Henry Lawson - General Observations #
Lawson had a dark, more realistic view of rural hardship rebelling against the Romantic movement. In doing so he created a new style of writing: dryly laconic, intensely Australian, passionately egalitarian and socialist and deeply humane.
Instead of nature being identified with god, he depicted the “hell” pioneers had to endure
The Bush as Scourge – turns people eccentric, drives them mad *‘*Past carin’**.
“Bush all around-bush with no horizon, for the country is flat. No ranges in the distance.”
Joe Wilson calls the bush:
“the nurse and tutor of eccentric lives”
Henry Handel Richardson (Ethel Florence Richardson), Barbara Baynton, Ethel Turner and Nettie Palmer, colonial writers, who stood apart from the governing myths of blokes, bush and The Bulletin.
Helen Garner said of Baynton
“she knows the landscape, with its bleak terrors and its occasional beauties. She has observed with a merciless eye the dull stupidity and squalor that poverty brings”.
A selection of short stories by Henry Lawson was published in 1959 called Fifteen Stories. Australian author Colin Roderick wrote in the introduction:
Henry Lawson never attempted to draw people he did not know … it was the world of the drover, the prospector, the miner, the rouseabout, the shearer, the railway worker, the swagman and the sundowner, the cocky, the timbergetter, the underpaid apprentice, the bushwoman, the city larrikin, the bushranger, the spieler, the washerwoman, the broken-down gentleman, the unemployed.
It seems an exhaustive list. Yet Roderick selected Lawson’s 1892 story The Drover’s Wife for the collection too, and it alone has three Indigenous characters, primarily a lazy, lying “stray blackfella” whose actions bring the stoic frontierswoman to tears. It appears Lawson did attempt to draw people he didn’t know – Roderick just didn’t see them.
In the late 1800s and the late 1950s, it was normal for Indigenous characters in literature to be negatively represented or invisible. It may happen less now but Roderick was right on one count: “The Australia that Henry Lawson knew … was the base upon which our society has grown.” Kate Hennesy - The Guardian
In his fine introduction to the recent Text reissue of Kenneth Cook’s 1971 novel Wake in Fright**,** author Peter Temple — quoting that immortal Keating line, “If you’re not living in Sydney, you’re camping out” — puts his finger on something about one of the more significant, and significantly overlooked, writers in Ozlit. No Australian author, he writes, was so concerned with, or drew such rigid lines between, city and bush as Cook:
Cook’s experience of both Sydney and camping out fixed in him a view that there were two Australias (and two kinds of Australians, two species almost). One is represented by John Grant [Wake in Fright’s benighted schoolteacher] and middle-class, white-collar Sydney: urban, educated, sophisticated. The other is the interior, the crude, heat-smacked, beer-swilling blue collar world represented by flyspeck Tiboonda and by Bundanyabba [a version of NSW’s Broken Hill where much of the novel’s action unfolds], both in the middle of nowhere .
Temple notes that Cook “will have nothing of what historian Richard White called ‘the familiar iconography of outback Australia — the homestead, the sheep, the lonely gum and the proud Aborigine’ ”:
For him, the place is a variation of hell. And the ability to be at home in the ‘bleak and frightening land’ is a flaw in the outback’s people. There is something wrong with them for enduring this harsh place. They are not the innocent victims of the lonely, arid land; they have made an unnatural choice to live in it that reflects their own stunted, even perverted, nature. Geordie Williamson
Originally, the official position was that the colony of NSW should be a multi-purpose one as a penal colony, a strategic, free settler outpost, and an opportunity to acquire flax for sails and Norfolk pines for mast posts.
Australians have been uncertain of ourselves, we felt insecure. What was the cause of this? … First … geography, the hostile environment, the fear experienced when alone; far from Europe. Second, the doubt, do we belong here? Perhaps this is geography, perhaps history … third, Australia as the harlot, raped by the Europeans, coarse, vulgar, meretricious? We suffer from cultural cringe.
Much of this has changed over time, and it has been our artists; painters, writers, musicians and politicians who have instilled a greater sense of identity and pride in ourselves.
However, there developed two cultures and visions for the early colonies.
One, saw us as simply a colonial outpost of British civilisation located in Asia. We were a “new Britannia in another world”. Our political institutions, culture, symbols, flags, national anthems, and history was British to the bootstraps with loyalty to aristocratics and obedience to a foreign monarch.
The alternatives strove towards the independence of the native born. Writers like, Charles Harpur, Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson, Steele Rudd, Barbra Baynton and Painters like Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton began to depict Australia as distinct from European traditions and worthy of depicting and celebrating through our own eyes.
Early art was strong on description of harsh reality, short on metaphysical reflections. Survival against a pitiless environment pre-empted philosophical concerns.
Roberts and Streeton travelled to the country to depict the trees, bush pioneers, shearing sheds and other realistic Australian scenes wearing bush clothing, shorts, hats with bobbing corks to ward off flies, yet dressing like English gentlemen in the city.
Many became suspicious of Bush culture which championed the underdog, elevating the stature of Bush heroes: selectors, gold diggers, criminals, psychopaths, bushrangers, illegal squatters. They were suspicious of all class distinctions.
The laconic nature comes through in Brighten’s Sister-in-Law:
“It was no use trying to ‘pump’ him concerning his sister-in-law; Brighten was an ‘old hand’, and had learned in the old Bush-ranging and cattle-stealing days to know nothing about other people’s business. And, by the way, I noticed then that the more you talk and listen to a bad character, the more you lose your dislike for him.
