Lawson, Henry 1867-1922
(Full name Henry Archibald Hertzberg Lawson; also wrote under the pseudonym John Lawrence) Australian short story writer, poet, and autobiographer.
Lawson is highly regarded for his realistic short stories about the Australian "bush," or inland wilderness. Many critics note that his deceptively simple writing style foreshadowed that of many later writers, and his vivid realism and exploration of the concept of mateship, or male comraderie in the bush, influenced an entire generation of Australian writers. Although Lawson produced only two important short fiction collections, he nonetheless is considered a landmark figure in Australian literature.
Lawson was born near Grenfell in New South Wales. He left school at fourteen to work with his father as a painter and builder, and when his parents separated in 1883 he moved with his mother to Sydney. Lawson published his first book, Short Stories in Prose and Verse, in 1894. A slim volume of poetry and short fiction privately printed on his mother's press, it attracted little attention, although it contained stories which would be recognized as among Lawson's best when reprinted two years later in While the Billy Boils, a collection that made him nationally famous. In 1897 he moved to New Zealand for a year, where Lawson was temporarily able to overcome incipient alcoholism and concentrate on writing. In 1900 Lawson traveled to England, where he published his most successful short story collection, Joe Wilson and His Mates. He returned to Australia in 1902. Progressing alcoholism, an unhappy marriage, and declining literary output and quality marked the last twenty years of his life.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Critics agree that Lawson's best work is contained in the short story volumes While the Billy Boils and Joe Wilson and His Mates. Concerned with the hardships of living in the bush, several of these early stories describe the inherent obstacles to human habitation of the region and portray the roughness and cruelty exhibited by people living in such difficult conditions. Lawson's harsh, vivid descriptions countered a tradition in Australian literature that romanticized the outback and idealized its inhabitants. In many of the stories, however, Lawson also depicted kindness in his characters and celebrated the idealistic concept of mateship. In "The Union Buries Its Dead," from While the Billy Boils, a group of men loyally attend the funeral of an unfamiliar fellow union member simply because he has no family or friends in the area, but they nevertheless callously make a farce of the ceremony and fail even to recall the man's name after they learn it. The central stories of Joe Wilson of His Mates—"Joe Wilson's Courtship," "Brighten's Sister-in-Law," '"Water Them Geraniums,'" and "A Double Buggy at Lahey's Creek"—are linked pieces that follow the courtship, marriage, subsequent hardships, loss of affection, and tentative reconciliation of a young man and woman in the outback.
Critics highly commend Lawson's achievements in While the Billy Boils and Joe Wilson and His Mates, in particular the realistic themes and unadorned narrative style of these collections. Lawson wrote authentic stories that overturned false and romantic conceptions of Australian life; as a result, he was acclaimed as a spokesman for the Australian people.
Short Stories in Prose and Verse (short stories and poetry) 1894
While the Billy Boils 1896
*On the Track 1900
*Over the Sliprails 1900
The Country I Come From 1901
Joe Wilson and His Mates 1901
Children of the Bush (short stories and poetry) 1902
The Rising of the Court (short stories and poetry) 1910
Triangles of Life, and Other Stories 1913
The Prose Works of Henry Lawson 1937
The Stories of Henry Lawson. 3 vols. 1964
Henry Lawson: Short Stories and Sketches (short stories and sketches) 1972
Other Major Works
In the Days when the World Was Wide, and Other Verses (poetry) 1896
Verses Popular and Humorous (poetry) 1900
The Skyline Riders (poetry) 1910
A Coronation Ode and Retrospect (poetry) 1911
For Australia, and Other Poems (poetry) 1913
My Army! O, My Army!, and Other Songs (poetry) 1915
Poetical Works of Henry Lawson. 3 vols. (poetry) 1925
Collected Verse. 3 vols. (poetry) 1967-69
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SOURCE: An excerpt in An Annotated Bibliography of Henry Lawson, edited by George Mackaness, Angus and Robertson, 1951, pp. 1-3.
[In the following passage, which was originally published as the preface to Short Stories in Prose and Verse (1894), Lawson introduces the stories in his first collection, emphasizing the Australian nature of the work.]
This is an attempt to publish, in Australia, a collection of sketches and stories at a time when everything Australian, in the shape of a book, must bear the imprint of a London publishing firm before our critics will condescend to notice it, and before the 'reading public' will think it worth its while to buy nearly so many copies as will pay for the mere cost of printing a presentable volume.
