Of Desert and Dreams
Patrick White’s Making of Australia in the novel Voss
by Kate Wilson
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Patrick White (1912-1990) is as yet Australia’s only Nobel Prize Winner for Literature, awarded in 1973 for his “epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature”1. Despite this highest of literary honours and the fact that the novel Voss  (arguably White’s chef d’oeuvre) is probably the most famous book to have come out of the continent owing to the large part it played in White’s winning of the award, he has not been continuously read in Australian mainstream universities and even less so abroad. Consequently, his reputation has slowly declined, until his work experienced something of a manufactured revival last year on the centenary of his birth.

The main reason for his lack of popularity is the perceived inaccessibility of his writing, a perception which still dogs his work today. In his Banquet speech, White spoke ruefully of the critical reception of Voss  in the Australian popular press at the time of its publication in 1957, where it was slated for being “mystical, ambiguous and obscure” and he was ignominiously dubbed “Australia’s most unreadable novelist.”2 Those readers who had expected a story of high adventure and romance in the 1840’s outback found themselves completely disappointed,  even though the book was ostensibly based on the exploits of one of Australia’s most iconic and famous explorers  Ludwig Leichhardt (1813-1848)3 and moreover had a central female character to provide the potential love-interest, (unlike other much earlier novels of exclusively male colonial conquest such as King Solomon’s Mines (1885), set in Africa). Even today, the populist description on the back cover of the Vintage edition of Voss manipulates the reader’s expectations in its simplistic emphasis on ‘hidden love’ and ‘adventure in the Australian desert’. Nothing could be further from what the book is about.

Picture credit: From a poster for "1848", a film from the drama department at Griffith University about Ludwig Leichhardt.
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