Contemporary and Later Reception

Probably the most eminent of Swan's contemporaries to sing the praises of ‘Luke Mivers' Harvest’ was the poet, Henry Kendall. By 1879, Kendall, his ‘Shadow of 1872’ now well behind him, was seeking rehabilitation by working in the timber business of the Fagin brothers at Camden Haven on the central coast of New South Wales. On 15 July 1879 he commented in the course of a letter to Thomas Butler, the editor of the Freeman's Journal, ‘Give me Mr Dalley before the whole crowd: his verdict on Luke Miver's Harvest shows a magnificent critical faculty’.noteSome time towards the end of the same year he apparently sent Swan an unsolicited letter in praise of ‘Luke Mivers' Harvest’, thus initiating a correspondence which lasted until the poet's death. Swan, already an ardent admirer of Kendall and his verse, was in some haste to reply. What seems to have been his first letter in the correspondence is simply dated ‘Stawell/ Sunday Night’:

My dear Mr Kendall

It would be very absurd of me not to say at once that I was pleased and flattered and glad when I read your letter. I have had a good many on the same subject but only one from Henry Kendall which is worth bushels from all other sources. I don't think I could say more because it exactly expresses what I mean. I have known you now for many years and I have delighted not a few with that grand verse of yours

"If the way had been shorter and greener
And brighter it might have been brave
But the goal was too far & he fainted
Like Peter with Christ on the wave

You are perhaps not aware (as indeed how could you?) that any stray pieces of yours which I have come across I have had republished as witness the enclosed — these for private circulation among my friends. You will find ideas which with shame and confusion of face I admit I have prigged from you in the Christmas story in the Queenslander and which I forward you by this post.

I wish I was a younger man. I am over forty being I fear, the old young man or the young old man that Carlyle writes of. I was at the Yorick Club (Melbourne) a short time since and took part in discussing you . . . .

I rather fancy that Clarke has given over writing novels. It is true he has been at me for a long time but as I told him he is getting lazy. That is a state I cannot afford and I work hard.note

In his reply to Swan in a long letter dated from Camden Haven on 16 January 1880, Kendal wrote:

Many thanks for the Queenslander. I agree with Ward the editor of the Mail as to your tale therein. In a private letter to me, he says that it is "incomparably the most powerful of the group" Its beauty makes the heart ache. How can you say that you have "prigged from me!" It is impossible for you to imitate anybody. But I will tell you one thing. You are the author of my verses on Mary Rivers. Turn to your chapter describing the death of Pelan, and you will see that I am right. "And shall Australia framed and set in sea August with glory" is another jewel from you. I cannot help it. Such things will linger in the memory.

The charm of your Queenslander story is the charm of beauty — the leading characteristic of Two Wives is — so far — power. I have seen your "Australasian" work. George McCrae speaks highly of it . . . His Natural Life is a work showing great industry and more than ordinary power; but it is not for the same shelf as Luke Miver. There are faults in the latter; but they are the faults of a strength that is rarely in repose. The Pegasus so to speak cannot be pulled up against his will . . .

As you will see, my hand is fagged. It has been at the pen all day — so I must pull up. Your letter is highly, deeply prized. It is not often that one has an audience with a creative genius.

Dead beat for sleep.note

The fulsome generosity of Kendall's praise in this letter was, it must be said, somewhat modified in his correspondence with McCrae. There, the quality in Swan's writing that he repeatedly praises is the power of its descriptions of the Australian landscape. In a long letter dated 2l January 1880 (only five days after he had written to Swan) Kendall sought to soothe the anger of his Melbourne friend, who was plainly put out not only that his own entry for the Sydney Mail competition, ‘Afloat and Ashore’, had been unplaced but that the prize had gone to ‘Luke Mivers' Harvest’:

Swan is a man of unquestionable genius — so are you, my dear boy; but you, being weaponed with rare scholarship, have an immense advantage over your fellow-writer . . . Dalley like myself has a bias towards the descriptive — hence the failure with him of your noble work.

I really cannot understand the conduct of the other judges. Why your story should not have been placed at least side by side with Swan's, is a marvel to me. You can put a plot together, Swan cannot; you can paint character, Swan cannot; your situations are full of power, Swan's are not; but in this Luke Miver's Harvest he has floored you completely at the word painting business.note

Kendall's epistolary tact must have been effective, for McCrae's side of the correspondence registers a shift from anger and rejection of any merit in Swan's work to a grudging acceptance of Kendall's verdict. Earlier in the exchange of letters, McCrae had written, on 8 January 1880, in these terms:

I never yet either met or saw Mr Swann to my knowledge but I do not go to the length of crediting him with genius — in fact if I may say so without appearing ungenerous (and this I would of all things avoid seeing he beat me in the competition for the Sydney Mail £100 prize for a story ) he appears to me to act as a sort of literary galvanist to the shaky nerves of sensation-palled readers — he deals in fact too much in blood, brandy, & the uglier side of bush-life to please my fancy — yet with all this he is undeniably clever and smart.

