Xavier Herbert

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Xavier Herbert
On 1 April 1938, the day he received news of winning the Sesquicentenary Library Prize
On 1 April 1938, the day he received news of winning the Sesquicentenary Library Prize
BornAlfred Jackson
(1901-05-15)15 May 1901
Geraldton, Western Australia, Australia
Died10 November 1984(1984-11-10) (aged 83)
Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia
Pen nameXavier Herbert, E. Norden, Herbert Astor[1]

Xavier Herbert (born Alfred Jackson; 15 May 1901 – 10 November 1984) was an Australian writer best known for his Miles Franklin Award-winning novel Poor Fellow My Country (1975). He was considered one of the elder statesmen of Australian literature. He is also known for short story collections and his autobiography Disturbing Element.[1][2]

Life and career[edit]

Xavier Herbert in 1984

Herbert was born Alfred Jackson in Geraldton, Western Australia, in 1901, the illegitimate son of Amy Victoria Scammell and Benjamin Francis Herbert, a Welsh-born engine driver. He was registered at birth as Alfred Jackson, son of John Jackson, auctioneer, with whom his mother had already had two children. Before writing he worked many jobs in Western Australia and Victoria; his first job was in a pharmacy at the age of fourteen. He studied pharmacy at Perth Technical College and was registered as a pharmacist on 21 May 1923 as Alfred Xavier Herbert. He moved to Melbourne, and in 1935 enrolled at the University of Melbourne to study medicine. He started his writing career writing short stories for the popular magazine and newspaper market, publishing under a range of pseudonyms, the most common being Herbert Astor.[2]

He did not publish his first book, Capricornia, until 1938. Capricornia was in part based on Herbert's experiences as Protector of Aborigines in Darwin, though it was written in London between 1930 and 1932. It won the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal for Australia's Best Novel of 1939.[3]

The 1940s and 1950s were a relatively lean time for Herbert in terms of publication. He released Seven Emus (1959).[1][2] In the 1960s he published two books, before the release of Poor Fellow My Country (1975), as well as a short story collection. Poor Fellow My Country is the longest Australian novel.[4]

Herbert was well known for his outspoken views on indigenous issues. He was a great champion of Aboriginal peoples,[4][5] particularly those living in missions in Queensland and the Northern Territory. In his personal life he was considered difficult, and his wife Sadie said it was a choice between having children and looking after Xavier.[4] Aware of his own mythology, he frustrated biographers by telling unreliable stories about his life and past.[2]

In 1977 the artist Ray Crooke painted a Portrait of Xavier Herbert followed in 1980 by a Portrait of Sadie Herbert. Professor Emeritus Laurie Hergenhan discussed the story behind the creation of these artworks, and another portrait by Crooke of Sir Zelman Cowen, in "A Tale of Three Portraits."[6]

Final years and death[edit]

By 1982, the widowed Herbert was working on a new novel, "Me and My Shadow" and took a two-month tour of his birth state, Western Australia, in 1983 to gather material for the book.[7] On 15 January 1984, at age 83, he left his home in Redlynch, Queensland for the last time to drive in his Landrover into the centre of the country, the Northern Territory. He travelled 2,000 km to his destination: Alice Springs. In June 1984, Herbert refused to accept an award of the Order of Australia from the Hawke government, on the grounds that it was a British Empire honour rather than a nationalist Australian one.[8]

In September, Herbert was treated for skin grafts on his leg and carpal tunnel syndrome in Alice Springs, where he was visited by the artist Sidney Nolan and his wife Mary. After his treatment, Herbert moved in temporarily with his doctor, Charles Butcher, and Butcher's family, where he would live for the remaining weeks of his life.[9]

Herbert died on 10 November 1984 from kidney failure. He was commemorated by the Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, as "a prodigiously committed Australian".[10] He was buried in Alice Springs, together with his wife's ashes, in a ceremony officiated by Aboriginal activist Pat Dodson in recognition of Herbert's long support for the rights of Aboriginal Australians.[11][12]

Published works[edit]

Xavier and Sadie Herbert's former cottage in Queensland in 1996


Short story collections[edit]

  • Larger than Life (1963)
  • South of Capricornia (1990) – Edited by Russel McDougal
  • Xavier Herbert (1992) – Edited by Frances de Groen and Peter Pierce


  • Disturbing Element (1963) – Autobiography
  • Letters (2002) – Edited by Frances De Groen, Laurie Hergenhan[15]
  • Letters from Xavier Herbert, 1980–1983 (unpublished), By Peggy Hayes[16]


  1. ^ a b c "Xavier Herbert". AustLit. Association for the Study of Australian Literature. 2002. Archived from the original on 21 February 2014. Retrieved 17 July 2013.
  2. ^ a b c d McDougall, Russell (2007). "Herbert, Albert Francis Xavier (1901–1984)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Vol. 17. Melbourne: Melbourne University Publishing. Archived from the original on 11 May 2013. Retrieved 17 July 2013.
  3. ^ "Prize for Best Novel" The Argus, 19 March 1940, p1
  4. ^ a b c ""Xavier Herbert" ABC Retrieved 12 July 2013". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Archived from the original on 3 March 2016. Retrieved 31 January 2018.
  5. ^ 31 May 2006 (31 May 2006). "Remembering Herbert" Archived 12 January 2014 at the Wayback Machine. Eureka Street. Retrieved 12 July 2013.
  6. ^ Hergenhan, Laurie (July 2013). "A Tale of Three Portraits" (PDF). Fryer Folios: 7–9. Archived (PDF) from the original on 7 February 2015. Retrieved 3 December 2014.
  7. ^ De Groen, Frances (1998). Xavier Herbert. University of Queensland Press. pp. 109–114. ISBN 0702230693.
  8. ^ De Groen, p.268
  9. ^ De Groen 1998, p.268-269
  10. ^ De Groen 1998, p. 269
  11. ^ "OBITUARY". The Canberra Times. 12 November 1984. p. 7. Retrieved 3 December 2014 – via National Library of Australia.
  12. ^ De Groen 1998, p.270
  13. ^ "The Sydney Morning Herald – Google News Archive". 28 April 1976. Retrieved 23 March 2012.
  14. ^ "His country". 28 November 2014. Retrieved 31 January 2018.
  15. ^ Herbert, Xavier (2002). Francis de Groen; Laurie Hergenhan (eds.). Letters. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press. p. 490. ISBN 0-7022-3309-9. Retrieved 19 August 2013.
  16. ^ Hayes, Peggy. Letters from Xavier Herbert, 1980–1983 [manuscript]. National Library of Australia. Archived from the original on 12 October 2012. Retrieved 19 August 2013. Manuscript reference no.: NLA MS 9116

Xavier Herbert biographies[edit]

Xavier Herbert literary criticism[edit]

External links[edit]