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The case for Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter

Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter is not your standard bushranger confessional, it’s a searing document of prophecy and self-mythologisation. Raymond Barlow, CC BY-NC-SA

If you had to argue for the merits of one Australian book, one piece of writing, what would it be? See the end of this article for information on how to get involved.

Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter was literally his life’s work, his magnum opus.

In fact, it was his second attempt at writing an account of his life and times. The first – known as the Cameron Letter – was sent to a police superintendent, John Sadlier, and a local politician, Donald Cameron, in December 1878. A petition and a list of grievances against Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick (who had brought Kelly’s mother Ellen to trial in Melbourne), the Cameron Letter begins almost formally:

Take no offence if I take the opportunity of writing a few lines to you.

Ned Kelly in 1880. Wikimedia Commons

And then, as it unfolds, it becomes apocalyptic, foreshadowing the narrative direction that the Jerilderie Letter would take soon afterwards: “Fitzpatrick”, Kelly concludes, “shall be the cause of greater slaughter to the rising generation than St. Patrick was to the snakes and frogs in Ireland”.

In the event, the Cameron Letter was never published. So Kelly wrote a second draft and took it to Jerilderie in southern New South Wales in February 1879, where he robbed a bank and tried to give the manuscript to a local journalist.

A plucky bank accountant – aptly named Edwin Living – got hold of it and took it to Melbourne. Various newspapers published brief summaries of the Jerilderie Letter, but the document itself wasn’t published in its entirety until 1930. The original Jerilderie Letter was donated to the State Library of Victoria in 2000, where it can now be read online.

Is Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter a work of literature worthy of our attention?

The historian Alex McDermott – who introduced the Text Publishing edition in 2001 – certainly thought so. “The Jerilderie Letter”, he suggested, “prefigures the ambition of modernist literature to make the written and spoken words indivisible, as exemplified in James Joyce’s Ulysses”. Peter Carey said the same sort of thing when he talked about the Jerilderie Letter as a source for his novel, The True History of the Kelly Gang (2000).

Text Publishing

Joyce and Kelly did indeed have their Irishness in common – and both registered their exile from the homeland. But how modernist the Jerilderie Letter might be is open to debate. Of course, from a generic point of view the Jerilderie Letter is simply an Australian bushranger’s life-and-times confessional: a familiar-enough colonial narrative form that became prominent a few years later with the publication of Rolf Boldrewood’s best-seller Robbery Under Arms, first serialised in Sydney in 1882-83.

But Kelly’s testament is also so much more than this. It might not be Joycean, but there may well be something proto-modernist about it. It is a petition, but the cultural work it does is far more ambitious and wide-ranging. The formal opening of the Cameron Letter has been turned into this startling line:

I wish to acquaint you with some of the occurrences of the present past future.

The Jerilderie Letter looks in three directions at once; time is folded into itself and stretched open.

This isn’t the way a bushranger confessional would usually begin. And there is nothing contrite about the Jerilderie Letter; on the contrary, the voice of Ned Kelly is crazily defiant right to the end.

The Jerilderie Letter dramatises its predicament to the point of self-mythology. It is hyperbolic, allusive, hallucinatory. It rejects the colonial system as corrupt – police corruption goes back a long way - and thunders against injustice.

As it goes on, it builds momentum and begins to rant: echoing a long tradition of impassioned ranting that goes back at least as far as the English Civil War (and there would be many Irish precedents here, too).

It reaches back into Celtic myth and then curses Australia’s future like an Old Testament prophet: “neglect this and abide by the consequences,” Kelly tells us, “which shall be worse than the rust in the wheat in Victoria or the druth of a dry season to the grasshoppers in New South Wales”.

With its end-of-the-world exuberance and its instinctive sympathies for the persecuted and the underdog, Kelly’s 56-page testament seems to me, at least, to anticipate not so much James Joyce, but one of the great modern poems of the 20th century: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1956).

Ned Kelly in the dock. Wikimedia Commons

Is the Jerilderie Letter a bit like poetry? In fact, the careful page-by-page, line-by-line transcription at the State Library of Victoria makes the Jerilderie Leter look very much like 56 stanzas or verses. (Text Publishing’s version loses this feature, following its own pagination.)

The Jerilderie Letter is “poetic” in some rather obvious ways, too. It is full of striking metaphors and images: “it would bog a duck”, or “he roared like a big calf attacked by dogs”. I especially like the line “barking up the wrong stump”: a reminder of the sheer amount of tree-felling at the time, perhaps. The Jerilderie Letter is fond of animal imagery, and Kelly and his gang are often likened to feral or native creatures fleeing their pursuers: “they could not snare me”.

Movement is particularly important to the Jerilderie Letter, which begins with an account of a hapless bush hawker bogged in a swamp. The bushrangers, on the other hand, are like will-o’-the-wisps, gliding freely through the bush, disappearing in one place and turning up in another.

At times they can seem to be almost incorporeal, like “rain”. Dispersal is something that defines the bushrangers, something that binds their present moment to a glimpsed future: “scattering pieces of me and my brother all over the bush”. It can work the other way, too, as an apocalyptic threat to Kelly’s pursuers:

I would have scattered their blood and brains like rain.

The Jerilderie Letter’s task is to illuminate, to reveal what is otherwise hidden from view: the brutality of the police, for example, or the fated lives of Irish colonials. This is a task it also shares with Ginsberg’s Howl, which drew on the revelatory visions of William Blake.

Howl and the Jerilderie Letter are both expressions of the predicament of someone outside the law whose vision of the world has already absorbed the cultural logic of his own incarceration and death: Kelly’s future.

You have to listen to these texts precisely because the authors say so. “I am a widow’s son outlawed”, the last line of the Jerilderie Letter tells us, “and my orders must be obeyed”.

Are you an academic or researcher? Is there an Australian book or piece of writing – fiction or non-fiction, contemporary or historical – you would like to make the case for? Contact the Arts + Culture editor with your idea.

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