Henry Lawson (1867-1922)

Henry (Archibald Hertzberg) Lawson is the most famous and influential Australian literary figure of the nineteenth century. From poor rural beginnings he achieved a popular, ongoing nationwide reputation that is unlikely ever to be equaled. A poet, short-story writer, and sometime journalist, Lawson lived on his writing and whatever odd jobs came his way. Personal, social, and marital problems exacerbated his later decline into alcoholism, and his literary reputation largely rests on the short stories produced in the decade that led up to the federation of the Australian colonies in 1901. His popular bush ballads have provided an accessible form for the historical dissemination of Australia's pioneering rural heritage, however, and they continue to reach a wide popular audience and to inspire contemporary imitators. Years after his impoverished death he remains a national icon.


Born in the goldfield town of Grenfell in central New South Wales on 17 June 1867, Henry Archibald Lawson was the son of a Norwegian immigrant, Niels Herzberg Larsen (who anglicized his name to Peter Lawson), and his colonial-born wife, Louisa (née Albury). After six months prospecting for gold, the infant's parents retraced their steps northwest a few hundred miles to Eurunderee, a small settlement outside the town of Mudgee, where Louisa Lawson's family resided. Lawson was to spend most of his unhappy childhood there, except for a two-year period from 1871 to 1873 when his father followed another rush to the nearby town of Gulgong. Neils Larsen was a quiet and industrious man who farmed, prospected, and picked up odd jobs in the building industry, while his wife kept the small local post office, wrote poetry, and dreamed of a more fulfilling outlet for her talents. Louisa has an insufficiently substantiated reputation as a poor housekeeper and an unaffectionate mother, but she was a talented, resourceful, and ambitious woman who understood the progressive potential of literature and the press. From an early age she introduced her son Henry to the works of Charles Dickens, Bret Harte, Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Kendall, and Adam Lindsay Gordon, and, to her pragmatic husband's disgust, cultivated the lonely, introspective boy's literary abilities. The profound sense of social isolation that was to characterize her son all his life was exacerbated when an illness left him partially deaf at the age of nine. Trips for treatment to Sydney in 1880 and Melbourne in 1887 failed to improve his hearing, and from the age of fourteen he was almost completely deaf. His schooling took place at a rudimentary bush school not far from the family selection (ranch), apart from a brief sojourn at the Catholic school in Mudgee, and later he studied unsuccessfully for the matriculation exams at night school in Sydney. This scanty education weighed heavily upon the aspiring writer and significantly affected the development of his attitude toward art and culture and his relationship with his audience and the critics.

The shy teenager worked with his father on building contracts in the Blue Mountains between 1881 and 1883, before Louisa Lawson took her three sons and daughter to Sydney. There Henry was apprenticed as a painter to a coach-building firm, and during the two years that followed he alternated between companies in Newcastle and Sydney. During this time his early-morning and late-night commuting to and from work and night school revealed to him the plight of the urban poor and stimulated an interest in social justice that became a major preoccupation of his writing career.

Louisa Lawson's own career was also developing, and her house became a meeting place for spiritualists, freethinkers, republicans, and social reformers. Together with William Keep, George Black, and her son Henry she brought out a short-lived democratic newspaper, The Republican (1887-1888), which served as a stepping-stone for her far more important publication, The Dawn, which she produced from 1888 until 1905. Associations with Sydney's radical political circles and a growing sense of youthful outrage at social injustice and class privilege provided Henry with the inspiration for his first publication, "A Song of the Republic," which appeared in Australia's most significant literary periodical of the period, the radical nationalist weekly newspaper The Bulletin (Sydney), on 1 October 1887:


Sons of the South, make choice between

(Sons of the South, choose true),

The Land of Morn and the Land of E'en,

The Old Dead Tree and the Young Tree Green,

The Land that belongs to the lord and Queen,

And the Land that belongs to you.


More radical political verse--such as the "Hymn of the Reformers," "Flag of the Southern Cross," "The Army of the Rear," and the much anthologized "Faces in the Street," first published in The Bulletin (July 1888) and collected in In the Days When the World Was Wide and Other Verses (1896)--followed. Lawson quickly began to expand his subjects by venturing some occasional verse, rural ballads, and nostalgic gold rush poems. He also began to try his hand at the short story, and on 22 December 1888 "His Father's Mate" was published in the Christmas number of The Bulletin. Revised and collected in While the Billy Boils (1896), the story reworked a tale of his maternal grandfather about the death of a prospector's child in a mining accident. The tense combination of the author's pessimistic fatalism with the sentimental note characteristic of nineteenth-century periodical fiction became a controversial feature of Lawson's style, but he made only occasional use of the condensed novel form he had adapted from Bret Harte .

In 1890 Lawson accompanied his brother to newly discovered goldfields in Western Australia, where he contributed a series of journalistic sketches on colonization to The Albany Observer. Toward the end of the year he was back in Sydney, and for almost a year he alternated between the Blue Mountains and Sydney, picking up itinerant work as a housepainter. In 1891 he was offered a staff position on The Boomerang (Brisbane), an antiestablishment newspaper with strong affinities with the labor movement. Lawson's political idealism continued to be fired by a series of epic confrontations between labor and capital in the Maritime Strike of 1890 and the Shearers' Strikes of 1891. While in Brisbane he came to the notice of William Lane, an influential union intellectual who had recently left The Boomerang to edit The Worker (Brisbane). In the wake of the union defeats in the great strikes, the Labor movement established a political party that soon achieved significant success in the New South Wales elections. Lane chose another course of action, however, and left the country soon after to establish a socialist utopia known as New Australia in Paraguay.

The declining fortunes of The Boomerang forced Lawson to return to Sydney, where he lived off his writing by contributing antiestablishment verse to The Bulletin, The Freeman's Journal, and Truth. The erratic mood swings, which his biographer Colin Roderick attributes to a bipolar disorder, now surfaced in his verse, which alternates between triumphant and infallible prophecy, and a fatalistic pessimism. Lawson had little faith in the efficacy of the parliamentary efforts of the Labor movement and began to use the short story as the vehicle for his growing interest in urban lowlife. A return to bush subjects inspired by family stories familiar from his childhood in Mudgee quickly followed, but he retained his concern for the plight of the working class.

