Authors: Henry Lawson

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Australian short-story writer and poet

June 17, 1867

Grenfell, Australia

September 2, 1922

Sydney, Australia

Biography

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

(Library of Congress)

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.

Author Works Short Fiction: Short Stories in Prose and Verse, 1894 While the Billy Boils, 1896 On the Track, 1900 Over the Sliprails, 1900 Joe Wilson and His Mates, 1901 The Country I Come From, 1901 The Romance of the Swag, 1907 Send Round the Hat, 1907 The Rising of the Court, 1910 Mateship: A Discursive Yarn, 1911 Triangles of Life, and Other Stories, 1913 Henry Lawson: The Bush Undertaker, and Other Stories, 1971 Henry Lawson: Selected Stories, 1971 Henry Lawson: Short Stories and Sketches, 1888–1922, 1972 Poetry: In the Days When the World Was Wide, and Other Verses, 1896 Verses, Popular and Humorous, 1900 Popular Verses, 1900 Humorous Verses, 1900 When I Was King, and Other Verses, 1905 The Elder Son, 1905 When I Was King, 1905 The Skyline Riders, and Other Verses, 1910 For Australia, and Other Poems, 1913 My Army! O My Army! and Other Songs, 1915 Song of the Dardanelles and Other Verses, 1916 Selected Poems of Henry Lawson, 1918 Poetical Works of Henry Lawson, 1925 (3 volumes) Henry Lawson’s Collected Verse, 1967–1969 (3 volumes) Nonfiction: The Romance of the Swag, 1942 Henry Lawson: Letters, 1890–1922, 1970 Henry Lawson: Autobiographical and Other Writings, 1972 Miscellaneous: Children of the Bush, 1902 (stories and poems) Bibliography Clark, C. M. H. Henry Lawson: The Man and the Legend. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1995. A good, updated biography of Lawson. Mackaness, George. An Annotated Bibliography of Henry Lawson. Sydney, Australia: Angus and Robertson, 1951. A helpful resource. Matthews, Brian. “Eve Exonerated: Henry Lawson’s Unfinished Love Stories.” In Who Is She?, edited by Shirley Walker. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983. Matthews examines the role of women in Lawson’s fiction and finds them to be idealized creatures whose contact with the masculine world of reality inevitably scars them. There is little communication between men and women, who are seen essentially as victims. Phillips, A. A. Henry Lawson. New York: Twayne, 1970. After identifying Australian cultural nationalism (“mateship,” “common man,” “socialism”), Phillips provides a biographical chapter as well as chapters on Lawson’s folk art, his “personal views” (including guilt and melancholy), and his craft. Contains several fairly lengthy readings of short stories, as well as a chronology and an annotated bibliography. Prout, Denton. Henry Lawson: The Grey Dreamer. Adelaide, Australia: Rigby Limited, 1963. The only full-length biography of Lawson, Prout’s book is essential reading. It contains information, not criticism, about Lawson’s fiction and approximately twenty illustrations, mostly photographs. The well-researched volume also contains numerous lengthy quotations from Lawson’s work and from his contemporaries and places Lawson within the context of his time. Roderick, Colin. Henry Lawson: A Life. North Ryde, Australia, 1991. A fine biography by a Lawson scholar. Roderick, Colin. Henry Lawson: Poet and Short Story Writer. Sydney, Australia: Angus and Robertson, 1966. A sympathetic evaluation of Lawson’s poetry and short stories. Roderick’s monograph-length study examines the “modernity” of the stories, the literary influences on Lawson’s work, and the role Lawson played in establishing the “Australian” short story. Roderick is especially helpful in placing Lawson within an Australian context and in discussing his use of Australian idioms and speech rhythms. Stuewe, Paul. “In the Land of Oz: A Master of the Laconic Phrase and the Illuminating Incident.” The Toronto Star, October 1, 1988, p. M6. Discusses Lawson’s collection of “classic yarns,” While the Billy Boils; claims that Lawson’s style parallels that of Joseph Conrad and Stephen Crane; notes that Lawson is a consummate realist, with a marvelous sense of climactic epiphanies. Wilding, Michael. “Henry Lawson’s Radical Vision.” In The Rise of Socialist Fiction, 1880-1914, edited by H. Gustav Klaus. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. Wilding examines Lawson’s short stories in terms of their socialist philosophy. He discusses the Arvie Aspinall and Joe Wilson stories, and he devotes several pages to “The Drover’s Wife,” which he reads as an Australian Edenic story with Oedipal overtones.

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