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Palmer, Edward Vivian (Vance) (1885–1959)

by Geoffrey Serle

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Edward Vivian Palmer (1885-1959), by Noel Counihan, 1953

Edward Vivian Palmer (1885-1959), by Noel Counihan, 1953

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an2291514

Edward Vivian (Vance) Palmer (1885-1959), writer, was born on 28 August 1885 at Bundaberg, Queensland, seventh child of Australian-born Henry Burnet Palmer, schoolteacher, and his Irish wife Jessie, née Carson. His father's bookishness and rather prim, middle-class decency were strong influences. The boy's early education was in several Queensland towns, then at Ipswich Grammar School where he excelled more at cricket and Rugby than academically, although he matriculated and knew by heart much of 'Banjo' Paterson's verse. A visit by Victor Trumper provided an ideal of physical perfection.

Vance left school at 16, worked as a doctor's secretary and invoice clerk in Brisbane, read widely—especially Chekhov, Turgenev, Flaubert, Balzac and de Maupassant—from the School of Arts library, and fell under the influence of A. G. Stephens of the Bulletin. He began to write, especially for Steele Rudd's Magazine: 'Rudd' encouraged him and in 1905 published his article, 'An Australian national art', which foreshadowed his basic attitudes. Late that year he sailed for England to serve an apprenticeship on Grub Street, 'a kind of literary beachcombing'. He returned home adventurously in 1907 via Russia (where he tried to visit Tolstoy) and Japan. Palmer then taught for a year at a Brisbane grammar school. Early in 1909 he visited Melbourne, made literary contacts and joined in the spirited activities of the Victorian Socialist Party. Later that year he became tutor and bookkeeper on Abbieglassie cattle-station, north-west Queensland, improving his horsemanship and gaining experience which deeply affected his subsequent career.

Palmer spent 1910-15 in England and France but for a period in 1912-13 when he returned home by way of the United States of America and strife-torn Mexico. He won a modest place in the English literary world, associating with Katherine Mansfield, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Frank Harris, Herbert Read and Will Dyson. He made a reasonable living from pot-boiling stories (eighty-one in his first nine months in London), serials and music-hall sketches, but he also placed serious stories and poems; in 1905-15 he contributed to about one hundred publications. He was captured by the guild socialist movement, largely through professional association and friendship with A. R. Orage, editor of the New Age, and his group. Palmer's outlook was deeply affected by their beliefs in the brotherhood of craftsmen, the virtues of the common man and the sterility of middle-class values, fear of development of the 'servile state', the attempt to blend nationalism and national character with socialism, and revolt from 'Literature with a capital L' in favour of emphasis on the lives of ordinary people.

On 23 May 1914 in London Palmer married Janet Gertrude Higgins; they had been engaged since 1911. They were still honeymooning in France when war was declared and returned home from England early in 1915. Deeply conscious of his nationality, Vance had never intended to stay. His first volumes of stories and sketches, The World of Men, and poetry, Forerunners, were published in London in 1915.

In Melbourne again, Palmer wrote for the Bulletin, prepared a second edition of Furphy's Such is Life, and was active in writers' societies. He saw new hope, especially from the labour movement, in developing national sentiment and identity. He was thinking in terms of a nationalism which might be internationalist while anti-Imperialist. Closely associated with Frederick Sinclaire of the Free Religious Fellowship and Frank Wilmot, he wrote for Sinclaire's Fellowship and a series of fourteen articles for the (Brisbane) Worker, 'Towards industrial democracy'. Palmer delighted in the defeat of the conscription plebiscites in which he actively campaigned, sympathized with the major 1917 strike and attacked the wartime censorship and the Imperial Federation movement. He was, and remained, sceptical of the pretensions of Marxism.

Although now a family man with two infant daughters, Palmer felt compelled to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force during the war crisis of March 1918. However, the 14th Battalion reinforcements did not arrive in France until three days after the armistice. He found something to praise in military life, even propounding the 'idea of the army as a guild, or band of brothers'. He spent some time in France, England and Ireland before he was discharged, still a private, in Melbourne on 4 November 1919.

His second volume of verse, The Camp (1920), contained his best-known poem, 'The farmer remembers the Somme'. To earn a living he resigned himself to an 'incessant flood' of hack stories and novels, some under the pseudonym 'Rann Daly'; he wrote prolifically for Aussie in 1920-23 and contributed foreign affairs notes to the Catholic Advocate. He was disillusioned politically, concluding that urbanization and suburbanization were destroying bush values, that Australian democracy was weaker than he had hoped and that philistinism prevailed: 'rich drapers' became a frequent target of his criticism.

In London in 1919, with Louis Esson and William Moore, Palmer prepared for performance a group of short Australian plays, but could not find a management. In Melbourne Palmer and Esson joined Dr Stewart Macky in forming the Pioneer Players, inspired by the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, and aiming at founding a national theatre. The company performed one night a week for several months in 1922 and 1923 and later, but other playwrights could not be found, the amateur or semi-professional actors were inadequate, the authors' bush themes were not generally appreciated and organization was weak. Palmer's contribution was 'A happy family' and several one-acters published as The Black Horse and other Plays (1924). Later full-length plays included 'Prisoner's Country', performed in 1960, Hail Tomorrow (1947) and 'Christine'. Louis Esson and the Australian Theatre (1948) was his eventual tribute to his friend.

The Palmers continued to live by their pens: until about 1927 their joint income rarely averaged more than £6 a week. In 1925-29 they lived economically at Caloundra, Queensland, before returning to Melbourne. Nettie's increasing earnings enabled Vance to concentrate on serious writing. When in 1929 and 1930 Men are Human and The Passage won third and first prizes in the Bulletin novel-competition, amounting to £400, their situation greatly improved. The decade from 1925, which included five novels and two collections of stories, was his first rich period of writing.