Lawson's interest in social reform was circumscribed by an anti-intellectual skepticism toward social theory and organized politics, and a preference for personal experience and emotive appeal was to become both an enabling and a limiting hallmark of his work. A concocted verse debate with A. B. "Banjo" Paterson in The Bulletin (between 9 July and 1 October 1892) on the respective merits of Australian rural and urban life provided Lawson with an opportunity to develop his understanding of the social function of literary realism. The lack of regular employment, his bohemian contacts, and his weakness for alcohol, however, began to cause Lawson's literary patrons some concern. J. F. Archibald, the editor of The Bulletin, arranged to send him to the western township of Bourke to report on the industrial and electoral tensions between the unions and the pastoralists, and to collect literary "copy" with a rural interest.

Lawson arrived in Bourke in September of 1892 and was soon writing poems in support of the union cause in one of the two local newspapers. He made lifelong friends of many of the union leaders, who helped organize casual work for him during the shearing season on Toorale, one of the largest sheep stations in the area. Within a few short weeks on Toorale, Lawson acquired the knowledge of shearers and roustabouts that enabled him to become a key figure in the propagation of Australia's pervasive rural myths and legends. The wool season finished prior to Christmas, and after returning on foot to Bourke, Lawson agreed with friends to "carry his swag" (trek) to the town of Hungerford some two hundred miles north on the Queensland border. The seasonal nature of rural industry caused a substantial number of men to wrap their belongings in a blanket and a piece of canvas (swag), and walk from station to station in search of work. During the 1890s depression, many urban men were also forced to adopt the practice. Distances between the sheep stations were often substantial, and the landscape was dry and barren, so most stations accepted the custom of supplying work or enough provisions to carry the swagman to the next property. Lawson's trek provided him with the experiences he used to create the sentimentally cynical bush philosopher Jack Mitchell, now recognized as the definitive Australian swagman.

After three weeks Lawson arrived in Hungerford, where he wrote to his aunt in Sydney:

I carried my swag nearly two hundred miles . . . and I am now camped on the Queensland side of the border--a beaten man. . . . No work and very little to eat; we lived mostly on Johnny cakes and cadged a bit of meat here and there at miserable stations. . . . You have no idea of the horrors of the country out here. Men tramp and beg and live like dogs. It is two months since I slept in what you can call a bed. We walk as far as we can--according to the water--and then lie down and roll ourselves in our blankets. The flies start at daylight and we fight them all day till dark--then mosquitoes start.


Lawson returned to Bourke in early February, where he again picked up some work as a painter, renewed his friendship with local unionists, yarned with the passing bushmen in the Carrier's Arms hotel, and began to produce a series of rural sketches and poems for the Sydney newspapers.

He returned to Sydney in the middle of 1893 and was soon back in touch with radical and bohemian intellectual circles. He worked unpaid for The Worker for a brief period in the hope of more permanent employment and supplemented the string of rural verse and fiction inspired by his Bourke experience with a return to radical political poetry. In neither strand of his work could he forget his debate with Paterson or the difficulties of the working man in the city and the bush. Regional and occupational parochialism often divided working men from the city and those from the bush. Large numbers of urban "new chums" displaced by the depression were willing to provide scab labor for the squatters (large landholders) in their industrial struggles with the shearers and roustabouts, and this practice exacerbated the tensions between these quite different fragments of the working classes. Lawson was inspired by Lane's ideas of a new unionism that would unite the working classes in the city and the bush, and his sympathetic development of the "city bushman" aspired to a mutual understanding. Lawson believed that writers needed to abandon popular romantic representations of the rural experience so that urban Australians and their political representatives could understand the needs of the bush. Parochial rural Australians also had a responsibility to familiarize themselves with the urban situation if a progressive and democratic society was to succeed on the Australian continent. A permanent job with The Worker, however, failed to eventuate.

In November he decided to try his luck in New Zealand, where he covered approvingly the first colonial elections in which women were given the franchise. Despite contributing to many local newspapers, he was soon unemployed and destitute, and his socialist idealism began to wane under the pressure of his own circumstances. From Wellington he sent a poem, "Australian Bards and Bush Reviewers," which expressed his growing resentment of the preference for idealized depictions of Australian rural life and the aesthetic tastes of the critical establishment:


If you swear there's not a country like the land that gave you birth,

And its sons are just the noblest and most glorious chaps on earth;

If in every girl a Venus your poetic eye discerns,

You are gracefully referred to as the "young Australian Burns."

But if you should find that Bushmen--spite of all the poets say--

Are just common brother-sinners, and you're quite as good as they--

You're a drunkard, and a liar, and a cynic and a sneak,

Your grammar's simply awful and your intellect is weak.


Lawson's target was the idealist aesthetic put to different use by both sides of the political fence. Conservatives would idealize Australian rural success as evidence of the rich potential of colonial enterprise; labor would romanticize the bonds of mateship that drew together working men as a united and ultimately revolutionary force against capitalism. Romantic idealism had a ready audience, but it did not suit Lawson's pessimistic temperament nor his reactionary political conscience. His rejection of idealism found an appropriate vehicle in a series of Steelman stories begun in New Zealand that depicted the exploits of a traveling confidence man, or spieler. Steelman survives in a harsh world by using his wits to cheat his compatriots, and yet he displays an undercurrent of wry sentimentality that is characteristic of the author's attempt to juggle the contradictory claims of his personal, social, and political environment in the absence of any sustained acquaintance or even interest in political sociology.

Lawson obtained work for three months repairing the Picton to Kekerengu telegraph line. An offer of work on the newly launched daily version of The Worker caused his return to Sydney in July, but the publishers abandoned the experiment three days before his arrival, and he was given a job as provincial editor on the weekly. For a time Lawson churned out labor propaganda in verse and prose, but he soon found himself in trouble when he criticized union tactics and suggested that not all squatters were necessarily bad. He defended himself by arguing that he was interested in "a wider and truer Democracy" that was simply not possible while the city and the bush remained ignorant of the realities of each other's existence. Lawson's simple and ultimately frustrated humanism was to be just as much a cause of his disenchantment with organized labor politics as was his unstable, moody, and reactionary nature.

