Art, Life and Authority in Australian Literary Culture: Marr and White


Patrick White: A Life, by David Marr, is up there on shelves all around the country, sitting alongside Poor Fellow, My Country. Or perhaps they're at opposite ends acting not as books but as book-ends. Icons. Signs of cultural currency. Markers of value, or of allegiance. As well as having intrinsic interest they also function as reverence books. White is, and has been for some time I would argue, firmly at the centre of the field of Australian literary culture. On the day following White's death, Andrew Riemer remarked on the ABC Radio program 'Midday Report', that he expected that White would now no longer hold such a prominent position at the centre of Australian literary culture, that he would continue to be read by some enthusiasts, but that his canonical position would fade. I would argue otherwise. Patrick White is inextricably at the centre. In that sense, he is modern(ist) Australian Literature's equivalent of Henry Lawson. He will not, and in an important sense cannot, be displaced, as Henry Lawson has not been displaced. The example of Lawson's posthumous reception has taught us (like the contemporary arguments over Shakespeare's canonicity) that too much value is attached to the figure of Lawson (or Shakespeare or White) for him to be displaceable. What does happen is that Lawson as a sign of cultural value is filled from time to time with different content. Figures of this magnitude are not demolished; they are sites of struggle fought over precisely because they are positions (possessions) of value and power. So it is appropriate that David Marr's book is so big—it is unashamedly a possession; an object, of reverence, affection.

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Published 1 October 1992 in Volume 15 No. 4. Subjects: Biographical writing, Patrick White.

Cite as: Lawson, Alan. ‘Art, Life and Authority in Australian Literary Culture: Marr and White.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 15, no. 4, 1992, doi: 10.20314/als.f615f66e00.