Essay by Peter Craven

Henry Lawson is the great goanna lurking in the dark and sometimes drab bush of Australian literature. He is the man with the moustache who made his way onto the ten dollar note and he was also the first Australian writer to be given a state funeral. It was Lawson who conducted the debate with Banjo Paterson and he has always been seen as the opposite number and complement of the author of “The Man from Snowy River” and “Clancy of the Overflow”. It’s not as simple as the fact that Paterson wrote verse of remarkable buoyancy that lodged itself in the national memory and Lawson wrote prose. Nor that they debated about the bush. Lawson also wrote verse – some of it memorable enough in its way – but that their visions epitomised the opposite poles of a comprehensive vision of Australia (or at any rate a mythology) which The Bulletin in its early vastly influential days was doing its best to articulate, in the 1890s, in that period of nationalistic self-scrutiny and self-dramatisation that would have its culmination politically in Federation and the creation of the Australian nation.

Those who are old enough to remember the 1960s will recall the cultural aftermath of this and the way the schoolchildren of yesteryear had a classic Australian literature (which was always in fact populist in its origins and patina) imprinted on their sensibilities as a kind of folk vernacular. Patrick White and Christina Stead might have been at the height of their powers (and those of us of a literary best would go on to read them, as we would read the poetry of Judith Wright and Kenneth Slessor and AD Hope) but it was the Australia of Paterson and Lawson that we talk in like the old school song.

The actor Leonard Teale – famous as the detective in Homicide, famous, later, as the fierce pater familias in the television version of Seven Little Australians – read and recorded Lawson along with Paterson in his broad-voweled beautiful Sydney voice. At the age of shrieking – is it 13? – we shrieked with laughter at “The Loaded Dog” and many years later, as a literary editor confronted with an especially dreary dun-coloured realist of a writer (to echo White’s phrase), I remember privately referring to him as the loaded dog.

Lawson can appear like a nightmare realism at its dreariest, indeed a kind of leaden lake of the place realism comes from before the imagination breathes it into life. I remember a schoolmaster who spoke in a beautiful leathery voice like Leonard Teale’s warning, almost enigmatically, of the melancholy in Lawson.

Here is one of Lawson’s vistas of poverty and unemployment in the great city of Sydney, in 1893:

With the city unemployed the case is entirely different. The city outcast cannot light a fire and boil a billy — even if he has one — he’d be run in at once for attempting to commit arson, or create a riot, or on suspicion of being a person of unsound mind. If he took off his shirt to wash it, or went in for a swim, he’d be had up for indecently exposing his bones — and perhaps he’d get flogged. He cannot whistle or sing on his pavement bed at night, for, if he did, he’d be violently arrested by two great policemen for riotous conduct. He doesn’t see many stars, and he’s generally too hungry to make poetry. He only sleeps on the pavement on sufferance, and when the policeman finds the small hours hang heavily on him, he can root up the unemployed with his big foot and move him on — or arrest him for being around with the intention to commit a felony; and, when the wretched “dosser” rises in the morning, he cannot shoulder his swag and take the track — he must cadge a breakfast at some back gate or restaurant, and then sit in the park or walk round and round, the same old hopeless round, all day. There’s no prison like the city for a poor man. (Lawson, p. 198)

What a far cry it sounds from the Australia that Mark Twain – in some ways a comparably self-taught writer to Lawson – would refer to as composed of a history that seemed “so many beautiful lies”. And it is one of the peculiar qualities of Lawson, this most archetypal of Australian prose writers, this pioneering master of the Australian short story, that his vision of Australia should be characteristically bleak. Even at his most serio-comic, this is the kind of thing he comes out with “When Australia was fading from view we shed a tear, which was all we had to shed; at least we tried to shed a tear, and couldn’t. It’s best to be exact when you’re writing” (p. 218).

Still, the day I found out that Manning Clark who had adored Lawson to some far-flung point of identification had died, in 1991, I found myself, a bit improbably, at Oxford and therefore went, in the absence of any other form of memorial to the chapel of Balliol, the college he had attended and aescending the altar recited, as well as I could remember them, the misremembered words of the bush undertaker confronted with that leathery corpse whose mind fumbles for the lost memory of “I am the resurrection and the life”.

I quote in the original newspaper version which is reproduced in Paul Eggert’s edition of While the Billy Boils:

“Theer oughter be somethin’ sed,” muttered the old man; tain’t right to put ‘im under like a dog. There oughter be some sort of sarmin’.” He sighed heavily in the silence that followed this remark, and, proceeding with his work, filled the grave to the brim this time, and fashioned the mound carefully with his spade. Once or twice he muttered the words “I am the rassaraction.” He was evidently trying to remember the something that “oughter be sed” and stood by the side of the grave. He removed his hat, placed it carefully on the grass, held his open hands out from his sides and a little to the front, drew a long deep breath and said with a solemnity that greatly disturbed Five Bob, “Hashes ter hashes, dus ter dus, Brummy.” Then he sat down and covered his face with his hands.

