Edward Vivian Vance Palmer, generally regarded as one of Australia’s leading writers for almost thirty years, created a niche for himself in genres including fiction, poetry, and criticism. In all his writing, the influences of his early life in the outback areas of the northern state of Queensland, where he held many jobs (tutor, bookkeeper, and stock drover among them), as well as his travels through England, the United States, Europe, Siberia, and Asia and his service in the Australian Imperial Force in World War I, made him an acute observer of the common people. Their lives of quiet existence, minor romances, monotonous routines, and family feuds and responsibilities became the substance of his fictional and poetic representations.
In his youth, Australian literature was beginning to develop its characteristic styles and genres. Style was straightforward, even pedestrian, and masculine. Ballad rather than lyric poetry was seen as appropriate to a male-dominated culture, and the short story (especially as it took shape in the tall tale) was more popular than the novel of Victorian sensibilities. Because Palmer grew up in the outback, in a small rural settlement distant from any large urban center, he was influenced by both the geography and the mores of the bush. Accordingly, his first stories were published as The World of Men, and his characters were drawn from small-town models. His travels in Europe and Asia provided no direct material for his fiction, though his service in the Australian army in Europe provided him with examples of “mateship” (loyalty to one’s companions) as a primary value.
Again, when he started writing poetry, Palmer drew from his experience in eastern Australia—from the bush and the mine, the plough and the sea—to write about brotherhood and shared struggle against great odds. The Forerunners (undeservedly neglected, in the view of many modern critics) contains one of the best Australian poems, “The Camp,” as well as “These Are My People,” which celebrates the common men and women with whom Palmer identified throughout his life: In Australian parlance, they are “battlers,” people who endure.
Even in Palmer’s one-act plays, collected as The Black Horse, and Other Plays, there is little overt action; stoicism prevails. The author’s socialist outlook is seen in Hail Tomorrow, perhaps his best-known play, which deals with the shearers’ strike of 1891. As he matured, Palmer was swept up in the growing socialist movement in Australia, and his plays emphasized social analysis over drama; nonetheless, along with Louis Esson, he was a founder of Australian drama.
The Man Hamilton, Palmer’s first novel, centers on a man who is married to a half-Aborigine woman and who falls in love with a neighboring white woman. It is another portrait of the “strong man” fighting against fate. The novel is of interest for its attempt at a psychological interpretation of miscegenation (common in the far outback, where white women were seldom found) and of the people who elect to live far from areas of settlement. Again, Palmer was indebted to his own experience as a young man for the characters, locale, subject, and themes.
Likewise, in The Passage, which won the first prize in a literary contest conducted by the Sydney Bulletin in 1930, Palmer drew on his life experiences in the coastal areas of the subtropical state of Queensland. The Passage , the story of the Callaway family over a period of thirty years, stresses the need for both educational and emotional sustenance in a remote coastal village known as The Passage. In this novel, Palmer incorporated a larger range of characters than in his earlier work: an aspiring artist, a flashy female adventurer, a family of underachievers, a laconic fisherman who is interested in literature and the arts, and his shallow entrepreneurial brother. These types Palmer had become acquainted with during his settled life in Melbourne, at the time considered the most...
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