Lawson

Introduction to Henry Lawson #

Henry Lawson was born in a tent on the Grenfell Gold field on a stormy night of the 16^(th) – 17^(th) June, 1867 to Peter Larsen (A Norwegian sailor who jumped ship to dig for Gold) and Louisa Albury (the granddaughter of John and Anne Albury who with their four sons became bounty emigrants in 1838 from England to New South Wales).

Lawson, Australia’s first Post Colonial writer, created a new style of writing: dryly laconic, intensely Australian, passionately egalitarian and socialist and deeply humane.  Following Edgar Allen Poe’s dictums about short stories they were economical, artistic and memorable because their distinctive ring.  His stories are sketches, rather than fully filled out portraits, skeletons rather than fully fleshed bodies.

Henry Lawson  - General Observations

Lawson had a dark, more realistic view of rural hardship rebelling against the Romantic movement. Instead of nature being identified with god, he depicted the “hell” pioneers had to endure.   

In a  letter to his aunt he writes:  

You have no idea of the horror out here,  men tramp and beg and live like dogs”.

The Bush as Scourge – it 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.”  *The Drover’s Wife

Joe Wilson calls the bush:

“the nurse and tutor of eccentric lives”

Lawson was one of the first writers to depict the Australian landscape realistically as one of the elements of conflict.  He personifies it as another character, unforgiving and distant – pitiless in its opposition to European occupation.

Patrick Stowe, in his novel Tourmaline, characterised it as:  “in the early  morning gives off a tint of blood in water but by the late afternoon, when every pebble glares, wounding the eyes, shortening the breath, the practice of living is hardest to defend, and nothing seems easier than to cease, to become a stone, hot and still”.

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.

All the conflicts are between battlers and a raw, pitiless unforgiving environment.

Mateship

It was the mutual sharing and support of each other that carried men through hardship.  No matter how hard things were you shared whatever you had with your mates.  Together with this they shared a healthy disrespect for authority.

In Shearers, he wrote:  “They tramp in mateship side by side - the Protestant and Roman.  They call no biped lord or sir, and touch their hat to no man”.

Joe Wilson calls the bush:

“the nurse and tutor of eccentric lives”

“*And the sun sank again on the grand Australian Bush - the nurse and tutor of eccentric minds, the home of the weird and much that is different from things in other lands”    ** *Bush Undertaker

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.

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

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.   

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?

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!”

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.

Banjo Paterson, a contemporary and rival poet, described the difference between them perceptively and respectfully:

“Henry Lawson was a man of remarkable insight in some things and extraordinary simplicity in others.   We were both looking at the same reef… but I had done my prospecting on horseback with my meals cooked for me while Lawson had done his on foot and had to cook his own.  Nobody realised this better than Lawson…. Henry suggested we should write against each other, he putting the bush from his point of view and I from mine……I think Lawson put his case better than I did, but I had the better case, so honours (dishonours) were fairly equal.”

All the conflicts are between battlers and a raw, pitiless unforgiving environment which some historians believe gave birth to the legend of the Australian Digger.

Charles Bean, the pre-eminent founder and celebrant of the* ****Anzac**** ****legend****, did not suggest that it emerged on the Anzac Peninsula. Rather, he believed, it was something that was born in the bush and carried into battle. It came from the experience of pioneering the country and above all from the resilience and toughness needed to settle the outback.*

*He 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.   ***HENRY REYNOLDS AND MARILYN LAKE, **April 3, 2010  SMH

Though Lawson was an itinerant worker, a drifter, a rouseabout, deaf, idiosyncratic, a disillusioned socialist and republican and an incorrigible drunk, his position as Australia’s most distinguished early writer cannot be challenged.   Like Mark Twain he left an indelible mark on post-pioneering pre-industrial societies.