Thomas Keneally Keneally, Thomas (Vol. 117) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Thomas Keneally 1935–

(Full name Thomas Michael Keneally) Australian novelist, playwright, nonfiction writer, and author of children's books.

The following entry provides an overview of Keneally's career through 1996. For additional information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5, 8, 10, 14, 19, 27, and 43.

Since the publication of The Place at Whitton in 1965, Keneally has published over thirty novels, plays, and non-fiction books. His work is noted for being as diverse as it is prolific. The settings of his fiction range from Australia and Europe to America and cover such topics as the settlement of Australia, the life of Joan of Arc, the First and Second World Wars, and issues of contemporary life. Keneally's writings often focus on the role of faith and religion in society, and human interactions in time of war.

Biographical Information

Keneally was born October 7, 1935, in Sydney, Australia. His parents, Edmund Thomas and Elsie Margaret (Coyle) Keneally, were of Irish Catholic descent; Keneally entered the seminary, but he left two weeks short of taking orders. Two of his early novels—The Place at Whitton and Three Cheers for the Paraclete (1969)—are set in seminaries and reflect Keneally's conflict with church dogma. In 1965 he married Judith Martin, and they had two children, Margaret Ann and Jane Rebecca. Keneally taught high school, then college in Australia, then at the University of California at Irvine and New York University. He served on the board of several literary and cultural organizations, and became involved in the movement for Australian independence. He was an advisor to the Australian Constitutional Committee in 1985–88, and Chairman (1991–93), then Director (1994—) of the Australian Republic Movement, a political organization with the goal of Australian independence from Great Britain.

Major Works

Keneally's first novel, The Place at Whitton, is a Gothic horror set in a seminary. The play Halloran's Little Boat (1966) was expanded into the novel Bring Larks and Heroes (1967). Both works deal with moral and ethical conflicts in the early convict settlements of Australia. Ethical conflict is also the subject of Three Cheers for the Paraclete, the story of a young, idealistic priest teaching in a seminary. Keneally ex-plores race relations and the effects of power and poverty in Australia in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972), the story of a young aborigine turned outlaw. The backdrop of war is used in several Keneally novels as a setting for the exploration of stress, conflict and hard ethical choices. In Blood Red, Sister Rose (1974), Keneally uses the story of Joan of Arc to examine conflict and ethics. Gossip from the Forest (1975) looks at the difficult compromises involved in negotiating the armistice at the end of World War I. Matthias Erzberger, head of the German delegation, recognizes the compelling need to end the conflict. Pressured by both sides, he accepts the ruinous terms demanded by the French. These conditions, Keneally suggests, lead to the disastrous economic conditions which follow in Germany, and ultimately sow the seeds of World War II. Confederates (1979) uses the United States Civil War as a setting for a more personal conflict between neighbors. In the midst of the war's climactic battle—Antietam—anotherconflict is underway. Ephie Bumpass' husband Usaph and Ephie's lover Decatur Cate are thrown together to fight in the Shenandoah Volunteers. Cate's emasculating injury in the battle is a symbolic punishment for his sin. In Schindler's List (1982), Keneally examines war, man's inhumanity, and the complex moral and ethical issues present in difficult and perilous times. The novel focuses on the story of Oskar Schindler, a less-than-perfect hero who saves the lives of over a thousand Jews through clever manipulation of the Nazi war machine. In Woman of the Inner Sea (1992), Keneally's protagonist, Kate, is an urban housewife who loses, in rapid succession, her husband to another woman and her children to a tragic accident. Lost in her grief, Kate travels to Myambagh, a small town in the Outback. Every year the area is ravaged by terrible floods, and the time in between is spent repairing damage and preparing for the next flood. Kate is comforted by this repetitive cycle, wherein disaster is made routine, and she finds a renewed ability to face life. Keneally's non-fiction support of Australian independence, delineated in Memoirs from a Young Republic (1993), generated a great deal of political as well as literary criticism. Set in turn-of-the-century Australia, A River Town (1995) is the story of a young Irish immigrant, Tim Shea, who is trying to leave behind the restrictive social structure of his native land, but finds many of the same difficulties in his new country. Shea suffers financially for his refusal to support the Boer War and for not signing a blanket oath of support to the goals of Great Britain. Most critics see this novel as an extended metaphor on the subject of Australia's independence.

