The Tree of Man revisited with the Book Group

Patrick White, The Tree of Man (1955, Vintage 1994)

Before the group meeting:
My mother’s letters in the 1970s would occasionally report on her reading. She once transcribed a paragraph from Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children because it seemed to describe the noses of our family. The other day when I read the first page of the Drought chapter of The Tree of Man, I wondered if she’d thought, as I do, that this description of Stan Parker evokes aspects of my father (allowing for the fact that Dad grew sugarcane rather than running a dairy, and was never ‘broad’):

He was respected. He was inseparable from the district, he had become a place name. His herd was small, but of good quality for the herd of a man in a small way, neither rich nor ambitious, but reliable, the cans would always reach the butter factory to the minute, without fail. He went to church too, singing the straight psalms and rounder hymns, in praise of that God which obviously did exist. Stan Parker had been told for so long that he believed, of course he did believe. He sang that praise doggedly, in a voice you would have expected of him, approaching the music honestly, without embellishing it. Standing in the pew, singing. the back of his neck was by this time quite wrinkled, and the sinews were too obvious in the flesh. But he was a broad and upright man.

I’ll never know if she made that kind of connection, but she mentioned the book in passing in a comment on Cancer Ward:

It seems queer but I think Patrick White writes much like [Solzhenitsyn], so simply. I’ve read only one of his, The Tree of Man, & really enjoyed it.

Not bad, eh? She made no claim to literary sophistication, but she picked White’s affinity with the Russians. And she found his prose simple!

The prose is simple, but it’s not easy. It’s also impossible to read fast, lacking what A D Hope believed a novelist needs: ‘a plain style, a clear easy stride, a good open texture of language to carry him [sic] to the end of his path’. But it’s certainly not ‘pretentious and illiterate verbal sludge’, as Hope famously described it. It does constantly pull you up and make you look at a particular word or image – or, if you don’t stop, leave you with an uneasy feeling that you’ve missed something. The point of view frequently moves around within a single short sentence, or rather within a grouping of words between consecutive full stops, since White is a great user of what are sometimes known in the editing trade as frags. Even the very first sentence, innocuous enough at first glance (‘A cart drove between the two big stringybarks and stopped’), has the reader slightly wrong-footed with its abrupt rhythm, its lack of a human, or even animal, subject, its slightly skewed use of articles (‘the cart drove between two big stringybarks’ would be more natural, but of course it would mean something quite different).

The book’s peculiarities, and its arrogance, intimidated me in first year university in 1967. But not this time. True, I came close to genuflecting at the first four chapters, which tell of the primal encounter of ‘the man’, ‘the woman’ and the bush. I wondered if I would be able to keep up with the intensity of the prose for the whole 480 pages. But once the narrative emerged into something resembling a social world, I was less enthralled. In fact I became increasingly irritated. I just don’t believe in the nastiness of most of the characters. I can’t stand the snobbishness of the narrative voice. The drunken Irish shenanigans (read domestic violence, despair, wretched poverty and, towards the end, dubious religion) of the O’Dowds fail to amuse me. The pretentions of the nouveaux riches Armstrongs are awkwardly unconvincing, as is almost everything about the younger Parkers. The book seems to assume that some people, inarticulate or otherwise, have an honest capacity for rich inner lives, while others (most?) don’t, and must settle at best for synthetic souls with occasional exalted glimpses. For all the towering strengths of the book – and they certainly aren’t limited to the first chapters – I became increasingly obsessed with calculating what fraction of the pages I had yet to read.

Perhaps the most striking disappointment is the vast, gaping silence about Aboriginal Australians. When Stan’s cart stops between the stringy barks in that first sentence, it’s definitely in terra nullius. ‘Blacks’ are mentioned twice, once when young Ray refers to their arcane knowledge of how to survive in the desert, and again in the closing pages when the missionary mentions sex with black women as a sign of his youthful depravity. The phrase ‘dream time’ occurs twice. The first time, Stan and Amy have come to an ‘uneasy dream-time’. Since that probably signifies that neither of them was fully awake in relation to the other, the Aboriginal reference may be coincidental, but in the second, near the beginning of the fourth and final part, Stan looks back on his first days at the farm as ‘the dream time’. Here the phrase does refer to a time of creation, of beginnings, and it must disturbingly invoke for any Australian reader now, and surely for some in the 1950s, this continent’s history of genocide, dispossession and cultural appropriation. Invoke without acknowledging. The Irish are despised. The working class barely exist. Aboriginal people have been erased and over-written.

