Patrick White Biography - Essay


(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Although Patrick White requested that his correspondents destroy his letters, many of them did not. In fact, David Marr, who also wrote the authorized biography of White, had access to some three thousand letters and included, with some cuts, about six hundred of them to a wide variety of people— publishers, agents, other writers and artists, politicians, family, and lovers. The letters, which concern a wide variety of topics, are supplemented by excerpts from a diary White kept during World War II and by Marr’s explanatory comments that bridge chronological gaps and put the letters in their literary, political, and biographical context. Marr has also meticulously edited the letters and appended a “Cast of Correspondents,” which provides additional information.

Literary critics may be disappointed by the paucity of White’s comments about the meaning of his works, in part because he so resisted the efforts of critics to explicate them and in part because he stressed intuition rather than analysis. Aside from some references to the narrative problems posed by VOSS (1993), the only interpretive information is provided by Marr, who ties White’s life to his art and justifies White’s claim that all his fiction is about himself. What is interesting about the letters is the portrait they present of White, a reclusive Jeremiah, a compulsive writer and editor, an avid music buff and art collector, a political leftist, and a prolific letter writer, who devoted his Sundays to his correspondence. He recounts his publishing problems, the machinations involved with staging his plays, and his problems with the Australian literary set, who preferred the more sociable and amiable Thomas Keneally. White’s opinions vacillated, a point he acknowledged when he described himself as possessing a “double personality,” but that personality clearly emerges from the letters Marr selects.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. July 17, 1996, V, p. 3.

The Economist. CCCXXXIV, February 18, 1995, p. 88.

Library Journal. CXXI, June 15, 1996, p. 66.

London Review of Books. XVII, June 22, 1995, p. 18.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, July 21, 1996, p. 10.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, April 1, 1996, p. 60.

Quadrant. XXXIX, March, 1995, p. 79.

The Spectator. CCLXXIV, January 21, 1995, p. 41.

The Times Literary Supplement. March 3, 1995, p. 23.

World Literature Today. LXIX, Summer, 1995, p. 642.