Peter (Walkinshaw) Cowan Essay - Critical Essays

Cowan, Peter (Walkinshaw)


Peter (Walkinshaw) Cowan 1914-

Australian short story writer, novelist, biographer, and editor.

Although Cowan has published several novels, he is best known as a writer of short fiction. All of his spare, realistic stories, which are set in Western Australia, feature ordinary people who suffer from isolation or loneliness as a result of their need for but inability to obtain either love or freedom. Much like those writers who had an early impact on Cowan—especially Hemingway, Chekhov, and Dos Passos—Cowan focuses on the inner struggles of these individuals by recording their responses to external factors. Setting is therefore critical in Cowan's stories. His earlier pieces generally take place in the bush, which is depicted as both restorative and destructive, while many of his later works are set in or around Perth, which is portrayed as an unnatural environment that often breeds abnormality and violence. Critical reaction to Cowan's works has been varied. Some critics have found his short fiction predictable. The majority, however, have lauded Cowan's stories for their honest, detached, and sympathetic treatment of ordinary people, as well as for their modernist style. According to Bruce Williams, in a discussion of The Tins and Other Stories (1973), "We can parallel Cowan's techniques in prose fifty years old, but it does not anymore than Joyce or Beckett does, strike us as dated."

Biographical Information

Cowan was born in Perth, Western Australia, to Norman Walkinshaw, a lawyer, and Marie (Johnson) Cowan. His father died when Cowan was only ten. Cowan's mother took in borders and taught music to support the family, managing to send Cowan to private school. He left school at fifteen to work as a junior clerk in a lawyer's office. Recalling the experience in an interview conducted with Julie Lewis, Cowan reminisced, "I hated it with a passionate hatred . . . in my fiction there's always been some poor bugger trapped in an office." He soon left the position to work as a farm laborer in the bush, but in 1935 Cowan returned to Perth where he took on various jobs, studied at night school, and published his first short story, "The Ties That Bind," in a national magazine. He attended the University of Western Australia, where he obtained a B.A. in English in 1941. Also that year, Cowan married Edith Howard. Cowan served in the Royal Australian Air Force during World War II, during which time he wrote stories on a borrowed typewriter. In 1944 his story "The Fence" was published in the controversial literary magazine Angry Penguins. "The Fence," which dealt indirectly with an incestuous relationship, was considered obscene by some. In fact, the journal's editor was prosecuted a month later on charges of immorality for publishing "The Fence" and similar works. The indecency trial greatly affected Cowan; although his first collection, Drift, was published in 1944, and the American periodical Mademoiselle reprinted Cowan's "Temporary Job" the following year, Cowan waited until 1958 before publishing his second collection. Upon receiving his education diploma in 1946, Cowan joined the faculty of the University of Western Australia. He accepted a position with Scotch College in Western Australia in 1950. Cowan began co-editing the literary journal Westerly in 1975. After 1979 he became an Honorary Research Fellow in English at the University of Western Australia.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Cowan's corpus extends from the early 1930s to the late 1980s. His first collection, Drift, which largely centers on the effects of the Depression in Western Australia, explores such varied themes as greed, violence, poverty, and grief. Social ills, including incest and sexual abuse, also appear in the early short stories, providing a sharp contrast to the deliberately moral and nationalistic fiction preferred in Australia at the time. In Drift, as in Cowan's later short fiction, he tends to focus on just a few characters, sometimes limiting himself to the consciousness of a single person. All of his characters suffer from isolation. In the early stories, such isolation is generally physical. For example, in "Drift" a brother and sister join the army to escape the seclusion of their father's farm in the bush. In Cowan's later stories, however, characters most often suffer internally. In these works he frequently focuses on fractured relationships between men and women. Their repeated failures at communication or connection with others tend to result in loneliness, madness, and even murder. Because of this shift in tension, Cowan's later stories are often more complex and his characterizations much sharper. Though Cowan has always relied on understatement, much of his later fiction is stripped of narrative, resulting in less detail and, consequently, unreliable perspectives. Moreover, dialogue in these works is more fractured and, in some stories, character names and quotation marks have been deleted. According to Bruce Williams "Their absence affects you neither as gimmick nor idiosyncrasy but as conferring on the dialogue a weightlessness and anonymity."

Critical Reception

Australian audiences largely rejected Cowan's early works for their so-called impropriety. Later collections were likewise slighted by the public because of the heavy subject matter and modernist style of the stories. In the past few decades, however, critical acknowledgment and appreciation of Cowan's work has appeared with greater regularity. Some critics have detected a sameness to Cowan's fiction. John Barnes, while reviewing The Empty Street (1965), lamented that "After a time one feels that, given the beginning, one could almost complete the pattern of a Cowan story." Others have faulted Cowan's sometimes impenetrable characters. As Bruce Williams, in a review of Mobiles (1979), has remarked, "We are like spectators in a painter's studio, admitted to the presence, but kept too far away to see, over his shoulder, what it is that so absorbs him." Even so, Cowan's longer stories, including "The Unploughed Land," "The Empty Street," and "The Lake," are considered among the finest in the genre because of their somber mood, biting irony, fully developed characterizations, and rich symbolism. Aove all, critics have found Cowan's realism most appealing. "Cowan's compassionate view of human failure and waste is set down with an uncompromising honesty that one can only admire," wrote John Barnes. "Whether or not one shares his vision, his stories compel from the reader a recognition of their essential truthfulness to human experience."

