Pioneers’ Influence Ripples Across Time

7 July 2023
Pioneers’ Influence Ripples Across Time - Featured image

Literary critic Peter Craven continues his examination of three essential novels that powerfully capture the heroism of the Pioneers and the complexities of the Australian dream.

There is a tremendous brio in the portrait by Mary Durack (1913-1994) of her grandfather Patrick Durack (1834-1898), which must be one of the greatest portraits ever written of an uneducated man who was always a man of great panache and style. Part of the perspective trick with Kings in Grass Castles is that it is a wholly convincing portrait of a great pioneering spirit, grabbing land as if there were no tomorrow—a figure, if you like, who might in his pioneering way, his old Australian way, be thought of as a great capitalist. But this delineation of his success and failure as an entrepreneur is liable to be read by the business layperson for all its other qualities, for its notation of a circumambient world. Patrick (pictured below) sends his sons to Saint Patrick’s College, Goulburn, yet reacts almost like the high-handed patriarch he partly is when they suggest they might like to matriculate and go to university:

A portrait of Patrick Durack

Now ye have all had a good education and have learned a grate [sic] deal and may think yere father an ignorant old fool but in experience I have learned a few things that could be of use to ye all and I would want ye all to make good and do well in life but to remember that everything in life is not in the making of a fortune or in the losing of it … A man may still had led a profitable life and have little proof of it in his pocket.

He is described at one point as mercenary but this is immediately qualified because it doesn’t quite fit his intoxication with money but Durack is so good at capturing the pioneering enterprise because she understands the romance that attends it.

This is one of those books—they are rare—that can tell us all about the crucial convictions of Caroline Chisholm, the Catholic, and John Dunmore-Lang, Protestant and anti-Papist. She indicates in passing but surefootedly Henry Parkes’ as Premier anti-education stance and how the Catholics and the Anglicans finally won the day with church schools (though Parkes as Premier also established secular government high schools). She has a lovely moment when one of Patrick Durack’s brothers-in-law, the ‘devil-may-care’ Dinny Skeahan, proffers a challenge to the local parish priest:

Dinny, primed with hard liquor and no respecter of persons at the best of times, challenged the priest to a fight, whereupon Father Dunham, to the surprise and joy of the community, not only took on the hot-headed Irishman but promptly laid him flat. Dinny, scrambling from the dust amid the jeers of the onlookers, came adroitly to his own defence. “And what sort of a man is it atall [sic] would be hitting a praist?”

And she tells us how the Catholic Bishop (Matthew) Gibney (1835-1925) railed against the treatment of the blacks:

‘Doomed to disappear!’ Blessed phrase. Over how many bloody outrages, over what an amount of greed on the part of some, weakness on the part of the Government, and apathy on the part of the public does this convenient euphemism throw a thin but decent disguise … Nor is it solely, nor chiefly because the easily acquired vices of the white man prove fatal to them. Their misfortune is that they stand in the way of unchecked spread of flocks and herds. Insatiable earth hunger and monstrous unscrupulousness are main factors in that process of removal of which they are the victims. They disappear rapidly on the outskirts of civilisation because in such a situation the white man is practically beyond the cognisance of the law, shoots straight and shoots often.

It is characteristic of Durack that she knows “the same man [Gibney] in 1880 had entered the blazing inn at Glenrowan where Ned Kelly and his band had taken their final stand, in order to render the last rites to the dying outlaws.”

If it’s no country for the women then what use is it to the men?

Patrick Durack liked the blacks and treasured his relationship with Pumpkin, his black retainer. Sometimes his descriptions of the Aborigines are off-putting, like this with an extra bit of romantic rhetoric from Durack:

“It is the blessing of Almighty God they are kindly and child-like savages,” Grandfather said and would never alter his estimate even when the simple people had turned fiends at last in the blind thrusts of bewildered rage.

Basically though he had nothing but contempt for the punitive expeditions often conducted by native police which he sees as analogous to the English persecution of the Irish. Durack is sometimes elegaic about the blacks, sometimes eloquently, and she also has vivid and ghastly descriptions of the shackling of children, the floggings as a punishment for killing a sheep, the horrific hanging where a man being hanged grabs the rope with his strong teeth for as long as he can.