If the turn from the prescribed class rhetoric of the unionists to an interest in the tribulations of more fully realized and politically ambivalent individuals led to criticism from some sections of the labor movement, it also struck a chord with another young poet and aspiring academic who saw the apparent shift in Lawson's poetry as a sign of his maturing artistry. John Le Gay Brereton shared Lawson's working-class politics, but Brereton's academic training and his eventual appointment to a chair in Elizabethan literature at the University of Sydney made him a different form of colleague from those Lawson had encountered in radical political and union circles. Brereton's optimistic view of Lawson's verse, however, ultimately proved a more accurate observation of the shorter fiction he was to produce over the next seven years.

Toward the end of 1894 Lawson's mother, Louisa Lawson, published a collection of her son's work for the Christmas market. Short Stories in Prose and Verse was badly edited and poorly produced, but it helped establish a foundation for her son's emerging literary reputation. Lawson's preface to the volume positions it as an attempt to pioneer a local book-publishing industry interested in original, Australian writing, and it attracted some important reviews. At the time, colonial literary criticism was registering the anxieties of a new civilization through its continuing preoccupation with a national literature. If literature was the measure of social development, then colonial cultures required one as a means of self-justification. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, as colonial governments exercised greater independence from London, it became something of a favored pastime to argue over the existence, character, and future of the local literary product. In the colonies, however, there was an insufficient market for book production, and writers supported themselves through periodical and newspaper publication, and contracts with English publishers.

While those critics who were interested in cultivating quality were expressing concern at nationalist enthusiasms for the colonial product, the English market was demanding local character. Such claims were intimately bound up with the evolutionary ideas of the time and represented a common marketing strategy for Australian writing both in England and the colonies. In the words of Hippolyte A. Taine, "when the literary work is rich, and one knows how to interpret it, we find there the psychology of a soul, frequently of an age, now and then of a race." Douglas B. Sladen, in Australian Ballads and Rhymes: Inspired by Life and Scenery in Australia and New Zealand, accordingly identified the chief interest in his 1888 anthology of Australian verse as racial in character. "Australia is the country of the future," he wrote. "Separated by oceans from every considerable land except impenetrable and equatorial New Guinea, blessed with an unmalarious climate more brilliant and equable than that of Italy, and peopled from the most adventurous stock, this round world in the far South-eastern seas gives race development its amplest scope." The literature of colonial Australia provided a bird's-eye view of a dynamic experiment into the redevelopment of the British race in an exotic geography. Poetry, drama, short fiction, and the novel--regardless of its form or ideology--might be read as expressions of the experiment.

Lawson's own sense of himself as a writer rather than as a journalist was conditioned by the possibilities and fashions of the contemporary literary scene. Up to this point his work displayed the imprint of the stylistic and thematic preferences of those predominantly radical papers that were prepared to pay for literary material. In putting together his first book he had to select from this material and make a particular claim in his own name. No doubt Louisa Lawson had substantial input into the process, and the intention to distribute the volume through subscription notices in The Worker and Dawn was an indication both of its expected audience and of the distribution problems of independent publishing. Nevertheless, the claims made in the preface register the powerful influence of British publishing houses as well as a newer audience that the radical Sydney newspaper The Bulletin was imagining for colonial writing. Lawson's aesthetic creed was realism, and his mode of inspiration was experience rather than imagination. This identification was politically motivated, since it insisted that literature be realistic so that it might serve as a prompt and guide to community attitudes and social reform. It also suited the desire of the British market for dispatches from the colonial frontier on the fate of the Anglo-Saxon race in a new environment. The early positioning of Lawson's literary persona as represented by his first book was crucial to the development of his reputation as a representative of the new Australian type.

The selection of Lawson's work in Short Stories in Prose and Verse is an expression of a marketable literary identity for the period. The radical political material and the stories of urban lowlife are omitted from the slim volume. The verse and prose are all examples of Lawson's rural or bush writing, and they include some of his most famous stories: "The Bush Undertaker," "The Drover's Wife," and "The Union Buries its Dead." "The Union Buries its Dead" is a pointed rejection of union propaganda about the resilience of mateship and class solidarity, and most of the stories deal with the harshness of rural life and the ways in which rural people sought to cope with it. The narrative perspective was heavily influenced by journalistic models and helped give the stories a marketable ethnographic character. Lawson was developing a distinctive style that created a sympathetic or emotional bond between his characters and the audience through a subtle and persuasive use of interpellation. Throughout there is a determination to develop a sympathy between the city and the bush that proved powerful in the development of an imagined community crucial to building a nation.

A. G. Stephens, the literary editor of The Bulletin and perhaps the most influential man of letters in the history of Australian writing, was quick to sense the significance of Lawson's preface and collection, and encouraged the attempt to establish the young writer with a particular type of reputation: "Henry Lawson is the voice of the bush, and the bush is the heart of Australia," he wrote (5 January 1895). J. Medway Day in the Sydney Worker (12 January 1895) praised Lawson's realism and, despite the selection, still managed to discern the potential of the stories as a prompt for social reform. Not surprisingly, however, he rejected the cynicism directed toward union ideals as represented in "The Union Buries its Dead." Henry E. Boote, writing in the Brisbane Worker (26 January 1895), attested to the author's knowledge and sympathy for his subjects, and Henry Lawson was on the way to being recognized as a significant authority on the nature and character of the emerging Australian. Lawson's "Australianness" both enabled and confined his writing, and it formed the basis of the remarkable development of his reputation in his lifetime, immediately after his death, and between the world wars.

After a few months in Bathurst across the Blue Mountains to the west, Lawson returned to Sydney. Brereton sent Lawson to meet a pair of Sydney booksellers, David Angus and George Robertson, who were interested in publishing the emerging school of Australian writing associated with The Bulletin. Angus and Robertson were publishing a collection of Paterson's verse in a fine uncut quarto edition, and they came to an agreement with Lawson to publish a collection of his verse and another collection of his stories and prose sketches. For the next few months Lawson busied himself collecting material from cuttings and back issues of the newspapers and periodicals in which he had previously published material.

