Vale Peter Cowan


Glen Phillips

by Glen Phillips ©Copyright 2002

Peter Walkinshaw Cowan (1914-2002) recipient of some of the nation’s highest awards for literature, might not be associated in the minds of his many readers with the ‘school of hard knocks’.  But Peter was a man whose later life as a University teacher, literary editor, historian and author was in contrast to his early experiences as an outback farm labourer, champion motorcycle rough rider and keen amateur photographer and geologist.
       Peter Cowan’s roots go back to some of the most distinguished early pioneer families in Western Australia, especially associated with the Geraldton and York districts.  He later told these stories, including writing the biographies of Maitland Brown and his grandmother, Edith Dircksey Cowan, after whom Edith Cowan University is named.  Dame Edith was the first Australian woman parliamentarian and in Peter’s later life he supplied valuable information both for the rebuilding of her house in Joondalup, on an ECU campus, and to the Museum of Early Childhood at Claremont, his old campus where he undertook his teacher training.
       Coincidentally, he married another Edith, Edie Howard, while he was working as a teacher at Guildford Grammar School.  He had matriculated from Perth Technical College in 1938 and gone on to complete his BA degree at the University of Western Australia.  By this time he had written his first serious short stories and within a couple of years was being published.  Meanwhile, Julian Cowan, his only son was born after the family had re-located to Melbourne in 1943.  Peter applied to join the RAAF in World War II but was declared medically unfit.  He spent most of the Melbourne years teaching at Geelong Grammar.
At this time far more important events were taking place for him outside the schoolroom.  In Melbourne and Adelaide he had met up with John and Sundy Reid who headed a group of avant garde artists and writers.  Associated with the group were later famous names, such as Sydney Nolan, Albert Tucker and Max Harris.  Peter Cowan joined with the writers publishing in Angry Penguins, the magazine later associated with the notorious Ern Malley hoax.
       His success as a writer grew by leaps and bounds, at first with his short story collections, Drift (1945) and The Unploughed Land (1958).  He ultimately published seven collections of his short stories, the final one being Voices in 1988.  The recognition of his talent was immediate and his stories appeared in most anthologies of short fiction and in Australian literary journals.  He received a Commonwealth Literary Fund Fellowship in 1963 to write his first novel, Summer.  Other novels included Seed (1966), and The Colour of the Sky (1986), The Hills of Apollo Bay (1989).
       In 1987, Peter Cowan was made a Member of the Order of Australia and in 1992 he was honoured with the Patrick White Award for an Australian Writer of Great Distinction.  Edith Cowan University conferred on him its first Honorary Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in 1995.  In 1997 he allowed his name to be used for the new Peter Cowan Writers Centre in Joondalup, in the reconstructed house of his grandmother.  In addition to his outstanding contribution to Australian prose-fiction and historical writing, Peter edited or co-edited seven anthologies, many of them used extensively in Australian schools, colleges and universities.  His work as a co-editor of the University of Western Australia’s Westerly magazine was another major contribution to the development and recognition of Australian literature.  He was a passionate advocate of Western Australian writing and helped to establish some of the first formal studies of this State’s writers at university level.
       Peter’s friendship with Sydney Nolan included hosting Nolan and his wife on a memorable visit to Perth.  Nolan also painted his portrait.
       As a secondary school teacher, Peter Cowan was revered by his students.  His work covered geography, geology and, of course, English.  He returned from Melbourne in 1944 and taught at Scotch College until 1962.  Meanwhile he also taught part-time in English at the University of Western Australia where he became a Senior Tutor in 1964.  After he retired, Peter retained his association with the University as an Honorary Research Fellow and Westerly editor.
       Going back to those early years, especially during the Great Depression, we confirm that Peter was an alert observer of both city and country landscapes.  While still a schoolboy he spent a summer vacation on an uncle’s farm at Jardee, in the heart of the Karri forests.  In a 1997 television interview he said that the totally enclosing environment of the farm in the forest put into his mind for the first time the ‘impossible task of life’, a theme which he was to present over and over again in his stories.  In the early thirties he went to work on wheat farms north of Merredin and found the challenge to living there was the vast open spaces.  Even then he could see that the wholesale clearing of the native vegetation was bringing salination and soil loss problems to haunt the State’s agricultural future.  In fact, Peter was to write some of the first conservationist fiction in Australia.  But it was the hard, thoroughly spartan life that impressed the young man.  Once when he could no longer work with a farmer, he rolled up his swag and walked all night to the nearest railway to get out of the district.
       Ordinary men and women, the battlers of the country or the city were his subjects.  He probed their conflicts and their small triumphs and failures but was resolutely unsentimental in depicting how they coped with the environments, rural or urban, in which they found themselves.
       In his own life, despite the praises and honours heaped upon him by fellow writers, critics and readers, he was a family man who could help build an extra room on a house, make out of his beloved jarrah his own library shelves or the family’s display cases or support his son Julian in his motor-racing exploits.  In his own day he had ridden Norton, Ariel and BSA motorcycles to State victories in ‘scramble’ competitions.  He had explored almost every track in the old Murchison gold-mining areas in his searches for geological specimens and for fresh subjects for his enormous collection of photographs.  At one, time, when television had just begun in Perth, he was the creator of a crossword game program much enjoyed by the early viewers.
       In his later years, Peter Cowan suffered the second of three tragic family deaths, that of his wife Edie, in 1988.  It had been his own sister, Elizabeth, who had died at the age of only 16 years which had affected him deeply as a boy.  The death of Edith, who had accompanied him on his many bush travels, was a hard blow but worse was to come.  Their only son, Julian, passed away in October 2000.  Peter struggled on but increasingly preferred to spend his days at home reading from his extensive library.  The trusty Toyota four-wheel-drive no longer would take him back to the landscapes which he had written about for sixty years or more.  The last months were spent comfortably in a Guildford nursing home.  He is survived by his sister Mary, daughter-in-law Diana and other members of the extended Cowan and related families.
Glen is a writer, poet and academic, read more