Henry Lawson (1867-1922), poet, story writer and journalist, is associated in most people’s minds with the Australian outback, the bush, the Never-Never. He wrote about swaggies, drovers, shearers, and small farmers on the land, the country’s pioneers. His work is sentimental at times, but preserves the salty humour of the typical Australian, self depreciatory but always ready for another go at his luck.
Such a writer appealed to the colonial powers in England and Australia in Lawson’s day, and Lawson almost become a promoter of settlement in the new land of Australia, and found acceptance with reading publics of both countries. Developers were publishing photos of green hills and fertile plains at that time, trying to make Australia look as much like England as possible.
Banjo Paterson was writing lines like:
Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong,
Under the shade of a coolibah tree.
Which might have reminded the folks at home of gypsies on the Common.
Not Lawson. Lawson was writing a different story:
My eyes are dry, I cannot cry, I’ve got no heart for breakin’
For where it was in days gone by a dull and empty achin’
(“Past Carin’”): this is the song of a settler who has lost all. Children for lack of medical attention; spouse gone elsewhere looking for work; backbreaking labour gone to waste after the climate’s flood and drought cycle; and land repossessed by the bank. Lawson, like John Steinbeck 20 years later in The Grapes of Wrath, was outraged by the injustice of it all. His vision is darker than Steinbeck’s, for he suggests this fate will always await the poor settler.
It’s a bit unfair to think of Lawson as a bush poet now though. Only part of his work was on the bush. He was a city dweller, for all he was raised on the goldfields of Gulgong. He had not a lot of experience of the bush, and was happier in the inner city around the offices of periodicals like the Bulletin or Smith’s Weekly, or the shops of booksellers like George Robertson or James Tyrrell.
He knew more about the struggles of small city tradesmen, for he had been one, and about the larrikins and the push of areas like the Rocks, for he had been part of this too.
But Lawson didn’t really write about Australia. He wrote about confronting the depression he suffered from all his life, and about the courageous souls who got on with it, as he rarely could. He recreated the emotional impressions his experiences had made on him so readers could experience them too.
“Henry Lawson, A Life”
I’ve just finished reading Colin Roderick’s biography of Henry Lawson (Collins/Angus and Robertson 1991). I was surprised to find it apparently the only full scale biography that’s been written about Lawson, often referred to as Australia’s greatest short story writer. Perhaps that shows Australians don’t take literature too seriously.
Roderick’s book is a distressing catalogue of the second half of Lawson’s life, of an unstable, indigent cadging drunkard with delusions of grandeur who abused friends and wasted his talents producing worthless verse and prose for a few bob to buy a drink with, until he eventually killed himself with malnutrition and alcoholic poisoning at the age of 55.
The scholarship is impeccable, and the vagaries of periodical publication of Lawson’s stories and poems, interminable negotiations concerning Lawson’s pension, and the tonnage and master of every ship Lawson ever sailed on, are all detailed. Yet Roderick is not as successful in realising intangibles, such as why so many people tolerated, helped and loved Lawson throughout the years. The first half of his book, on Lawson’s childhood, first fame, marriage and journey to England, is too concerned with correcting misconceptions to paint a convincing picture of the man. Roderick’s is a scholar’s work, solidly based or written sources and a valuable compendium of them, but no more. He offers no judgment on Lawson’s work in his biography.
The sound of silence
One of the key things about Lawson in my view is that he was deaf. He lacked a basic sense, one we all need to negotiate our lives. Deafness in a writer who conveys emotion through dialog in his stories should have prevented Lawson from writing anything. Yet few seem to realise the magnitude of the disadvantage Lawson worked under.
Roderick says merely that deafness made Lawson’s visual observation more acute. Others just note the disability. None seem to realise it is a lack that profoundly altered and distorted Lawson’s world.
Hearing, for one instance, lies behind the exercise of reasoning and logic. We build structure in our lives through argument, which means listening to others and ourselves. Without sound Lawson would have comprehended through impressions, pictures, vivid dabs of colour that gave meaning to part of the events he witnessed and overlooked others. Lawson had a piece called “If I could only paint”, but he could, in words.
Probably the impressions and memories of the way people talked were remembered from his experiences to the age of twelve, when hearing loss began for him. His mother’s father Henry Albury impressed Lawson as a tale teller as well as an eccentric. Lawson in later life expressed temper and aggressiveness towards associates, and this may have arisen as a way of hiding his confusion in not following conversations.
Lawson also probably picked up the mood of whatever group he joined without fully understanding what was being discussed. This might account for his many swings of opinions, from republicanism to monarchist, from pacifist to supporter of war, egalitarian to racist. He came to welcome familiar surroundings and companions where he felt at home, most fatally the bar room shout and the friends he made over a drink.
