Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Vance Palmer is best remembered for his short stories, anthologized with those of such other prominent practitioners of the art as Henry Lawson, Hal Porter, and Patrick White. Palmer published four volumes of short stories, The World of Men (1915), Separate Lives (1931), Sea and Spinifex (1934), and Let the Birds Fly (1955); he proved his creative and intellectual versatility by writing essays, plays, poems, and novels as well. His collection of brief biographical sketches in National Portraits (1940) and a historical commentary, The Legend of the Nineties (1954), gathered almost as much attention as his more literary output.

The Passage, which won first prize in a Bulletin competition, represents—along with Men Are Human (1930) and a trilogy of novels dealing with Queensland life (Golconda, 1948, Seedtime, 1957, and The Big Fellow, 1959)—the peak of Palmer’s success with the novel.

In all of his fiction, Palmer sought to present an “Australia of the spirit.” Writers, he believed, “must be at one with the purposes and aspirations of the people and their hearts must beat in unison with them.” True to this belief, Palmer, after extensive world travel, settled back in his home country to write about its people and their lives. As a writer of his times, Palmer was torn between the emotion of the romantic 1890’s and the more self-conscious realism of later years. This conflict resulted in the idealistic, although brooding and laconic, protagonists of the later novels.

In The Passage, as well as the other Queensland novels, Palmer gives loving treatment to his image of the ordinary man. In commending such men as Lew to his readers, Palmer places himself squarely in the Lawson tradition.