Xavier Herbert was born in Western Australia in 1901 and died in the Northern Territory eighty three years later. He was a full time writer of fiction for most of his life, but published just three full length novels. His first novel, Capricornia, was well received from the start and has since become an acknowledged Australian classic. His second, Soldiers’ Women, was poorly received and that was fair enough: it was not a good novel. His final novel, Poor Fellow My Country, is the one that divides critical opinion.
I first read Poor Fellow My Country in 1978, a year after I arrived in Australia. I thought it was an amazing novel. Not only was it a wonderful story; it also found ways to convey, through the telling of that story, an amazingly complex and illuminating picture of Australia’s history, culture and people. I’d never read a novel quite like it. I was surprised, therefore, to learn how the Australian literary establishment had treated it when it first appeared. There were one or two supporters, but most critics gave it the thumbs down, some of them brutally: ‘a botch’ said one, ‘a literary brontosaurus, Poor Bugger My Book’ said another.
Nothing unusual in that, of course. Innovative and challenging books often meet with initial resistance from conservative critics: Moby Dick and Ulysses both suffered the same fate. But in Europe and America the literati learned, over the years, to understand what Joyce and Melville were doing in those books, and what they had achieved. That, unfortunately, has not happened in Australia with Poor Fellow My Country. Far from learning to understand and value Poor Fellow My Country, the Australian literary establishment has simply ignored it: it’s never taught in schools or universities; it’s rarely written about; it went out of print for years without anyone seeming to notice the fact; and, as a result, it’s simply unknown to most Australians. Hard to imagine America and Europe allowing that to happen to Moby Dick and Ulysses.
Hoping that it would do something to revive interest in Poor Fellow My Country, I wrote a book on Herbert’s novels that was published in 2003. The book was called A Long and Winding Road: Xavier Herbert’s Literary Journey. Did it reverse the neglect of Poor Fellow My Country? Unfortunately not. The literary establishment proved no more interested in books on Herbert than it was in books by Herbert, and A Long and Winding Road soon dropped out of print. I still, though, want to do what I can to help get the achievement of Poor Fellow My Country properly acknowledged. That’s why I decided to set up this website to make the text of A Long and Winding Road easily available to anyone interested in Herbert.
Perth, Western Australia