Review: Peter Pierceon Kenneth Mackenzie

No success like failure: The Young Desire It by Kenneth Mackenzie

In his poem ‘Heat’, Kenneth Mackenzie wrote of a traveller who announces his intention to go down to the river

        and went down and never
came back into the heat from the water’s ease
in which he swooned, in cool joy, and died.

Was there perhaps an implicit, prophetic sub-title: An Australian Poet Foresees His Death? On 17 January 1955, Mackenzie travelled from Sydney to Goulburn to see his friend Len Oldershaw. As he alighted from the train, police charged him with drunkenness. Bailed at 5pm, he was dead at 7.30pm, drowned in Tallong Creek. In her Australian Dictionary of Biography entry on Mackenzie, Veronica Brady reckons that he ‘accidentally drowned’. The new Text edition of his first novel, The Young Desire It (1937), prefers ‘drowned in mysterious circumstances’. In The Model: Selected Writings of Kenneth Seaforth Mackenzie (2000), edited by Richard Rossiter, Robert Finlay-Jones speculates that ‘while drunk or withdrawing from being drunk [Mackenzie] had an epileptic fit, fell in the water and drowned’. Yet is this reading influenced by the fact that Mackenzie’s son, Hugh, also drowned in middle-age because of an epileptic fit?

Owing to the uncertainty of what happened to this strong swimmer, Mackenzie’s place in the line of Australian literary suicides is an ambiguous one. Poet and lawyer, James Lionel Michael, his pockets weighed down with stones, drowned himself in the Clarence River in 1868. Two years later, Adam Lindsay Gordon shot himself in the ti tree scrub behind the Marine Hotel in Brighton. Barcroft Boake, bush balladeer, hanged himself in 1892 with the lash of his stock whip in the bush at Long Bay. Charmian Clift took an overdose in 1969, her suicide note quoting Keats about ceasing on the midnight with no pain. Author, public servant and suspected subversive, Ric Throssell, became in 1999 a third generation suicide in the male line of his family. The uncertainty about the manner of Mackenzie’s death is congruent with the fluctuations of his critical reputation. But before analysing the critical treatment that Mackenzie has received, what paths brought him to Tallong Creek?

Born in Perth in 1913, Mackenzie barely knew his father, who abandoned the family soon after his return from the Great War. His mother took Kenneth and his sister to live with her parents. The boy became a boarder at Guildford Grammar, and it is in a ‘Public School’ of that kind that Charles Fox uncomfortably finds himself at the beginning of The Young Desire It. According to Finlay-Jones, Mackenzie was ‘the subject of homosexual advances by a music master at Guildford who was subsequently dismissed’. Either while at school, or during his brief spell at Muresk Agricultural College, but certainly by the time that he was seventeen, Mackenzie began the first draft of the novel. As he told Colin Roderick in 1945:

I wrote there a surreptitious novel, a very long and nauseating one, by candlelight.  Although it was without doubt a nauseating novel, all gush and galantine, I did object to being jeered at over it, by larrikins who ransacked my room and pawed the beloved manuscript.

To Jane Lindsay, a daughter of Mackenzie’s Sydney mentor Norman Lindsay, whom he was wooing without avail, Mackenzie averred that ‘my whole psyche was shaped by those years – first living with women only, then living entirely separated from anything womanly’.

The separation did not last long. Mackenzie briefly studied Law at the University of Western Australia, but was more dedicated to drama, through the Five Acts Club. As Finlay-Jones solemnly reports, ‘when a married woman became pregnant, he refused to have anything more to do with her, and instead transferred his affections to another club member, Kathleen Bartlett.’ Five years older than Mackenzie, Bartlett had recently been widowed. In 1933, Mackenzie headed east to Melbourne, working as a scullery-assistant and surviving on the charity of his father’s sisters. Next year he was in Sydney, where Bartlett joined him. They married on Christmas Eve 1934. Mackenzie found piecework at the Sydney Morning Herald and Fox Movietone News. While contributing to Smith’s Weekly, he became friendly with Lindsay and Kenneth Slessor. The first volume of Mackenzie’s verse, Our Earth, which appeared in a limited edition in 1937, came with drawings by Lindsay, whose assistance also contributed to the decision by Jonathan Cape in London to publish The Young Desire It.

Kenneth Ivo Brownley Langwell Mackenzie now added another name to that string. Because Cape already published a Kenneth Mackenzie, he needed a new name, and chose to publish as Seaforth Mackenzie. As he often did, he made himself a hostage to fortune (and superstition), because while Seaforth was the ancestral seat of the Clan Mackenzie, there was also a family curse decreeing that in each generation of the descendants of the Earls of Seaforth ‘there would be an epileptic, an alcoholic and a half-wit’.