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.

This is the Lawson we remember, rightly, for his dark vernacular shadow. It is also the Lawson who has cast a shadow over the Australian literature that followed after him. Whatever Jack Hibberd’s Monk O’Neill owes to Samuel Beckett’s tramps and bombastic blind men, the sheer blasted image of the bush undertaker stands behind him like a totem. And there is something prophetic ––in the Hebrew, not just the prefiguring sense –– about the crypto-existential gloom, the sense of a tragic crystal in Lawson’s apprehension of these bush desolations emerging from beneath the grime and deprivation of dumb inarticulacy.

Is that what makes Lawson some kind of great writer, some kind of great Australian writer? And are these two things the same thing? Back in 1972, Brian Matthews wrote The Receding Wave in which he argued that the best of Lawson’s short fiction was great by any standards. It’s interesting to ponder this question as we read and re-read Lawson’s most famous book,While the Billy Boils. It is made up of these stories and sketches of Lawson which J.F. Archibald published in The Bulletin and was subsequently published in book form by Angus and Robertson.

Read today in full – in either a reprint of the Angus and Robertson edition, or in Eggert’s scholarly version which gives the original newspaper versions together with footnotes of subsequent revisions, often from Lawson’s editor and it appears only cursorily approved by the author – they represent a distinctly odd collection, which goes in and out of focus and constantly skirts the border between fiction and journalism.

Lawson’s style is frequently lean to the point of being threadbare and we constantly feel the pressure of the world that is being excluded by the demands either of the newspaper space or the writer’s inability or reluctance to dramatise the interior life except as it is implicit in some jocose tale or – perhaps more powerfully – in a jagged anecdote of woe.

The last story in Eggert’s edition is “The Geological Speiler” and it concerns a couple of conmen who have been introduced in an earlier story (one belligerent and given to boisterous physical punishment, the other cringing and cunning). Bully poses as a geologist and claims the crawler as his servant in order to con a farmer. A wily hand puts them off their stroke by suggesting the boss is a university man whereas the informant in fact is the chap who knows what’s what.

The story is well-turned, mildly amusing and the sort of thing you might find in Mark Twain at his most ordinary. It is an overtly humourous sketch of a late-nineteenth-century kind, obvious in both its gesticulations and its narrative outline, that has been pretty patently written for a mass audience of a literate but not necessarily lettered kind. Its residually modern quality, as with the humbler journalistic strain in Twain, comes from its relative lack of literary texture, even though it is a fairly developed version of Lawson at his most raconteur-like.

It is difficult to imagine this kind of writing detaining the attention of a reader who was not predisposed towards an interest in late nineteenth century Australia for its historical colour and atmosphere or as a clue to whatever interest might lie in the personality of the author.

This is not to deny that Lawson can have an arresting side even when he is at his most conventional and it has to be admitted that he never departs far from the conventions he exploits (even when he’s filling their outlines with the dark contours of his melancholy).

But somehow it is more impressive, it touches something other than the appetite for corniness, when we read of some poor persecuted fellow who cared for his mother and his backward brother and who died after being given a hard time by his workmates. Or if some sane young tough is talking to a woman whose son has died and doing so with a kind of besotted intensity that somehow breaks through the wan sentimental conventions of the story made to order. This boy, years older, recurs in the second instalment of “Jones’ Alley” and we get, just for a flickering moment, a sense of what is every so often at the edge of what is being luminous in Lawson’s description. “He was one of those sharp, blue or grey- eyed, sandy or freckled complexioned boys-of-the-world whom we meet everywhere and at all times, who are always going on towards twenty, yet never seem to get clear of their teens, who know more than most of us forgot, who understand human nature instinctively – perhaps unconsciously – and are instinctively sympathetic and diplomatic; whose satire is quick, keen and dangerous and whose “tact” is often superior and more ready than that of many educated men-of-the-world. Trained from childhood in the great school of poverty, they are full of the pathos and humour of it” (p. 329).

You can see from this what’s potentially transformational about Lawson. One of the reason why he seemed such an illumination of pre-Federation Australia and its representation is that he has these touches of lightning realization in the midst of realities which – at least in terms of grime and squalor and the understated heartbreak implicit in material grind and bondage – he does not minimise.