Principal Works

Short Fiction

Drift 1944

The Unploughed Land 1958

The Empty Street 1965

The Tins and Other Stories 1973

New Country [with others; edited by Bruce Bennett] 1976

Mobiles 1979

*A Window in Mrs. X's Place 1986

Voices 1988

Other Major Works

Summer (novel) 1964

Seed (novel) 1966

A Unique Position: A Biography of Edith Dircksey Cowan, 1861-1932 (biography) 1978

The Color of the Sky (novel) 1986

Maintland Brown: A View of Nineteenth-Century Western Australia (biography) 1988

The Hills of Apollo Bay (novel) 1989

*Contains selected stories from previously published collections.


John Barnes (review date 1966)

"New Tracks to Travel: The Stories of White, Porter, and Cowan" in Meanjin Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 1, Autumn, 1966, pp. 154-70.

[In the following excerpt, Barnes admires the stories collected in The Empty Street for their honest rendering of the human experience.]

Cowan strips his description, seeming to aim at plain statement of fact and nothing more. His language is factual, unemotional, and lacking in sensuous reference. The scene, as always in Cowan's stories, lacks colour and vividness: he refuses the temptation to be picturesque or to create a surface excitement, and allows his sense of beauty to emerge only in the exactness of his details. With a...

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Bruce Williams (essay date 1973)

"Behind the Actual: Peter Cowan's The Tins'," in Westerly, No. 3, September, 1973, pp. 39-41.

[In the following excerpt, Williams compares Cowan's early short fiction to his more recent collection The Tins, focusing on the author's changed treatment of such familiar themes as loneliness and isolation in this work.]

All the commentary on Peter Cowan's work makes him out a realist like the Ibsen of the 'social' plays. Cowan is said to be a recorder of certain depleted lives, whose stories extend understanding and compassion to the voiceless. The work is like this, but there is more to say. Myself I am guided by the feeling expressed by Eluard about the...

(The entire section is 1699 words.)

Bruce Williams (review date 1980)

"Three Short Story Writers—Peter Cowan, Elizabeth Jolley, Justina Williams," in Westerly, Vol. 25, No. 2, June, 1980, pp. 104-07.

[In the following assessment of Mobiles, Williams considers "The Lake" one of Cowan's strongest short stories due to its "abstract, bony prose," "solid-looking realism," and "symbolic suggestion. "]

At least three characteristics of mobiles might have suggested his choosing it for a title. No part of a mobile is self-sufficent: it is the surprising balance between them that gives the structure its charm. That balance, again, is always rather precarious, even elusive. And thirdly, it is a form less ambitious than bronze or stone,...

(The entire section is 1579 words.)

Bruce Bennett (essay date 1986)

Introduction to A Window in Mrs. X's Place, by Peter Cowan, Penguin Books, 1986, pp. vii-xv.

[In the following excerpt, Bennett traces Cowan's artistic development, focusing on his experimentation with the short story form.]

Cowan has always maintained a distance between his professional demands and his needs as an artist and an individual. In the dual life which he has felt constrained to lead, one consistent association has been with the land, which he has continued to explore at the outer reaches of human settlement. The contending human needs for mobility, on the one hand, and on the other, the desire to settle, are explored in many of these stories, whether they...

(The entire section is 2018 words.)

Bruce Bennett (essay date 1989)

"Of Books and Covers: Peter Cowan," in Overland, No. 114, May, 1989, pp. 58-62.

[In the following excerpt, Bennett examines the minimalist attributes of Cowan's short story collection Voices, concluding that "few writers have used human voices more skillfully to explore the tensions between male and female set against the changing expectations of society."]

Without the trappings of normal narrative conventions, such as authorial commentary or explanation, or even quotation marks to denote direct speech, Cowan's voices . . . speak unclothed, as if out of the darkness. They seem bare of eccentric clothing, mannerisms, the colorful paraphernalia of conventional...

(The entire section is 2003 words.)

Further Reading

Bennett, Bruce. "Regionalism in Peter Cowan's Short Fiction." World Literature Written in English 18, No. 2 (November 1979): 336-44.

Demonstrates how the Western Australian landscape is intertwined with the themes of Cowan's short fiction.

Bennett, Bruce, and Susan Miller, eds. Peter Cowan: New Critical Essays. Nedlands, Western Australia: University of Western Australia in Association with the Centre for Studies in Australian Literature, 1992, 146 p.

Interpretive essays covering Cowan's entire body of fiction.

Jolley, Elizabeth. "Silences and Spaces." Overland...

(The entire section is 106 words.)