This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007
Albert Francis Xavier Herbert (1901-1984), author and pharmacist, was born on 15 May 1901 at Geraldton, Western Australia, illegitimate son of Victorian-born Amy Victoria Scammell. He was registered at birth as Alfred Jackson, son of John Jackson, auctioneer, with whom his mother had already had two children, but his father was almost certainly Benjamin Francis Herbert, a Welsh-born engine driver. Amy and Ben had three more children before marrying in 1917. Herbert’s novels Capricornia (1938) and Poor Fellow My Country (1975) would later explore the theme of illegitimacy, based on personal experience, in the larger context of Australia’s colonial origins, its historical relationship to Britain and its mistreatment of Aborigines.
Educated at Midland Junction and Fremantle Boys’ State schools and at Christian Brothers College, Fremantle, at 14 Alfred found employment in a chemist’s shop and began studying pharmacy at Perth Technical College. He was registered on 21 May 1923 in the name of Alfred Xavier Herbert (he added the name Francis and later adopted Xavier as his preferred name), and was to work sporadically as a pharmacist throughout his life. He moved to Melbourne, enrolled (1925) at the University of Melbourne to study medicine, and began to consider writing as a career. Once the Australian Journal had accepted some of his short stories for publication he withdrew from the course. Generally written to a formula of colonial romance and adventure, or crime and mystery, for the popular magazine and newspaper market, they were published under a range of pseudonyms, the most common being Herbert Astor.
Leaving for Sydney in 1926, Herbert briefly freelanced as a journalist. That year he was influenced by Leon Gordon’s controversial White Cargo: A Play of the Primitive, a portrayal of sexual relations between white men and black women in West Africa. He realised that urban Australia was largely ignorant of frontier realities, especially the continuing sexual exploitation of Aboriginal women, and decided to write about the subject. Lacking experience to do so immediately, he travelled in 1927 to the Northern Territory, where he worked as a drover, railway fettler, pearl diver and pharmacist. He was a dispenser in the Solomon Islands for a few months.
In 1930 Herbert departed for England, hoping to make his literary name and fortune. In this he failed, but found on the voyage his life’s companion, Sarah (`Sadie’) Cohen, née Norden (1899-1979), who was returning to England after a failed marriage. In London she looked after and encouraged Herbert while he wrote Capricornia. Back in Australia in 1932, Herbert took up the struggle to publish the book. He worked first in Sydney as a garage attendant, then at Darwin as a pharmacist, superintendent of the Aboriginal Compound, organiser for the North Australian Workers’ Union, and miner.
Capricornia was finally published in 1938 by the Publicist Publishing Co. and promptly won the Commonwealth sesquicentenary literary competition and the Australian Literary Society’s gold medal for 1939. Herbert, however, was ill-prepared for fame. His creativity stalled and he was unable to complete his next novel, instead enduring twenty years of self-imposed isolation, self-analysis and dormant creativity, during which he abandoned one project after another in a continuing crisis of confidence. Through his publisher William Miles and his editor Percy Stephensen, he became involved with the radical nationalist Australia-First Movement, for which he narrowly avoided internment in World War II. He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 29 May 1942 and served as a sergeant in the North Australian Observer Unit before being discharged in August 1944.
In 1951 Herbert and Sadie settled at Redlynch, near Cairns. On 26 June 1953, giving their ages as 47, they married at the Cairns Court House. He was awarded several Commonwealth Literary Fund fellowships and in 1959 published Seven Emus. It had been completed during the war but, initially serialised in the lowbrow Australian Journal, had previously escaped serious notice. A slim novella with quirky punctuation, developed (according to Herbert) to discover and liberate his `style’, Seven Emus offered a satirical critique of the anthropological exploration and exploitation of Aboriginal sacred sites in northern Australia. His next novel, Soldiers’ Women (1961), purported to be a study of women liberated by the absence or relative scarcity of men during World War II. The least critically popular of his works, it expounded a highly idiosyncratic theory of sexuality. It is none the less a fascinating companion to the classic novel written by Dymphna Cusack (with whom Herbert had a brief but passionate wartime affair) and Florence James on the same subject, Come In Spinner (1951).
During the periods of self-promotion that accompanied release of these works Herbert made carefully orchestrated and often controversial forays from the isolation of his North Queensland home into what he regarded as the more `civilised’ and easily shocked cities of the south, Sydney and Melbourne. Increasingly aware of his own mythology, in 1963 he published an unreliable autobiography of his youth, the rake’s progress Disturbing Element. It contains a series of self-consciously psychologised revelations of the self that he chose to bring forward from behind his fiction.
Poor Fellow My Country, Herbert’s magnum opus, marked a return to the thematic concerns of Capricornia, extending the chronology from 1936 to 1942. Satirising his old enemies, he exposed social absurdity and injustice and dramatised what he regarded as the tragedy of Australia: its failure to uphold the ideals of the `True Commonwealth’, or to connect with the spiritualised land and its original inhabitants. Poor Fellow My Country famously decries Australia as a land `Despoiled by White Bullies, Thieves, and Hypocrites’. It won him the Miles Franklin literary award in 1975. The universities of Queensland and Newcastle each conferred on him an honorary D.Litt. in 1976.
Herbert claimed to be a social revolutionary by national necessity rather than an artist by individual destiny, and although this contention brought him into conflict with the foremost writer of his day, Patrick White, it nevertheless contains some truth. Herbert’s importance to Australian literature is undoubtedly his contribution to debates on race and nation. However, the complexity of his writing is as much psychological as social and cultural. He was a profoundly contradictory and volatile personality who, despite his verbal facility, believed that physical fights were the only way to settle disputes among men. Outrageously pugnacious, deeply fascinated by his own masculinity, obsessed by his own sexuality, he was passionate in his devotion to Australia and fiercely republican. Early in 1984 he moved to the Northern Territory. He died on 10 November that year at Alice Springs and was buried in the local cemetery after a funeral ceremony at which Kungarakany elders and Patrick Dodson, an Aboriginal former Catholic priest, officiated.
Russell McDougall, 'Herbert, Albert Francis Xavier (1901–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/herbert-albert-francis-xavier-12623/text22741, accessed 7 December 2013.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007