All was well at first. The Young Desire It won the Gold Medal of the Australian Literature Society. A second novel, Chosen People, followed in 1938. Rejected for active service in the Second World War because of poor eyesight, Mackenzie served in the 22nd Garrison Battalion at the Cowra prisoner-of-war camp. This furnished such notable poems as ‘Dawn: Post 3’:

No bird, no bugle, no mongrel voices break
the tender, unimpassioned flow of light
over the black rim of the icy world
whose little men a little sentry guards
with pale yawning eyes.

More famous, however, was Dead Men Rising (1951), Mackenzie’s novel of the mass Japanese break-out at the camp in August 1944 – also the subject of Thomas Keneally’s latest novel, Shame and the Captives (2013).

Mackenzie was awarded the first of three Commonwealth Literary Fund grants of £400 in 1947 to write the Cowra novel. He was given a similar sum in 1950, by which time his family was destitute and living at Kurrajong in the Blue Mountains, and a third for 1955, which would be of no help to him. Richard Nile and David Walker discovered that Mackenzie’s tax returns for 1949-52 showed an average income of only £247. After his death, Angus & Robertson paid £78/9/6 for the funeral expenses. Since no one wanted the ashes, they were dispersed by crematorium staff. Beatrice Davis, who had worked closely with Mackenzie as his editor at Angus & Robertson, assumed responsibility for the funeral. She did so, Nile says, ‘with very much less and greater sensitivity than when George Robertson buried Henry Lawson’.

In the year of his death, Mackenzie was offered an advance of £5000 for his last novel, The Refuge (1954). This exemplifies an Australian literary paradigm – the success of failure (Lawson, Mackenzie, and others). The United States, by contrast, exhibits the failure of success (Hemingway and Fitzgerald, among many). Those four authors – two Australians and two Americans – were all prodigious and self-destructive drinkers. Beer was Lawson’s tipple of choice for ‘it makes you feel the way you ought to feel without beer’. Christopher Brennan’s alcoholic taste was catholic. According to Brady, Mackenzie took claret with his breakfast.

When he began The Young Desire It, this drinking was years into Mackenzie’s future; it was not so far away by the time the book was published. He was a precocious literary talent. In his fine introduction to the new Text edition of the novel, David Malouf compares Mackenzie with the ‘genius of Stephen Crane in The Red Badge of Courage … the young Thomas Mann of Buddenbrooks, and the even younger Raymond Radiguet of Le diable au corps.’ (He might have mentioned another Australian, Sonia Hartnett, whose first novel – Trouble All the Way – was published in 1984, when she was fifteen). The autobiographical burden to be expected in a first novel has already been sketched. What is less usual is that much of The Young Desire It is a school story, an Australian equivalent of those ‘stories of English public schools’ that are among the reading for Mackenzie’s young protagonist, Charles Fox.

The school story has, in fact, never been a popular genre in Australian literature. There are famous exceptions, such as Henry Handel Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom (1910), Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967), and more recently Anson Cameron’s Lies I Told About a Boy (2006), based in part on Prince Charles’s stay at Timbertop, but the ‘not being at school’ stories are perhaps as important – for instance, Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians (1894) and Nan Chauncy’s They Found a Cave (1948). But to school Charles Fox goes in the first pages of The Young Desire It, perhaps not much reassured by his mother’s comment that ‘This isn’t really a prison, you know’. Fox will find school to be ‘a lively machine in action. Life was being arranged and explained’.

Although Mackenzie’s title is risqué at first glance – compare it with near contemporary novels, all banned, J.M. Harcourt’s Upsurge (1935), Lindsay’s Age of Consent (1938) and Robert Close’s Love Me Sailor (1945) – the title comes from the novel’s epigraph. Mackenzie quotes Michael Paul’s The Anatomy of Failure: ‘to be free to choose is not enough. Though the young desire it, they cannot use that freedom.’ Charles Fox’s most direct desire is for the love of Margaret, the girl he meets when they are both back home in the country during school holidays. More broadly, he resists the demands on him by others, whether these are from the school, or his mother. Not for him the passive line of his best friend, Mawley (who takes over some of the storytelling), whose ‘superior schoolboy cousins had coached him to be ordinary’; Fox is defined by ‘that defiance which grew in him until it finally characterised him among his fellows’.

