Patrick White

From Academic Kids

Patrick White (May 28, 1912September 30, 1990) was an Australian author. His writings make great use of the stream of consciousness technique. His first book, "The Ploughman and Other Poems", was published in 1935, and he would go on to write a total of 27 novels. He was the recipient of the 1973 Nobel Prize for Literature - the only Australian to be so honored so far.


Childhood and adolescence

Though his parents were Australian, White was born in Knightsbridge, London. They returned to Australia when he was six months old and settled in Sydney. As a child, he lived in one flat with his siblings, nanny and maid, while his parents lived an adjoining flat. The distance between him and his parents was to remain throughout White’s life. In 1916, at the age of four, White developed asthma, a condition which had taken the life of his maternal grandfather. His health was fragile throughout his childhood, and this stopped him from participating in normal childhood activities. It was here that his imagination began to develop. He would perform private rites in the garden, and would dance for his mother’s friends. He also loved the theatre, which he first visited at an early age. At the age of ten, White was sent to boarding school in the New South Wales highlands, in an attempt to help his asthma. It took him some time to adjust to having other children around. It was at boarding school that he began to write plays. At this early age, he took to writing about noticeably adult themes. In 1924, the boarding school ran into financial trouble, and the headmaster suggested that White be sent to boarding school in England.

White struggled to adjust to the new surroundings at Cheltenham College, his new school. He was later to describe it as 'a four-year prison sentence'. White withdrew inside himself and had few friends there. Occasionally, he would go on holidays with his parents to other locations within Europe, but their relationship remained distant. In London, he did make one close friend, Ronald Waterall, an older, effeminate boy with similar interests. White’s biographer, David Marr, wrote that they would walk arm in arm to London shows, stand around stage doors to catch a glimpse of their favourite stars and give practical demonstrations of chorus girls’ high kicks, with appropriate noises. However, Waterall graduated, White withdrew into himself again. He asked his parents if he could leave school to become an actor, and they compromised, allowing him to finish school early on the condition that he came home to Australia to try life on the land.

Travelling the world

White spent two years working as a jackeroo at Bolaro, an 18,000 acre (73 km²) station on the edge of the Snowy Mountains in New South Wales. His parents felt that he should work on the land rather than become a writer, and they felt that once he became a jackeroo, that he would stop. White grew to respect the land, and his health began to improve. However, it became clear that he was not cut out for this life, as he lacked the necessary interest.

From 1932 to 1935, White returned to England, studying French and German literature at King's College, Cambridge - though he only decided to take the German course the day he arrived. He did not enjoy his first term there, as he fell in love with a young man who had come to King's to become an Anglican priest, but dared not speak of his feelings for fear of losing the friendship. He feared that his homosexuality could doom him to a lonely life. Then one night, the student priest, after an awkward liaison with two women, admitted to White that it had meant nothing to him. This became White’s first love affair.

While at Cambridge University, a collection of his poems was published under the title The Ploughman and Other Poems. He also wrote a play that was performed by an amateur group. White received his Bachelor of Arts in 1935, and briefly settled in London, where he wrote several unpublished works. He lived in an area that was frequented by artists, and thrived for a time. He reworked a novel that he had written while jackerooing, and entitled it Happy Valley. In 1937, White’s father died, leaving him ten thousand pounds. This enabled him to write full time and not have to rely on his writing to survive. Two more plays followed while in London, before he succeeded in finding a publisher for Happy Valley. It was well received in London, but poorly received in Australia. He also wrote another novel, Nightside, but after receiving negative comments, abandoned it. White later spoke of regretting that he had not finished it.

Towards the end of the 1930s, White spent some time in the United States. He spent time in Cape Cod, Massachusetts and New York City, where he wrote The Living and the Dead. By the time World War II broke out, White was back in London, and he joined the Royal Air Force. He was accepted as an intelligence officer, and was posted to the Middle East. He served in Egypt, Palestine and Greece before the war was over. While in the Middle East, he had an affair with an officer, Manoly Lascaris, who was to become his life partner.

