Last reviewed: June 2018
Australian short-story writer and poet
June 17, 1867
September 2, 1922
Henry Archibald Lawson was the first popular Australian writer to reflect distinctly Australian attitudes, and his short stories, prose sketches, and ballad verse helped develop a literary nationalism. He was born in Grenfell, New South Wales, Australia, on June 17, 1867, to Peter Herzberg Larsen and his wife, Louisa Albury, an aspiring writer and eventual participant in radical social movements, including feminism. At his birth, the Larsen name was recorded as Lawson, and that became the family name. His parents were separated, and at the age of fifteen, Lawson left his father and joined his mother in Sydney, where he worked as a coach painter. He subsequently enrolled in night school and began writing ballads: His first “Song of the Republic” appeared in The Bulletin in 1887. In 1890, he became a journalist for the Brisbane Boomerang, and in the early 1890s he traveled widely, absorbing the material and the stories he later drew on for his fiction and ballads. Henry Lawson
His mother published some of his prose and verse in 1894, and his principal publisher, Angus and Robertson, printed two of his books in 1896: In the Days When the World Was Wide, and Other Verses and While the Billy Boils. The following year, he and his wife—he had married Bertha Bredt in 1892—went to New Zealand, where the couple directed the Maori School at Mangamauna, New Zealand. They returned to Sydney in 1898, and in 1900 he published two more successful books, one of stories, the other of verse. His drinking, a problem throughout his adult life, caused him to seek treatment and certainly strained his relations with his wife. In fact, by the time he left for London in 1900, he had fallen in love with Hannah Thornburn. In England, he was also a success—he reprinted some of his earlier stories as well as two new books—but his triumphal return to Sydney in 1902 turned to tragedy when he discovered that Hannah Thornburn had died only a few days earlier.
Though he lived twenty more years and published several more books, his best work, While the Billy Boils and Joe Wilson and His Mates, was behind him; though his work received critical acclaim abroad and at home, his life became, in A. A. Phillips’s words, “the case history of an alcoholic.” He was separated from his wife, took refuge in a boardinghouse, retreated on occasion to the bush country, and finally died in 1922, in many respects a wasted talent; he had, however, become known beyond the bounds of his native Australia.
Lawson’s popularity stemmed from his setting, his style, his characters, and his themes. He wrote realistically about the real Australia, the bush country, where his characters were pitted against nature. Moreover, his style was directly related to life in the bush, and his first-person narratives assumed the style of the campfire yarn. Unlike other Australian writers, he was not a literary craftsman within a tradition of essentially English literature; in fact, he read few authors, although Bret Harte, the American writer he so closely resembles, was an influential favorite of his. His characters, Lawson’s primary concern, were likewise drawn from the bush, though he did write some stories about the city. In either case, his characters were the economic underdogs, the common folk, the forgotten unfortunates of Australian life, those people for whom he served as spokesman. Their endurance and dignity, in the face of adversity and guilt, became his theme. “Mateship,” as in Joe Wilson and His Mates, became a particularly Lawsonian theme: Friends act compassionately and unconsciously in support of one another.
Given his mother’s political activity and his own early participation in radical politics, Lawson’s writing, especially early in his career, was political, if emotional and naïve. “Faces in the Street,” an early ballad of protest, reflects his revolutionary faith in political action, but with the passing years he apparently softened the political message, which became a more generalized and sentimental plea for sympathy for the downtrodden. Australian radicals have resurrected the early Lawson and attacked what they regard as the establishment’s domestication of the Lawson persona. Frank Hardy’s play Faces in the Crowd (pr. 1987), which draws its title from the Lawson ballad, has attempted to revise the conservative image of the tamed Lawson.
While he will undoubtedly be remembered as a spokesman for the proletariat, Lawson’s place in Australian literary history is unique; like Walt Whitman, he was dedicated to creating a national literature, one distinct from England, the mother country to America and Australia. While his poetry was initially acclaimed, more objective contemporary literary critics have denigrated it and have elevated instead his fiction. The stories, which stress character over plot, are perhaps more appropriately termed character sketches, which employ irony, understatement, and realism to celebrate the Australian working class. Lawson’s place in literary history is ultimately Australian, rather than international, and his achievements should be regarded in the historical and literary context of his time.