No indigenous person who was tried on the retributive charges was acquitted. Although Durack’s language is romantic and colourful and very far from contemporary fashion, she indicates the horror in a way which will make white Australians ashamed and her portraits of the Aboriginals Patrick Durack got close to, like Cobby and Pumpkin—to whom he gave a Saint Christopher Medal—are detailed and convincing.

So is the whole of this multi-textured masterpiece. It is a starting, burningly eloquent recapitulation of a lost history. It is a book about the soaring pastoralism of the 19th century, the way the squatters owned vast tracts of country and the way some of the rich could use small farmers as dummies for their empires. But it covers all manner of material such as Patrick Durack’s loyalty to Parnell in Ireland, and the author’s father’s enthusiasm for Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam translation, whereas the patriarch dismisses him as a ‘heathen’ nincompoop.

There’s also in the vast informal talk that constitutes so much of the overheard quality of this strange family history that somehow encapsulates a world, this statement from old man Durack that might have been a message to Jeannie Gunn before the letter:

“It’s no country for white women, Patsy.” “If it’s no country for the women then what use is it to the men?” Grandfather demanded… “But a country without women, I cannot picture it! It will be a sad, barren place until they come.”

Not many books have captured so much of the glory and the loneliness of Australia as Kings in Grass Castles. Not many are such detailed accounts of both the heroism and the catastrophe of the pioneering spirit. This book is so Irish, so Catholic, so familial, so steeped in blarney and rhetoric, so echoingly grand. Yet each of these elements come together, even the sense of the Aborigines as people who must forsake the dreaming and whose walkabouts are foreign things to the whites–– all those things come together in a work so haunting it is hard to acknowledge it as history. But it is history of the grandest and the most compelling kind and the fact it is also tragic while shining intimations of faith enrich it but does not diminish the power of its architecture. Pushkin said of Gogol, “God, how sad Russia is”—and it’s the kind of remark that can only be made about a work that encompasses a world. It’s true though. Among very few works in our history, Kings in Grass Castles makes us say of all of this pioneering blood and thunder in a dry land, “God, how sad Australia is.”


Judith Wright’s The Generations of Men was published in 1959, the same year as Kings in Grass Castles. But it could scarcely be more different. This is a pioneer story presented in almost lyrical mode, which may seem to figure given that it is the work of a distinguished poet who became universally recognised around this time. The author of ‘Woman to Man’ (‘the selfless, shapeless seed I sow’) and ‘The Surfer’ (‘He thrust his joy against the weight of the sea’) was on school syllabuses in the mid-1960s and The Generations of Men made its way to the syllabus of English—English expression as it was known—which did a less than roaring trade in distinguished non-fictional prose of a kind literary kids were no more interested in than their lowbrow comrades.

Judith Wright with Kath Walker (Oodgeroo Noonuccal), July 1977. Photo: National Portrait Gallery

So what does The Generations of Men tell us about the pioneering experience? That it was harrowing, death-laden, and dreadful, and that it went with back-breaking work, terror-inspiring debt, and financial insecurity—and at the same time it partakes in recollection and as a spectacle in the epic heroism of those of us who trail after the first brave settlers and have at least as a nation inherited a prosperity they lived and died for. This is true to a peculiar extent with Judith Wright herself because she is literally (well, actually) presenting the story of her forebears as a kind of Australian book of Genesis.

Some people may recall her poem, Request to a Year, about her grandmother sketching a child (her child) on the verge of hurtling over a waterfall—a fate narrowly averted—and the poem finished with the request of the year to “reach back and grant me the firmness of her hand”.

The Generations of Men begins and ends with the New England woman she takes her bearings from. It begins “Of her childhood, May Mackenzie remembered two houses” the narrative says insinuatingly and it ends, in conscious grandeur, with her epilogue:

She is entitled to her triumph, then. No one can rob her of her conquests, of the awe that she is held in, of the love that is rendered to her by right. She may expect, perhaps she does expect, that not only her children but her grandchildren and their children too—for who knows how far ahead the ripples of her influence may travel?—will all carry a certain stamp, a mark that singles out even the most distant or rebellious of them for her own.