The Australian writer, until he gets a 'London hearing' is only accepted as an imitator of some recognised English or American author; and, as soon as he shows signs of coming to the front, he is labelled 'The Australian Southey', 'The Australian Burns' or 'The Australian Bret Harte', and, lately, 'The Australian Kipling'. Thus, no matter how original he may be, he is branded, at the very start, as a plagiarist, and by his own country, which thinks, no doubt, that it is paying him a compliment and encouraging him, while it is really doing him a cruel and an almost irreparable injury.
But, mark! As soon as the Southern writer goes...
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SOURCE: "Mr. Lawson's New Book," in Henry Lawson Criticism: 1894-1971, edited by Colin Roderick, Angus and Robertson, 1972, pp. 44-8.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1896, Ferguson offers a positive assessment of While the Billy Boils.]
The sketches collected by Mr Henry Lawson, under the title While the Billy Boils, give him an assured place amongst the few Australian prose writers; a place much safer, I venture to think, than that yet gained for him by his verse. The quality seems to me to be better sustained, and the touch finer and more certain. But, in prose, as in verse, all Mr Lawson's work so far is marked by one striking characteristic—it would be premature yet to call it positively a defect—a very pronounced and narrow restriction in the choice of material. Whether this is due to his own limitations, or is the result of enforced and deliberate choice remains to be proved by his future work.
However, taking the present book as we find it, dealing as it does with little more than a single phase of Australian life, it is impossible to deny it very high praise indeed. I know of no writer who has dealt with this phase of our life on anything like the same scale, with anything like the same truth and vigour. The shearer's shed, the shepherd's humpy, the cockatoo selector, the station cook, the fossicker, the swagman, the bush shanty, the bush spieler—he...
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SOURCE: "Some Blokes Down Under," in The New York Times Book Review, February 9, 1958, p. 4.
[Grattan was an American educator and critic with a special interest in Australian literature. In the following review, he provides an overview of the major themes of Lawson's short fiction.]
Up to this moment, only those American readers who have chanced upon the writings of Henry Lawson in English or Australian editions have had the very great pleasure of savoring the work of this master of the short fictional narrative. Now Lyle Blair has arranged the first publication of a selection of stories and verses [The Selected Works of Henry Lawson], and it is to be fervently hoped that what he has assembled will find its way into the hands of every last American who enjoys making literary discoveries.
I am not at all certain that it was wise to mix Lawson's poetry with his prose to allow the use of the word "Works," though of course he wrote verse. Whatever may be thought of the poems, anybody who can read such stories as "The Drover's Wife," "A Double Buggy at Lahey's Creek," "The Union Buries its Dead," and "The Loaded Dog," all included here, and not raise a cheer is surely suffering from hardening of the mind and emotions.
Henry Lawson (1867-1922) was the son of a wandering Norwegian sailor (Larsen) and an Australian mother. The father is a shadowy figure, dogged by...
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SOURCE: "Lawson's Joe Wilson: A Skeleton Novel," in Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 1, No. 3, June, 1964, pp. 147-54.
[In the essay below, Wallace-Crabbe examines the themes of "Joe Wilson's Courtship, " "Brighten's Sister-in-law, " '"Water Them Geraniums,'" and "A Double Buggy at Lahey's Creek," asserting that the four stories are "the nearest Lawson ever came to transcending the bounds of his unassertive short story form and writing something in which he could look at human relations more substantially, more expansively. "]
Henry Lawson remains unquestionably our greatest short story writer. Indeed he is one of our greatest prose writers, a man whose achievement stands there in the Prose Works, square and solid and unmistakable. At the same time, we cannot pretend not to notice his limitations, which are considerable: to put it simply, Lawson worked within a very limited range in terms of form, of emotional variety, of the kinds of experience he could grasp and set down clearly. Within these narrow bounds his remarkable art came to fruition and, in time, fell away.
A cluster of themes run together through Lawson's stories. These are extremely persistent and they have obvious origins in his private life, wherein the pain of family tensions can only have been reinforced by the affliction of early deafness. Again and again we are brought up against...
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SOURCE: An introduction to The Stories of Henry Lawson, first series, edited by Cecil Mann, Angus and Robertson, 1964, pp. vii-xiv.
