Reprint: Australian Authors VIII: Vance Palmer by Aidan de Brune

When you begin reading any book or magazine story written by Vance Palmer, you may do so with the comfortable feeling that you are going to be well satisfied when you reach the end. There is nothing erratic about his literary work; it is level, flawless and polished, like a table made from Queensland silky oak by a cabinet-maker who takes pride in his trade. Vance Palmer is an accomplished journeyman -- a craftsman in words who has served his apprenticeship thoroughly, and has mastered his trade, giving you guaranteed good value for money when you buy what he has made with his pen. "A typical Vance Palmer four-square yarn," means a story well constructed, written with care, with no loose ends in the plot, and no slovenly phrasing. His name on a book is a trade mark that you can trust.

Discussion of the major Australian novelists of to-day invariably begins with the brilliant constellation of women writers who have come to the fore in recent years. Henry Handel Richardson, Brent of Bin Bin, Katherine Prichard, Velia Ercole, Barnet Eldershaw, G. B. Lancaster, Alice Rosman, Helen Simpson -- a surprisingly strong list of Australian writers -- to begin with, all known and respected in England and America -- and all women! The discussion turns to men writers. Invariably someone says, 'Well, there is Vance Palmer. . . ' His name comes first to mind. With Dale Collins and Jack McLaren he has presented the Australian theme to English and American readers in a certain virile, straight forward, sincere and unassuming way that lacks the wild emotional force of the woman writers but is no less convincing and genuinely Australian for that. Here is the Australian male in literature, modern but capable and full of a quiet strength, as he is in life.

Like the "Champion Ringer" famed in western shearing sheds, Vance Palmer comes from Queensland. He was born in Bundaberg, the sugar-town at the mouth of the Burnett River. In his early and impressionable youth he must have seen the picturesque gangs of Kanakas cutting the tall green cane and singing their deep-voiced Island songs as they flashed the broad cane-knives, in the sunlight. He would have seen, too, the white labourers, the roughest-mannered but physically the most perfect speciments of masculinity to be found anywhere on the earth, arriving at the cane fields after shearing sheds were cut out, for a few months' big pay and desperately hard work, "cane-slogging." Perhaps he saw fights and riots between Kanakas and white labourers, or watched great muscled timber fellers, stripped to the waist, sweating in the sun as they cleared the jungle from the Isis scriblands, revealing the rich, red volcanic loam where in more and more sugar cane was to be planted. Perhaps, too, he went to the Sand Hills, where the Burnett River flows out to the ocean, and watched the gulls planing over the dunes where another young native of Bundaberg, Bert Hinkler, made and flew box kites the size of aeroplanes even before the triumphs of Wilbur Wright and Bleriot. And no doubt in the Burnett River young Palmer caught eeratodi, the archaic fish that can live out of water, and are found only in that stream.

Colour, strength, romance, during the impressionable age of childhood gave him a background for his writing which he has never lost, for all his later sophistication and urbanity, and world-travelling, and painfully acquired "literariness." Asked recently to express an opinion on Australia as a literary theme. Palmer replied:

"A man can only write about the life he knows. If he is an Australian he will naturally take his themes from his own country. I have written countless magazine stories set in places as far apart as China and Mexico, but I wouldn't attempt any serious work set in those countries -- they don't stimulate my deepest interest. Australia can provide all the themes required by any writer who knows his country."

There is a brave and heartening declaration from one who has travelled all the world, and proved himself a master of the literary trade! Vance Palmer has been four times to London on literary business, and once on the business of the A.I.F. He spent a year travelling through Russia and Siberia, in the days before the revolution, incidentally learning much about his job of writing from the works of the great Russian masters, Tolstoi, Gorki, Dostoevski, Poushkin -- all geniuses of narrative style and psychological insight. He has sojourned in the colourful East, and has lived through the uncertainties, terrors and comedy of a revolution in Mexico. Yet always he has returned to Australia, and in his serious work it is always of Australia that he writes. His early days in Bundaberg, and at the Ipswich Grammar School (Queensland's "Athens"), the days which he spent as a jackeroo on a Western Queensland cattle station, and what he noticed when living on the edge of the crashing surf at Caloundra, near Brisbane, or during the year which he spent recently on Green Isand, near Cairns, on the Barrier Reef -- these essentially Australian experiences have given him and will continue to give him, the inspiration for his best work.

His books, like those of all the best Australian authors, are difficult or impossible to obtain from Australian book sellers; who will offer you, instead, English "throw-out" lines if you ask for decent reading matter. Something will be done about this, no doubt, when Australian publishing gets firmly established. The best of Vance Palmer's novels, all recently published in England, are "The Man Hamilton" (1908), "Men are Human" (1930), "The Passage'' (1930), and "Daybreak." "Men are Human" and "The Passage" were "Bulletin" prize-winners. A collection of his short stories, entitled "Separate Lives," was published in 1931; and a book of plays entitled "The Black Horse" was issued in 1924.

He is one of the foremost of the gallant band who are endeavouring to convince the Australian public that Australia as a country is interesting to read about. "It will probably take a lot of writing, of the highest class," he says, "to convince Australians that their life is as interesting as any other."

Vance Palmer's work is of the "highest class," and we are proud of him for that reason.

First published in The West Australian, 20 May 1933

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on November 26, 2010 9:26 AM.

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