Among the staff, Charles first meets another Fox, the headmaster, who suffers from a ‘dreadful head wound’, the legacy of war, but who is too damaged to become a surrogate for the father that the young Fox has lost. (As his mother laments, ‘Your father … always went to extremes … drink took him away from me – from us’: maybe this was also Mackenzie’s unwitting foreknowledge). More important is the Oxford-educated classics master, Penworth, who forms an intense homoerotic attachment to Fox, in part to assuage the dissatisfaction that he feels in Australia among ‘young minds … looking forward, but he looked back, for ever’. With wry bitterness, Penworth thinks of himself as ‘a foreigner whose speech they happened to understand’. Mackenzie acutely examines not the familiar dilemmas of Australians abroad, but the plight of a British expatriate in Australia. While Penworth might have ‘an intelligence not frequently to be met in this strenuous new country, he was still nowhere’.

A vital scene in the novel concerns Penworth alone. Implicitly, it raises the issue of the influence that D.H. Lawrence had on The Young Desire It. Penworth muses unhappily that

these giant subtle forces were no mythic emanations of open places, no genii lurking only in the vastness of an unknown and untroubled continent; they were the very daemons of men’s minds, in cities, in homes – in schools where the childhood of the nation was nursed, and which he, come armed with gifts of rich knowledge and charm of nature, was to be shown that his own race, which like a bold adventurer he had left to cross three seas, was old, old – that its traditions and cultural beauty, faced with these crude world’s-end forces, were like the encrustations of decay.

This appears to be Penworth’s revision of the discontentment with Australian society and the responses to the Australian landscape of Richard Somers in Lawrence’s Kangaroo (1923). Both characters choose to leave Australia, but Somers’s mystic exhalation – ‘from far off, from down long fern-dark avenues there seemed to be the voice of Australia, calling low’ – is not for Penworth. Nor does he emulate the expressionistic aversion of Harriet Somers: ‘sometimes a heavy reptile-hostility came off the sombre land, something gruesome and infinitely repulsive.’ In Australia, Penworth is simply ‘still nowhere’.

In The Refuge, Mackenzie gently mocked Lawrence in the landscape: ‘I thought of D.H. Lawrence in the Darling Ranges in Western Australia listening to the overpowering self-assertion of lost Lemuria in the seething stillness of moonlit valleys.’ At the same time, the power of Lawrence is shown in Charles’s love of losing himself in the natural world – the ‘ecstatic surrender of himself to all that was good in life’ – and in the intense feelings and inchoate desires of the young lovers: ‘He was filled with complex pleasure and surprise to find her beside him.’ The course of the love affair between Charles and Margaret is traced at length, wordily even, but with delicacy and discretion. More overtly impassioned is the treatment of another of Lawrence’s great themes – the fraught, intense relationships of mothers and sons. Mackenzie was undone by his mother’s sudden death in 1949, notwithstanding Lindsay’s quip: ‘Poor Ken had an adoring mother … the adoring mother murders her offspring.’

The Young Desire It is one of the most brilliant, confident and unusual instances of a Bildungsroman in Australian literature. Nor was it a flash of genius soon extinguished. Scores of poems and three more novels followed, besides extensive unpublished fiction. But how has Mackenzie fared in Australian literary history – noting his unconscionable omission from The Cambridge History of Australian Literature (2009)? What fresh claims have been made for and on him? On what basis has his work been reclaimed? It is altogether too limiting to say, as Rossiter does, that ‘Mackenzie’s reputation rests, almost exclusively, in being the first in the line of precocious talents from the West (to be followed by Randolph Stow and Tim Winton).’

Mackenzie’s early death did not lead to a sudden eclipse of his reputation. He featured in a special edition of Westerly in December 1966 that drew on the bio-critical work of Diana Davis, while she was a postgraduate student at Melbourne University. There have been two anthologies of Mackenzie’s poetry, the first edited by Douglas Stewart in 1961, the second by Evan Jones and Geoffrey Little in 1972. In between them, in 1969, Jones published a short monograph, Kenneth Mackenzie, in the estimable and extinct ‘Australian Writers and Their Works’ series. Malouf’s appreciative analysis in his introduction to The Young Desire It continues the critical reckoning of Mackenzie’s work into the present. For Rossiter, the unpublished manuscript of a fragment of a novel, the ironic portrait of an artist called ‘Frontispiece’ (included in his collection) is one of the most significant of Mackenzie’s prose works: ‘Its modernist-postmodernist characteristics place Mackenzie at the beginnings of these impulses in Australian literature.’ Harry Heseltine judged that The Young Desire It ‘prepared the way for later linguistic experiments’. Notably, the publication of Patrick White’s The Aunt’s Story (1948) was still over a decade away.

