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Peter (Walkinshaw) Cowan Biography

Peter Cowan comments:

Nationality: Australian. Born: Perth, Western Australia, 1914. Education: The University of Western Australia, Nedlands, B.A. in English 1940, Dip. Ed. 1946. Military Service: Served in the Royal Australian Air Force, 1943-45. Career: Clerk, farm labourer, and casual worker, 1930-39; teacher, 1941-42; member of the faculty, University of Western Australia, 1946-50; Senior English Master, Scotch College, Swanbourne, Western Australia, 1950-62. Senior Tutor, 1964-79, and since 1979 Honorary Research Fellow in English, University of Western Australia. Awards: Commonwealth Literary Fund fellowship, 1963; Australian Council for the Arts fellowship, 1974, 1980; University of Western Australia fellowship, 1982; Patrick White prize, for literature, 1992. A.M. (Order of Australia), 1983.



Summer. Sydney and London, Angus and Robertson, 1964.

Seed. Sydney and London, Angus and Robertson, and San Francisco, Tri-Ocean, 1966.

The Color of the Sky. Fremantle, Western Australia, Fremantle ArtsCentre Press, 1986.

The Hills of Apollo Bay. Fremantle, Western Australia, FremantleArts Centre Press, 1989.

The Tenants. Fremantle, Western Australia, Fremantle Arts CentrePress, 1994.

Short Stories

Drift. Melbourne, Reed and Harris, 1944.

The Unploughed Land. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1958.

The Empty Street. Sydney and London, Angus and Robertson, andSan Francisco, Tri-Ocean, 1965.

The Tins and Other Stories. St. Lucia, University of QueenslandPress, 1973.

New Country, with others, edited by Bruce Bennett. Fremantle, Western Australia, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1976.

Mobiles. Fremantle, Western Australia, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1979.

A Window in Mrs. X's Place. Ringwood, Victoria, and New York, Penguin, 1986; London, Penguin, 1987.

Voices. Fremantle, Western Australia, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1988.


A Unique Position: A Biography of Edith Dircksey Cowan 1861-1932.

Nedlands, University of Western Australia Press, 1978.

A Colonial Experience: Swan River 1839-1888. Privately printed, 1979.

Maitland Brown: A View of Nineteenth-Century Western Australia. Fremantle, Western Australia, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1988.

Editor, Short Story Landscape: The Modern Short Story. Melbourne, Longman, 1964.

Editor, with Bruce Bennett and John Hay, Spectrum 1-2. Melbourne, Longman, 2 vols., 1970; London, Longman, 2 vols., 1971; Spectrum 3, Melbourne, Longman, 1979.

Editor, Today: Short Stories of Our Time. Melbourne, Longman, 1971.

Editor, A Faithful Picture: The Letters of Eliza and Thomas Brown at York in the Swan River Country 1841-1852. Fremantle, Western Australia, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1977.

Editor, with Bruce Bennett and John Hay, Perspectives One (short stories). Melbourne, Longman Cheshire, 1985.

Editor, Impressions: West Coast Fiction 1829-1988. Fremantle, Western Australia, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1989.


Critical Studies:

"The Short Stories of Peter Cowan," 1960, and "New Tracks to Travel: The Stories of White, Porter and Cowan," 1966, both by John Barnes, in Meanjin (Melbourne); essay by Grahame Johnston in Westerly (Perth), 1967; "Cowan Country" by Margot Luke, in Sandgropers edited by Dorothy Hewett, Nedlands, University of Western Australia Press, 1973; "Behind the Actual" by Bruce Williams, in Westerly (Perth), no. 3, 1973; "Regionalism in Peter Cowan's Short Fiction" by Bruce Bennett, in World Literature Written in English (Guelph, Ontario), 1980; "Practitioner of Silence" by Wendy Jenkins, in Fremantle Arts Review (Fremantle, Western Australia), vol. 1, no. 3, 1986; "Of Books and Covers: Peter Cowan" by Bruce Bennett, in Overland 114 (Melbourne), 1989, and Peter Cowan: New Critical Essays by Susan Miller and edited by Bennett, Nedlands, University of Western Australia with The Centre for Studies in Australian Literature, 1992.

Up to the present time writing has been for me as much something I wanted to do to please myself as something aimed solely at publication and any kind of wide audience. Now, I don't think this kind of attitude is any longer possible, and the chances for this kind of fiction have greatly diminished.

My writing may have been concerned as much with place as with people, though I have tried to see people against a landscape, against a physical environment. If isolation is one of the themes that occur frequently, particularly in the short stories, this is perhaps enforced by the Australian landscape itself. I am deeply involved in everything to do with the physical Australia, the land, its shapes and seasons and colors, its trees and flowers, its birds and animals. And its coast and sea.

I have been more interested in the short story than the novel. The technical demands of a short story are high, and seldom met, and through the short story a writer has perhaps a better chance of trapping something of the fragmentary nature of today's living.

I am, however, interested in some present forms of the novel and an attempting to work within these forms. Novel and short story now perhaps seem closer to one another.