Paterson's book was a publishing sensation. Published locally using production values considered too ambitious for Australian material and effectively distributed by men who understood bookselling, The Man from Snowy River and Other Verses (1895) quickly sold out and soon ran into many editions. The success of well-produced, locally published Australian material was widely trumpeted as a timely sign of the birth of a truly national literature as the time of the Federation approached. More importantly for Lawson, it made available a local book market that might supplement his income from the periodical press. Lawson was notoriously improvident with money, however, and despite the economic success of his publishing ventures in both markets over the next five years, he was unable to secure the financial stability that might have enabled him to develop his talent and preoccupations in the long term.

The choices of titles and content for Lawson's two books were once again significant indicators of the attitude toward an Australian literature, and they carried important implications for Lawson's developing sense of himself as a literary figure. "Faces in the Street," the original title poem of Lawson's verse collection, was about urban social injustice, but it was later exchanged for "In the Days When the World Was Wide," a poem that nostalgically lamented the passing of the days of the frontier and an adventurous masculine spirit required for the reform of capitalism. Both poems represented Lawson's political radicalism, but the later one connected it to the heroism of humble rural people, past and present. The volume was dominated by Lawson's rural and associated nature verse, but many of the political poems found a place, and particularly in the context of the title poem, these were similar to the tone and topics of the rural material. Lawson was interested in relating the suffering of working people in the bush and the city, and when his radical political poems are placed alongside the rural work, the effect is consistent with the lessons he learned from William Lane in 1892. The bush and the city workers had a joint interest as victims of an oppressive class system that denied them opportunities. A "wider Democracy" would only be possible if rural and urban labor could establish a sympathy and work together. An appeal to a particular form of Australianness was the form in which this sympathy was promoted, and realism, not Romanticism, became its artistic credo.

Reviewers were quick to pick up on the tensions between politics and history in the subjects of the collection, and they associated them with comments on the poet's class background and his tenuous exposure to culture. Lawson was praised for realistic depictions of rural subjects based on his authentic experience of his subject. Almost by definition the use of his experience precluded any claim to imaginative or artistic talent, and many critics used Lawson's lack of culture and his political views to qualify their approval. Stephens divided the collection into optimistic early poems (all on rural themes), of which he approved, and pessimistic later poems (often on political topics), of which he did not approve. The rural poems were "objective" and "Australian"; the pessimistic political poems were "subjective" and "personal." In his review for The Bulletin (15 February 1896) Stephens saw lack of culture and education as to blame:

Lawson's shortcomings are obvious enough. His mental scope is narrow; he is comparatively uncultured; he iterates the same notes, and rarely improves his thoughts by elaboration; he wants harmony and variety of metre; his work is burdened with many weak lines and careless tags. But how graphic, how natural, how true, how strong! How he feels and makes his readers feel. . . .


The early reception of Lawson's work establishes a set of associated oppositions between the Australian and the British; the local and the universal; the real and the ideal; experience and the imagination; identity and culture; and nature and art. Lawson's work was valued for its authentic Australianness, and in many cases the mark of this authenticity was his colonial lack of culture and artistic imagination.

First published in February 1896, the sales of In the Days When the World Was Wide and Other Verses were respectable, but they lagged behind those of Paterson's The Man from Snowy River and Other Verses. At 5s. 6d. both books were out of the reach of the working classes, and the bourgeoisie spirit of those who could afford the retail price was better catered to by Paterson's optimistic and romantic collection. His vivid, sporting, and adventurous view of the Australian frontier was also more in keeping with metropolitan aspirations after the success of the imperial dream, and Paterson, not Lawson, secured a reputable publisher for an English edition. The financial success of Lawson's work became more important when he fell in love with the pretty eighteen-year-old daughter of the owners of McNamara's radical bookshop, a well-known meeting place for freethinkers, labor intellectuals, and politicians. Bertha Bredt's mother has been described as the Mother of the Labor Movement in New South Wales, and her sister was then courting her future husband, Jack Lang, the infamous Labor premier of New South Wales during the Great Depression. Friends and family were skeptical about the impecunious Lawson's ability to support himself, let alone a wife and family, and he made a quick trip to New Zealand to try his luck. He returned to Sydney soon after arriving there, borrowed money, and married Bertha in secret on 15 April 1896.

Lawson, like many colonial artists before him, was convinced that he needed to make a success of himself in England if he was to support himself by his writing. He created a disastrous precedent by selling the copyright to his volumes of verse and prose to his publisher, and with the money raised he set off for the goldfields of Western Australia in search of the funds he needed. With his new wife he camped in the tent cities Perth had erected to cope with the influx of diggers and never actually reached the goldfields. Once again he picked up work as a painter and used his recollections of youth and his rural experience to produce more short fiction for the Sydney press.

Advance orders for the collection of stories While the Billy Boils, published later in 1896, were brisk and helped stimulate the declining sales of In the Days When the World Was Wide and Other Verses. Like its companion volume, it represented a departure from Short Stories in Prose and Verse in that it combined the more explicitly political material with the bush stories that formed the basis of Lawson's national reputation after his death in 1922. Reviewers were quick to appreciate the superiority of Lawson's prose to his verse, but their praise remained constrained by the assumptions that shaped the reception of the earlier books. Lawson's work was unusual because he drew characters from the lower end of the social ladder without recourse to the patronizing tone and stereotypical molds of the bourgeois writing of the period. He was a working-class writer writing about his own class, but the roughness of his experience and the paucity of his education inevitably showed itself in the crudity of his form. Lawson's stories and sketches were seen as scrappy and disconnected, rough and unfinished. These characteristics allowed him to be represented as natural, authentic, and Australian, but many critics thought these traits withheld from him the approbation due to a genuine artist. Lawson's reviewers failed to appreciate that he was experimenting with different forms of the short story in an effort to find a vehicle appropriate to his subject, his politics, his abilities, and the limited publishing opportunities available to him.

While the Billy Boils was made up of fifty-two stories and sketches haphazardly arranged in the order in which they were collected from earlier periodical publication and progressively set by the publisher. Stephens therefore criticized the arrangement and suggested reordering the material into sequences that dealt with the same characters. In keeping with this desire for a longer, more connected work he suggested Lawson write a novel. This suggestion marked a turning point in the young writer's development because it set him thinking about stories that were broader in scope than the sketches favored by The Bulletin. At the same time it reaffirmed the contrary demands of the colonial market for journalism, short fiction, and verse, and the critical establishment's sense that prose literature of enduring quality, let alone genius, required an extended treatment of theme and character.

