Patrick White is best known for his novels. In addition, he published numerous short stories and an autobiographical volume that he called a “self-portrait.” He also wrote a screenplay based on one of his short stories, “The Night of the Prowler.”
In 1973, Patrick White received the Nobel Prize in Literature for his fiction. Thereafter he wrote several more novels, short stories, and plays, which have been staged along with revivals of his earlier plays. Because his dramatic works are not widely known outside Australia, White’s international reputation rests on his fiction, which constitutes an astounding achievement. In its grandeur and metaphysical use of the Australian landscape and character, it altered the course of that country’s literature, previously marked, for the most part, by self-conscious realism and nationalism. Although many critics in Australia scoffed at his complex philosophical work before he received the Nobel Prize, White had steadily built a following abroad, beginning with the publication of The Aunt’s Story in 1948. He has often been credited with setting Australian literature into the mainstream, as well as freeing and influencing an entire generation of writers in Australia whose work is now highly esteemed among those bodies of literature written in English. Whether White is a major dramatist may be open to argument; he does, however, deserve attention for a limited but solid achievement in plays characterized by originality in structure, powerful language, and expression of universal concerns. Although a number of Australian dramatists have achieved widespread recognition, White remains one of the first to experiment on the Australian stage. His example posed a challenge in the 1960’s, when realistic and provincial plays constituted the few native works that appeared in a country where theatergoers most often looked to Great Britain and the United States for “real plays.”
In addition to his Nobel Prize in Literature in 1973, White also was the recipient of the Australian Literary Society gold medal in 1940 for Happy Valley (1939) and in 1956 for The Tree of Man (1955). He also earned the Miles Franklin Award in 1958 for Voss (1957) and in 1962 for Riders in the Chariot (1962). Voss also won the W. H. Smith and Son Literary Award in 1959, while Riders in the Chariot received the brotherhood award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews in 1962.
Patrick White first attempted to achieve literary success as a playwright in London in the 1930’s. His work was largely rejected, partly, he implies in his memoir Flaws in the Glass: A Self-Portrait (1981), because of his lack of connections in the theatrical world (although he did not deny that his talent was immature at that time). In particular, White believed that his effort to dramatize The Aspern Papers (1888), Henry James’s famous novella based on an incident in the life of Lord Byron’s mistress, might have succeeded, thanks to James’s dialogue, had it found a sponsor. Later, however, White successfully published a number of plays, mostly in the 1960’s and 1980’s; one play, The Ham Funeral (pr. 1961), received much attention.
White’s collections The Burnt Ones (1964), The Cockatoos: Shorter Novels and Stories (1974), and Three Uneasy Pieces (1987) bring together the best of his shorter fiction published originally in Australian literary journals (for the most part); White also published in The London Magazine, where, among others, the fine stories “Clay” and “A Cheery Soul” appeared. White experimented with writing film scripts; one was filmed and received some mildly favorable reviews. His autobiographical memoir, already mentioned, mixes poetic impressionism with trenchant satire.
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