Palmer visited England and the U.S.A. briefly in 1930, largely to promote his work. In 1935-36 he and Nettie had a prolonged stay in Paris, London and Spain where they and their daughters became closely involved with the Republican cause. His creative writing had run dry, and he temporarily concentrated on writing in Australian history, pursuing his belief in an 'Australia of the spirit' and investigating the 'Australian dream'. In 1937 he published his and Nettie's abridgement of Such is Life; it outraged some critics, but introduced Furphy to a new generation. National Portraits (1940), a collection of biographical sketches, was an innovative basic work in Australian studies. A selection of Stephens' criticism (1941) was followed by a sketch of Frank Wilmot (1942) and in Meanjin Papers 'Battle', a noble statement of war aims; he was to become a major adviser to the journal. His historical work culminated in The Legend of the Nineties (1954), an affectionate recollection of the Bulletin school and early nationalists but primarily a judicious reconsideration of the legend.

From the late 1930s Palmer reviewed books for the Australian Broadcasting Commission, in 1941-56 fortnightly, one of his most distinguished activities which probably won him his widest public. During 1943-44 he worked in the Department of Labour and Industry, largely writing propaganda to boost morale. From 1942 he was a member of the Commonwealth Literary Fund's advisory committee and from 1947 to 1953 chairman; he suffered despicable allegations that he was a communist (Prime Minister Menzies defended him). A liberal socialist of the broad left, Palmer made his last overseas trip in 1955 to Helsinki as delegate to the World Peace Council. He had declined the offer of an O.B.E.

After the war Palmer had returned to writing fiction. In 1948 Golconda appeared—the first of a trilogy broadly inspired by the life of E. G. Theodore, novels which are among his best. Moreover, in these years he wrote some of his finest stories, gathered in Let the Birds Fly (1955); and he published with Margaret Sutherland the pioneering work, Old Australian Bush Ballads (1951). He began working on his reminiscences; Intimate Portraits (1969) demonstrates again his biographical talent.

Above all, Palmer wanted to be a great novelist and perhaps underrated his other literary accomplishments. Critical opinion consistently prefers his short stories to his novels, which are sometimes held to lack vitality and intensity of feeling. Yet they show intellectual vigour, poetic vision and breadth of social observation. The range of characters, reflecting his own varied experience, constitutes a 'parade of contemporary Australian humanity'; his interpretations of Australian life and of what it was to be an Australian of his time made a major intellectual contribution which has been largely neglected. His stories—predominantly rural, strong on atmosphere of place and man's relationship to Nature—displayed steadily maturing craftsmanship and guarantee his permanent prominence in the canon of Australian writing. He was proudly of the Lawson tradition but sought to link it with more sophisticated metropolitan literature.

The Palmers' partnership was dedicated to promotion of a national literature in a period when few were interested in Australian arts and letters. They emerged as leaders of a profession only beginning to recognize itself; for thirty years and more they (usually Nettie) wrote appreciatively and helpfully, assuring friendship and hospitality, to the author of any book of quality. They were essentially 'intellectuals, deeply concerned with the world of ideas'—their strength was in combining knowledge of world literature and international standards with passionate devotion to fostering national writing. They cheerfully accepted professional chores—reading manuscripts, writing introductions, editing anthologies, lecturing, judging prizes, encouraging young writers—and fought book censorship. Vance was a founder of the Victorian branch of the Fellowship of Australian Writers (1938) and a member of the Rationalist Association and Brian Fitzpatrick's Council for Civil Liberties. They shrank from personal publicity, indeed subdued their public personalities with an 'almost mannered reticence'. Nevertheless, in Melbourne especially, they were inspirational tribal elders; many writers of disparate approaches drew deeply on their friendship and encouragement.

Palmer was a handsome man. Frank Dalby Davison described him: 'A figure of medium height and build, clad except on formal occasions in fresh-looking sports clothes … usually with a blue shirt and bow tie … a walking-stick, a curly pipe … a rich, quiet, well-modulated voice … a ready smile and ready courtesy … coming from innate friendliness and inner poise … Palmer has plenty of hot coals inside him, but he is meditative and … gives the impression of detachment'.

Early in 1959 in searing heat, having already suffered two heart attacks, Palmer played cricket for Meanjin against Overland and exuberantly insisted on running short singles. He died suddenly at home at Kew on 15 July, only days before publication of a special issue of Meanjin in his and Nettie's honour, the conferring of an honorary doctorate by the University of Melbourne, and issue of The Big Fellow. Survived by his wife and their two daughters, he was cremated. With Nettie he had, as he claimed, kept 'some sort of fire alive for over fifty years'.

Portraits by Noel Counihan and William Frater are held by the National Library of Australia and the Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • H. P. Heseltine, Vance Palmer (Brisb, 1970)
  • V. B. Smith, Vance and Nettie Palmer (NY, 1975), and Letters of Vance and Nettie Palmer 1915-1963 (Canb, 1977)
  • D. R. Walker, Dream and Disillusion (Canb, 1976)
  • Walkabout, 1 Aug 1950
  • Meanjin Quarterly, 18, no 2, 1959
  • S. Murray-Smith, Speech Opening the Vance and Nettie Palmer exhibition, State Library of Victoria, 19 Aug 1985 (manuscript, privately held)
  • Meanjin Archive (University of Melbourne Library)
  • Vance and Nettie Palmer papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'Palmer, Edward Vivian (Vance) (1885–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/palmer-edward-vivian-vance-7946/text13831, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 21 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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