But deafness was not Lawson’s only affliction. His mother’s father was decidedly eccentric, his mother was sent to Callan Park Asylum for treatment for mental illness, his brother Charles was an habitual criminal. Lawson spent time in a mental hospital, often booking himself in and using his stay as a refuge from his problems. Roderick is in no doubt Lawson was bipolar or manic depressive, probably from an early age.
Lawson drank to excess from a teenager. In part this was a protection from the derision he experienced, from schoolmates and work mates, for behaviour caused by his deafness. It’s possible Lawson suffered from hypoglycemia, abnormally low levels of glucose in the blood. Visible effects are slurred speech, trembling and inability to stand without staggering. These conditions are associated with chronic alcohol abuse. That is, small intake of alcohol can mimic large intake.
Scott Fitzgerald’s biographer Jeffrey Meyers has suggested Fitzgerald was a victim of this disease. I’ve seen a biographer of Edgar Allen Poe make a similar claim about Poe. There is no medical evidence for any of the three men being sufferers of hypoglycemia, but there are some interesting parallels in their lives and works. Lawson, like the other two, was drunk frequently, no matter how little alcohol it took him to reach that state.
A fatal event in Lawson’s life proved to be his marriage to Bertha Bredt in 1896. The couple were in love, and had two children, but while on Lawson’s visit to England 1900-1901 to launch his career as a writer of Commonwealth scope (in the wake of Kipling he hoped), Bertha became ill, and was eventually diagnosed as suffering from mental illness. She became convinced Lawson wanted to kill her, and after their separation in 1903 Bertha pursued Lawson through the courts for unpaid maintenance obsessively and vindictively, even when she could support herself and he couldn’t, apparently thinking he deserved the stays in jail non payment meant for him.
Shortly before the separation Lawson had attempted suicide by jumping off a cliff, and there is some evidence he was tortured by guilt for not having been able to provide adequately for wife and children. Bertha’s continued hostility broke his self confidence, never very strong, and helped form the drink sodden wreck he became in his later years.
Lawson’s contemporary Henry Handel Richardson was writing her masterpiece The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney 1917-1929, which depicted the slow disintegration of her central character through illness, alcohol and self destructive urges. The story was based on events in her own family, but parallels Lawson’s predicament and decline as well in the years 1903-22.
Roderick’s book was I thought casual in detailing the financial side of Lawson’s career. Lawson sold all his copyrights as they became due for ready cash, and subsisted on handouts for much of his later career, but was he swindled by publishers? An appendix giving details of Lawson’s income throughout his career would have been enlightening, especially if coupled with income accruing to Angus and Robertson for sales of Lawson’s works over the years. Roderick gives the impression there were only one or two periods of much income for Lawson, and he can only guess where the money went to, presumably to buy drink. George Robertson the bookseller looked after Lawson like a mother, but did he also make a profit from Lawson? Roderick leaves the question open. In such a meticulously researched book it’s surprising. But also there is no bibliography of Lawson’s works, nor even a chronology.
Lawson wrote prose poems, or impressions, known as sketches, and yarns, rather than stories; and also journalism and essays as well as poetry. He wrote for money, wrote when inebriated, and some of his work at least was ill judged. This is why a selection of his work is essential. The good work needs to be separated from the bad work.
As well, Lawson has been adopted by the Jolly Swagman school of Australian literature which also claims Banjo Paterson. I think a more exact parallel to Lawson’s work is that of the colonial era writer Joseph Conrad. Both dealt with men at the end of their tether, and Lawson’s “Water Them Geraniums” tells as much about human nature in extreme situations as does Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”.
Roderick’s edition of the collected stories (Memorial Edition, A & R 1972) includes 222 stories, and the non fiction volume includes 86 pieces. Over 300 compositions from a deaf man suffering from depression and alcoholism is an impressive achievement, and shows how determined Lawson was. But no-one could claim all this work is of equal value.
Lawson was a highly intelligent, extraordinariiy perceptive and observant man, self educated, well read, with enormous charm. He was also obstinate, crazy and a drunk. At his best he was a great writer, at his worst a hack. Showcasing his best works together, like the stories “The Drover’s Wife”, “That There Dog o’ Mine”, “Send Round the Hat”, “Water Them Geraniums”, together with non fiction pieces like “If I Could Paint”, “Do Women Gossip?”, autobiographical pieces like “‘Pursuing Literature’ in Australia”, and “A Fragment of Autobiography”, and poems like “Faces in the Street” I think would enhance Lawson’s achievement and remove him from the niche of Colonial bush poet and yarn spinner where he languishes today.
The bush is just not relevant. Australia is an urban country. The bush has people who go broke and then go crazy, a few billionaires who don’t live there, and marginalised native Australians. The bulk of Australians live in cities and struggle to manage their iPhones, like their brothers in America.
The most misleading impression you could give of Lawson’s best work is that it is dated.
©2016 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.