In 1960, those interested in the study of Australian literature were served by a number of literary magazines, including Southerly, Overland, Quadrant and Meanjin. Australian literature was not widely accepted as a valid field of academic study at this time, but this view was frequently challenged by contributors to these magazines. James McAuley, poet and teacher at the University of Tasmania saw the need for an academic periodical to professionalise the study of Australian literature and recruited Laurie Hergenhan, newly arrived at the university, to be founding editor of Australian Literary Studies.
The first issue was launched in August 1963. Aimed at teachers and students of Australian literature, the issues produced in the 1960s printed foundation research on the colonial period, and criticism of more recent literature, in an attempt to define the field of study. Articles on the works of Henry Kingsley, Marcus Clarke, Rolf Boldrewood(T), Henry Lawson, Henry Kendall and John Shaw Neilson regularly featured during the 1960s and 1970s. In addition, criticism on contemporary writers such as Patrick White]m), Judith Wright, Gwen Harwood, Francis Webb and Thomas Keneally also appeared. During the 1980s and 1990s interest in the colonial period continued and the work of more contemporary writers was discussed, the most frequent subjects including Peter CareyC)), David Malouf, Les Murray and Brian Castro.
Since 1963, the 'Annual Bibliography of Studies in Australian Literature' has been printed in the May issue. For many years it has been the most comprehensive and up-to-date printed guide on criticism on Australian literature. Special issues of Australian Literary Studies have also been produced, concentrating on subjects such as the contemporary Australian short story, Australian suburbia, and the works of Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Henry Handel Richardson and Les Murray. The Penguin New Literary History of Australia was released as a special issue in 1988.
Australian Literary Studies is often identified with its long-time editor, Laurie Hergenhan. The journal was produced at the University of Tasmania until 1975 when it was relocated to the University of Queensland where Hergenhan had moved four years earlier. Unlike other literary magazines such as Southerly and Meanjin, Australian Literary Studies publishes no creative writing, concentrating solely on the criticism of historical and contemporary Australian literature. While this concentration was at first seen as a positive element in literary grant applications, it became increasingly negative in the 1990s. With a consistent circulation of around one thousand, Australian Literary Studies was assisted by regular grants from Australian government arts agencies until 1996 when all funding was withdrawn. Since that time it has been produced with the assistance of the University of Queensland Press.
Leigh Dale became the editor in 2002. The journal was produced at the University of Wollongong. Dale continued in that role until 2015 when Julieanne Lamond became editor and the journal moved to an online only publication format. The new format journal was launched in February 2016 at the Australian National University, its new institutional home.
Hergenhan's contribution to the Festschrift for Michael Wilding starts as a memoir, reminiscing about the mid-1960s when he and Wilding were colleagues at the University of Sydney. Both Wilding and Hergenhan were interested in a Marcus Clarke 'revival', and both did some critical writing on Clarke which, in Wilding's case, led to the significant monograph Marcus Clarke (1977). Hergenhan discovers an affinity between the two writers who both were expatriates from England having to make sense of the new environment in Australia, and who both were Australian as well as international writers. He argues that 'perhaps Wilding saw much of himself in Clarke' (226), and concludes:
'Clarke provided a literary model [for Wilding], a morale booster, and above all an analogue of a thoroughly professional writer, with a flexible, restless outlook, pursuing the new with the aid of the old, a young expatriate writer, beginning his acclimatisation but always nurturing his internationalism. ... Theirs is one of the most fascinating connections - of "imagined counterparts" - in Australian literary history' (232).