I just had the very sad news that noted Australian scholar Bruce Bennett had passed away after a long and valorous battle with lung cancer. With the passing of Bruce Bennett, all literary scholars of Australia have lost a friend, a helping hand an an esteemed, guiding sensibility. He was a commanding figure in the field but even more he was simply a gracious and likable man.
It always fascinated me that Bruce Bennett was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in the early 1960, at the same time as my mother was studying at nearby Bristol. Perhaps if they had met, I would have had even more connection to Australia than I ended up having.
They eventually did meet, in 2000 when Bruce was the keynote speaker at the AAALS conference I organized in New York. We had not previously had a keynote speaker but I thought this would be a good innovation to give our meeting more of an academic core. Given the conference theme, I could think of no better speaker than Bruce. And he delivered powerfully on my hope, giving an eloquent address that started off by paying tribute to the recently deceased Jack Davis, then moved wide-rangingly over a dizzying array of global topics, all the while reminding us that globalization consisted of interactions between humans and must be pursued humanely. Bruce further proved this by being the social staple of the conference, even to the end where five or six people, including my mother and Bruce’s brother Jack, convened at Swift's pub in the East Village for a final post-conference celebration.
Bruce first came to my attention as a West Australian regionalist; his An Australian Compass was one of the first books I reviewed for Antipodes in 1991. I was impressed by the specificity and intelligence of the book, its commitment to place as a critical lens for exploring allegiances, attachments, and affinities. Just when I had Bruce pegged as a West Australia regionalist though, he took a position at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, which enabled him to take a moor central role in promoting scholarship on Australian literature within and beyond Australia. Indeed, Bruce’s ambit was not just national but international; even then he was working on Indonesia (as evidenced in a paper he gave at the 1993 Toronto MLA) and pursuing initiatives in the Asia-Pacific region, the Indian Ocean rim, postcolonial diasporas, and international education. Connections that today are routine might not have been made manifest without Bruce’s energetic fossicking. As a critic, he also explored broad overviews of Australian literature as seen in his Oxford book, but also has undertaken researches into less popular byways, such as his work on the short story and his current work in an almost wholly unstudied genre, Australian spy fiction, several installments of which I have published in Antipodes.
Bruce had the intellect and the breadth to be an intimidatingly erudite scholar but he added to that an availability, an affable if not necessarily matey graciousness, and a humility that has made him not only profoundly respected but also widely admired. The way he pursued his career exemplified what an academic life can and should be: a vocation in which one's daily conduct is in synch with the ideals of learning and scholarship that inspire so many to enter it.
Recently my undergraduate senior advisee told me that one book she had read in the course of her researches into Australian nature writing had particularly inspired her. It was Bruce Bennett’s An Australian Compass. She showed me her copy, the exact same edition I had reviewed in 1991, when my student could not have been more than an infant. Bruce’s work has spanned generations, and will span many more in the years to come.
His passing leaves a huge gap in Australian literary study. He knew the field; encouraged the young called attention to the deserving He was a teacher, reader, and colleague. He was liked and respected. I will miss him tremendously.