Vance Palmer, Battle (#Review)

Meanjin AnthologyVance Palmer’s short piece “Battle” is the first piece in this special Meanjin anthology. Meanjin is one of Australia’s longest lasting literary journals. It was founded by Clem Christesen in 1940. As publisher Melbourne University Press says, it has, since then, “documented both the changing concerns of Australians and the achievements of many of the nation’s writers, thinkers and poets.” This anthology contains, they say, “a broad sweep of essays, fiction and poetry published in Meanjin since the magazine began” which will give its readers “a sense of the debates waged in print over those seven decades and the growing confidence of the Australian written voice.”

I read Vance Palmer’s piece when I bought this anthology a few years ago, but planned then to review the anthology as a whole. Now, though, I think that some of the writers are worth featuring here on their own – just like those writers I choose to read from the Library of America offerings – so here is Vance Palmer!

I was first introduced to Palmer in my first year of high school when I read and enjoyed his best known novel, The passage. I have not, however, reviewed Palmer’s writing here (except in a Monday Musings), but he has appeared in this blog many times because of the significant contribution he (and wife Nettie) made to Australian literature in the first half of the twentieth century. They vigorously supported and defended the development of an Australian literature. They were also political – egalitarian, anti-Fascist. There’s a good introduction to him in the Australian Dictionary of Bibliography (ADB), which describes him as “a liberal socialist of the broad left.”

So, “Battle”. ADB’s biographer describes “Battle” as “a noble statement of war aims”. It is interesting to look at “Battle” now, from today’s perspective. Published in 1942, at the hight of World War 2, its main point is to define what makes Australia and to argue that it is worth fighting for – all of which ties in with his interest in encouraging and promoting Australian literature.

However, despite his documented interest in and awareness of indigenous Australians, he falls into the trap of many of his time of thinking that Australia is a “young” country:

We have no monuments to speak of, no dreams in stone, no Guernicas, no sacred places. We could vanish and leave singularly few signs that, for some generations, there had lived a people who had made a homeland of this Australian Earth. A homeland? To how many people was it primarily that? How many penetrated the soil with their love and imagination? We have had no peasant population to cling passionately to their few acres, throw down tenacious roots, and weave a natural poetry into their lives by invoking the little gods of creek and mountain. The land has been something to exploit, to tear out a living from and then sell at a profit. Our settlements have always had a fugitive look, with their tin roofs and rubbish-heaps. Even our towns . . . the main street cluttered with shops, the million-dollar town hall, the droves of men and women intent on nothing but buying or selling, the suburban retreats of rich drapers! Very little to show the presence of a people with a common purpose or a rich sense of life.

“We have had no peasant population to cling passionately to their few acres, throw down tenacious roots…” No, we don’t but we have something more … we have indigenous people who have clung passionately to, and tended, this land for 60,000 plus years. (This is something that a young non-indigenous Aussie school girl stood up for last week by refusing to stand for the Australian national anthem with its lines “for we are young and free.”)

It would have been good if Palmer had recognised this point too, but … that was then, I suppose.

Anyhow, he goes on to describe what makes Australia and Australians. There is, he says,

an Australia of the spirit, submerged and not very articulate, that is quite different from these bubbles of old-world imperialism. … And it has something to contribute to the world. Not emphatically in the arts as yet, but in arenas of action, and in ideas for the creation of that egalitarian democracy that will have to be the basis of all civilised societies in the future.

And here’s the other point I want to make – his faith in Australia as an example of “that egalitarian democracy that will have to be the basis of all civilised societies in the future.” That caught my eye, because it is something I believed of Australia, something that I thought, back in the 1970s and 1980s, we were actively working towards and achieving. Not so anymore, it seems.

Palmer concludes that he believes Australia will survive the war,

that we will come out of this struggle battered, stripped to the bone, but spiritually sounder than we went in, surer of our essential character, adults in a wider world than the one we lived in hitherto.

I wonder what he would think now? Perhaps he would remember that in the penultimate paragraph he admitted that we have “a share of the decadent that have proved a deadly weakness in other countries – whisperers, fainthearts, near-fascists, people who have grown rotten through easy living.” Some of these “have had power in the past and now feel it falling away from them.” However, “we will survive,” he believes, “according to our swiftness in pushing them into the background and liberating the people of will, purpose, and intensity.” Who are those people “of will, purpose, and intensity” now?

Vance Pamer
in Meanjin Anthology
Melbourne University Press, 2012
ISBN: 9780522861563 (eBook)

21 thoughts on “Vance Palmer, Battle (#Review)

  1. Oh my, that is indeed food for thought.
    In some ways, (Australia as an ancient land) we have made progress, but in other ways, it’s debateable. We are more alert to diversity than we were, but egalitarianism as it was understood then seems to have withered on the vine.

  2. With you, WG and with Lisa’s comment. I, too, read The Passage – in high school. And some years later at university boarded for a year with the widow of Nettie’s brother. Knowing nothing of that significance till a good dozen years thereafter. The passage (!) of time fills in the details and connections if one remains alert.

  3. Wise heads on young bodies – pretty rare! It’s a kind of chicken and eggs argument. The experience brings the wisdom. (Well – that’s my reading of my own life – assuming it’s wisdom into which my increasing age is bringing me – I smile wryly!)

      • Having been raised in a truly narrow fundamentalist Protestant sect I have the feeling still that the first 20 years (almost) of my life left me that 20 years behind others in terms of cultural understanding. I’m not yet 50 in a broad cultural sense therefore – so the attainment of wisdom lies a good decade behind that of your esteemed partner! But I’m hoping for it! (And so too, the reversal – of which you make mention!)

        • Ah, Jim, I was raised in a Protestant family too but not a narrow one and I went to a state school with staff who encouraged us to think, so I feel, perhaps wrongly as only others can really tell me!, that I had a head start!

          BTW that esteemed person, Pa Gums, is my father. My esteemed partner is referred to here as Mr Gums!! Just thought I’d better clarify the Gums family tree!

          Let’s hope the reversal is a way off yet!

        • Re Pa Gums – I was assuming too much – thanks for the info. Yes, I was state educated, too – when only the best was available to all. I remember a sense of unease when my step-father threatened to send me to the CBC (which in my hometown now no longer exists – but was probably Dickensian in the ways exposed by the Royal Commission – but certainly back then had a reputation for “discipline” which I believe then meant “thrashings”). I sat the Leaving Certificate Ancient History Honours paper with two lads who appeared at the LC examination centre and were from that school – both departing 30 minutes from the start of the three-hour paper – me still scribbling away at the first of the five compulsory questions – Thucydides – Peloponnesian Wars.

  4. Great post. I do believe that Palmer’s sentiments are still relevant today, not just for Australia but for the entire world. Liberal democracy sustains setbacks, but in my opinion, it has and will continue bring enormous benefits to the entire planet. I am not unaware of its shortcomings, but in the end, I believe that democratic and humanistic values will persevere in the end.

  5. Pingback: Vance Palmer, Battle (#Review) — Whispering Gums Reblogged – Life after Sixty-Five

  6. I certainly didn’t read a Vance Palmer novel at school and am not sure I’ve read one yet. I don’t think he ever escaped from the 1890s spirit of his youth – that Australia was a test-bed of democratic experimentation, and was yes a ‘young’ country where men could be men and the mistakes of decadent Europe could be avoided. And I’m sure you agree, he was nowhere near as interesting a person as his wife.

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