Lawson soon grew dissatisfied with life in Perth, for living was expensive, and he made no progress in accumulating the funds he needed for England. He decided to return to Sydney by way of Melbourne and then to take Bertha to New Zealand. The reunion with old friends in Sydney provided renewed opportunities for his alcoholism and placed a significant stress upon both his finances and his marriage. He quickly dropped the idea of a novel and tried the form of the long poem but struggled with what he himself described as the "philosophy" required. Lawson believed a cheaper volume of prose was necessary and that the stories needed a more positive tone. Book publication had given him something to think about, because it gave the critics an extended opportunity to pass judgment as well as exposing him to a market that differed from the ideological preferences of a small group of newspaper and journal editors. The ready praise of critics flattered his ego, and he began to develop delusions of grandeur in relation to his status as the prophet of all things Australian. He remained acutely sensitive to comments about his lack of culture and education, however, and he lashed out at his academic friend Jack Brereton in "The Uncultured Rhymer to his Cultured Critics":


Must I turn aside from my destined way

For a task your Joss would find me?

I come with strength of the living day,

And with half the world behind me;

I leave you alone in your cultured halls

To drivel and croak and cavil:

Till your voice goes further than college walls,

Keep out of the tracks we travel!


By April of 1897 Bertha had somehow found the money to rescue her husband from his drinking fraternity, and the following month Lawson was appointed as the teacher of a small Maori school at Mangamaunu about one hundred miles northeast of Christchurch on New Zealand's South Island.

The remote settlement removed the temptations of alcohol and masculine company and provided Lawson with the domestic stability necessary to sustained literary production. He was receiving welcoming signs from British publishers impressed with the stories and sketches in While the Billy Boils, which the firm of Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent had published in a British edition in 1897, and he returned to the idea of writing a "connected book" called "The Native School," which would be brighter and more romantic than his earlier work. Literary idealism was firmly associated in Lawson's mind with the cultural values of the critical establishment, and in an apparent effort to win favor he sought to use his time with the Maoris to write an optimistic tale of the ennobling work of a heroic man accepted into the community of the noble savage. The most substantial piece of work to result from this effort was "A Daughter of Maoriland," which tells the story of a teacher with literary ambition who attempts to use a Maori pupil as the basis of a romantic tale. The Maori girl steals from the teacher and undermines his authority, and he responds with a cynical tale of indigenous savagery as a caution to advocates of literary idealism and the Universal Brotherhood. The story was later collected in Over the Sliprails (1900). Lawson's enthusiasm for an isolated and settled life with the noble savage had quickly waned under the pressures of the white man's burden and his own difficult and fitful temperament. It was not to be the last time that an attempt to write the more romantic and optimistic tale of success that his critics and the market desired fell prey to a moody and pessimistic temperament and the bitter fruits of experience. The disappointed author consoled himself with a belief that the genuine bushman valued the harsh and authentic veracity of his Australian work in ways that could not be fully appreciated by the cultural establishment. Genuine Australianness seemed to be at odds with high cultural value, but the "voice of the bush" continued to crave cultural standing.

By September Bertha was pregnant and "the loneliness . . . affecting [her] health," Lawson wrote to the Secretary for Education and resigned. November found him in Wellington, where favorable reviews of the English edition of While the Billy Boils confirmed his desire to go to England. He was commissioned by the actor-manager Bland Holt to check a play for "local color" and then agreed to turn his aborted long poem/novel into a play for the stage. Once again, however, the short-story writer and balladist failed to master a larger form, and the play was never performed.

Lawson's son Jim was born in February 1898, and Lawson returned with his young family to Sydney in March. A billet in the Statistician's Office was arranged by friends, but despite the fact that he only had to clock on at nine and off again at four thirty, the job was beyond him. He lasted until the middle of the year and returned to drinking and pouring out his turbulent and reactionary emotions in verse. Despite the financial success of his books, money was again hard to come by, and he was behaving erratically. Bertha's brother-in-law, Jack Lang, took the Lawson family in for a few months, while Lawson fell in with a bohemian drinking troupe, The Dawn and Dusk Club, led by the poet and raconteur Victor Daley. By November Lawson had reached a crisis point and agreed to enter a home for alcoholics. A sketch based upon this experience, "The Boozer's Home," reveals his own bewilderment at his sudden mood swings, and for a time he became a teetotaler.

Lawson's income during the three years since his publication by Angus and Robertson had been quite substantial, but the improvidence and temperamentalism characteristic of his mental instability ensured that he had nothing to show for it. He was incapable of recognizing that Australia had financially rewarded him for his writing, and he remained convinced that his future could only be secured in England. In "Pursuing Literature in Australia," which was published by The Bulletin in January of 1899, he advised "any young Australian writer whose talents have been recognized . . . to go steerage, stow away, swim, and seek London, Yankeeland, or Timbuctoo--rather than stay in Australia till his genius turned to gall, or beer. Or failing this--and still in the interests of human nature and literature--to study elementary anatomy, especially as applies to the cranium, and then shoot himself carefully with the aid of a looking-glass."

Lawson's experience in the "Boozer's Home" had temporarily "cured" him of drinking, and he again became productive. He had an agreement with Angus and Robertson for two more volumes of prose that were to be made up of previously uncollected material together with some newly commissioned work. He remained in financial trouble in 1900 while trying to put On the Track (1900) and Over the Sliprails together, however, and so Robertson contracted with him to produce a new collection of poetry, Verses Popular and Humorous (1900). Lawson remained chronically short of funds during the year, and the small family was forced to move to cheaper lodgings many times.

The temporarily reformed alcoholic's newfound domestic determination enabled a brief friendship with the renowned feminist Rose Scott with whom he openly discussed his work for a time. "I am hard at work on a connected book, called 'The Little School Mistress' and describing the life of an intellectual girl in one of those wretched holes in the bush that I know of--bringing in several types of bush families and bushman," he wrote on 29 March 1899:

Only its the old trouble--I have to knock off every now and then to grind out verse or a short story or sketch to keep the Billy boiling. But anyway I can sell a chapter now and then as a sketch and incorporate it in the novel afterwards--so everything has a bright side. I'm sick of doing fragmentary work and look upon it as wasted time and mutilated ideas and material. But when I get one novel out I'll be alright, for I believe it will be a success.