Then, here’s Stan, further down the first page of the Drought chapter:

There were certain corners of his property that he could not bring himself to visit, almost as if he would have discovered something he did not wish to see. […] Once he had been looking at a crop of remarkably fine sorghum that was almost ready to bring in, when he remembered that same stretch of land after he had cleared it as a young man, and on it the white chips lying that his axe had carved out of the trees, and some trees and young saplings still standing and glistening there, waiting for the axe. So that he forgot his present crop and went away disturbed, and thinking.

In a book that makes much of ‘things that are too terrible and wonderful to speak of’ is it too much to imagine that in this moment the thing Stan does not wish to see is the silenced Aboriginal history? That the dispossession on which Stan’s settlement of the land is built is almost forcing its way into the narrative? Surely it’s not just my idiosyncrasy that those white chips of wood remind me of the bones in the red earth of a massacre site in a William Yang photograph?

There may well be hundreds of learned articles about this disturbed silence, but that’s my two bob’s worth.

After the group meeting:
Tonight we met in a pub in Paddington, rather than in someone’s home. All but one of us turned up, and almost half had read all or most of he book. We had an animated discussion. Only one of us really loved the book. One, who may not have read it, considered it to be dated imperialism. The two of us who read the Vintage edition agreed that the cover was absurdly inappropriate (a horse? northern hemisphere trees?) No one shared my unease about the absence of Aboriginal characters: the consensus seemed to be that the original inhabitants of the Parkers’ land had been dispossessed long before Stan and Amy arrived, and that my reading of the white chips passage was drawing a long bow. As someone said, what’s the point of a bow that’s not long? And I still think that the general silence enacts a kind of genocide.

Whatever, unlike Anna Karenina, The Tree of Man couldn’t hold its own against the need to discuss Other Things – the sins of the ALP and the worse sins of the Coalition, our various adventures in work and education, travel and the weather. As always it was a fun evening.

2 responses to “The Tree of Man revisited with the Book Group

  1. I haven’t read all of The Tree of Man – I started it while visiting an uncle in London, at his urging. I think he’d bought his copy when he came out here for my mother’s wedding in the early 60s. I was not sure, reading it, where and when it was set, but I gather it starts ca 1900 on the edges of a major city.
    I’m interested in what you say about the book group members’ feeling that the dispossession of the original inhabitants of the Parkers’ land was so long before they arrived there that it explains the complete absence of any reference to Aboriginal people living in the area. I agree with you that the absence in the book is disturbing – and I think the lack of unease among other members is also rather disturbing – seems the erasure is ongoing. Dispossession doesn’t mean disappearance – it means what it says, that the original landowners no longer owned their land. It’s possible that they had been removed to a reserve or mission or children’s home where they were trained as servants to the white man – many were – and the original dispossession involved death by disease or violence for some. But even the original inhabitants of the Sydney area, where the dispossession was of course earliest, did not completely disappear or become non-Aboriginal. I attended a linguistics conference at Macquarie Uni several years ago, where the welcome to country was given by an elder who said he remembered his grandmother speaking language in the 1930s. Peter Read, in his book Belonging (which I have but can’t find at the moment), talks about his attachment to the Hawkesbury River area, where he grew up – and meets an Indigenous man whose uncle still visited and camped at traditional sites along the Hawkesbury in the 1950s. (And both the elder and the nephew were of course alive and well in the 21st century.)
    Part of the dispossession is lack of awareness/acknowledgement (historical and ongoing) of the continuing existence of the original landowners, and their continuing association with their land and language. The absence of any Indigenous characters in The Tree of Man – even peripherally, except in ‘the desert’ – is one example of it – and the whitewashing that occurred during much of the 20th century was obviously very successful. The book group members are quite probably fairly aware of Indigenous issues, but still seem to see Aboriginal people as existing either elsewhere or in the past – even compared with the place and time of the start of The Tree of Man. Very sad.

  2. shawjonathan

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Rebecca. I think I’ve misrepresented the members of the group. I don’t think it’s true that any of them sees Aboriginal people as belonging in the past or far away (what I think of as the genocidal mindset) – at least, I wouldn’t take that as implied from the discussion of this book. What they were rejecting was my notion that the passage I quoted was a cryptic reference to massacre, and they saw the absence of Aboriginal people as a result of Patrick White being a (white, upper class, Anglophile) man of his time. I would have represented the conversation more accurately if I’d said the consensus was that Aboriginal people had been dispossessed and driven out of the area before the story starts, and that the narrator/Patrick White wasn’t interested in their story. It’s interesting that Voss, White’s next book after The Tree of Man, has a strong Aboriginal presence, though it’s arguably of the far away and long ago variety, but then one of the four main characters in Riders in the Chariot is an urban Aboriginal artist. He does seem to have been on a learning curve.