Academic journal article Antipodes

Patrick White's Legacy: The Critics Weigh in Cynthia Vanden Driesen and Bill Ashcroft/Patrick White Centenary: The Legacy of a Prodigal Son

Academic journal article Antipodes

Patrick White's Legacy: The Critics Weigh in Cynthia Vanden Driesen and Bill Ashcroft/Patrick White Centenary: The Legacy of a Prodigal Son

Article excerpt

CRITICISM Patrick White's legacy: The critics weigh in Cynthia vanden Driesen and Bill Ashcroft, eds. Patrick White Centenary: The Legacy of a Prodigal Son. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014. 511 pp. £57.99. ISBN 978-1-4438-6040-6

Patrick White, one of Australia's greatest novelists and still its only Nobel Laureate in literature, died on September 30, 1990. Shortly thereafter, I was asked to edit a special issue of Antipodes that would begin the attempt to assess his legacy. The project seemed appropriate, and the issue appeared in 1992, with responses to his work by nine writers, most of whom had published significant studies of White in the past. Twenty years later, on the centenary of his 1912 birth, a conference was convened in India with essentially the same agenda-charting White's legacy-and four years after that, I have been asked to review the critical collection that emerged from that conference, a hefty volume edited by Cynthia vanden Driesen and Bill Ashcroft and titled Patrick White Centenary: The Legacy of a Prodigal Son. This assignment seems ripe to be expanded into a consideration of what has happened to White criticism in between these two collections, what the centenary volume has to say about the current state of critical response to White, whether we are yet able to grapple with White's legacy to twentiethcentury Anglophone literatures, and most importantly, whether and why he should still be read now, in the twenty-first century.

The question of White's value for future readers did not need asking in 1990. After all, he had won the Nobel Prize in 1973, and since that time, hundreds of thousands of words had been written about him. In my introduction to the 1992 Antipodes issue, I noted that White seemed to have completed his oeuvre in the 1980s (we did not yet know about the to-be-posthumously-published fragment The Hanging Garden), and the prize itself had rendered the novels and plays that came after it eminently worth critical attention. Even before the Nobel, there had been a spate of mostly introductory books on White, but afterward, book-length treatments proliferated, most advancing a kind of thesis about his work rather than merely surveying it. I then noted books by Hilary Heltay, Ann McCulloch, Peter Wolfe, Rodney Edgecombe, Mari-Ann Berg, Karin Hansson, May-Brit Akerholt, Laurence Steven, and David Tacey in addition to my own 1986 entry, Patrick White's Fiction: The Paradox of Fortunate Failure. And then, of course, almost contemporaneous with the Antipodes issue, at least in the United States, came David Marr's massive biography and in 1996 his publication of White's letters. There was also the 1980 collection of White's speeches and public pronouncements, Patrick White Speaks, as well as Patrick White: A Tribute, the 1991 compilation of interviews, obituaries, personal reminiscences, and public appreciations of the author.

So did the Antipodes volume add anything new? Not really, although it offered new takes on what seem still to be widely agreed are his major novels-The Aunt's Story, Voss, Riders in the Chariot, and A Fringe of Leaves (The Solid Mandala and The Twyborn Affair seem to be runners-up for status as major novels). The Antipodes essays did, however, shine a new focus on the connections between White's life and his work, a linkage pretty much mandated by the publication of White's idiosyncratic autobiography, Flaws in the Glass, as well as the Marr biography. In retrospect, I find particularly interesting A. P. Riemer's plea that we see White both as a "highly intellectual writer" and as a "passionate, vulnerable creature, a mixture of all-too-human strengths and failings [which are] encoded in the rich texture of his work" (qtd. in Bliss, "A Radiant Cacophony," Antipodes 6, no. 1 [1992]: 8). Riemer's hope in issuing this challenge was to garner a wider readership for White and to soften his image of obscurity, difficulty, and obtuseness. …

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