But, although he is confident in the stories of While the Billy Boils in representing the dark and straightened side of life, it is all the kind of misery that could be whispered, or almost, into a ten-year-old’s ear. A particular chap has been in and out of the clink for trivial reasons in some country town when a doctor hears him hum a tune from Trinity College days in Dublin, then – a bit eerily it’s so improbable – he mutters a line from Homer in Greek. The local roughs go to peer in his hut by the river and find a lock of hair, a girl’s picture. They are hushed, a bit awed at the unexpected revelation of humanity. Soon after that they find he’s thrown himself in the river.

IT’s bleak, it’s not without beauty, it’s been done a thousand time before, and will be again, but it’s done with a very Australian accent, and it’s that power (the power of a local habitation and identification) that gives this kind of writing its glory.

Stories like “An Old Mate of Your Father’s” are fine enough if you can abandon your mind to the rhythm of the conventions whereby they create a national mythology out of the very bareness of their technique, the only half-deliberate impoverishment of their formal means.

It’s not hard to warm at least a bit to these stories of woebegone bushies or to overheard snippets of family chatter, but it would be wrong to confuse Lawson’s narrative stylelessness with the style that was to animate the mighty fictions of Zola or the “scrupulous meanness” of James Joyce. There’s nothing, or nothing more than coincidence, between Lawson’s writing at any given instant and the author of Thérèse Raquin or even the humbler stories inDubliners, though again you can see how Joyce too, at the outset, was close to the journalistic sketch, however much he transfigured it, apropos of Flaubert, by that touch of parody, that diagnostic eye which ensured that just a touch of linguistic deformation (a dash of “literally” capturing a young girl’s voice) could make the whole world kin and look, indeed, like nature itself.

Lawson has a lot of inverted commas and archness, a lot of vocalic gesturing towards the orchestration of demotic speech without allowing it to flood his narrative and colour its form. Nor – in the opposite direction -can he equal the dramatic ferocity, the sheer appetite for life, bloody and bold, of a Zola.

None of which is to deny that he has something. It makes perfect sense that Murray Bail, that supreme bush modernist, should take “The Drover’s Wife” as his absolute Australian artefact and proliferating cliché. But the story deserves its status as one of the greatest Australian stories and that’s partly because Lawson has found a subject equal to the full potential of his technique. The lean, exhausted bush wife, forever waiting, forever tired, clutching the safety of the children, waiting for the snake like the nemesis of all that can go wrong in a man’s world –  where there is no man – and striking back and triumphing like a heroine.

It’s there too in the supreme anti-elegy “The Union Buries Its Dead”, which is one of the greater elegiac things in our literature, a superb piece of black-crepe prose that proceeds to establish the fact of death and to articulate its own alternate ceremony of death by a series of deflationary understatements. This is the Homeric poetry of Australian corner-of-the-mouth understatement and deflation. If Lawson had consistently reached the heights of these great anthology pieces he would be one of the wonders of the world. Instead he is a very potent Australian example of glory and of the failure concomitant with it.

The graph of Lawson’s life – the melancholy, the alcoholism, the mental illness – is very moving and these stunted sometimes gleamingly talented, sometimes terribly lame stories are a monument to the sense of loss that Australians can always feel at the heart of the culture they inherit.

It’s unfair, of course – unfair to Lawson, unfair to ourselves. The very best of Lawson has a weird archaic splendour, a sort of modernity that trespasses on a twentieth century that didn’t yet exist, just as he chances – sometimes like a fiend, sometimes like a drunk – on the grace of all that pioneering spirit and all the spit and piss of the bushman’s yarn.

Lawson, of course, is [ital] Australia, has its magic, its understatement, the sense of the pessimism that underlies its fatuous mythology of luckiness.

What a jolly swagman, not.  And yet there is a strange charm, even in this man’s idle and cosy cartoons, a constant hint of an artistry that towers up like a snake that sings like the greatest of requiems, through all the heat, all the dirt, all the womanless desolation of a world with nothing but the loneliness of mateship and the unspeakable bottle. Rather than Patrick White, he is the great Australian writer we had to have. At least I think so, God help us and him. No wonder the nation chose to bury him as one of its mighty dead.



Lawson, H. While The Billy Boils: The Original Newspaper Version. Edited by Paul Eggert, notes by Elizabeth Webby, Sydney University Press 2013.

Suggested reading

Brian Matthews’ The Receding Wave (1972) is the most formidable defence that has been made of Lawson as a writer. Matthews’ Louisa, the fictional life of Lawson’s mother also has its illuminations.

A.A. Phillips, the man who coined the phrase “the cultural cringe”, had plenty of opportunity to exhibit one in his Henry Lawson (1970) which is worth a look.

Manning Clark’s In Search of Henry Lawson (1978) show the fierceness of the country’s best known historian’s feeling for Lawson.

Stephen Murray Smith’s Henry Lawson (1975) is a short account by the distinguished editor of Overland, a magazine with a commitment to Australian social realism.

© Copyright Peter Craven 2014