Lawson, Henry (Hertzberg)

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LAWSON, Henry (Hertzberg)

Nationality: Australian. Born: Grenfell, New South Wales, 17 June 1867. Education: The Eurunderee Public School, 1876; became deaf at age 9. Family: Married Bertha Bredt in 1896 (separated 1902); one son and one daughter. Career: Held various jobs from age 13, including builder, apprentice to a railway contractor, house painter, and clerk; contributed to his mother's magazines, Republican and Dawn, Sydney, 1880s; contributor to the Bulletin, Sydney, 1890s; staff member, Albany Observer, Western Australia, 1890, and Brisbane Boomerang, 1891; house painter in Bourke, 1892-93; telegraph lineman in New Zealand, 1893-94; staff member, Sydney Worker, 1894; gold prospector in Western Australia, 1896; teacher, Mangamaunu Maori School, 1897-98. Lived in Sydney, 1898-99; lived in London, 1900-03; lived in Sydney from 1904. Awards: Commonwealth Literary Fund pension, 1920. Died: 2 September 1922.



Prose Works. 2 vols., 1935.

Stories, edited by Cecil Mann. 3 vols., 1964.

Collected Verse, edited by Colin Roderick. 3 vols., 1967-69.

Short Stories and Sketches 1888-1922, edited by Colin Roderick. 1972.

Autobiographical and Other Writings 1887-1922, edited by ColinRoderick. 1972.

The World of Lawson, edited by Walter Stone. 1974.

The Essential Lawson, edited by Brian Kiernan. 1982.

The Penguin Lawson, edited by John Barnes. 1986.

The Henry Lawson Collection. 1994.

The Short Stories of Henry Lawson. 1995.

Short Stories

Short Stories in Prose and Verse. 1894.

While the Billy Boils. 1896.

On the Track. 1900.

Over the Sliprails. 1900.

The Country I Come From. 1901.

Joe Wilson and His Mates. 1901.

Children of the Bush (includes poems). 1902; as Send Round the Hat and The Romance of the Swag, 2 vols., 1907.

The Rising of the Court and Other Sketches in Prose and Verse. 1910.

Mateship: A Discursive Yarn. 1911.

The Strangers' Friend. 1911.

Triangles of Life and Other Stories. 1913.

The Bush Undertaker and Other Stories. 1994.


In the Days When the World Was Wide and Other Verses. 1896.

Verses, Popular and Humorous. 1900.

When I Was King and Other Verses. 1905.

The Elder Son. 1905.

The Skyline Riders and Other Verses. 1910.

A Coronation Ode and Retrospect. 1911.

For Australia and Other Poems. 1913.

My Army, O, My Army! and Other Songs. 1915; as Song of the Dardanelles and Other Verses, 1916.

Selected Poems. 1918.

The Auld Shop and the New. 1923.

Joseph's Dream. 1923.

Winnowed Verse. 1924.

Popular Verses. 1924.

Humorous Verses. 1924.

Poetical Works. 3 vols., 1925.

The Men Who Made Australia. 1950.


A Selection from the Prose Works, edited by George Mackaness. 1928.

Letters 1890-1922, edited by Colin Roderick. 1970.



An Annotated Bibliography of Lawson by George Mackaness, 1951.

Critical Studies:

Lawson by Stephen Murray-Smith, 1962, revised edition, 1975; Lawson: The Grey Dreamer by Denton Prout, 1963; Lawson, 1966, and The Real Lawson, 1982, both by Colin Roderick, and Lawson: Criticism 1894-1971 edited by Roderick, 1972; Lawson by Judith Wright, 1967; Lawson among Maoris by Bill Pearson, 1968; The Receding Wave: Lawson's Prose by Brian E. Matthews, 1972; In Search of Lawson by Manning Clark, 1978, as Lawson: The Man and the Legend, 1985; Out of Eden: Lawson's Life and Works: A Psychoanalytic View by Xavier Pons, 1984;Lawson by Geoffrey Dutton, 1988; Henry Lawson, The Man and the Legend by Clark Manning, 1995; Henry Lawson: A Stranger on the Darling by Robyn Burrows, 1996.