Did you read the story placed second to his "Luke Mivers's Harvest"? The Captain's Charge by A.C.? I like it far better than the Harvest — To my mind it is more natural and exhibits no straining after effect . . .note

By 30 January McCrae was bending to Kendall's opinions:

Now it is just exactly here that you write "but in Luke Mivers's Harvest he [Swan] has completely floored you at the word-painting business . . . ". Well! if it be so — I can only try again . . .note

Three weeks later still, McCrae capitulated. On 20 February he wrote:

I quite acknowledge Mr Swan's superiority in painting Australian scenery — In that matter however I am as yet untried . . .note

Admiration for Swan's ability to capture the quality both of the Australian landscape and of colonial society, indeed, provided a major theme for his contemporary critics. It forms, for instance, the centrepiece of the Preface contributed by the anonymous editor of a posthumous collection of Swan's tales, A Couple of Cups Ago, and Other Stories, published in Melbourne by Cameron, Laing and Co., in 1885:

With a pen much more prolific, while as graphic and powerful as that of Marcus Clarke, he has told us of the early days and doings off and on the "diggings," of the hardships and dangers encountered by our explorers and pioneers, ere they reached the point they strove after — the goal they wished to attain. "The bush," with its terrible tales of suffering, privation, and death, was an open book to him, and from it he has read the stern reality and made us understand its weird mysteries.

Again, many of his descriptions of scenery, and thoughts drawn there from, ought to have been embalmed in the poet's verse. note

Swan's champion went on to quote approvingly from Dalley's report on ‘Luke Mivers' Harvest’:

The pictures of Australian scenery, and the sketches of colonial society seem to me very masterly; and the whole composition is, without doubt, far above the average of English periodical literature.

By and large, however, ‘Luke Mivers' Harvest’ seems to have received very little immediate attention in the newspapers and reviews. Only when it was reprinted in serial form after his death did it attract much journalistic comment. During the remainder of Swan's life, the principal benefit that he derived from his success in the Sydney Mail competition was readier publication of his work, in particular greater access to colonial newspapers outside Stawell and Melbourne than he had previously enjoyed. The Sydney Mail itself carried a good deal of his fiction through 1879, 1880, and 1881. On nine successive Saturdays — 20 December 1879 to 7 February 1880 — the Mail printed his ‘Two Wives’ as its 1879 Christmas story. It ran another long work of his serial fiction, ‘Lucy Ross's Sacrifice’, from 2 July 1881 to 12 November of the same year. In both 1879 and 1880, the Queenslander also called on Swan for its Christmas stories — ‘A Story of Two Christmases’ in 1879 and ‘Joseph Curran's Christmas Ride; A Story of Black and White’ in 1880.note In 1882 one of his tales was published in the anthology, Australian Stories in Prose and Verse. note

‘A Story of Two Christmases’, relying on many of Swan's usual melodramatic effects (murder, drowning, disguise and trickery), is noteworthy for at least one passage which, in its contrast between Australia and England, is reminiscent of Frederick B. Sinnett's more celebrated ‘The Fiction Fields of Australia’:

Where the nights are long and dark, and the merciless wind bites bitterly, flecked with snow or wild with storm; where the whiteness and the blackness and the power of the air dominate all else from the setting to the rising sun — chilling the prospect, daunting the hope, and lifting the rags of poverty; where the white is piled against the window panes like shrouds, and its silent pall and accumulation has the weirdness in it that is germane to fate and to the inevitable, is the place for ghost stories. Not so Australia. We are too young and too practical. We have no castles with their remnants of toppling walls and decaying staircases, hidden cells and revolving slabs, leading to darkness and indices of tragedy. How, indeed, could this be the habitat of ghosts, where the cocks crow every hour and there is not a cranny fearsome enough where they could hide their impalpable selves? Our notions in this respect are iconoclastic. What else could they be where the days are full of brightness and the nights are full of stars singing their eternal psalm?note

‘Joseph Curran's Christmas Ride’, largely a re-working of the earlier ‘Two Days at Michaelmas’, is set in North Queensland. Mixing Swan's fascination with revenge (the wife of one of the principal characters has been murdered by the blacks some years previously) with local colour and exciting action, the story touches, if only briefly, on the serious ethical issues raised by the white usurpation of Aboriginal land and the massacre of the tribes. One speech in particular, assigned to the protagonist Blakely (the middle name of Swan's only son) recognises the guilt the pioneers too often merited for their dealings with the native people:

