Remapping Capricornia: Xavier Herbert’s Cosmopolitan Imagination


Since its publication in 1938 critics have generally read Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia as a nationalist novel, even when its nationalism is seen to be structured by contradiction. But little attention has been given to the ways in which Herbert’s complex, multifarious and heteroglossic novel exceeds and challenges the very possibility of coherent national space and a coherent national story. This essay considers moments and spaces in Herbert’s novel where the national is displaced and unravelled. Drawing on Rebecca Walkowitz’s idea of cosmopolitan style and Suvendrini Perera’s work on Australia’s insular imagination I identify a critical cosmopolitanism that inheres in the novel’s geographical imagination and its literary form, particularly the narrative voice which retains a critical distance from the nationalist sensibility of various characters and plot lines, performing a detached and restless homelessness that I identify with the cosmopolitan. Ultimately I ask how the novel’s spatial and environmental imagination displaces its nationalist agenda, making space for a different kind of social imagination—one that does not confine itself to the terms of the nation or organise itself around a central figure for the nation.


Xavier Herbert; cosmopolitanism; Australian literature

Full Text:



De Groen, F. and L. Hergenhan (eds), Xavier Herbert: Letters, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 2002.

Derrida, J., On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, trans. M. Dooley and M. Hughes, Routledge, New York and London, 2001.

Dixon, R. and V. Kelly (ed.), Impact of the Modern: Vernacular Modernities in Australia 1870–1960, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 2008.

Ellis, M., ‘Exercising Dominion: Landscape, Civilisation and Racial Politics in Capricornia’, Revista Ilha do Desterro: A Journal of English Language, Literatures in English and Cultural Studies, vol. 69, no. 2: 2016, pp. 43–55.

Friedman, S.S., ‘Planetarity: Musing Modernist Studies’, Modernism/ Modernity, vol. 17, no. 3: 2010, pp. 471–99.

Griffiths, M., ‘Biopolitical Correspondences: Settler Nationalism, Thanatopolitics, and the Perils of Hybridity’, Australian Literary Studies, vol. 26, no. 2: 2011, pp. 20–42.

Henderson, I., ‘Modernism, Antipodernism, and Australian Aboriginality’, in Decolonizing the Landscape: Indigenous Cultures in Australia, ed. B. Neumeier and K. Schaffer,Rodopi, Amsterdam and New York, 2014, pp.89–106.

Herbert, X., Capricornia, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 2002 [1938].

Heseltine, H., Xavier Herbert, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1973.

Howitt, R., ‘Frontiers, Borders, Edges: Liminal Challenges to the Hegemony of Exclusion, Australian Geographical Studies, vol. 39, no. 2: 2001, pp. 233–45.

Lawson, E., ‘“Oh Don’t you Remember Black Alice?” or How Many Mothers had Norman Shillingsworth?’, Westerly, vol. 33, no. 3, 1987, pp. 29–44.

Mao, D and R.L.Walkowitz, ‘The New Modernist Studies’, PMLA, vol. 123, no. 3: 2008, pp. 737–48.

MacKnight, C., The Voyage to Marge: Macassan Trepangers in Northern Australia, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1976.

Monahan, S., ‘Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia: In Praise of the Swagman Spirit’, Westerly, no. 4, December, 1985, pp. 15–24.

Munro, C., Wild Man of Letters: The Story of P.R. Stephensen, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1984.

Perera, S., Australia and the Insular Imagination, Palgrave Macmillan,New York, 2009.

Probyn-Rapsey, F., ‘Some Whites Are Whiter than Others: The Whitefella Skin Politics of Xavier Herbert and Cecil Cook’, in ‘Spectres, Screens, Shadows, Mirrors’, special issue of Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, 2007, pp. 157–73.

Ryan, S., The Cartographic Eye: How Explorers Saw Australia, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, New York and Melbourne, 1996.

Smith, E., ‘Local Moderns: The Jindyworobak Movement and Australian Modernism’, Australian Literary Studies, vol. 27, no. 1: 2012, pp. 1–17.

Smith, E., ‘White Aborigines: Xavier Herbert, P.R. Stephensen and the Publicist’, Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, vol. 16, no. 1: 2014, pp. 97–116.

Stephensen, P.R., The Foundations of Culture in Australia, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1986 [1936].

Walkowitz, R.L., Cosmopolitan Style: Modernism Beyond the Nation, Columbia University Press, New York, 2006.

Williams, R., The Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformists, Verso, London and New York, 1989.

Woloch, A., The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2009.