Mackenzie has been identified as a literary precursor in other ways. In 2000, Kerryn Goldsworthy wrote of ‘the development of Queer theory and the concomitant new critical interest in the work of Kenneth ‘Seaforth’ Mackenzie, particularly his best-known novel, The Young Desire It … one of the earliest Australian novels to treat explicitly and in detail the subject of male homosexual love and desire.’ In the novel’s most explicit scene, ‘Penworth kisses [Charles] clumsily and hard on the lips.’ He does so because he feels that his homosexual desires are neither reciprocated, nor understood. Looking into Charles’s eyes, Penworth is ‘striving with the stubbornness of despair to find in their far depths some response to his own will’. Later, Penworth ponders the pain he has inflicted. This ‘gave him a great surge – was that pleasure, then, that overpowering sense of elation, and self-pity.’ Anguished perplexity is the state Mackenzie discerns at the heart of Penworth’s passion.

It was not only in prose that Mackenzie’s influence would be felt. A beautiful suite of poems to his pregnant wife and then his children, Elisabeth and Hugh, anticipated Judith Wright in Woman to Man (1949). In ‘How full Kate is …’, Mackenzie wrote:

       How dare I know
less rich, more fainting actions, when we two
have engineered a third estate, that’ll grow
like us, in pain, and as we in pleasure grew.

‘What have I done?’ continues:

Two young delighted creatures
will live to scorn me for begetting them.

Lovingly and anxiously, he follows them as they grow in ‘My child, blown fine as dust …’ and ‘The children go’. By contrast, such hospital poems as ‘Sick men sleeping’ and ‘Night duty’ (‘Old Young who sleeps by day and night / talks madly in his rested brain’) foreshadow some of the most important works of Francis Webb – ‘The Brain-washers’, ‘Hospital Night’, ‘A Death at Winson Green’.

Nile and Walker wrote that Mackenzie ‘died in 1954 (sic) at the age of forty (sic), a few months after Colin Roderick had predicted that the best was yet to come from Kenneth Mackenzie.’ The comment was generous, but its hope for the author would not be fulfilled. What Mackenzie achieved in the quarter century from his first stab at The Young Desire It to the publication of The Refuge was nonetheless remarkable. He was both an accomplished poet and a distinguished author of bold and original fiction. In the long extracts from unpublished prose works collected in The Model, Rossiter has shown how Mackenzie’s energies seemed undimmed by alcohol abuse. Australian literature does not have many such dual careers to show, so it is fitting that the poet and novelist, David Malouf, should reintroduce Mackenzie’s first novel. Fitting too, that a new generation of readers can now seek out and reclaim, in their own ways, the writing of Kenneth Mackenzie.


Damian Barlow and Leigh Dale, ‘Australian Gay and Lesbian Writing,’ A Companion to Australian Literature Since 1900, edited by Nicholas Birns and Rebecca McTeer (Camden House, 2007).
Nicholas Birns, ‘Australian Poetry from Kenneth Slessor to Jennifer Strauss’, A Companion to Australian Literature Since 1900, edited by Nicholas Birns and Rebecca McTeer (Camden House, 2007)
Veronica Brady, ‘Mackenzie, Kenneth Ivo Brownley Langwell Seaforth (1913-1955),’ Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol.18 (Melbourne University Press, 2000).
Kerryn Goldsworthy, ‘Fiction from 1900 to 1970,’ The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature, edited by Elizabeth Webby (Cambridge University Press, 2000).
Harry Heseltine, ‘Australian Fiction Since 1920,’ The Literature of Australia, edited by Geoffrey Dutton (Penguin, 1964).
Evan Jones, Kenneth Mackenzie (Oxford University Press, 1969).
‘Kenneth Mackenzie,’ The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, edited by W.H. Wilde, Joy Hooton and Barry Andrews (Oxford University Press, 1994).
E. Morris Miller and Frederick Macartney, ‘Kenneth Mackenzie,’ Australian Literature, revised edition (Angus & Robertson, 1956).
Richard Nile, The Making of the Australian Literary Imagination (University of Queensland Press, 2002).
Richard Nile and David Walker, ‘Marketing Literary Imagination,’ The Penguin New Literary History of Australia, edited by Laurie Hergenhan (Penguin, 1988).
Richard Rossiter (editor), The Model: Selected Writings of Kenneth Seaforth Mackenzie (UWA Press, 2000).