[In the following excerpt, Mann outlines Lawson 's career and assesses his significance as a short story writer.]
Henry Lawson, never one without literary honour, has now already attained, or been invested with, a nationally unique status. He has become personally a romantic legend. At his best a great writer in his medium, he appears in this present concept as one who is himself seen first, standing in the forefront of his literary fame. As thus popularly known, legendary and alive in the legend, he occupies here much the same position that Robert Burns holds among Scots, and has not had to wait even half the time specified by his overseas counterpart: "Don't be afraid. I'll be more respected a hundred years after I am dead than I am at present." With both of them it is essentially a literary phenomenon. Whether or not, in the sum of permanence or the test of human values, there have been greater Scots, or greater Australians, there has been no writer of either country with quite the same common touch, the same simple human appeal that each of these has in his own different style; and there has been none, either, who so wholly took over, as each of these did, the natural voice of his country and made it naturally his own. In Burns the voice may often speak Lowland dialect,...
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SOURCE: "Henry Lawson Revisited," in Meanjin, Vol. XXIV, No. 100, 1965, pp. 5-17.
[In the following essay, Phillips offers a stylistic and thematic analysis of Lawson's short fiction.]
Revisiting Henry Lawson, reading straight through all his most significant work, has proved for me a surprising experience. Before I enlarge on the surprise, I had better declare myself on the begged question in my first sentence. What constitutes the significant part of Lawson's work?
First, I have ignored his verse. That is only partly because it is not consistently good enough to be patiently readable in quantity. Mainly I have set it aside because I am uncertain how truly it contains the mind of its writer. Too often, one feels, the ballads are not by Henry Lawson. They are the work of a persona, bearing his name and cashing his cheques, who assumed the rôle of the Australian folk-voice. Lawson himself, I suspect, never recognised the histrionic element which the hypnosis of rhythm created within him.
I have also taken little account of the stories which Lawson wrote during the long and painful period of his decline. That period begins—with a distressing obviousness—in 'The Romance of the Swag' volume. Again it was not merely the inferiority of the writing which induced my disregard. Literary work may be bad and yet tell us much about the mind of its writer. No student of...
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SOURCE: "Henry Lawson as Short Story Writer," in Henry Lawson: Poet and Short Story Writer, Angus and Robertson, 1966, pp. 43-66.
[In the following excerpt, Roderick places Lawson's fiction in the context of the modern short story and the Australian short story.]
[What] is the nature of the short story? What characterizes it as an art form?
We could arrive at its nature by taking a historical view of it. We could see how the modern short story began independently with Hans Andersen in Denmark, Gogol in Russia, and Edgar Allan Poe in America. Thence we might trace it through to the present time. From any volume of Charles Dickens's weekly magazine, Household Words, we could see how Dickens first essayed the form in the 1850's. We could see how he approached it after many years of writing novels—none better—and how he failed because he applied to it the art of the novel. These historical elements we shall touch briefly—all too briefly—as we pass through the first part of our examination of Lawson's work. For the moment we shall take the end result of this historical development, as shown in two or three modern short stories, and ascertain from them the chief characteristics of this form of art. Let us examine first one of the stories in that very useful collection of Australian work by Mr Hadgraft and Mr Wilson [A Century of Australian Short Stories, 1963], "The...
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SOURCE: "The Drover's Wife Writ Large: One Measure of Lawson's Achievement," in Meanjin, Vol. XXVII, No. 112, March, 1968, pp. 54-66.
[In the following essay, Matthews determines the significance of "The Drover's Wife" and "'Water Them Geraniums, '" maintaining that the stories are a "crucial stage in Lawson's artistic development. "]
'The Drover's Wife' is almost certainly one of Henry Lawson's best known stories. Relentlessly anthologized, it deserves its eminence, even if the attention of most readers and many editors has been too much focused upon the pioneering aspects of the story or its skilfully controlled suspense. It is no doubt true that 'The Drover's Wife' pictures 'the self-sacrificing lonely life of the bushwoman, who in those days helped to lay the foundation of our prosperity' [according to Colin Roderick, in the introduction to Henry Lawson, Fifteen Stories], but I feel that the story's real significance and merit are better appreciated if it is seen as a crucial stage in Lawson's artistic development. With stories like 'The Union Buries Its Dead' and 'The Bush Undertaker' it impresses as one of the successive refinements of Lawson's elusively apocalyptic vision of the bush. But 'The Drover's Wife' is perhaps especially intriguing because, with 'Water Them Geraniums'—a second, more ambitious attempt at a similar theme—it provides some measure of Lawson's achievement up...