We are to them strangers and invaders. They have been taught to look on all such as enemies, and they know only one way to deal with enemies. Even this feeling would have been dispelled but for the cowardly reprisals of white men, and even to-day in the wilderness it is life for life. We, with civilisation to aid us, and the unfortunate savages at the mercy of our bullets, think it a brave thing to shoot down savage men and women; it is, instead, a living disgrace and a blot on our Christianity. We carry our Bibles, and shoot these creatures in their own country, and on their own soil. It is murder.note

The increase in Swan's writing activities brought its costs — in fatigue and failing health. One undated fragment of a letter to Kendall poignantly concludes, ‘Today was such a dreary one to me It was a gray day filled with a sorrowful cadence & I can't tell why’.note He understood his case all too well in writing to the publisher of A Couple of Cups Ago. It was a letter of farewell:

I may get well again. If not — well then I shall go rapidly down the declivity to the bottom. When the curtain is drawn aside, and the great secret is made known . . . . [sic] The world is not so bad a one as we are inclined to think it is, perhaps. I feel this because it may be necessary that I should lose my hold on it before long.note

On 31 July 1884 Swan died of an aneurismnote at his home in Main Street, Stawell. He was in his fiftieth year. His passing brought tributes from throughout the Australian colonies. The Pleasant Creek News published a long obituary on 2 August 1884, which also reprinted part of another which had appeared on the previous day in the Ararat Advertiser. The News summarised the chief episodes of Swan's life and colonial career, acknowledged his tireless support of the district he had made his home, praised his literary achievements, and paid tribute to his personal qualities:

He was essentially a neighbourly man, with a kind ear and a sympathetic heart for those who consulted him. He was thoroughly sincere and therefore always earnest. As a friend, those best know how great was his heart, who were admitted to a share of his deeper as of his lighter thoughts; and there are those who will miss him much in the days to come.note

The Australasian of 2 August 1884 recorded that ‘Australian literature sustains a notable loss by the death of Mr. N. Walter Swan’:

Mr. Swan's work, though sometimes, perhaps, wanting in literary style, showed great literary vigour and great imaginative power. There were certain phases of Australian country life, in its visible out-of-door aspects, which he could depict with a peculiar graphic force all his own, and with his stamp impressed very deeply upon it. The slow, silent, solitary life of the remote bush he had made himself familiar with, had thoroughly felt its wildness, and weariness, and suggestions of mystery, and had, at the same time, seen its aptitude for purposes of romance. He had a very quick feeling for the romantic element in our common Australian life, and familiarity had strengthened his insight into it, without dulling his perceptions of all that it possessed in the way of unique character.note

In noticing his death, the Sydney Echoof 1 August 1884 took the opportunity not only to assert the value of Swan's career but also to lament the lack of support and recognition which was the general lot of the colonial writer:

He made no millions, acquired few acres, lived his little life, but did his great work. He lived by his pen as a journalist; but nature intended him to write fiction, to tell tales; he was sent here as the story-teller of Australia. It was in him to have left an adequate record of the whole breadth of Australian life. He did some little in that way. His novels (the best of which won the "Sydney Mail" prize for the best Australian story five years ago) are very near the head of Australian fiction. It would be difficult, in fact, to name half-a-dozen Australian books to be placed in the same category as "Luke Mivers' Harvest;" but he did not write many books. The Australian world said to him as to many another, "We have no need of your particular work; stultify your proper nature; grind out for us the stuff we desire; get into the mill and away from that fantastic loom." Feeling the call of duty he had to obey, and thus all his best work is undone. But surely enough is done to justify a feeling of sorrow that we can now receive no more, and enough will remain to keep his memory bright in the fuller and fairer days when art no less than industry shall, even in Australia, receive its proper reward.note

At least one of Swan's friends took very practical steps to keep his memory bright. In 1885, less than a year after his death A Couple of Cups Ago, and Other Stories was published. This collection of five of Swan's talesnote was made possible, as recorded in the Publisher's Preface, by the generosity of an anonymous benefactor:

But a large hearted man . . . has, at his own expense, published the following out of the numerous stories written by the deceased author, in the hope that the large circle of friends and admirers of Walter Swan, whose leisure hours have so frequently been cheered and lightened by the outcome of his brain and pen, will accord it a hearty welcome; and will, by their patronage and personal endeavour, make the undertaking a financial success, and by doing so, assist to lighten the load of sorrow which lies so heavily on the bereaved widow and children . . .