Of course this stuff gets tricky and so do the perspectives it engenders. Judith Wright gives us the facts elegantly and crisply in her introduction:

During their lifetimes which was spent partly in the Hunter Valley, partly in the Dawson valley district in Queensland about a hundred miles inland from Rockhampton, which lies on the Tropic of Capricorn, and partly in the New England tableland district of New South Wales, the pastoral settlement of inland and northern Australia took shape, until at my grandmother’s death in 1929, a century after her grandparents’ leaving England, the pattern of Australian pastoral land use was fairly complete.

… the great and almost unchronicled pastoral migrations in which men and cattle spread gradually from the coastal settlements, northward and westward, over the inland grazing country, followed by the bullock-and horse-teams of the wagons that brought supplies. – Judith Wright, The Generations of Men (1959)

This is a long, beautifully articulated sentence most writers of fiction or non-fiction would scarcely dream of, utterly clear in its long-breathed clarity. She goes on to give the personal side to this:

… the great and almost unchronicled pastoral migrations in which men and cattle spread gradually from the coastal settlements, northward and westward, over the inland grazing country, followed by the bullock-and horse-teams of the wagons that brought supplies.

The weirdness of The Generations of Men, however, comes from the way it combines the austerity and hard yakka of subduing the land, with all its numbingly factual ‘Australianness’, all that hard brown empirical dirt with a recurrent personal emphasis that partly sits in counterpoint and partly embroiders it. This means some of the most memorable moments in The Generations of Men are tensely psychological or meditative even though the backbone of the action is that of a farming chronicle about the acquisition of land and the handling of crises. At the same time we remember, like so many black diamonds, the extraordinary glimpses of an interior monologue about indigenous Australians and this makes perfect sense when you recall that Judith Wright became very friendly with H C ‘Nugget’ Coombs –the one-time head of the Reserve Bank who as inaugural Chair of the Council for Aboriginal Affairs from 1967 started to push indigenous policy towards what Australians would be familiar with today.

This stuff gets tricky and so do the perspectives it engenders.

It’s eerie, though, how the descriptions of the First Australians stand out—spectrally—in The Generations of Men. Here is Judith Wright’s grand intensely brooding vision of them in this book:

Driving alone now, she remembered the old hands’ warnings—“make friends with them and sooner or later you’re speared or knocked on the head”—and thought, as all the settlers so often did, of the massacre at Hornet Bank, not so far away or long ago. She had begun to agree with the old hands—there was only one way to treat these people: to be firm and to keep them at a distance, not as an inferior race, but as some superior animal. Their ways were not hers and nothing would teach them human ambition or drag them out of their curious dreams.

And here is Wright’s grandfather, Albert:

“You must understand us or you must kill us,” they had said; and understanding would have meant—something beyond the powers of

the white men, some renunciation impossible to be made. Not for many years, it seemed to him, could that wound be healed. It lay at the bottom of the hatred and contempt that so many men held for the blacks, and which as he thought of it now, he had himself used as a refuge when it was necessary to condone some wrong or other, some other injustice convenient to himself.

He thinks of a whole civilisation haunted “like a house haunted by the ghost of a murdered man buried under it… perhaps it would remain forever at the root of this country, making every achievement empty and every struggle vain.”

It’s disconcerting, looking again at The Generations of Men, a lifetime after it was looked at in a dimly high-school context, to see how much the consciousness of the blacks is made integral to and serves as a leitmotiv among the stark poignancies of a narrative which is factual before it is fictional but comes with an effect of clairvoyance. Albert takes his son Bertie to a world of doctors, hoping to have his disease cured. Then, suddenly, just when a miracle cure seems to have been effected, the boy dies.

Telegrams were rare events; the news they carried was always of urgent importance and he tore it open at once. “Deeply regret tell you of Bertie’s death,” it read.

The ride back to Nulalbino was the bitterest of his life. His heart hung in anguish on two nails—his own grief, and the thought of May’s when he should tell her…

And his own death is rendered in a way that is both elaborate and startlingly sudden:

In the maze of his dreams, among beckoning darknesses and sudden

scarlet warnings of pain, like fires breaking out in the night across the range to burn his grass, he kept meeting a small boy whom he could not identify. The boy was dressed for a journey; he looked at Albert with a strange smile …Where was the boy’s mother, he wondered? His heart was filled with reproachful grief at her desertion. She should be here; she would comfort the child, she would save him from the waiting darkness. For a moment she mingled with the last of his dreams; it was a sudden shock of strange familiar joy … He lay a moment looking at her, at the pretty and decided curve of cheek, at the curled brown hair and strong wide shoulders, while the mists of his sleep cleared away. Then she turned and looked up, and became May.