Lawson felt that his reliance upon the periodical market was thwarting his attempts to develop as a writer. His artistic development appeared to require an extended treatment of a theme in keeping with the views of the cultural establishment, but he retained his interest in the potential of literary production for social reform. An appeal to Scott, her famous cousin David Scott Mitchell, and the new governor of New South Wales, Lord Beauchamp, finally secured the money for the trip to England. After a quick pilgrimage to his childhood haunts in Mudgee and Gulgong and the birth of a daughter, Bertha, in February 1900, the Lawsons took ship. Just prior to sailing, however, Lawson received "My Brilliant Career," an unsolicited manuscript from Miles Franklin, a young girl from the bush, which struck a chord with his own recent efforts. Lawson took the manuscript about an ambitious young bushwoman frustrated by poverty, circumstance, and the restrictions placed upon her sex with him to London where he arranged for its publication.

The two new, cheaper volumes of prose, On the Track and Over the Sliprails, were published in April and in June of 1900 respectively. Thereafter, the two slim volumes were republished jointly as On the Track and Over the Sliprails (1900). Lawson's presence in England made his reception there more important than ever, and he must have been pleased with the ready acknowledgment of his literary significance. Francis Thompson wrote in The Daily Chronicle (London) for 29 March 1901 of the value of Lawson's realism to his Australian contemporaries and claimed the work appealed also to "that great company of readers who reside wherever the English language is spoken." The anonymous reviewer for The Daily Express (Dublin) for 9 February 1901 felt that Lawson had found his "true metier" in "these isolated sketches" and again floated expectations of a novel by noting that the continuity provided by reusing characters showed promise of "something more ambitious and substantial."

In London, Lawson imagined himself in the world of Dickens, but Bertha was quickly affected by the dismal weather and the absence of friends. They took a rented cottage in the village of Harpenden and soon established contacts in the English literary scene. The influential journalist and critic Edward Garnett introduced Lawson to J. B. Pinker, a prominent literary agent, who arranged for the publication in Blackwood's Magazine of "Brighten's Sister in Law" (November 1900) the first of the important Joe Wilson series of stories. Blackwood soon expressed interest in publishing a newly selected edition of Lawson's prose, which he believed had failed to penetrate the English market in the form of Angus and Robertson's Australian editions. It was a promising start.

The writer's sale of his copyright to Angus and Robertson complicated the negotiations for an English edition, but by mid August a second Joe Wilson story, "A Double Buggy at Lahey's Creek" (February 1901) had been sold to Blackwood's Magazine. On 15 October 1900 Lawson wrote to Blackwood proposing a series of Joe Wilson stories arranged in a developing order:

1 "Brightens Sister In Law." 2 or 3 "Going on the Land" (Describing struggles of early squatting life). 2 or 3 "Double Buggy." 4- "The Long Drought" ( Joe Wilson as a well-to-do squatter is ruined by the drought). 5- (Title not fixed- Joe Wilson goes back to Gulgong & drinks. A realistic drink story.) 6- "Peter McLachlan" (a bush preacher who saves Joe Wilson). 7. "The Luck that came too late" ( Joe Wilson gets money and his wife goes insane--but whether she recovers or dies I have not decided).

Lawson hoped that the course of his own life would follow Joe Wilson's and that after his problems with alcoholism he would be saved so as to find financial and literary success in London. The biographical corollary for Mary Wilson's madness was not promising, however, for Bertha had suffered a major mental breakdown and had to be hospitalized.

Lawson turned his intimate experience of Bertha's condition to account in several stories that dealt with mental illness--"The Babies in the Bush," "The House that Was Never Built," "Telling Mrs Baker," and another Joe Wilson story, "Water Them Geraniums." The use of a retrospective first-person narrator in the Joe Wilson stories enabled Lawson to explore the effect of an isolated, rural life on the psyches of his characters and represents an important development in his use of the short-story form and sequence. Bertha's hospitalization and the need to board the children out also had significant financial implications, however, and Lawson was forced to convert some of his old verse into short fiction for sale to the lesser English periodicals while he arranged the selection of previously published material for Blackwood.

The Country I Come From (1901) was Lawson's selection from the prose that made up four of Lawson's books, and it provides an interesting insight into the way Lawson's work was selectively collected for the English market. The urban-class-orientated stories that were included in While the Billy Boils, On the Track, and Over the Sliprails were omitted, and the collection was built upon the bush reputation established in Lawson's earlier British and colonial reception by selecting stories that dealt with Australia's rural frontier. In the light of the optimistic reviews of On the Track and Over the Sliprails, the reception of The Country I Come From was disappointing. Reviewers once again picked up on the formal and linguistic crudities, the lack of culture, and the pessimistic outlook of the collection. The December 1901 issue of Blackwood's Magazine repeated what must now have become a tiresome refrain: "give us a novel in which the results of his experience may be welded into an orderly and coherent whole."

The publication in 1900 by Angus and Robertson of Lawson's second collection of verse, Verses Popular and Humorous, also received mixed reviews in Australia and England. The English critics recognized the popular value of Lawson's ballads but considered that they fell well short of true poetry. If Lawson were to develop a substantial literary reputation in Britain, then he would have to produce a more extensive narrative in prose. The Joe Wilson stories, which were published toward the end of 1901 in Joe Wilson and His Mates, were written in England for Blackwood's discerning audience and represented what was to be Lawson's last major attempt at the extended treatment of character his critics had been calling for. While the collection drew some favorable comments, they remained caught up in the pervasive oppositions between culture and experience that had characterized the early colonial reception. Lawson's realistic insight into colonial life was seen to be at the expense of aesthetic value, and many critics both at home and abroad saw this failing as an inevitable fact of frontier life, colonial culture, and a working-class background.

A literary appreciation published by Garnett in Academy and Literature (London) on 8 March 1902 represents the high point of Lawson's reputation in England:

Lawson's special value to us is that he stands as the representative writer of a definitive environment, as the portrayer of life on the Australian soil, and that he brings before our eyes more fully and vividly than any other man the way the Australian people's life is going, its characteristic spirit, code, and outlook; the living thought and sensation of these tens and hundreds and thousands and millions of people who make up the Australian Democracy.