Critical Reception

One measure of the controversy generated by much of Keneally's work is the amount that has been written by critics about other critics of his writing. This is to be expected when a writer takes a controversial political stand, such as Keneally did with Memoirs of a Young Republic, and by acting as Chairman of the Australian Republican Movement. But diverse critical reaction to Keneally's work preceded this book. He has been both criticized and praised for his portrayal of female characters (Blood Red, Sister Rose, A Dutiful Daughter, 1971); the graphic nature of his portrayals of violence in his war novels (Schindler's List, Confederates); and his novelization of historical fact (Schindler's List, Gossip from the Forest). Keneally, defending his approach to the historical novel, says that the best ones are "really about the present and uses the past as a sort of working model … in which the human issues are the same as those we have now, and have always had to face." Keneally's characters are complex, full of internal conflict and torn by mixed emotions that make it difficult for readers to simply summarize his position. As Janet Turner Hospital says, "His protagonists, men and women who have a yen for ordinary unremarkable lives but who are compelled by circumstances and by some hard inconvenient kernel of integrity to be exceptional, are torn by self-doubt, they are hyper-conscious of mixed motives, they are distrustful of certainties." Some critics see these conflicted, marginal heroes, such as Phelim Halloran (Bring Larks and Heroes) and Oskar Schindler as representative of a pessimistic view of history, in which a savage system only allows for small moral victories of exceptional people. Many critics, however, praise Keneally's ability, through these deep, complicated, conflicted characters, to make a strong moral statement. They characterize Keneally's message as hopeful, that average, imperfect individuals can take action against unjust systems and have tangible, positive effect. Keneally is praised for taking a moral position without resorting to standing on a soapbox. This is, as Hospital says, "one of the consistent strengths of the entire (and considerable) body of Keneally's work. Though he has a passionate moral vision, he is not didactic."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Place at Whitton (novel) 1965
The Fear (novel) 1965
Halloran's Little Boat (drama) 1966
Bring Larks and Heroes (novel) 1967
Childermass (drama) 1968
Three Cheers for the Paraclete (novel) 1969
The Survivor (novel) 1969
A Dutiful Daughter (novel) 1971
An Awful Rose (drama) 1972
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (novel) 1972
Blood Red, Sister Rose: A Novel of the Maid of New Orleans (novel) 1974
Gossip from the Forest (novel) 1975
Moses the Lawgiver (novel) 1975
Season in Purgatory (novel) 1977
A Victim ofthe Aurora (novel) 1977
Ned Kelly and the City of the Bees (juvenile novel) 1978
Passenger (novel) 1979
Confederates (novel) 1979
The Cut-Rate Kingdom (novel) 1980
Bullie's House (novel) 1981
Schindler's List (novel) 1982; also published in Europe as Schindler's Ark
Outback (nonfiction) 1983
A Family Madness (novel) 1985
Australia (nonfiction) 1987
The Playmaker (novel) 1987
To Asmara: A Novel of Africa (novel) 1989; also published in Australia as Towards Asmara
By the Line (novel) 1989
Flying Hero Class (novel) 1991
Now and in Time to Be: Ireland & the Irish (nonfiction) 1992
The Place Where Souls Are Born: A Journey into the Southwest (nonfiction) 1992
Woman of the Inner Sea (novel) 1992
Memoirs from a Young Republic (nonfiction) 1993
Jacko the Great Intruder (novel) 1994
A River Town (novel) 1995

Kerin Cantrell (essay date 1968)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Perspectives on Thomas Keneally," in Southerly, Vol. 28, No. 1, 1968, pp. 54-67.

[In the following essay, Cantrell traces the development of Keneally's novels through Bring Larks and Heroes.]

Thomas Keneally was born in Sydney in 1935. He has written two plays and three novels, and though his work has usually been favorably received, it is only with his latest novel, Bring Larks and Heroes (1967), that he has suddenly been acclaimed as the author of the "long-sought Great Australian Novel". His first book, The Place at Whitton (1964), Mr. Keneally is reported as having "intended … as a pure thriller but (he) feels now that the book couldn't...

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Janette T. Hospital (essay/interview date 7 May 1976)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Keneally's Reluctant Prophets," in Commonweal, Vol. CIII, No. 10, May 7, 1976, pp. 295-300.

