State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 70 Spring 2002

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Son of a Foreign Father
A View of Henry Lawson

And the Son of a Foreign Father sat down at his desk and wrote.
Henry Lawson, ‘A Fantasy of Man’ (1914)
I Feel very Norse of late years', Henry Lawson once remarked to his publisher George Robertson (of Angus & Robertson). He made this extraordinary aside in a note that he wrote to defend himself against criticism that some of his poems were blasphemous. ‘I never wrote or said a blasphemous thing in my life, nor thought one as far as Christ and Christianity is concerned', he assured Robertson, before adding the surprising qualification: ‘heathen though I may be as my old Norse fathers were'.1 Similar allusions to his Norwegian ancestry are scattered throughout what he wrote in the last 20 years of his life. More than once during those years he identified himself as ‘Larsen', using his family name in its original form rather than the anglicized version which was bestowed on him officially at birth. (One such occasion was when he gave an IOU for one shilling and sixpence to C.J. Dennis with two signatures — ‘Henrik Hertzberg Larsen’ and ‘Henry Lawson'.)
The use of ‘Larsen’ even extended to his published work, at least once. The manuscript of ‘The Song of Broken English’ was signed ‘Henry Hertzberg Larsen'; and the Bulletin, which published the poem on 15 December 1910, did not alter the signature. It is one of a number of poems in which Lawson draws the attention of the reader to his paternal ancestry, affirming his foreignness as a source of pride. In a somewhat braggart manner, the ‘bush-bred mongrel’ confronts his detractors with his imagined storybook pedigree:
‘Tis a Song of Broken English — German and Russian and Dane
Sung by a bush-bred mongrel, as mad as the Prince — or as sane;
Austrian, Swiss and Pole — and a song of greater things,
By a ‘beery Bulletin scribbler’ with the blood of Danish kings.
Henry the son of Peter; Peter the son of Lars,
Through a race of poets and pirates under the frozen stars.
Back to the Thirteen, sailing on Friga's Day to war,
To the pillage of Scotland and England, and the worship of Odin and Thor.
The ‘song’ concludes with an implicit appeal to Lawson's own son: ‘Joseph, the son of Henry, shall read it and understand'. Whatever may be said of ‘Henry, son of Peter', his son, Joseph Henry (‘Jim'), is to understand that he has a proud heritage through his father.
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This concern that his son would be proud of his father's name is voiced in ‘To Jim', a less strident poem that appeared in the Bulletin five years earlier (9 March 1905). Jim is reminded that ‘with the gipsy strains / A strong Norwegian sailor's blood / Is running through your veins'. (Lawson believed, quite wrongly, that his mother's family was descended from gypsies.) Tenderly, but self-pityingly, Lawson tells his son: ‘You'll have the strength to grapple things / That dragged your father down'. His son will ‘hear the slander of the crowd’ and the whispered ‘tales of shame', but the time will come when he'll be proud to bear his father's name. At the time he wrote this poem Lawson was legally separated from his wife, and could see his seven-year-old son and five-year-old daughter no more than one afternoon a week.
These two poems, explicitly autobiographical, represent an aspect of Lawson's struggle to recover and sustain his self-esteem and to affirm his own worth as a father in the face of the private and public humiliation that had followed his return from England in 1902. He had gone to London in April 1900 with his wife Bertha and two infants, hoping to make a fresh start as a writer. During the first year in England it seemed that he had achieved his aim. The leading literary agent in London, James B. Pinker, was able to place Lawson's work in a number of publications in England and America. William Blackwood published stories by Lawson in his famous Blackwood's Magazine and brought out two volumes, including Joe Wilson and His Mates (which contains some of his best work). The influential critic and literary adviser, Edward Garnett, gave him both moral and practical support. And the former Governor of New South Wales, Earl Beauchamp, who had enabled Lawson to go to England by giving him a ‘loan', was at hand when things started to go wrong — as they did after his wife became ill in May 1901. She was confined to a mental hospital in London for four months, and Lawson — himself in a fragile state — cared for the two children while struggling to sustain his faltering literary output. After her discharge from hospital, they lived together unhappily, with Bertha desperate to return to Australia. In Lawson's lifetime, on the strength of stories told by his wife, it was generally believed that he had been unable to keep off the drink and had behaved badly towards her. Lawson protested at the ‘lies', but never made public his version of events. ‘The English story, and before, is a dark and cruel story — the story of a great wrong, though no one was to blame', he wrote in a letter about the time ‘A Song of the Broken English’ was written.2
