Authors: Hal Porter

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Australian novelist, short-story writer, and memoirist


Although the works of Harold Edward Porter spanned many genres, he is best known for his three volumes of autobiography. An accomplished stylist, Porter broke away from the plain, realistic style that had characterized earlier Australian writing. Although he never gained an extensive international reputation, his work was widely read and admired in Australia during his later life. It received numerous literary prizes and the full attention of Australian critics. Time, however, has not been kind to Porter, whose reputation has faded over the years.{$I[A]Porter, Hal}{$I[geo]AUSTRALIA;Porter, Hal}{$I[tim]1911;Porter, Hal}

The oldest child in a large family, Porter was born in Melbourne. He was six years old when his family moved to Bairnsdale in Gippsland, a somewhat tropical agricultural and mining area. After completing his education, he worked first as a newspaper reporter, then started teaching–a career he would follow off and on until the 1960’s, when he became a full-time writer. During the 1930’s and 1940’s he was writing but publishing very little.

In 1939 he married but was divorced four years later and never remarried. As a result of injuries sustained in a serious automobile crash, he was unable, much to his regret, to serve in World War II. During the war years, he taught in Adelaide and in 1942 published his first book: fourteen stories in a privately printed volume simply titled Short Stories.

Taking a break from teaching after the war, Porter worked as a hotel cook and manager, as an actor and theatrical producer, and as a librarian. In 1949 he spent a year as a teacher with the forces occupying Japan, a significant experience that provided material for the novel A Handful of Pennies. Set in postwar Japan, the novel takes up the conflicts between Eastern and Western cultures, a subject to which he would return in the volume of short stories Mr. Butterfry, and Other Tales of New Japan. Returning to his hometown of Bairnsdale in 1953, he served as a librarian until he was able to devote himself entirely to writing. By this time he had published two novels, numerous short stories, and a volume of poetry and was beginning to establish a reputation as a writer of importance.

Even though two of his plays, Eden House and Toda-San, were produced in London as well as in Australia, Porter did not consider the plays as important as his other work. Most critics view Porter’s verse as derivative and lacking in originality. The novel that is considered his most substantial is The Tilted Cross, a powerful historical account of Tasmania when it was a penal colony. Although at times leaning toward the grotesque in his short stories, Porter in his best ones captures childhood experiences in a nostalgic manner or engages in satire and social criticism.

While much of his work addresses the loss of innocence and illusion and love, these motifs are developed most fully in his first autobiography, The Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony. In it, he looks back on his first eighteen years–most of it spent in Gippsland, a region he captures flawlessly. The Paper Chase, following his life until 1949, focuses on his development as an artist. The final volume, The Extra, moves into the 1970’s, and in it Porter reflects on his literary career, concluding that he has been an observer of life, not a participant.

BibliographyBurns, D. R. “The Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony: Hal Porter’s Triumph of Creative Contradiction.” Australian Literary Studies 12, no. 4 (1986): 359-366. Notes that while the experiences recorded in Porter’s autobiography tend toward the ordinary, the artistry employed lends the material depth.Capone, Giovanna. “Hal Porter: The Tower and the Quintessence of Porterism.” Australian Literary Studies 15, no. 2 (1991): 162-172. Analyzes the play The Tower, compares it to Porter’s other plays, and traces Porter’s theatrical career.Goodwin, Kenneth. “Hal Porter.” In A History of Australian Literature. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. Provides a succinct account of Porter’s literary career and an evaluation of his work.Lord, Mary. Hal Porter: Man of Many Parts. Sydney: Random House, 1993. A definitive biography that reveals what Lord calls Porter’s “dual personality.” While holding her subject’s literary accomplishments in high regard, Lord tends to stress what she considers Porter’s negative traits.Lord, Mary. Introduction to Hal Porter, by Hal Porter. Edited by Mary Lord. St. Lucia, Australia: University of Queensland Press, 1980. Introducing this collection of Porter’s writing, the editor considers Porter the “odd man out” in Australian literature because of his stylistic qualities and experimentation in various genres.
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