In conclusion it may be stated that should this little work meet with the success anticipated, it is intended to supplement it by one or more others, containing further stories by the same author; the proprietors of the various papers in which the present and other stories have appeared, having generously given permission for their republication in book form to the gentleman referred to.note

The proposed further collections of Swan's stories were never produced. Nevertheless, interest in his fiction was maintained up to the end of the century — largely through the efforts of his own family, and centred on the fame of ‘Luke Mivers' Harvest’. On his death, Swan had left a widow, a son, four daughters, and a sister-in-law in the house on Main Street, Stawell, bequeathing them a controlling interest in the newspaper he had edited. Although Mary Ellen died in 1890,note her children maintained control of the Stawell News (as the paper was now known), and used their position to keep their father's name before the Australian reading public. On Saturday, 23 October 1897, the paper (under his son's editorship) carried an announcement of the forthcoming serialisation of ‘Luke Mivers' Harvest’. The same announcement was regularly repeated throughout October and November, often supplemented by laudatory notices of the novel lifted from other regional newspapers. A news item of the issue of 26 October 1897 is especially important in regard to the publishing history of Swan's novel:

With regard to the story by the late Mr. N. W. Swan, entitled, "Luke Mivers' Harvest," the republication of which was advertised, for the first time, on Saturday, an impression seems to have got abroad, among our readers, that the proprietary intend the story to appear in book form. Their intention is, however, to publish the story in the columns of this journal in serial form.note

As promised, the first instalment of the novel appeared on Saturday, 20 November 1897, and ran thereafter in a supplement on each Saturday until 2 July 1898. Special subscriptions to the Saturday edition of the News were offered for the duration of the serial, and the paper reported a keen response to the offer. This second serialisation of ‘Luke Mivers' Harvest’, however, was not the last successful attempt by the Swan family to keep the novel in print. Although Walter Blakely Swan died in 1899,note suddenly and after a short illness, the Stawell News remained in the family, under the control of his sister Florence, later to become Mrs Fleetwood-Smith. On 8 April 1902, the News advertised Luke Mivers' Harvest, ‘the famous story’, as being on sale, in book form, for one shilling.note This is the only monograph version of Swan's tale to have appeared until the present edition.

With Federation and the new century, memory of Swan's novel rapidly faded. In 1903 Clara Eyre Cheeseman (Swan's competitor in 1878) included a reference to Luke Mivers' Harvest in the account of ‘Colonials in Fiction’ that she contributed to the New Zealand Illustrated Magazine. Her comments, like virtually all those which preceded them, placed equal stress on Swan's representation of the Australian landscape and the luridly melodramatic plots enacted against it:

The same story [Luke Mivers' Harvest] abounds in beautiful descriptive passages — the sunrises and sunsets, the starlit nights brooding over the vast plains, the sparse forest on the stony ranges, the desolation of the waterless country are spoken of as by one who knew the landscape by heart. To set against this — and the same can be said far too often of colonial stories — there is hardly a single character who has been able to lead a decent life, while some of them, such as the drunken, brutal squatter and his uncouth uneducated son, are repulsive, and have nothing in common with the class to which they are said to belong.note

After Cheeseman's article, Swan, his life, and work disappeared almost totally from the Australian literary consciousness. For the next forty years his name is nowhere to be found in any of the standard surveys of our literature.note In that time it surfaced only in such comprehensive bibliographies of Australian printed materials as those of Sir John Ferguson and E. Morris Miller. After the Second World War, and even with the rising academic interest in Australian literary history, little was done to rehabilitate his achievement. While Colin Roderick accorded him a paragraph in An Introduction to Australian Fiction (1950),note Cecil Hadgraft could find no place for Swan in his Australian Literature (1960), he received no mention in Barry Argyle's An Introduction to the Australian Novel 1830-1930 (1972), K. L. Goodwin omitted him from his conspectus, A History of Australian Literature (1986). Even H. M. Green failed to include him in his comprehensive A History of Australian Literature of 1961. Only in such recent works as The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (l985) and The Oxford Literary Guide to Australia (1987) is Swan's imprint on Australian cultural history in any significant degree recognised.

Nevertheless, the full canon of Swan's published work (still to be determined) constitutes a contribution to our nineteenth century fiction of real significance. Its themes, attitudes and qualities of style indicate an affinity with, even a penetration into, the life of his times which cannot be dismissed. His experience as a mid-century immigrant from Protestant, middle-class Ulster, his failure as a gold-digger and success as a provincial editor must be allowed their representative importance.

The reprinting in its entirety of Luke Mivers' Harvest, Nathaniel Swan's chef d'oeuvre, for the first time in over ninety years has as its aim, then, simply to make available once more a text which both mirrors, and encourages the finer and fuller interpretation of, the literary culture of colonial Australia. This Introduction and the Explanatory Notes at the end of the volume should, it is hoped, go some way towards providing a context which will permit the wider significance of the text to emerge, its lines of implication into our cultural history to be traced out.