Peter (Walkinshaw) Cowan Critical Essays


(Short Story Criticism)

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."