Such elaborate fictional preluding before the sudden notation of death creates a kind of darkness of effect in The Generations of Men. So much of the book is delineating the dismal grind of the pastoral pioneer and yet it is the gravity and inevitability of death which is always prepared for so elaborately by Wright and then comes, almost comes, like a thief in the night. Like lightning, a terrible illumination.

The trouble with The Generations of Men is that the personal is done in the high elegaic manner when the occasion calls, but elsewhere the central characters are variously glimpsed figures in a landscape which is an epic vision of pastoral or rather of how the pastoralist conjures the beginnings of a civilisation. It is certainly a book fringed with grandeur whenever the occasion calls for it, but it is the evocation of death—in the midst of tangled dreams—that is Wright’s strong pull. She is a born writer and a writer of consummate sophistication though the ways in which the patriarch and the matriarch are personalised are derived from narratives which as a whole are not consistently psychologised though they are at moments of death so consummate in their fictionalised shading. When the prose takes on detailed introspection we feel as if the pastoral figures, Albert and May, are fully human because fully imagined, but the humanisation, though brilliant, in its spotlit poignancy is not consistently sustained.

The evocation of death is Wright’s strong pull.

Books are always partly books of their times and The Generations of Men is in some ways the most conventional of these pioneering books, even though the moments of high accomplishment are untouchably fine. But it is so recursively novelistic and at the same time so much a Genesis endeavour which is also a family history. It may be that the fullest representation of the pioneers we have is in some ways Patrick White’s novel The Tree of Man, which presents a Mr and Mrs Everyman, Stan and Amy Parker, finding themselves and slouching towards whatever mystery they might confront or constitute in the bush. They are not lost; they are never lost in the novelistic way of history told like Jeannie Gunn recollecting the Never-Never from Hawthorn. Nor do they have the intricate high-powered rhetoric of Kings in Grass Castles with its representation of overweening hubris or Judith Wright’s sudden dives into the interiority of her forebears as the light dies. But they do have the credibility of people who might be mistaken as ordinary coping with bushfire and heartbreak and moments of grace in a wholly credible setting and with a wholly credible shading. (see also ‘The Genius of Patrick White’, in 2023 Volume 1, Essays for Australia)

The three book covers

They are books of their time—Gunn, Durack, and Wright—and they reflect the impulse to present the heroic element in the pioneering pastoralism they rehearse, which is in part a reflection of the elevated bushwhackery of the post-War period (in the case of Durack and Wright.) In that sense, they associate with White’s high period just as they do with Russell Ward’s The Australian Legend and with Manning Clark’s History of Australia.

But all of this is a kind of mythopoeia. It is King Arthur stuff in terms of the vast majority of a national population hugging the sea coast: Sidney Nolan had his Ned Kelly moment, but he did not stay there and there is an integrity as well as an inevitability about White transferring most of his subsequent fiction to the city of Sydney.

None of which is to deny the power of this trio of pioneering Australian pastoralist paeans which reflect the Australian dream; at least in the case of Durack and Wright, where Gunn is a bit like a belated and super-added version of The Bulletin moment that prefigured Federation.

Peter Craven, literary critic and commentator, co-founded the literary magazine Scripsi, and was founding editor of the Black Inc. Best Of annuals and of Quarterly Essay.

The first instalment of this article in the Autumn 2023 edition of the IPA Review examined Jeannie Gunn’s We of the Never Never and commenced analysis of Mary Durack’s Kings in Grass Castles. Here, Peter Craven completes his analysis of Kings in Grass Castles, then examines Judith Wright’s The Generations of Men (1959).

The IPA published its Australian Canon in the Spring 2021 edition of the IPA Review. It was produced as part of The Genius of Australia project, housed within the IPA’s research and communication program The Centre for the Australian Way of Life. More information and articles from Essays for Australia including ‘The Genius of Patrick White’, can be found at

Essays of Australia

This article from the Winter 2023 edition of the IPA Review is written by literary critic Peter Craven.

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