Henry Lawson Lawson, Henry - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

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

Henry Lawson: Letters 1890-1922 (letters) 1970

Henry Lawson: Autobiographical and Other Writings (autobiography and nonfiction) 1972

*Subsequently published jointly as On the Track and Over the Sliprails.

Henry Lawson (essay date 1894)

(Short Story Criticism)

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 'home' and gets some recognition in England, he is 'So-and-So, the...

(The entire section is 630 words.)

David G. Ferguson (essay date 1896)

(Short Story Criticism)

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 has transferred them whole into his pages, and there they stand, with the full glare of the Australian sun on them, harsh and unlovely of aspect for the most part, yet never quite without a chastening touch of humour or pathos, and always and unmistakably alive.

The collection comprises something over fifty tales and sketches, and while it is safe criticism to say that some of them might with advantage have been omitted (especially if the critic wisely forbears to particularise), it may also safely be said that, in the whole number, a really uninteresting one would be hard to find. We are introduced to quite a gallery of entertaining rascals, whose sayings and doings are chronicled with unctuous relish. They euchre the bush publican, outwit the station cook, clandestinely remove swags and ironing tables to evade distraint, get stringy-bark palings and shingles out of mountain-ash, and behave in all sorts of picturesquely reprehensible ways. In "His Father's Mate", "When the Sun Went Down", and many other stories, we get simple, unrestrained pathos.

A glance at some of Mr Lawson's bits of description will show with what eyes he has looked on life in the bush. Here, for example, is a passage telling how a city tradesman, who went away hopefully to "settle on the land", found out what grubbing meant—

He found a soft place between two roots on one side of the first tree, made a narrow, irregular hole, and burrowed down till he reached a level where the taproot was somewhat less than four feet in diameter, and not quite as hard as flint; then he found he hadn't room to swing the axe, so he hewed out another ton or two of earth—and rested. Next day he sank a shaft on the other side of the gum; and after tea, over a pipe, it struck him that it would be a good idea to burn the tree out, and so use up the logs and lighter rubbish lying round. So he widened the excavation, rolled in some logs and set fire to them—with no better results than to scorch the roots. Tom persevered. He put the trace harness on his horse, drew in all the logs within half a mile, and piled them on the windward side of the gum; and during the night the fire found a soft place, and the tree burnt off about six feet above the surface, falling on a squatter's boundary fence, and leaving the ugliest kind of stump to occupy the selector's attention—which it did for a week. He waited till the hole cooled, and then he went to work with pick, shovel, and axe; and even now he gets interested in drawings of machinery, such as are published in the agricultural weeklies, for getting out stumps without graft.

In the same sketch .. . is a line that strikes the note of the author's treatment of the feminine element, wherever it appears in his stories.

Then he arranged with his sweetheart to be true to him and...

(The entire section is 1785 words.)

John Farrell (essay date 1896)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of While the Billy Boils, in Henry Lawson Criticism: 1894-1971, edited by Colin Roderick, Angus and Robertson, 1972, pp. 55-8.

(The entire section is 1669 words.)

C. Hartley Grattan (essay date 1958)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 705 words.)

Chris Wallace-Crabbe (essay date 1964)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3182 words.)

Cecil Mann (essay date 1964)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3060 words.)

A. A. Phillips (essay date 1965)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5668 words.)

Colin Roderick (essay date 1966)

(Short Story Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 6950 words.)

Brian Matthews (essay date 1968)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5436 words.)

John Maddocks (essay date 1977)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4187 words.)

D. R. Jarvis (essay date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

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 entire section is 3925 words.)

Harry Heseltine (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6183 words.)

Ken Stewart (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 4596 words.)

Brian Matthews (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8376 words.)

John Barnes (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6457 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


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.


(The entire section is 337 words.)