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When The Tree of Man appeared in 1955, it was hailed as the first important novel by an Australian to gain world attention. In a front-page review in the New York Times Review of Books James Stem praised it highly, and The Sydney Morning Herald was quick to pick up and cite his acclamation in its next edition ("Australian's Novel Praised"). There was no thought of placing the novel in a wider context then; but fifty years have passed and our perspective has changed. In this paper I would like to suggest that now we can more fully appreciate White's achievement in The Tree of Man from a new perspective, considering it as a pioneer novel and setting it in particular alongside the acknowledged classic American pioneer novel, Willa Cather's My Antonia (1918). The comparison of White's work to this older, more established classic offers the bonus of helping us to understand White's overall achievement as it appears to us in this new century.
As a basis for a comparison of the two novels, let me first establish something of the timespan covered within each. The novelists provide evidence for the dating, but do not supply actual dates:
Cather drew extensively upon her own life in My Antonia. She begins and ends her novel with her own years in Nebraska, from the time she was brought there from Virginia as a young girl in 1883 until she left it in 1896, not visiting it again until 1912. She brings her narrator, Jim Burden, from Virginia to Nebraska as a young boy of ten, presumably also in 1883. She traces the story continuously until 1892, when Jim leaves college in Lincoln to go to Harvard at the age of nineteen, and then suspends the story in his absence until he revisits Nebraska twenty years later, enabling us to see the changes in the lives of the principal characters. Antonia tells Jim during that visit that her daughter Martha has a Ford car, no doubt the Model T that was invented in 1908; so one can posit 1912 as the terminus ad quem of the novel, the year that Cather herself returned to Nebraska to visit Annie Sadilek Pavelka, her model for Antonia.
The time flame of White's novel is harder to establish, since White is deliberately vague, but there are clues that point to its limits. Working backwards, we note that when Stan is away in France during World War I, his son Ray is thinking of leaving school, so is presumably about fourteen in 1917 and therefore born in 1903. Since Ray was a late child, preceded by a miscarriage, his parents probably married in 1900 at the respective ages of about twenty-five and twenty-three. Stan was born then in 1875, and Amy in 1877. We first see Stan at the beginning of Tree of Man just after he has left home to clear his land, at roughly 20 years old; so the novel commences in 1895. When at the end he dies from a stroke--survived by Ray's son, who appears to be about ten--Stan would be in his late sixties, which places us around 1942. However, World War II is never mentioned, probably because White chooses to maintain his pioneer emphasis throughout the novel. The dates I have suggested would give Tree of Man a time frame from 1895 to 1942.
The early events of My Antonia and Tree of Man, then, take place at the same time. Jim Burden and Stan Parker are nearly the same age, and the pioneer periods of their respective regions overlap. Cather, writing in 1918, tells a brief, quick-moving story--in full color from 1883 to 1892, then picks it up again for a few memorable days in 1912. White, writing nearly forty years later, tells a long, slowly unwinding story--in shades of gray--from 1895 to 1942. The additional thirty years covered by White's narrative were still a pioneering period for Australia; it was only during the war years, the 1940s, that Australia transformed into an industrial country.
Cather's novel was quickly recognized as a classic and has become an archetype of pioneer novels. It continues to attract respect and affection; it has never been out of print and is easy to find in any large bookstore, in Australia as well as in America. Tree of Man is currently out of stock in Australian bookstores and has to be ordered from warehouses. My Antonia is an excellent source to draw upon in formulating one's ideas of the characteristics of a successful pioneer novel; indeed, it provides the basis of what I have to say about pioneer novels.
A pioneer novel has a strong sense of human history--past and future--a sense of history renewing itself in new areas and new lands. It looks at the past as it depicts the establishment of a settlement, but looks more to the future, when continuity is ensured and a noteworthy culture has begun to emerge. Writers like Cather and White who are very conscious of their own role in the creation of a regional culture are particularly concerned with its emergence and …