the early 1990s.
His pamphlet The Griffilwraith, on Queensland’s political coalition between Sir Samuel Griffith and Sir Thomas McIlwraith, was published in Brisbane in 1893 before he travelled across the United States to work briefly as a journalist in London. Impressed with the young Queenslander’s journalistic flair, Bulletin editor J.F. Archibald recruited Stephens from London in 1894 as a sub-editor. A few months later, Stephens married his Cairns sweetheart, Constance Ivingsbelle Smith.
Archibald gave him the freedom to develop not only his famous Red Page but also an ambitious program of book publication under the Bulletin imprint. For a decade or more these two dynamic journalists collaborated in launching the careers of several writers. Archibald encouraged and cajoled them through the columns of his Bulletin while Stephens edited them for book publication and publicised their work on the Red Page alongside reviews of current British, American and European writers.
With its weekly cavalcade of criticism, anecdotes, letters, cartoons and even photographs, the Red Page was nothing if not lively. This was the paper’s deep pink inside front cover where a feature poem took pride of place at the top, with stars indicating Stephens’ estimate of its quality. At the bottom was his wittily barbed advice to rejected contributors. Courting controversy, he provoked his readers with unflattering commentaries on iconic British writers such as Burns, Kipling and Tennyson.
An indefatigable correspondent, Stephens worked also as a literary agent, and his letters – penned in purple ink – matched the robust style of his various literary encounters.
While the Bulletin books edited by Stephens were predominantly volumes of verse – a popular genre at the time – Stephens’ list also included collections of cartoons by Phil May and Livingston Hopkins whose work had helped establish a wide readership for the Bulletin. In 1901, as Australia celebrated federation, Stephens also celebrated twenty-one years of Bulletin creative writing with a sparkling pair of anthologies: The Bulletin Story Book and The Bulletin Reciter.
His first and indeed greatest success as a publisher was the 1899 bestseller On Our Selection, a rollicking family saga adapted many times for stage and screen. J.F. Archibald had launched the career of the pseudonymous “Steele Rudd” – Arthur Hoey Davis – through the columns of the Bulletin. Like so many others, Stephens had been one of Archibald’s discoveries, and both had been apprentice printers.
When Archibald began suffering severe manic depressive (bi-polar) episodes, leading to prolonged incarceration, Stephens lost his main Bulletin ally. He never got on with Archibald’s successor as editor, James Edmond, and began facing his own psychological demons.
Depression and violence stalked the Stephens family in the years leading up to Archibald’s breakdown. A.G. Stephens’ younger sister Jessie had been committed to an asylum in Toowoomba where she died15 years later, and one of his brothers shot and killed another brother following an argument. Stephens himself developed a life-long obsession with the links between genius and madness.
In October 1906 the Red Page editor and critic acrimoniously parted ways with his business-minded employers at the Bulletin. For two years Stephens worked as leader-writer for Gresley Lukin’s Evening Post in Wellington, New Zealand, having earlier worked with Lukin at the Boomerang.
The remainder of Stephens’ now waning career was devoted to editing and publishing The Bookfellow. This literary journal appeared intermittently between 1907 and its final demise in 1925, eight years before his death.
“The Bookfellow was his dream and our curse,” wrote his daughter, the journalist Connie Robertson, who worked from the age of thirteen as her father’s secretary at his small Sydney office. In exasperation, the youthful Connie later purchased the journal from her father and paid him a small retainer to edit it.
Though his life was increasingly in disarray, Stephens’ nose for talent remained sharp and he somehow managed to edit and publish John Shaw Neilson’s first four volumes of verse. Numerous other writers benefitted from his patronage including Miles Franklin, Mary Gilmore, Barbara Baynton, Will Ogilvie, Louise Mack and Hugh McCrae.
With his famous Red Page, A.G. Stephens had rapidly established himself as Australia’s most influential literary critic, and he continued to read voraciously. His long-suffering wife – and mother of their seven children – always cut his food into small portions so he could eat at his desk with a fork while he read: each book or magazine propped open on a special stand.
Craig Munro is a book editor, biographer and literary historian.
Courtesy of State Library of New South Wales
Courtesy of the State Library of Queensland
‘Stephens, Alfred George (1865–1933)’, Stuart Lee, Australian Dictionary of Biography Vol 12, Melbourne University Press, 1990.
Connie Sweetheart: The Story of Connie Robertson, Valerie Lawson, William Heinemann, Australia, 1990.