[In the following essay, Hospital characterizes Keneally's protagonists as movern-day Jeremiahs, interspersing her analysis with an interview of Keneally, in which he discusses political aspects of religion and authobiographical elements of his writings.]

Thomas Keneally is an Australian novelist who has won high critical acclaim in his own country, Great Britain and America. He was born in Sydney in 1935, and trained for several years for the Catholic priesthood but did not take Orders. His novels include Bring Larks and Heroes (1967) which won the Miles...

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Patricia Monk (essay date Summer 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Eden Upside Down: Thomas Keneally's Bring Larks and Heroes as Anti-pastoral," in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 21, No. 2, Summer, 1982, pp. 297-303.

[In the following essay, Monk traces the progress of Halloren's apotheosis in Bring Larks and Heroes as a function of the narrative's inversion of conventional and pastoral tropes, related to characters, settings, and moral tone.]

Thomas Keneally can justifiably lay claim to an important place in Australian literature. If, however, there were a single moment in his works by which he might be best remembered, I suspect that moment would be the final paragraph of Bring Larks and...

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Thomas Keneally with Laurie Hergenhan (interview date October 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview in Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 12, No. 4, October, 1986, pp. 453-57.

[In the following interview, Keneally discusses the function of history in his fiction, the significance of his non-Australian settings, and his fictional use of historical facts.]

[Hergenhan:] A number of your novels have been concerned with history and war They have been set wholly or partly outside Australia often with no overt Australian element [Keneally interpolates: 'the sin against the Holy Spirit']. How would you account for this, do you see any recurrent concerns and associated aesthetic problems?

[Keneally:] The whole business of...

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David English (essay date 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "History and the Refuge of Art: Thomas Keneally's Sense of the Past," in The Writer's Sense of the Past: Essays on Southeast Asian and Australian Literature, edited by Kerpal Singh, Singapore University Press, 1987, pp. 160-69.

[In the following essay, English examines the subjective bases of the authorial consciousness that informs Keneally's novels, emphasizing specifically the textual connections between his own biography, his sense of history, and other written texts..]

In every aspect of his published writing and commentary, Thomas Keneally presents a consistent and uniform consciousness: he lives in a world of unresolved dualisms. The primary dualism is...

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Irmtraud Petersson (essay date October 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'White Ravens' in a World of Violence: German Connections in Thomas Keneally's Fiction," in Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 14, No. 2, October, 1989, pp. 160-73.

[In the essay below, Petersson investigates the parallels between Keneally's use of German imagery and the Australian cultural experience, correlating German traits to similar Australian values.]

Despite an increasing diversity in both modes of, and critical approaches to Australian writing, the question of cultural specificity has remained one of the foremost issues. How do we see and represent ourselves? What distinguishes us from other cultures? What do we want to be? These are some of the major...

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Thomas Swick (review date 5 June 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Place Where Souls Are Born, in Commonweal, June 5, 1992, pp. 22-3.

[In the following review, Swickfaults The Place Where Souls are Born for its "confused mosiac" of Native American history and for Keneally's dependence on secondary sources.]

Here is an interesting idea: A book by an Australian, introduced by a Welsh woman, about the least "European" region of the United States.

It helps your natural dubiousness to learn that the Australian is the highly regarded Thomas Keneally (author of, among other books, Schindler's List) and the Welsh woman is the doyenne of contemporary travel writers, Jan Morris, who...

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Susan Fromberg Schaeffer (review date 18 April 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Woman Who Lost Her Children," in New York Times Book Review, April 18, 1993, p. 9.

[In the following review, Schaeffer outlines the plot and themes of Woman of the Inner Sea.]

What would you do if you were a happily married woman whose husband had an affair with a woman who came to obsess him—and then a mysterious catastrophe took your two beloved children from you forever? Would you have the emotional stamina to survive? If you are one of those fortunate people who hasn't experienced this kind of tragedy, you don't know. Kate Gaffney-Kozinski, the heroine of Thomas Keneally's 20th novel, Woman of the Inner Sea, doesn't know either—even though...

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Donna Rifkind (review date 16 May 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Is There Birth After Death" in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 16, 1993, p. 7.

[In the following review of Woman of the Inner Sea, Rifkind focuses on the characterization of the book's heroine.]

Australia, like America, was built on the promise of reinvention. Live here, it urged its immigrants, and be someone your old world would never permit. Thomas Keneally's 20th novel, Woman of the Inner Sea, reinvents the theme of reinvention. Set in the heart of Australia, the book asks a universal question. Is it possible to transform yourself after you have suffered the greatest loss you could ever imagine?

