Authors: Vance Palmer

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Australian novelist, poet, and critic

Author Works

Long Fiction:

The Man Hamilton, 1928

Men Are Human, 1930

The Passage, 1930

Daybreak, 1932

The Swayne Family, 1934

Legend for Sanderson, 1937

Cyclone, 1947

Golconda, 1948

Seedtime, 1957

The Big Fellow, 1959

Short Fiction:

The World of Men, 1915

Separate Lives, 1928

Sea and Spinifex, 1934

Let the Birds Fly, 1955


The Black Horse, and Other Plays, pb. 1924

Ancestors, pb. 1937

Hail Tomorrow, pb. 1947


The Forerunners, 1915

The Camp, 1920


National Portraits, 1940

A. G. Stephens: His Life and Work, 1941

Frank Wilmot (Furnley Morris), 1942


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.{$I[AN]9810001691}{$I[A]Palmer, Vance}{$I[geo]AUSTRALIA;Palmer, Vance}{$I[tim]1885;Palmer, Vance}

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 cosmopolitan and modern city in Australia. Palmer’s philosophy is to be seen in the outcome of the plot: The battler, Lew, redeems the village and chooses a down-to-earth wife after a momentary infatuation with a flighty artistic woman.

In The Swayne Family, Palmer’s only novel of metropolitan life (the result of his long residence in Melbourne), the author seems less at ease than in his “bush” novels. The story deals with a family breaking away from its outback roots and trying to adopt to city life. Clearly the economic and social disruption of the Great Depression affected Palmer, and the novel was a socialist’s response to family dislocation and disruption.

Palmer’s increasing identification with urban life and his separation from country and coastal life are to be seen in Golconda, a trilogy of political and industrial intrigue set in the silver-lead town of Mount Morgan. This trilogy may be seen as a treatment of events in the mining city of Broken Hill in the far west of the state of New South Wales immediately after World War II.

Palmer became increasingly active as a lecturer, although he traveled less frequently from Melbourne. From 1946 to 1953, he was chairman of the advisory board of the Commonwealth Literary Fund, the arm of the federal government charged with support of authors and literary projects. Earlier, he had lectured under the fund’s auspices at universities and on radio, and in 1941 he had received a subsidy for the publication of A. G. Stephens: His Life and Work, a study of the influential editor of the Red Page of the Sydney Bulletin, which ostentatiously proclaimed its goal of establishing a national literature of high standards. In National Portraits Palmer offered succinct accounts of the life and work of twenty-five men of wide-ranging occupations (from explorer and soldier to artist and orator, from airman to judge, and from banker to missionary) but of no women. At his death, Palmer was highly acclaimed as one of the founders of Australian literature; subsequently, he has been criticized for his socialist philosophy, xenophobia, and ultra-nationalism. Nevertheless, his place in the Australian literary scene is assured.

BibliographyHeseltine, Harry P. Vance Palmer. St. Lucia, Australia: University of Queensland Press, 1970. A biography.Smith, Vivian. Vance and Nettie Palmer. New York: Twayne, 1975. An introductory study, including biography, critical analysis, and bibliography.Smith, Vivian. Vance Palmer. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. A biography.Torre, Stephen. “Psyche as Text: The Short Stories of Vance Palmer.” Literature in Northern Queensland 15, no. 1 (1987). A psychological study.
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