Xavier Herbert was the last and perhaps the best of the nationalist novelists who celebrated the Australian legend of the bush. In his final novel, Poor Fellow My Country, he predicted doom for Australia unless it turned away from modernization, internationalism, and urbanization. He was in person–and often in his fiction–bigoted, homophobic, sexist, and xenophobic. At the same time, however, he was one of the first writers to treat the Aborigine sympathetically.
Born illegitimate on the coast of Western Australia, he dropped his original name, Alfred Jackson, for the more romantic one by which he became known. He left the remote West in the early 1920’s and moved to Melbourne, where he began to write. In 1926 his first story was published under the name Herbert Astor. A year later he set out on his wanderings in the Northern Territory, Australia’s most isolated and unsettled region. There he gathered material that he used in his first novel, Capricornia, and in his final book.
In 1930 he went to England, which he disliked immensely, but there with the help of Sadie Nordern, who later became his wife, he completed the first draft of Capricornia, the book generally considered to be his finest work. After two years in England, he returned to Australia. To support himself and to earn money for Sadie’s passage to Australia, he continued to write conventional and formulaic short stories, which were collected and published after his death. The publication of Capricornia, which is Herbert’s name for the Northern Territory, was delayed until 1938, but once it appeared the book became a best-seller and remains his most widely read and admired work, both in Australia and overseas.
After Herbert served in the World War II, he and his wife moved to Redlynch, a small town in northern Queensland, and remained there until their deaths. Herbert combined writing with a series of casual occupations, but in spite of announcements of forthcoming books, nothing more surfaced until 1959, when the disastrous Seven Emus was published. In 1961 Soldiers’ Women appeared. This urban novel, which explores the lives of women in wartime, has been criticized for Herbert’s offensive views of women’s sexuality. A collection of short stories, Larger than Life, came out in 1963, and the autobiographical account of his first twenty-four years, Disturbing Element, appeared the same year.
Another period of silence followed, punctuated by frequent announcements that Herbert’s greatest work was about to emerge. Finally, in 1975 Poor Fellow My Country was published, all 1,463 pages of it. Much of the book captivates the reader, such as the outback exploits, the evocation of Australia’s barren and rugged landscape, the satiric thrusts at social pretensions, and the admirable treatment of the Aborigine. However, the bigotry and hectoring of the protagonist mar the novel. Obviously, the Australia that Herbert dubs “poor fellow my country” did not heed his dire warnings, for in the years since the book’s publication the nation has shed its insularity, evolved into an urban, multicultural country, and retained its British and American connections. The treatment of the Aborigine, though, has improved dramatically since the novel was written.
Poor Fellow My Country will probably go largely unread in the future, and Herbert’s reputation will rest on Capricornia, which avoids the excesses of his final work.