Reprint: Australian Authors IX: Frank Dalby Davison by Aidan de Bune

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Many young Australian writers, desperate at the lack of book-publishing facilities in Australia, have gone abroad, to see publishers in England or America and, having found publishers they have stayed away from this country -- for their own good. Why should an author remain in Australia, to be treated with indifference by his own people, they say, when fame and recognition are to be had in London or New York? Such an export of talent is a loss to Australia. We can only admire those who have remained here to pioneer Australian Literature as their fathers pioneered the economic resources of this vast and uncultivated continent. Frank Dalby Davison is one of the young Australians, of a new generation of writers, who is determined to make his literary home amongst his own people.

Unable to find a publisher for his first two books, "Man Shy" and "Forever Morning," he had them printed and published privately, encouraged and assisted by his father, Mr. Fred. Davison, a Sydney estate agent, who is also possessed of strong literary gifts and is a sound critic. Compared with the finished-looking products of professional publishers, young Davison's books were crudely printed and bound, and looked amateurish in the extreme. One blushed to think that such poor-looking books were representative of Australian literature. But readers of the books had a pleasant surprise in store. In Frank Dalby Davison's books discerning readers saw the power and fluency and word-control that marks the great writer. A new star had risen in the Australian literary firmament.

The first editions were eagerly bought up. "Man Shy" was awarded the Australian Literature Society's Gold Medal for the best Australian novel published in 1931. Angus and Robertson, Ltd., of Sydney, republished the books in proper professional style. Frank Dalby Davison had "arrived."

The first two novels both dealt with men and cattle in the Australian bush. "Man Shy" tells of the herds of wild cattle ("scrubbers") that ranged in the mountains beyond the boundaries of a cattle-station on the Maranoa, in Queensland. They were like a "phantom herd" that had been in existence for sixty years:

Theirs was a life for the brute slaves of man to dream of. Their hides had never known the searing whip, or the sting of the branding iron; nor did the shadow of the slaughterhouse fall across their years. Companions of the wilder- ness creatures -- the emu, the dingo, and the kangaroo-- their life was the life of dumb brutes as it was on earth in the beginning. They were free as the winds that played about their mountains; free as the rains that swept up the gorges; and as free as the range itself, hoisting its timber-crested palisades into the blue. They lived secure and content in the simple wisdom the Creator has given to dumb things.

In every paragraph of this remarkable Australian story the author builds up in simple, but unforgettable imagery, the life of the wild herd. His similes are drawn directly from nature:

The narrow pads along which they passed in single file from one feeding ground to another lay in the mountains like the webbed veins in the back of a leaf. 

The observation of the bushland never errs. The author has not drawn upon his imagination, but on his knowledge, in writing such passages as, for example, the following description of a fight between two bulls:

Prelude to battle was observed with due ceremony. Eyeing each other from a distance of about forty yards, each roared his contempt at the other. Each stroked the ground with a challenging forefoot, flinging the dust back along his flanks. They walked a few paces towards each other, and paused. Their battle-cry was a succession of throaty grumbles, each pitched about a tone higher than the preceding one; each followed by a sobbing intake of the breath; and the last one ending in a blast that threatened annihilation. With short, measured steps they again moved towards each other, heads lowering to engage. 

A quick eye! That is precisely what Davison himself possesses, and it is the essential qualification for a writer. Things seen and noted, simply and graphically told -- such is the material of all great art. Like the painter of pictures in oils, the writer, who is a painter of pictures in words, must trust his eye, and use his eye, before he begins to use his pen. Frank Davison understands this. He has looked closely at Australia before beginning to write about it. He has looked through his own eyes and not through the spectacles kindly provided for our use by English, and other visitors, to this country. That is why the work of Frank Dalby Davison is a portent for the future of the Australian novel. Only one other writer -- Miles Franklin -- has written so directly and with such surely observed knowledge of horses and cattle in the Australian scene. This is real Australia, one feels, not the romantic Australia of "bookish" writers.

Frank Davison's future work will be watched with great interest by those who look forward to a powerful Australian literature, strong-rooted in the soil. "I am Australian by birth and by conviction," he has stated. It will be interesting to see whether he can write of the Australian bush in a manner interesting to people who live abroad, as Vance Palmer has done in "The Passage," and Katherine Pritchard in "Working Bullocks." But he is more likely to succeed if he writes for his own people first.

Angus and Robertson have just published a new story of his entitled "The Wells of Beersheba," which deals with the Australian Light Horse, in Palestine. This book is not a novel, but a long "short-story" in book form, intended as a Gift Book.

Frank Dalby Davison is an Australian writer well worth watching.

First published in The West Australian, 27 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 January 7, 2011 4:17 PM.

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