Vance Palmer was the leading man of letters of his generation in Australia as well as poet, novelist, dramatist, and short story writer, but his reputation as an essayist, literary journalist, social commentator, and key figure in the development of Australian culture in the first half of the 20th century has received less attention than it deserves. He tried to bring breadth, flexibility, and maturity to the Australian theme by never losing touch with what was happening in writing and thought abroad and by trying where possible to
incorporate it into the Australian situation. He understood and affirmed the close relationship between a national literature and national experience. Palmer believed that it is the business of the artist to create interest in the life around him. “Art is really the interpretation of the inner life of his surroundings. There must be no seeing through English spectacles. Our art must be original as our fauna and flora are original” (Steele Rudd’s Magazine, 1905).
Palmer’s first important London recognition came through the journal New Age, where some of his early sketches were published. On his return to Australia Palmer was associated with the journal Fellowship in the pursuit of a national identity. In the March 1917 issue “A Note on Joseph Furphy” was a determined effort to promote a relaunch of Furphy’s 1903 novel Such Is Life. Palmer was convinced that the recognition of this novel was intimately related to the status of Australian culture as a whole and a large part of his writings as an essayist is devoted to establishing a canon of Australian writers.
From his return from World War I until the late 1930s, and subsequently in his articles and reviews for the Australian Broadcasting Commission, his essays aimed at enhancing the quality of Australian cultural life. A quiet note of social criticism is rarely absent.
Early essays draw on visits to France and Ireland; others respond to the situation of American writers like Sherwood Anderson and Ambrose Bierce, H.L. Mencken and Robert Nathan, later to Hemingway and Faulkner. Palmer noted points of comparison between the situation of writers in America and Australia, agreeing with his wife Nettie Palmer in 1930 that “Australia in literary matters, is probably where America stood a century ago.”
Some of his most interesting essays are those on the conditions of literary production in the Australia of his time. He objected to the way novelists had to address a public overseas; he complained that “There is practically no criticism of such literary work as is produced in Australia, and consequently no responsive public” (1923) and that “there is no critically informed and alert public in Australia” (1925). Palmer saw literature as a unifying force in society with a power to change life.
World War II precipitated a new national awareness and inspired Palmer to produce three books, tributes to figures of the past who had directly or indirectly influenced his life and the course of Australian culture. National Portraits (1940) is a series of essays devoted to those pioneers who had originated ideas and tapped springs that were later to enrich the public life. It celebrates those men of vision who fought against the intellectual timidity that went with “colonialism” in all its forms. Arranged chronologically, the essays as a whole present an outline of the country’s history, and illustrate one of Palmer’s major preoccupations: the need for Australia to become a home to the imagination.
By 1940 Palmer was coming to be considered the leading figure in Australian letters and more and more of the official tasks of warden of Australian culture fell to him. He was asked to assemble a commemorative volume in honor of A.G. Stephens, whose policy on the “Red Page” of the Bulletin and in the Bookfellow he had so admired—to “stimulate Australian writing, to assess its value, and to connect it with the main stream of European culture.” Frank Wilmot (1942) is a tribute to one of the most popular poets of his time. Palmer saw the Australian writer’s task as the transformation of the environment—“to water the dry soil of this country to give it richer life” and he valued Wilmot’s contribution to this end.
The Legend of the Nineties (1954) stands at the head of the numerous inquiries that have since been made into the Australian tradition and the formation of a distinctive national character. As a study of the aspiration toward a specifically Australian outlook and the emergence of a recognizable Australian identity, the book is more valuable for the questions it raises than for any answers it proposes. It remains an essential text of its time.
Edward Vivian Palmer. Born 28 August 1885 in Bundaberg, Queensland. Youth spent in a succession of outback country towns. Studied at Ipswich Grammar School, Queensland, 1899–1901. Traveled to London for the first time, 1905, returning to Australia via Finland, Russia, and Japan, 1907. Tutor in Abbieglassie, near Mitchell, Queensland, 1909. Traveled to London again, 1910, returning to Australia via the United States and Mexico, 1912. Married Janet Gertrude Higgins (i.e. the writer Nettie Palmer), 1914: two
daughters. Served in the Australian Imperial Forces, 1918. Associated with the Pioneer Players, Melbourne, 1922–13. Traveled to London and New York, 1931, and France, England, and Spain, 1936. Delegate to the World Peace Conference, Helsinki, 1955.
Died in Melbourne, 15 July 1959.
Essays and Related Prose
National Portraits, 1940; enlarged edition, 1954
A.G.Stephens: His Life and Work, 1941
Frank Wilmot, 1942.
Louis Esson and the Australian Theatre, 1948
The Legend of the Nineties, 1954
Intimate Portraits and Other Pieces, edited by H.P.Heseltine, 1969
Other writings: 16 novels, five volumes of short stories, plays, and poetry.
Barnes, John, “The Man of Letters,” Meanjin 18 (1959):193–205
Barnes, John, editor, The Writer in Australia: A Collection of Literary Documents, 1856
to 1964, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1969
Barnes, John, Introduction to An Australian Selection, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1974
Heseltine, Harry P., Vance Palmer, St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1970
Indyk, Ivor, “Vance Palmer and the Social Function of Literature,” Southerly (September 1990):346–58
Smith, Vivian, Vance Palmer, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1971
Smith, Vivian, Vance and Nettie Palmer, Boston: Twayne, 1975
Walker, David, Dream and Disillusion: A Search for Australian Cultural Identity, Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1976
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