In contrast, public ceremonies, like the Proclamation of The Commonwealth of Australia displayed all the pomp and pageantry with plenty of grovelling to British hierarchical society.
The Bush culture initially was against militarism, but it was the vulnerability and insecurity of our outpost status that led to the formation of a federated Commonwealth government under the protection of the British Crown. Australia dutifully and reflexively entered most wars Britain engaged in including the Boer Wars, Boxer Rebellion, and World Wars I and II.
Lawson was aware of the fantasies of striving for a grassroots movement of mateship, equality under the symbols of wattle and gum trees and a southern cross flag. Earlier he had believed in the fundamental belief in the goodness and decency of Australians, later he became misanthropic. Initially he believed in an independent republican Australia; later he wrote poems in sending troops to assist the empire.
He believed in the universal brotherhood of mankind, later supported the White Australia poicy. Earlier he had championed the feisty spirit of bush women, later engaged in disputes with the Sydney women’s movement.
Charles Bean also believed that Australian democracy, universal education and an open, meritocratic society shaped the specific qualities of the diggers. The source of the Anzac spirit, according to Bean, was not to be found in military battle, but in the distinctive character of outback life in the colonies. The diggers were citizen soldiers.
Marilyn Lake feels too many Australians who are concerned with the homage paid to the Anzac spirit and associated militarisation of our history, we are concerned about the ways in which history is used to define our national heritage and national values. We suggest that Australians might look to alternative national traditions that give pride of place to equality of opportunity and the pursuit of social justice: the idea of a living wage and sexual and racial equality. In the myth of Anzac, military achievements are exalted above civilian ones; events overseas are given priority over Australian developments; slow and patient nation-building is eclipsed by the bloody drama of battle; action is exalted above contemplation. The key premise of the Anzac legend is that nations and men are made in war. It is an idea that had currency a hundred years ago. Is it not now time for Australia to cast it aside?
The hopelessness of life as a constant never ending struggle is depicted in most of Lawson’s stories. Most of the stories take place on harsh hopeless locations, either exhausted gold mines or drought stricken selections. The bush is relentless, hostile and unforgiving but also a place of beauty, excitement and challenge. Rather than focus on the bitterness of their defeat, Lawson celebrates their high hopes, their endurance and the heroism of their struggle – the defiance of the battler.
The Drover’s Wife has an absent husband because of the demands created by desperate poverty. The land which is supposed to free them becomes a prison entrapping them into perpetual poverty.
Men are the hapless victims. The mateship depicted in most stories is a fragile one, less based on mutual support than on a refuge from despair. Most are trapped by poverty, debt and family. The land is pitiless and unforgiving; it is a constant struggle just to survive.
Joe Wilson expresses his powerlessness:
“I said to myself, ‘I’ll take more notice of Jim and give Mary more of my time, just as soon as things clear ahead a bit.’ And the hard days went on, and the weeks, and the months, and the years – Ah well!”
The strength often is left to the women who endure the isolation, the loneliness and emptiness of their lives by finding love, humour and courage from each other and go on. It is only through other human company that they can continue to struggle. Civilisation is supported by the endurance of strong resourceful women.
Mary used to say, when things get worse, ‘why don’t you talk to me Joe? Why don’t you tell me your thoughts instead of shutting yourself up…. It’s hard for me; I get to think you’re tired of me….I might be cross and speak sharp ….How am I to know if you are in trouble if you don’t tell me?
Lawson is never sentimental or defeatist; he demonstrates a faith in the resilience, indomitability and indefatigability of the human spirit. He finds something good in each of his characters and fails to provide any villains to blame for the predicaments. Many of his stories demonstrate how supportive and neighborly they are to each other.
All the conflicts are between battlers and a raw, pitiless unforgiving environment.
Lawson in Bourke #
During the early 1990s, The Bulletin’s editor, J. F. Archibald, nurtured a debate about the “true” nature of Australia in the pages of The Bulletin. The two main friendly antagonists were Banjo Paterson, arguing for the beauty of rural Australia, and Lawson, who had a darker, more realistic view of rural hardship.
Eager to give the argument some real-life clout, Archibald gave Lawson a rail ticket to Bourke and a note. It was a chance for the writer to see the real outback close up.
Lawson accepted the challenge. He lived in Bourke for a while in a corrugated iron shed over the road from the Carrier’s Arms (which, in subsequent fiction, he would call the Shearer’s Arms) and took a variety of odd jobs in the area. He walked more than 200 kilometres from Bourke to Hungerford experienced the full horror of the “great grey plain” in drought and eventually returned to the city to write While The Billy Boils.
In this, he continued his assault on Paterson while creating a new style of writing: dryly laconic, intensely Australian, passionately egalitarian and socialist and deeply humane. The dead-straight dirt road between Hungerford and Bourke still exists and, even in spring and autumn, you’ll feel the heat. One person declared it was so hot in Burke that when locals died and went to hell they sent back for — extra blankets. Your shoes will be covered in a fine layer of red bulldust, you’ll start to flag and always, on the horizon, there will be that blue oceanic mirage that has driven travellers mad.
When Lawson walked this road in 1892 — possibly the most important trek in Australian literary history — he would have experienced all this and more. He took three weeks to make the journey from Bourke to Hungerford.