Poor Fellow My Country


Xavier Herbert.

Miles Franklin Award-winning novel, the longest Australian work of fiction.


Xavier Herbert, Poor Fellow My Country (Sydney: Collins, 1975), First Edition, first printing, 1,466 pages including two-page Glossary of Aboriginal Terms. Octavo, 26 x 18 cm, hard cover, cloth bound with red and gilt spine titling, jacket painting by Ray Crooke. Weight: 2 kg.

Very good+, minor edge wear to top of dust jacket spine, original owner’s name in ink, dated 1975, on flyleaf.

The complicated family background of Xavier Herbert (1901-1984) framed his peripatetic and at times rakish adult life. His biographer in the Australian Dictionary of Biography points out that Herbert’s major novels Capricornia (1938) and Poor Fellow My Country (1975) explore the theme of illegitimacy, based on personal experience, in the larger context of Australia’s colonial origins, its historical relationship to Britain and its mistreatment of Aborigines. Australian patriotism and nationalism and Aboriginal affairs are, indeed, central to his literary work.

Born in Geraldton in Western Australia, Herbert was educated in Fremantle, and at Perth Technical College studied pharmacy, working sporadically as a pharmacist for many years. By 1925 he was enrolled in medicine at the University of Melbourne, but abandoned the course when he had some journalistic success. He also worked in the late 1920s in the Northern Territory as a drover, railway fettler and pearl diver, and as a dispenser in the Solomon Islands. In 1930 Herbert travelled to England with hopes of pursuing a literary career, but returned to Australia in 1932 with his life companion, Sarah (“Sadie”) Cohen, née Norden. Back in Sydney he worked first as a garage attendant, then as a pharmacist in Darwin, miner, superintendent of the Aboriginal Compound and as organiser for the North Australian Workers’ Union. His important novel Capricornia won the Commonwealth Sesquicentenary literary competition and the Australian Literary Society’s gold medal for 1939.

Losing confidence as an author, but volatile, contradictory and pugnacious, Herbert became involved with the radical nationalist Australia First Movement, narrowly avoiding internment during World War 2. He enlisted in 1942 in the A.I.F. and served as a sergeant in the North Australian Observer Unit until his discharge in 1944. In 1951 Xavier Herbert and Sadie moved to Redlynch, Cairns, and in 1953 were married at Cairns Court House. Herbert’s Seven Emus (1959) critiqued the exploitation of Aboriginal sacred sites in northern Australia; Soldiers’ Women (1961), which explored a quirky theory of sexuality, has been thought of as a companion to a work by the writer Dymphna Cusack, with whom he had a brief wartime affair.

Herbert’s magnum opus, Poor Fellow My Country, “the longest Australian work of fiction”, is  set in the late 1930s and early 1940s; it famously decries Australia as a land “despoiled by white bullies, thieves and hypocrites”. It won the Miles Franklin Award in 1975 and the following year the Universities of Queensland and Newcastle awarded Herbert honorary D. Litt. degrees.

After the death of his wife Sadie in 1979, Herbert moved in 1984 to the Northern Territory and died in November that year at Alice Springs. Patrick Dodson, the Aboriginal former Roman Catholic priest, officiated at his funeral.