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SOURCE: "Narrative Technique in Lawson's Joe Wilson Stories," in Southerly, Vol. 37, No. 1, March, 1977, pp. 97-107.
While the Joe Wilson stories are generally considered to represent Henry Lawson's prose style at its best, little attention has been paid to the narrative technique on which that style depends.
Joe, as narrator, attains the successful balance of objectivity and imaginative evocation sought in Lawson's previous stories. The older Joe Wilson maintains an almost objective detachment in the narration of his own earlier life. This tone of detachment is struck in the generalizing reflections of the opening of "Joe Wilson's Courtship": "There are many times in this world when a healthy boy is happy". The balance between this objective tone and that of personal reminiscence is soon introduced: "I wasn't a healthy-minded, average boy . . .". The balance created by the narrative voice allows for shifts in perspective throughout the story. Whenever there is a danger that the self-revelatory aspect of the narration may approach indulgence, as when Joe tells us that
I reckon I was born for a poet by mistake, and grew up to be a Bushman, and didn't know what was the matter with me—or the world—but that's got nothing to do with it.
there is a shift to a detached generalization like "There are times when a man is happy . . .". The...
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SOURCE: "Narrative Technique in Lawson," in Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 9, No. 3, May, 1980, pp. 367-73.
In fashioning his short story form Lawson made, as A. A. Phillips has noted in 'The Craftsmanship of Lawson' [in The Australian Tradition, 1958], considerable technical departures from the primarily narrative aims of the form at the time. Lawson kept the story or narrative element to a minimum but was nevertheless able to create, with great economy, sufficient framework to support his sketches without their becoming shapeless. The chief device of these frameworks is Lawson's narrator, and the diminution of the story element naturally casts the discourse element, the rhetoric of the narrator, into prominence. It will be argued in this essay that contrasts between the story and the narrator's discourse point to a problematic realism and a documentary intention on the narrator's part. Furthermore, the rhetoric of the narrator, particularly that of the "I' who masquerades as Lawson himself as distinct from other personae like Mitchell or Joe Wilson, invites comparison with the artistic aims of the author, the real Henry Lawson. The role of the narrator in a story like 'The Spooks of Long Gully', when viewed from this perspective, indicates that Lawson's aims may have been more complex than much modern criticism has allowed.
Colin Roderick is a modern critic who, in his essay 'Lawson's Mode and...
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SOURCE: "Between Living and Dying: The Ground of Lawson's Art," in The Uncertain Self: Essays in Australian Literature and Criticism, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1986, pp. 42-55.
[In the following essay, which was originally published in Overland in 1982, Heseltine evaluates Lawson's cultural significance, asserting that his realistic treatment of Australian themes and settings validates his reputation as a major literary artist.]
The strident controversy that attended the publication of In Search of Henry Lawson in 1978 in some measure obscured what must surely be the most obvious implication of Manning Clark's title: that his subject still awaits a full and true discovery. The conflicting views of Clark and Colin Roderick [whose views are enumerated in his introduction to Henry Lawson: Short Stories and Sketches 1888-1922], indeed, merely schematized a prevailing pattern in Lawson commentary. Virtually every new account of our most enigmatic author has achieved its own conviction only at the expense of blotting out some of the central features of its predecessors. It is not my aim here to support either Clark or Roderick in their opposing claims concerning Lawson as a profoundly representative figure of our culture. What I do assert is that neither (at least in In Search of Henry Lawson and Dr Roderick's response to that work) provides adequate reasons why, through...
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SOURCE: "'The Loaded Dog': A Celebration," in Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 11, No. 2, October, 1983, pp. 152-61.
[In the following essay, Stewart examines two chief characteristics of Lawson 's fiction, "human gregariousness " and "the hardness of things. "]
The Loaded Dog inhabits the background of millions of Australian minds, where he jostles amiably and vitally amongst the stiffer corpses and tutored shades of Bell Birds, My Country and Gallant Cook sailing from Albion. There is nothing dutiful, however, about the way the dog lingers in our minds. He is approved. He remains voluntarily, neither as an official and required patriotic cliché of the olden times, like the land of sweeping plains, nor as a drilled and tinkling set piece, like 'Bell Birds', learnt by rote without a meaning. In a central and formative position in Australian popular literary culture, the Loaded Dog grins and slobbers and wags his tail with the inerasable certainty of a figure in a nursery rhyme.