* * *

Like several of his contemporaries, Henry Lawson's life was a relatively brief one—from 1867 to 1922. He was born at Grenfell, in central western New South Wales around the area of the goldfields, the son of Louisa Albury and Niels Larsen (later Peter Lawson, a Norwegian seaman who jumped ship at Melbourne). Larsen became estranged from his wife in 1883 and died in 1888. Louisa lived on until 1920, by which time she had become a noted feminist.

Lawson himself became slightly deaf at the age of nine and by the time he was 14 years old was almost wholly so. He had no formal education. Lawson was socialist and egalitarian, as his mother was feminist and republican. His feelings about his father are suggested in his later story "A Child in the Dark and a Foreign Father." He began writing in 1887 and found an outlet for both his poetry (which is generally of inferior quality) and short stories in The Bulletin. He married Bertha Bredt in 1896 and they had two children. In 1900 he went to London, but his wife left him after a nervous breakdown. Between 1905 and 1909 Lawson spent 160 days in jail on drink-related charges and arrears of maintenance, and the last 20 years of his life are a tragic story of the decline and penury of perhaps Australia's most-loved writer.

Lawson's major collection of fiction, While the Billy Boils, contains some 87 stories, originally published in three volumes—the title volume, On the Track, and Over the Sliprails (these were also combined in the one volume, with composite title in the year in which they appeared). His art began as artlessness and anecdote. The early story "An Old Mate of Your Father's" falls in between fiction and biographical reminiscence: "You remember when we hurried home from the old bush school." The young author sets it in the past and there is mention of 1859 (the gold rush) and the Eureka Stockade. Although the prevailing tone is subdued, there are already the characteristic touches of ironic humor: "And again—mostly in the fresh of the morning—they would hang about the fences on the selection and review the live stock: five dusty skeletons of cows, a hollow-sided calf or two, and one shocking piece of equine scenery." With a few exceptions—such as the very funny story "The Loaded Dog," in which a playful dog picks up a live piece of dynamite in its mouth and terrifies the local miners, or "Bill the Ventriloquial Rooster," in which the comedy is similarly broad—his humor is mostly downbeat and deflationary, bringing pretensions back to earth.

Increasingly also it led towards the incongruous or even grotesque. One of his finest stories, "The Bush Undertaker," concerns an old man who discovers the corpse of his friend Brummy; he addresses it in unselfconsciously friendly tones while pulling on the bottle he has found by Brummy's side. As is common in Lawson's best stories, the strength arises from the laconic under-statement of the prose, as the protagonist here struggles to bury his friend: "On reaching the hut the old man dumped the corpse against the wall, wrong end up." In "Rats," similarly, a demented old tramp is seen fighting furiously with his "swag," while "The Union Buries Its Dead" treats the celebrated concept of "mateship" with irony and satire.

The solitude of the bush, the monotony of landscape, and unpleasant climatic conditions are all facts of life that are treated dispassionately in Lawson's work for the most part. There is merely a vast, vacated space "where God ought to be," and in many of the stories the inscrutable Australian landscape seems to personify this absence of meaning. Despite his deafness, Lawson had an extraordinary ability to capture the rhythms and intonations of idiomatic Australian speech, and many of the stories—those involving his frequent protagonist Mitchell, for instance, and many of the Steelman ones—are basically dependent upon some form of oral tradition. They are written by a man who is constantly on the move and who has no time, no inclination, or no capacity to put down roots or to enter into lasting relations with other human beings or with a place. They deal often with chance, vagrant encounters, and random collisions that have no possibility of developing into anything more enduring, though they are often suffused with the warmth and gentleness of the man himself.

Although Lawson never wrote a novel, his most ambitious prose sequence is the so-called Joe Wilson stories, in which a melancholy and rueful Joe looks back on his younger self and the failure of his marriage with Mary. Confessedly based on the failure of his own marriage, they represent Lawson's most intense effort to explore the subtleties of male and female sexual relations, a subject he usually evaded. The theme of madness springing from isolation is never far away. Joe Wilson and His Mates contains most of his best work after While the Billy Boils.

In "Water Them Geraniums" he makes a comment about the protagonist, Mrs. Spicer: "She had many bush yarns, some of them very funny, some of them rather ghastly, but all interesting, and with a grim sort of humour about them." This could well stand as a fine description of Lawson's own art at its best.

—Laurie Clancy

See the essays on "The Union Buries Its Dead" and "Water Them Geraniums."

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Lawson, Henry (Hertzberg)

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