Lawson was never to recover, either as a writer or as a man, from the ‘trouble', as he discreetly called it. Back in Australia the ‘lies’ continued to circulate; Lawson accepted a legal separation rather than fight divorce proceedings brought by his bitter and estranged wife, but not before he had been hospitalised for drunkenness and then attempted suicide (see ‘Lawson's Fall'). The last 20 years of his life are a heart-rending record of near-destitution, drunkenness, imprisonment for failure to pay maintenance, mental instability requiring hospitalisation, interspersed with diminishing periods of relative calm and balance. (It is indicative of the chaos of Lawson's life that mixed up with the manuscripts which he sold to Thomas Lothian were a collection of receipts for alimony and copies of Bertha's original complaint and
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the court order setting the rate of payment.) Between 1905 (when ‘To Jim’ appeared) and 1910 (when ‘The Song of Broken English’ appeared), Lawson was gaoled seven times, for a total of 159 days.3
Desperate though his condition so often was, Lawson struggled to continue writing, especially verse, which had always come easily — too easily — to him. The work of his last 20 years does not compare with his earlier, but a reading of it deepens one's sense of the tragedy of a man of great talent. With the passing of the years he knew that he was a ruined writer: in an unpublished poem he voices his shame at the ‘“books” of printed tripe, sold cheap for bitter bread’ and mourns for ‘volumes built on noble thoughts’ that had never been written.4 ‘My life is “written between the lines” of every book of mine that you have published', he told George Robertson, alluding to the line of verse: ‘But the broken heart of the poet is written between the lines'.5 His sense of distress runs through much of this later verse, which is self-regarding and self-protecting, even when there is no obvious or explicit reference to his own situation.
In the wreckage of his own life Lawson clung to the idea that he had a worthy paternal heritage. This pride in having a Norse ancestry surfaces again and again: in a series of ballads about an imagined kingdom of ‘Virland’ (with King Hertzog) in 1908; ‘The Song of Broken English’ in 1910; and most explicitly in ‘Helsingfors’ (1912), in which the following stanza appears:
My father's picture hangs on the wall, and his father-in-law's as well:
One was a Bushman, and one a Norse from the seaport of Arundel.
They were true men — true, on the tracks they came, whether by land or sea.
And I sometimes trust, in the worst of times, that one of them pulls for me.
It is a male genealogy from which he draws strength, a line in which his maternal grandfather Henry Albury (whom he greatly liked) and his own father are given equal importance. His mother is ignored.
The verse does not get beyond striking attitudes, but in prose, both autobiographical and fictional, Lawson did write of his own experience as ‘the son of a foreign father', sometimes quite directly. There is a glimpse of the depth and complexity of the father-son relationship as he experienced it in ‘About Dreams', a Lone Hand article published in 1915 when he was near middle age. What begins as a journalistic survey of types of dreams deepens into a personal revelation of his love-hate relationship with the Bush, in which an unconscious link is made with his father. The scenery of his dreams is the landscape of his father's homeland:
My dreams are nearly always mountainous. Great mountains and stupendous peaks and precipices, and narrow passes; such as I have never seen — and I travel over and amongst them at a great rate. And I was brought up in comparatively level country, and learnt to love the world out back — and am a lover of Level Lands. But in dreams I hate the outback country, and am always finding myself, to my horror, away out, thousands of miles away, on some ghastly, God-and-devil-forgotten station, without the means of getting back again!
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A view of Arendal c. 1860; reproduced from Birger Dannevig, Arendal Gjennom Skiftende Tider: 1528* 1723* 1973, Arendal Kommune, 1973.