In spite of its popularity, the story has received little attention from commentators. Lawson's critics, I suspect, have assumed that a straightforward legendary yarn written within a recognizable tradition does not require discussion. There is also the possibility that a popular, 'happy' story that lacks characteristic Lawsonian sombreness has been held necessarily to lack seriousness. To put the work aside...
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SOURCE: "Eve Exonerated: Henry Lawson's Unfinished Love Stories," in Who Is She?, edited by Shirley Walker, St. Martin's Press, 1983, pp. 37-55.
[In the following essay, Matthews examines the role of women in Lawson's short stories.]
In his harsh review of While The Billy Boils [found in Henry Lawson Criticism, 1972] A. G. Stephens makes so many damaging criticisms that it is easy to overlook one of the strangest and most quixotic of them, especially as it occurs in the last two sentences and is more or less a "throw-away". "Not the best", he suggests, "but the most promising [stories] are those which tell 'An Unfinished Love Story'." "Here, for the first time, Lawson ceases to describe characteristics and starts to create characters." This is a rather gnomic pronouncement in several ways. What are the other stories which, it is implied, also tell an unfinished love story? Even interpreted as literally as possible, the remark could only refer to a very few stories: "He'd Come Back" perhaps; "Bogg of Geebung", "The Drover's Wife", "Drifted Back", "Some Day" . . . ? These would at least be candidates but they are not at all obvious or even satisfactory choices. Outside of them, it's difficult to see what else might qualify. Moreover, even when Stephens's implied definition is stretched to breaking point, only two of these could remotely be regarded as creating characters rather than...
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SOURCE: An introduction to The Penguin Henry Lawson: Short Stories, edited by John Barnes, Penguin Books, 1986, pp. 1-16.
[In the excerpt below, Barnes traces the evolution of Lawson criticism and provides a laudatory assessment of his achievement as a short story writer.]
Story-telling is an ancient art, but the idea of the short story as a distinct literary form is comparatively recent. Today the term 'short story' covers a range of possibilities, and we are less likely than the readers of a century ago to regard the short story as the poor relation of the novel. There perhaps still lingers a suspicion that the fiction writer without a novel to his credit has, so to speak, failed to measure up to the real test of creativity, no matter how fine that writer's short fiction may impress us as being. And in our assessment of the achievements of a short-story writer, we incline perhaps to regard most highly those stories which best bear comparison with novels. It is certainly true that critical discussion of Henry Lawson's prose writing has been coloured by the assumption—sometimes unconscious—that in being 'only a short-story writer' he was less than if he had been a novelist. . . .
In Lawson's lifetime a combination of factors tended to cloud perception of what was distinctive about his writing. There was the general expectation that as he matured he would write a novel (or a sequence...
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Mackaness, George, ed. An Annotated Bibliography of Henry Lawson. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1951, 99 p.
Primary and secondary bibliography of Lawson's work.
Clark, Manning. In Search of Henry Lawson. South Melbourne: MacMillan Co. of Australia, 1978, 143 p.
Romanticized biography of Lawson.
Prout, Denton. Henry Lawson: The Grey Dreamer. London: Angus and Robertson, 1963, 306 p.
In his acccount of Lawson's life, Prout extensively quotes Lawson's work correspondence and reminis-cences of family and acquaintances.
Barnes, John. "Lawson and the Short Story in Australia." Westerly, No. 2 (July 1968): 83-7.
Discusses the influence of Lawson on the short story in Australia.
Lawson, Alan. "The Framing of 'The Loaded Dog'." Quadrant XXIX, No. 5 (May 1985): 63-5.
Suggests a possible source for Lawson's short story.
Matthews, Brian. "'The Nurse and Tutor of Eccentric Minds': Some Developments in Lawson's Treatment of Madness." Australian Literary Studies 4, No. 2 (1970): 251-57.
Traces Lawson's treatment of madness through examination of a few of his short stories.
——. The Receding Wave: Henry...
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