Keneally is an impeccable...

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Peter Conrad (review date 12 September 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Wizard of Oz with Jet Lag and Too Busy for His Own Good," in The Observer, September 12, 1993, p. 53.

[In the review below, Conrad finds the arguments and production values of Memoirs from a Young Republic "shockingly amateurish.".]

Writers are the makers and the keepers of a nation's identity. Thomas Keneally (or Tom, as he now matily styles himself) has done as much as any living writer to identify and extol Australia. He deals with the bogus ceremonial of its European settlement in The Playmaker, and with the suppressed tragedy of aboriginal dispossession in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith; in Outback he tramps across its dusty,...

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Bruce King (review date Autumn 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Jacko the Great Intruder, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 4, Autumn, 1994, pp. 879-80.

[In the review below, King praises the cultural insights and narrative strategies of Jacko the Great Intrude.]

Jacko the Great Intruder is the most complicated novel Thomas Keneally has written and the most exciting to read. While it will not get the same attention as Schindler's Ark or Confederates, it is probably even a better novel and would make an excellent film, provided that a way could be found to treat the many flashbacks, the changes in place, and the multiple strands of the narrative, which are essential to the...

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Peter Pierce (essay date May 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'The Critics Made Me': The Receptions of Thomas Keneally and Australian Literary Culture," in Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 17, No. l, May, 1995, pp. 99-103.

[In the essay below, Pierce examines the motives of Keneally's detractors.]

While Thomas Keneally himself generously acknowledges that 'the critics made me', few Australian authors—in the course of long, productive and internationally acclaimed careers—have suffered such critical opprobrium in their own country. His perception of causes soon to be fashionable (such as the treatment of Australian Aborigines), his insistence on how the Australian present can be traced to its European social and...

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David Willis McCullough (review date 14 May 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Hard Life in Haunted Spaces," in New York Times Book Review, May 14, 1995, p. 12.

[In the following review, McCulloughassesses the narrative style of A River Town.]

Traditionally, the annual announcement of the Booker Prize, Britain's most famous fiction award, comes accompanied by ready-made controversy. But when Thomas Keneally won in 1982 for Schindler's Ark (published in the United States as Schindler's List), the outcry was over an issue more basic than the usual squabble over quality. The book was non-fiction, the protesters said, and not a novel at all.

Such confusion over the line that separates fiction and nonfiction...

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Janette Turner Hospital (review date 25 May 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Grand Gestures," in London Review of Books, Vol. 17, No. 10, May 25, 1995, pp. 22-3.

[In the following review, Hospital emphasizes the millennial tone of A River Town, comparing the novel's themes on Australia in 1900 to comtemporary Australian experience.]

There is something about a millennium, something about the clicking over of zeros on the odometer of history that sends a frowsy doomsday swell welling up from under, Good round numbers beget both end-of-an-age unease and unreasonable hopes. They breed signs and wonders. They inspire large gestures towards New Beginnings.

In 1900, the year in which Thomas Keneally's most recent...

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Judith Ryan (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Shrunk to an Interloper," in Field Work: Sites in Literary and Cultural Studies, edited by Marjorie Garber, Paul B. Franklin, and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, Routledge, 1996, pp. 113-19.

[In the following essay, Ryan compares the authorial perspectives of Schindler's List, Günter Grass's Show Your Tongue, and Marguerite Duras's The Lover, to account for the ways their national identities influence their attitudes toward multicultural relations.]

In one of my very earliest classrooms—it must have been at nursery school—hung a large map of the world. In the lower middle part of the map, a big reddish-pink island swam in a blue sea; at both...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Chernekoff, Janice. "Thomas Keneally: An Annotated. Secondary Bibliography, 1979–1984" Bulletin of Bibliography 43, No. 4 (December 1986): pp. 221-27.

Identifies secondary sources, including articles, essays, and reviews.


Beston, John B. "An Awful Rose: Thomas Keneally as a Dramatist" Southerly 33, No. 1 (1973): 36-42.

Examines Keneally's effectiveness as a playwright.

Burns, Robert. "Out of Context: A Study of Thomas Keneally's Novels" Australian Literary Studies 4, No. 1 (1969):...

(The entire section is 167 words.)