A.G. Stephens was a well-known Australian journalistic publisher and writer of the long nineteenth century. However, by the time of his death in 1933, he had become largely forgotten, as lamented by Nettie Palmer at the time. Stephens edited two country newspapers, the Gympie Miner (1888-1890) and the Cairns Argus (1891-1892); wrote leaders for Gresley Lukin's Brisbane Boomerang (1891), and published two spirited and cogent political pamphlets; and went on a world tour, sending back syndicated articles which became A Queenslander's Travel-Notes (1905). It was, though, for the ‘Red Page’ column of the Bulletin he is most known by. Stephens' fine achievement as editor was to have published in his lifetime over forty meticulously produced books which are now part of the Australian literary heritage.
Impact On Brisbane Society
A.G. Stephens spent most of his years in New South Wales. During his brief time in Queensland, his pamphlet The Griffilwraith (Brisbane, 1893) provided a national profile to a difficult period of the state’s parliamentary history. It referred to the opportunistic political coalition between Sir Samuel Griffith and Sir Thomas McIlwraith, where Griffith had been the hope for liberal reforms in the colony, only dashed by Griffith’s pragmatism. Stephens was a freethinker in philosophy and a Unitarian in religion. Stephens in his writings presented the odd combination, first, deliberately sparking controversy to draw out debate, and secondly, provide a compatible space for debate to be aired. It made sense in Stephen’s theory of criticism, which is recorded by biographer Stuart Lee from a letter of Stephens to Kate Baker:
“Criticism is in the nature of a bridge between art and the public. Its function is to set up a standard, and to guide the public to self-use of that standard. It demands in its construction minds fully trained to understand and appreciate the aesthetic laws which underlie art, and with a grasp of psychology which enables the critic to know what the public wants and what degree of improvement it will stand in its wants. It suffers from a divorce in these qualities.”
It is a fine heuristic but it has problems for the historian, where the degree of improvement to what the public wants would mean much less meaningful history would be written. The public forgetfulness of A.G. Stephens makes the point.
Stuart Lee, 'Stephens, Alfred George (1865–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stephens-alfred-george-8642/text15107, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 4 July 2019.
Lee, Stuart. The Self-Made Critic : a Literary and Biographical study of A.G. Stephens, University of Sydney, Department of English, M.A. Thesis, 2009.
Maguire, Carmel. An Original Reaction from Art: An Analysis of the Criticism of A.G. Stephens on the Red Page of the Bulletin, 1894-1906,The Australian National University, M.A. Thesis, 1972.
Stephens, A. G. (Alfred George). The Griffilwraith: Being an Independent Criticism of the Methods and Manoeuvres of the Queensland Coalition Government, 1890-93, A.J. Ross, Brisbane, 1893.
Stephensen, P. R. (Percy Reginald). The Life and Works of A.G. Stephens ("The Bookfellow"): a lecture, delivered to the Fellowship of Australian Writers, Sydney, 10th March, 1940, Fellowship of Australian Writers, 1940.
Alfred George Stephens. State Library of Queensland