Lawson's reputation is located as much by the limitations of the market for colonial literary production as it is by the extent of his talent and the disadvantages of his personal, familial, and social predicaments. Colin Roderick, in his definitive 1991 biography of Lawson, argues that Lawson's experience in England shows that if he had "possessed the capacity to study his models and the market, to persevere and to discipline his talent, and had he had the home environment to back him up, there was no reason why he should not have achieved modest success." A working-class colonial writer such as Lawson, however, could hardly have achieved the artistic reputation that his early Australian critics appear to have expected of him.

The Joe Wilson stories were the closest Lawson ever came to producing the novel his critics so eagerly anticipated. Bertha's illness led to a move to London and soon after to the village of Charlton, where Lawson's troubled personal circumstances slowly began to overwhelm him. Lord Beauchamp again came to Lawson's aid by paying half of Bertha's medical expenses, and in August she was released from the hospital. The reunited family again returned to London, and throughout another cold winter Lawson labored to put together a further book of verse and prose for Garnett. Lawson called the proposed new book "The Heart of Australia" because of his belief that "the Outback is of course the heart of Australia," and by February the manuscript was ready for Pinker.

The importance of a literary reputation to Lawson can be discerned from the book of criticism, "As Far as I'm Concerned," that he now proposed to Garnett. Topics such as "The Birth of Culchaw in a New Land," "New Chum Editors and Critics," "The Australian Literary Humbug," and "Why I don't write Grammar" reinforce his sensitivity to Australian criticisms of his artistry and culture in particular. Success in England was to guarantee his artistic credentials and provide the cultural authority to dismiss his colonial critics once and for all. Garnett did not think much of the book, however, and it came to nought. Blackwood rejected "The Heart of Australia" as not up to the standard of Lawson's earlier work, and when Methuen ultimately accepted the collection, it was renamed Children of the Bush (1902). This book, like the two Blackwood editions before it, failed to make much of an impact on the British market.

Lawson's stay in England was at an end, and his assault upon the heights of literary celebrity were over. Short of funds and largely incapacitated by his personal, family, and social circumstances, he returned to Australia. The last twenty years of his life represent a slow, inexorable decline into poverty and alcoholism, redeemed only occasionally by brief respites brought about through the efforts of dedicated friends in the publishing industry and the Labor movement. Lawson used his return passage to Australia to reintroduce himself to serious drinking. He was separated from Bertha and the children soon after their arrival, and both husband and wife spent time in the hospital for mental illness. A series of stories dealing with difficult women affirmed Lawson's growing tendency to ransack his immediate emotional life for the substance of his stories and poems. On 6 December he attempted suicide and then reentered a home for inebriates for treatment. A brief reconciliation with his wife followed, but by April Bertha had filed for a judicial separation, and Lawson was required to pay maintenance for his wife and children. Between 1905 and 1909 he was imprisoned six times for desertion and once for public drunkenness. Lawson was drinking heavily and almost destitute when George Robertson--his long-suffering Australian publisher, patron, and agent--commissioned an autobiography. The resulting "Fragment of Autobiography" provides a revealing if sometimes inaccurate and erratic picture of Lawson's early life in Mudgee and Sydney but stops before considering the later decline. A significantly abridged form was published in the Lone Hand on 2 March 1908. The full text did not become widely available until it was collected in Cecil Mann's three-volume edition of Lawson's Prose in 1964.

From this point on Lawson wrote under a pressure of immediate need for funds and alcohol. His literary output showed the strain of his personal circumstances and with the possible exception of the Elder Man's Lane series of urban stories written between 1912 and 1920 and the "Previous Convictions" stories of 1919-1921, neither of which was collected in book form until long after Lawson's death in Mann's 1964 edition, he never again reached the level of the early prose work. In 1902 Angus and Robertson published an Australian edition of Joe Wilson and His Mates and in 1907 they republished Children of the Bush. The publishers reversed the practice of On the Track, and Over the Sliprails by splitting each volume into two cheaper editions. Joe Wilson and His Mates became Joe Wilson and Joe Wilson's Mates in 1904 and Children of the Bush was divided into Send Round the Hat and The Romance of the Swag in 1907. After returning from England, Lawson published only two slim original volumes of short fiction, The Rising of the Court and Other Sketches in Prose and Verse in 1910 and Triangles of Life and Other Stories in 1913. The bulk of his literary output after 1902 was popular verse, which was collected in When I Was King and Other Verses (1905), The Skyline Riders and Other Verses (1910), For Australia and Other Poems (1913), My Army, O, My Army! And Other Songs (1915, republished in England as Song of the Dardenelles, and Other Verses, 1916), and Selected Poems of Henry Lawson (1918). The edition of selected poems put together by Robertson with the editorial assistance of David McKee Wright, a successor to Stephens as the literary editor of The Bulletin, includes more of the work produced between 1887 and 1900 than the verse that came after that by a ratio of four to one.

Toward the end of his life Lawson was granted a government pension, and at his death on 2 September 1922 he was honored with a state funeral. His reputation was preserved between the wars when a large campaign was organized to erect a monument in his memory in the Sydney Domain. The campaign enlisted the help of the New South Wales Teachers Federation, and through its efforts Lawson was introduced to a new generation of children as the chronicler of the pioneering Australian spirit and an exemplar of the national mentality. He was vigorously promoted by left wing political interests after World War II as a mark of their intimate association with the national character, and in the 1960s he was represented on the $10 note when Australia changed to decimal currency. He remains one of the few Australian writers from the nineteenth century whose work has never been out of print, and illustrated collections of his verse and prose continue to sell widely as monuments to Australian rural heritage.

Lawson's poetry is not highly considered by professional literary critics because of its reliance upon popular verse forms, its lack of technical and intellectual sophistication, and the large quantity of ill-considered doggerel published under the pressure of personal circumstances during his lifetime. His reputation as a literary figure rests upon his contribution to the Australian short story, and his stark realism, prose economy, and social interest have provided models for succeeding generations of Australian writers. Lawson wrote verse when it was a recognized journalistic mode, however, and the social value of this work should not be dismissed lightly. His ongoing historical reputation continues to trade on the immense popularity of the verse, and it has helped the ballad in particular to continue to be recognized in Australia as a versatile and entertaining vehicle for the expression of popular social sentiment.


