Critical Context

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973, the first Australian to be so honored, White is unquestionably a major literary figure. As he observed, an artist was always an outsider in Australia. Indeed, White’s first novel was published in the United States by the Viking Press. White’s works, in theme, style, and content most unlike the conventional Australian novel (which White called “the dreary, dun-colored offspring of journalistic realism”), were at first not at all well received. In 1941, however, Happy Valley (1939), his first novel, received the Australian Literary Society Gold Medal, as did his fourth novel, The Tree of Man (1955) in 1956. Though his international reputation grew steadily—Voss was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection in the United States—it was not until he received the Nobel Prize that White achieved international fame.

If there has been any adverse criticism of White’s work, it has been of his style. Described as a “frustrated painter and musician,” White strains the language to the utmost in order to render sight, sound, and sense. He seems to undertake an almost Platonic search for the reality beyond the reality. It is not so much the poetic imagery and symbolism which present difficulties to the reader but the resulting density and compression of the style. Voss, in particular, demands attention to every word, and must be read with the sort of concentrated attention one brings to the more complex forms of poetry, an attention which must be sustained through almost 450 pages.

Voss was based on an actual expedition, a similarly ill-fated one led by a German emigre, Ludwig Leichardt, in 1845. White read accounts of the expedition in A. H. Chisholm’s Strange New World: The Adventures of John Gilbert and Ludwig Leichardt (1941) and also the journal of Australian explorer Edward John Eyre. White first conceived the idea of the novel during the Blitz in London, and saw Leichardt’s—and Voss’s—megalomania and extreme assertion of will exemplified in Adolf Hitler. Voss, however, is a much more complex and redeemed character.

The Nobel citation read, in part, “for an epic and psychological art which has introduced a new continent into literature.” White depicts the unspoiled continent, not as a soulless entity to conquer or by which to be defeated but as a natural or even a supernatural force, a force commanding humankind’s awe and ultimately requiring its humility.