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Henry Lawson  - General Observations

Lawson had a dark, more realistic view of rural hardship rebelling against the Romantic movement. In doing so he created a new style of writing: dryly laconic, intensely Australian, passionately egalitarian and socialist and deeply humane.

Instead of nature being identified with god, he depicted the “hell” pioneers had to endure

The Bush as Scourge – 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.”

Joe Wilson calls the bush:

“the nurse and tutor of eccentric lives”

A selection of short stories by Henry Lawson was published in 1959 called Fifteen Stories. Australian author Colin Roderick wrote in the introduction:

[Henry Lawson] never attempted to draw people he did not know … it was the world of the drover, the prospector, the miner, the rouseabout, the shearer, the railway worker, the swagman and the sundowner, the cocky, the timbergetter, the underpaid apprentice, the bushwoman, the city larrikin, the bushranger, the spieler, the washerwoman, the broken-down gentleman, the unemployed.

It seems an exhaustive list. Yet Roderick selected Lawson’s 1892 story The Drover’s Wife for the collection too, and it alone has three Indigenous characters, primarily a lazy, lying “stray blackfella” whose actions bring the stoic frontierswoman to tears. It appears Lawson did attempt to draw people he didn’t know – Roderick just didn’t see them.

In the late 1800s and the late 1950s, it was normal for Indigenous characters in literature to be negatively represented or invisible. It may happen less now but Roderick was right on one count: “The Australia that Henry Lawson knew ... was the base upon which our society has grown.”  Kate Hennesy - The Guardian

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

Bean also 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.

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.

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.   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!”

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?

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.

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


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