From: Lee, Christopher. "Henry (Archibald Hertzberg) Lawson." Australian Literature, 1788-1914, edited by Selina Samuels, Gale, 2001. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 230.


  • Further Reading


    • George Mackaness, An Annotated Bibliography of Henry Lawson (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1951).
    • Walter Stone, Henry Lawson: A Chronological Checklist of His Contributions to The Bulletin, 1887-1924, second edition (Sydney: Wentworth, 1954).
    • Harry F. Chaplin, Henry Lawson; His Books, Manuscripts, Autograph Letters and Association Copies, Together with Publications by Louisa Lawson, Studies in Australian Bibliography, no. 21 (Surry Hills, N.S.W.: Wentworth, 1974).



    • John Le Gay Brereton and Bertha Lawson, eds., Henry Lawson by His Mates (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1931).
    • Bertha Lawson, My Henry Lawson (Sydney: Johnson, 1943).
    • Denton Prout, Henry Lawson, The Grey Dreamer (Adelaide: Rigby, 1963).
    • Manning Clark, In Search of Henry Lawson (Melbourne: Macmillan, 1978).
    • Colin Roderick, Henry Lawson: A Life (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1991).
    • Robyn Burrows and Alan Barton, Henry Lawson: A Stranger on the Darling (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1996).



    • John Barnes, "Henry Lawson in England: The 'High Tide': A Revaluation," Quadrant, 27, no. 8 (1983): 60-69.
    • Barnes, "Henry Lawson in London," Quadrant, 144 (1979): 24-35.
    • Barnes, "Lawson and the Short Story in Australia," Westerly, 13, no. 2 (July 1968): 83-87.
    • Barnes, "'What Has He Done for Our National Spirit?' A Note on Lawson Criticism," Australian Literary Studies, 8 (1978): 485-491.
    • F. J. Broomfield, Henry Lawson and His Critics (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1930).
    • Dennis Douglas, "The Text of Lawson's Prose," Australian Literary Studies, 2 (December 1966): 254-265.
    • Frank Hardy, "The Genius of Henry Lawson: Time, Place and Circumstances," parts 1 and 2, Realist Writer, 13 (1963): 10-14; 14 (1964): 8-13.
    • H. P. Heseltine, "Between Living and Dying: The Ground of Lawson's Art," Overland, 88 ( July 1982): 19-26.
    • A. D. Hope, "Steele Rudd and Henry Lawson," Meanjin, 15 (1956): 24-32.
    • T. Inglis Moore, "The Rise and Fall of Henry Lawson," Meanjin, 16 (1957): 365-376.
    • D. R. Jarvis, "Lawson, The Bulletin and the Short Story," Australian Literary Studies, 11 (1983): 58-66.
    • Jarvis, "Narrative Technique in Lawson," Australian Literary Studies, 9 (1980): 367-373.
    • Kiernan, "Ways of Seeing: Henry Lawson's 'Going Blind,'" Australian Literary Studies, 9 (1980): 298-308.
    • Christopher Lee, "Fighting Them on the Beaches: The University Versus the People in the Case of Henry Lawson," in CanonOZities: The Making of Literary Reputations in Australia, edited by Delys Bird, Robert Dixon, and Susan Lever, Southerly, 57, no. 3 (1997): 152-161.
    • Lee, "Looking for Mr Backbone: The Politics of Gender in the Work of Henry Lawson," in Behind the Nineties: Australian Literature and Literary Culture, edited by Ken Stewart (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1996), pp. 95-108.
    • Lee, "Man, Work and Country: The Production of Henry Lawson," Australian Literary Studies, 15, no. 3 (1992): 110-122.
    • Lee, "What Color are the Dead? Race and the National Gaze in Henry Lawson's 'The Bush Undertaker,'" Kunapipi, 13, no. 3 (1991): 14-25.
    • Brian Matthews, The Receding Wave: Henry Lawson's Prose (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1972).
    • Stephen Murray-Smith, Henry Lawson, revised edition (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1975).
    • Bruce Nesbitt, "Literary Nationalism and the 1890s," Australian Literary Studies, 5 (1971): 3-17.
    • Phillip O'Neill, "Aborigines and Women in Lawson's 'The Bush Undertaker,'" Australian and New Zealand Studies in Canada, 8 (1992): 59-70.
    • W. H. Pearson, Henry Lawson Among Maoris (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1968).
    • A. A. Phillips, Henry Lawson (New York: Twayne, 1970).
    • Phillips, "Henry Lawson as Craftsman," Meanjin, 7 (1948): 80-90.
    • Xavier Pons, Out of Eden: Henry Lawson's Life and Works--A Psychoanalytic View (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1984).
    • Colin Roderick, Henry Lawson, Commentaries on His Prose Writings (London & Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1985).
    • Roderick, "Henry Lawson's Joe Wilson--Skeleton Novel or Short Story Sequence?" Overland, 66 (1977): 35-47.
    • Roderick, ed., Henry Lawson Criticism: 1894-1971 (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1972).
    • Sue Rowley, "Slip-Rails and Spur: Courting Bush Sweethearts in Australian Nationalist Mythology," Journal of the South Pacific Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies, 26 (April 1988): 15-32.
    • Kay Schaffer, Women and the Bush: Forces of Desire in the Australian Cultural Tradition (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
    • A. G. Stephens, "Henry Lawson: Collected Criticism 1896-1922," in The Writer in Australia, edited by Barnes (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1969), pp. 80-105.
    • Ken Stewart, "The Loaded Dog--A Celebration," Australian Literary Studies, 11 (1983): 152-161.
    • F. M. Todd, "Henry Lawson," Twentieth Century, 4, no. 3 (1950): 5-15.
    • Chris Wallace-Crabbe, "Lawson's 'Joe Wilson': A Skeleton Novel," Australian Literary Studies, 1 (1964): 147-154.
    • Michael Wilding, Studies in Classic Australian Fiction (Sydney: Shoestring Press, 1997).
    • G. A. Wilkes, "Henry Lawson Reconsidered," Southerly, 25 (1965): 264-275.
    • Judith Wright, Henry Lawson (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1967).