Even more revealing are the two paragraphs devoted to dreams about his father:
I always dream of my father as being alive, though, in waking, I looked on his dead face many a year ago. This dream originated in a dream, some years back, when it appeared, in my dreaming, that my father had never been really dead at all, but had disappeared, after the manner of sailors, and had been at home amongst his own people in Norway, and had returned after many years, with money, and still hale and strong, but with white hair and beard……Father has all his idiosyncrasies: his ‘home’ ideas about home life — which were foreign to us, but seem no longer foreign to me; and his carefulness with stamps and pennies — and his practical generosity and kindness in cases of illness and trouble. I often, in my dream-land, go out and work on contracts with my father; but we never have words like we used to sometimes have when he was alive. I don't say the things to him now that I said then. Perhaps I have grown to understand him and the world better.
The sense of guilt, which perhaps every child feels, to some degree, towards a parent after they are dead, is here assuaged by a sense of Father as a senex, a wisdom-figure, with whom all conflicts have been resolved, and the ideal relationship achieved — though the memory of past irritation and incomprehension has not been wholly obliterated. Lawson remembers that his father:
… went in a good deal for what we used to call ‘spiritualism'; he always meant, right up to the end, to revisit Norway; and he came from a land where the existence of the ‘Vardoger’ — or for-goer that announces the coming of a friend — is not questioned.
The final sentence is the most significant of all:
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He sometimes comes, in my middle-aged dreams, and tucks me in, and asks: ‘Are you quite warm enough, Sonny?'6
In his ‘middle-aged dreams', the man becomes a child again, recovering the security and love that Nils Larsen provided against the worst fear of ‘a child in the dark’ — the fear of growing up. In Lawson's psychic life his father was a continuing presence.

II

Nils.Hertzberg Larsen, born on 12 September 1832, was the fifth son of Peder Larsen, the degn (a post combining the roles of precenter, sexton, parish clerk and teacher) of the church on the island of Tromøy, near the port of Arendal (‘the Venice of the North') on the southern coast of Norway. Thanks to the research of Colin Roderick, readers of today probably know more about the family than Henry Lawson did. Had he known that his Norwegian grandfather had lost his post because of alcoholism when Nils was only six years old, Henry might well have seen a source of his own ‘infirmity’ and a further confirmation that his life was governed by fate. The Larsens were farmers with no one of note among their number, but his mother's family included some public figures. Nils had been named after his mother's great-uncle, Nils Hertzberg, who had been a member of the 1814 Norwegian parliament that wrote the constitution of Norway. Like his brothers, Nils prepared for a career at sea, studying at the navigation school and ‘grafting’ in shipyards at Arendal, where he thus acquired the skills that enabled him to earn his living as a carpenter and builder on land.
Nils's career as a ship's officer ended when he left his ship at Melbourne at the beginning of 1856 and went to the Victorian goldfields with a German shipmate, William Slee, who afterwards became Chief Inspector of Mines in New South Wales. Colin Roderick's research has uncovered the family tradition that Nils, having been supplanted in the affections of his sweetheart by his brother, had resolved to leave Norway and not return.7 That breach with his family would have helped to make the appeal of the goldfields all the greater. Desertion by seamen, attracted by the stories of fortunes to be made on the goldfields, was a common occurrence in Melbourne at this time. Corfitz Conqvist, a Swedish visitor who reached the colony in 1857, reported how entire crews and their captains sometimes deserted.8 The same observer, who estimated that there were 300 Norwegians on the Victorian goldfields, put the total Scandinavian population (Swedes, Danes and Norwegians) at over 2500, almost all of them male. Nils and his mate Slee both married wives of English descent, who had been born in the colonies.
During more than a decade on goldfields in Victoria and New South Wales Nils Larsen ‘found gold, and lost it speculating in puddling machines, crushing mills, and duffers', according to Henry in his autobiography. There is, however, no chronological narrative of his experience as a gold-seeker. Henry heard from his father stories of the diggings in ‘the Roaring Days’ before Henry was born, and may
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Tromøy Kirke [‘Henry Lawson: A Norwegian symposium', not dated. Provenance Harry F. Chaplin. Lawson Collection, Rare Books and Special Collections Library, University of Sydney].