* * *

Peter Cowan is a quietly introspective writer, and consequently his intensity of vision and his scrupulous craftsmanship can easily be underrated. He has shown a particular talent for the short story or novella, in which he can focus on a single relationship and explore a single line of feeling. His stories, written in a spare, taut style, have as a recurring theme the relationship of a man and a woman seeking relief from their loneliness in sexual love. Cowan is intent upon an inner reality: his characters are seldom individualized very far; they seem almost anonymous, and the sensuous reality of the external world is only faintly felt. His imagination is compelled by a painful awareness of the feelings of loneliness and alienation that lie beneath the surface of commonplace lives; and in exploring this territory he has become, more than is generally recognized, a significant interpreter of Australian realities.

In Cowan's first collection of stories, Drift, the preoccupations of his mature work are merely sketched in. Uneven in quality and stylistically in debt to Hemingway, the book nevertheless has a coherence and a unity of impression unexpected in the work of a young writer. Cowan has known his subject right from the start. Most of these early stories are set in the poor farming country of southwestern West Australia before World War II, and they centre on the lives of people who are emotionally unfulfilled or unable to express themselves in normal relationships.

Over the next 14 years Cowan wrote little. In his second collection, The Unploughed Land, he reprinted seven of his stories from Drift, along with six new stories, which represent a distinct advance in technique. These new stories include the much-anthologized "The Redbacked Spiders," a powerful story of a boy whose resentment at his brutal father leads to the man's death. The title story is an extended treatment of the pre-war country life about which he writes in his first volume. In its evocation of that life it is one of his finest pieces, and it marks the end of the first phase of his development.

From this point onward Cowan has been more prolific and more varied—though compared with most writers he has a small and narrow output. In his third collection, The Empty Street, there is a noticeable shift in setting. Cowan now writes of people in suburbia, for whom the country is a refuge. The sense of being caught in an irresistible and disastrous historical process is expressed in a story like "The Tractor," which concerns the efforts of a hermit to stop the clearing of the land. Cowan's sympathies are with those who oppose "progress," but he sees their dilemma truly. "The Empty Street," a novella, is an impressive study of an unhappy middle-aged clerk, whose marriage is now a mere shell, and whose children are strangers to him: desperate to escape the pressures of a life that is meaningless to him, he collapses into schizophrenia and turns murderer. Cowan is especially responsive to the theme of the middle-aged, defeated, and desolate in marriage, groping for a way out. The Tins and Other Stories confirms the achievement of the earlier volumes, with stories like "The Rock" and "The Tins," in which Cowan is seen at his characteristic best.

In recent years Cowan has spent a great deal of time researching the history of his family, which has been prominent in the public life of West Australia since colonial times. This turning to the past has the appearance of being a retreat from the present, of which he takes such a bleak view in his fiction. But the collection, Mobiles, and, even more strikingly, The Color of the Sky, show, rather, that the sense of the past has sharpened and enlarged his sense of the present. Four of the seven stories in Mobiles are set in the stony northwest, beyond the limits of settlement or where settlement has failed. In these starkly rendered episodes human beings are no more than transitory figures in an enduring and inhospitable landscape. The longest story in the volume, "The Lake," reworks a favourite theme of 19th-century novelists—the "hidden valley" in the heart of the unexplored continent. In what is one of his most satisfying stories, the symbolic possibilities of the landscape—evoked here with more vividness than is usual in his writing—are subtly realized. This story points to a new strength in Cowan's writing which appears in his third and finest novel.

Peter Cowan's first two attempts at novels were not very successful. Summer is a short novel, more like two short stories that have been expanded and linked together. A businessman whose marriage has failed takes a job on the wheat bins, and in this lonely setting forms a relationship with the wife of the nearby storekeeper. The violent resolution is not well managed, and the central character tends to be a mouthpiece for Cowan's reflections on the spoiling of the natural environment. Yet there are some fine sequences establishing the relationship of the two lonely people in a solitary landscape.

In Seed Cowan set out to portray a group of middle-class families living in Perth. An Australian reader feels the force of his thesis about the boredom and frustration of suburban living, but it remains a thesis and seldom quickens into drama. It is a disappointing work, the result of Cowan's trying to write against the grain of his talent. He is not skilled at creating personalities or at suggesting the social facts of life, but in this rather old-fashioned, realistic novel the emphasis falls on just those aspects of his writing where he is weakest.

The Color of the Sky has the formal integrity and the imaginative vigour which the previous novels lacked. The narrator is a familiar enough Cowan creation—a man on his own, trying to make sense of his experience. In a visit to a place dimly remembered from a visit in childhood, the narrator is simultaneously exploring the past and the present, and much of the power of the narrative derives from the reader's realization of patterns only half-traced, elusive parallels, family likenesses, disturbing undercurrents and continuities. Both the past and the present contain events that could be sensationalized—drug-running, murder, illicit sexual liaisons—but Cowan's novel is a study of the consciousness of a man in search of himself. In the end, the narrator can no more complete the jigsaw puzzle of his family relationships than he can give shape to the incoherence of his own emotional and moral life, with its tangle of loose ends, evasions, and denials. This work is Cowan's most impressive treatment of (in his own words) "the fragmentary nature of today's living."

Cowan's output during the 1990s was slight, consisting primarily of the novel The Tenants.

—John Barnes

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