(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Henry Lawson is a popular writer, both with the reading public at large and with professional critics, and for not dissimilar reasons: His limpid and engaging prose style seems a marvel of easy craftsmanship, and his sardonic wit, lively humor, and compassion render his stories attractive. He had a gift for realism that seemed to capture the authentic experience of people, his characters are believable and memorable, and his presentation of the harshness of life in the Bush, with its melancholy overtones of pessimism, has entered into the mythic structures of the Australian consciousness. Lawson mastered the difficult craft of artlessness, allowing the reader to enter into the world of his stories as one might enter a familiar room.

“The Union Buries Its Dead”

From his earliest collections come many of Lawson’s best stories, such as “The Bush Undertaker,” “The Drover’s Wife,” “Rats,” and “The Union Buries Its Dead,” a frequently anthologized story. In the last story, Lawson describes the funeral procession in the Outback for a young man who, though a stranger in town, is nevertheless given a funeral because he was a fellow union laborer. This mateship or union solidarity is an ideal that underwrites much of Lawson’s thinking, but it is rarely embodied in the world he presents. Most of the gathered crowd are too drunk to follow once the procession begins; the horseman who leaves to join his friend at the bar is an emblem of how good intentions get undermined in the Bush. The tone of the story wavers between an ironic and minimal affirmation of mateship and an almost nihilistic portrayal of the grimness of life on the margins. The comic touches are like gallows humor, and the respects paid to the corpse are the conditioned responses of human indifference. The confusion over the man’s identity and name becomes significant: He is a stranger; then he is called James Tyson, according to his union papers; that proves to be a pseudonym. Later his real name is learned but is unfortunately forgotten by everyone. Identity becomes unimportant in the face of the absoluteness of death; it does not matter what his name is. The speaker, both involved participant and distant narrator, refuses the comforts of stock responses and conventions and leaves the reader with a bittersweet regard for the isolation of men striving to survive. The light he casts over the scene is harsh because it is real. As he says, “I have left out the ‘sad Australian sunset’ because the sun was not going down at the time. The burial took place exactly at mid-day.”

“The Drover’s Wife”

In “The Drover’s Wife,” Lawson delineates the drab and yet dangerous conditions of life for a woman alone in the Bush with her young children while her husband is away for long periods of time. The story is often taken as a tribute to the strength and stoicism of the pioneer woman, but Lawson is less concerned with her character (in certain respects she is a stereotype) than he is with the pattern of life in the Bush. As the drover’s wife stands guard against a snake all night, the reader learns about her in a series of flashbacks or reminiscences that reveal the pitiable elements of her lonely life as well as the physical courage and resourcefulness on which she draws. Whether it is fighting a brush fire, trying to stem a flood, or...

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