The growth of White's writing career

After the war, he returned to Australia once again, buying an old house in Castle Hill, Sydney. The war had largely cured his problems in dealing with other people. White settled down with the officer he had met during the war. They lived there for eighteen years, selling flowers, vegetables, milk and cream. During these years, he started to make a reputation for himself as a writer, publishing The Aunt's Story and The Tree of Man, which was published in the United States in 1955 and afterwards, in England. The Tree of Man was released to rave reviews in the United States, but was panned by Australian critics. White had doubts about whether to continue writing, after his books were largely ignored in Australia (three of them having been called ‘un-Australian’ by critics), but decided to keep going. His first breakthrough in Australia came when his next novel, Voss, won the inaugural Miles Franklin Literary Award.

In 1961, White published Riders in the Chariot. This was to become a bestseller, and was to win him a second Miles Franklin Award. In 1963, White and his partner decided to sell the Castle Hill house. During the 1960s, White published several books depicting the mythical town of Sarsaparilla, such as The Burnt Ones and The Season at Sarsaparilla. He also wrote several more plays. By now, he had clearly established his reputation as one of the world's premier authors. However, he turned down interviews and public appearances. Yet, as opposed to his childhood, he now maintained a wide circle of friends.

In 1968, White wrote The Vivisector, a character portrait of an artist. Many people drew links to his friend, artist Sidney Nolan, but White always vehemently denied that it was about Nolan. Around this time, he decided that he would not accept any more prizes for his work. He declined both the $10,000 Britannia Award and another Miles Franklin. White was approached by Harry M. Miller to work on a screenplay for Voss, but nothing came of it. He became an active opponent of literary censorship and joined a number of other public figures in signing a statement of defiance against Australia’s decision to participate in the Vietnam War.

In 1973, he was rewarded with his Nobel Prize for Literature, "for an epic and psychological narrative art, which has introduced a new continent into literature". White had his friend, painter Sidney Nolan go to Stockholm and accept it on his behalf. The announcement had immediate effects on his career, as his publisher doubled the print run for The Eye of the Storm and gave him a larger advance for his next novel. He used the money from the prize to establish a trust for the Patrick White Award. This annual award is given to writers who have been highly creative over a long period, but have not received adequate recognition. White was also made Australian of the Year. In typical fashion, his acceptance speech told Australians to spend the day reflecting on the state of the country, and suggested three alternate figures that he deemed worthy.

The twilight years

He supported Gough Whitlam's Labor government of 1972 to 1975, and after Whitlam was ousted in the 1975 constitutional crisis, became particularly anti-royalist. He made a rare appearance on national television to make his views known.

During the 1970s, White’s health began to deteriorate – his teeth were crumbling, his eyesight was failing and he had chronic lung problems. In 1979, his novel The Twyborn Affair was short-listed for the Booker Prize, but White requested that it be removed, in order to give younger writers a chance. Soon after, White announced that he had written his last novel, and in the future, he would only write for radio or the stage.

In 1981, White published his autobiography, Flaws in the Glass: A Self-Portrait, which explored several issues he had said little about publicly beforehand, such as his homosexuality and his refusal to accept the Nobel Prize personally. On Palm Sunday, 1982, White addressed a crowd of 30,000 people, calling for a ban on uranium mining and for the destruction of nuclear weapons.

In 1986 he published one last novel, Memoirs of Many in One, though that was curiously attributed as being "by Alex Xenophon Demirjan Gray, edited by Patrick White". In the same year, his novel Voss was turned into an opera. White refused to see it when it was first performed at the Adelaide Festival, because Queen Elizabeth II had been invited, instead choosing to see it in Sydney.

In 1987, White wrote Three Uneasy Pieces, with his musings on ageing and our efforts to achieve aesthetic perfection. When David Marr finished his biography of White in July, 1990, White sat with him for nine days going over the details.

White passed away on September 30, 1990 after a long illness.


Other writings

External link

pl:Patrick White


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