Emeritus Professor Gerald Wilkes FAHA

It is with deep regret that the Academy informs you of the death of Emeritus Professor Gerald Wilkes FAHA, Foundation Fellow and former President of the Academy, who passed away on 15 May 2020. A pioneering figure in the study of Australian literature and editor of one of Australia’s oldest continuous literary journals Southerly for some 34 years, Wilkes was a galvanizing force in the development of nineteenth and twentieth-century Australian literature and culture as a field of research. He was elected to the Academy in 1968 and served as President from 1983 to 1986. 

Gerald Alfred Wilkes was born on 27 September 1927 in Punchbowl, NSW. He attended the University of Sydney, where he took what he called the ‘unconventional step’ in the 1940s and 1950s of writing his BA and MA theses on Australian writers: Henry Handel Richardson and Christopher Brennan, respectively. His MA thesis on Brennan's poems was published as a monograph in 1953 and remains a highly respected study. After completing a DPhil at the University of Oxford, Wilkes returned to the University of Sydney where he was appointed the inaugural Chair in Australian Literature in 1962, and the Challis Professor of English Literature in 1966. In both positions Wilkes tirelessly promoted the study and writing of home-grown literature at a time when it was yet to be recognised as culturally significant, and in so doing was instrumental in securing it as a vibrant and valuable field of research over the ensuing decades.

Whilst Wilkes continued to publish articles on Brennan during his time at the University of Sydney, he became highly regarded for his analyses of many other Australian writers, including A.D. Hope, Patrick White, R.D. Fitzgerald and Judith Wright. He produced several monographs, including Australian Literature: A Conspectus (1969), R.D. FitzGerald (1981) and The Stockyard and the Croquet Lawn: Literary Evidence for Australian Cultural Development (1981). He also published A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms (1978, 2nd edn 1985), Exploring Australian English (1986), and was special Australian consultant to The New Collins Dictionary of the English Language (1979) and companion volumes. He also served as the editor of Southerly from 1963 to 1987, which drew his attention even further into the history of Australian literature. 

Wilkes also made major contributions to English literature, especially as an editor. At Oxford he had written his doctoral thesis on late sixteenth-century poetry, with a special focus on Fulke Greville. He published a scholarly edition of Greville’s poetry in 1965, followed by one of his poetry and drama in 2008. In 1982 he edited The Complete Plays of Ben Jonson, for Oxford University Press. Earlier he had written on Milton, with The Thesis of Paradise Lost (1961). For many years Wilkes also co-edited the Challis Shakespeare, a series especially designed for Australian readers.

At the date of the grant of the Royal Charter establishing the Australian Academy of the Humanities in 1969, there were 51 Members of the Australian Humanities Research Council who then became the Foundation Fellows of the new Academy. Wilkes was among these Fellows. He served as Council member and Editor from 1969 to 1983, before his tenure as President from 1983 to 1986.

During his time as President, Wilkes oversaw significant developments in the Academy’s international engagements, including the publication of The Language Atlas of the Pacific Part II, launched by the Hon. Barry Jones in 1984, and the China Exchange Scheme, administered in conjunction with the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia. This latter initiative led to the formation of a delegation to China, led by Wilkes, in which discussions were held with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Peking, and with provincial academies at Xi-an, Shanghai and Guangzhou. These activities and others like it provided the early foundation for our bilateral relationship with CASS, a relationship that continues to this day. Wilkes also oversaw several significant initiatives on the home front, including the Academy’s submission to government on the preservation of Aboriginal rock art, and the planning of the Bicentennial Conference 'Terra Australis to Australia', which was endorsed by the Australian Bicentennial Authority as part of its official programme for 1988. 

We extend our deepest sympathies to the Wilkes family, their friends, and to all those who worked with him in his long and illustrious career. 

A comprehensive obituary on the life and contribution of Professor Wilkes will be prepared by an Academy Fellow and published in due course.