Shipbuilding yards at Saltrød (opposite the island of Tromøy) c. 1900? [Photograph in author's possession]

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have known more of his father's life than the ‘Fragment of Autobiography’ indicates. In the muddle of papers he gave to Lothian are notes he jotted down for the autobiography: one of those referring to his father reads: ‘Desertion in Ballarat with mate from ship. Imprisonment and “dollar” incident'. This story — whatever it was — was something that he chose to leave out of his portrait of his father. Lawson's biographer Colin Roderick has researched the story of the Lawson family more fully than anyone else; but even he can throw no light on what actually happened to Nils Larsen between 1856, when he left his ship at Melbourne, and 1865, when (with Slee) he arrived at the New Pipeclay goldfield near Mudgee in New South Wales. It was here that the 33-year-old miner met the 18-year-old Louisa Albury. A few months after their marriage in July 1866, the couple joined Slee on the Grenfell goldfield, which is where Henry Lawson was born.
‘Home life was unspeakably wretched', wrote Lawson in his autobiography, referring to life on the selection which his parents took up at Eurunderee (New Pipeclay) after about a year of unprofitable gold-seeking, at Grenfell. The source of the wretchedness was not merely poverty but ‘a bad match which was ever too common in the Bush'.9 When Lawson began writing his rambling autobiography, which is the fullest account there is of his father, Nils Larsen had been dead for fifteen years, having died of a heart attack on New Year's Eve 1888. Five years earlier he and Louisa had let the selection at Eurunderee and had gone their separate ways. Louisa took the children to Sydney, where she found a degree of fulfilment she had not known as a selector's wife. From 1888 to 1905 she published Dawn (‘A Journal for the Household Edited Printed & Published by Women'), the first feminist journal in Australia. Nils worked as a builder at Mount Victoria,

Lawson's parents about the time of their marriage. Journal of Royal Australian Historical Society, vol. 18, part 6, 1932.

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joined from time to time by some of his children.
The death of Nils Larsen, sudden and unexpected, coincided with the appearance of Henry's story ‘His Father's Mate’ in the Christmas Number (22 December 1888) of the Bulletin — the first occasion on which a story of his had appeared in that journal. As the title indicates, this narrative has as its focus the father-son relationship. The mother is dead, ‘disgraced’ by the elder son who has been sent to gaol for ‘robbery under arms'; the father is a quiet man fossicking at Golden Gully (the Grenfell field on which the Larsens had prospected), with Isley, the younger son, who is eleven or twelve. Isley falls down the mineshaft and dies; six months later, a young man of about 30 is brought to the hut by Mason's friend ‘Tom the Devil’ (who, the text hints, is Mason's brother, who had been imprisoned for ‘manslaughter’ caused by ‘drink and jealousy'). The story ends with a characteristic Lawson moment: ‘Father! Do you want another mate?’ asks the elder son, the returned prodigal, but it is too late. Lawson later told his friend Le Gay Brereton that in the story he had exactly anticipated the manner of his father's death.10 That coincidence can only have added to the son's shock and grief.

III

In writing his autobiography, Lawson did not get beyond the death of his father, which he records unemotionally without comment on his own reaction. In her family narrative, however, his sister Gertrude writes: ‘Henry's grief was terrible to witness. Dry eyed he moaned, If I could only cry, Mother. If I could only cry.'11 Lawson's fictional treatment of the event — especially in ‘A Foreign Father’ — leaves no doubt about the depth of his grief or the significance that the event in his development as a writer. In that story, and in the earlier sketch, ‘Drought-Stricken', he links the death of his father with his desire to write.
Lawson was, of course, already starting to make his way as a writer before his father's death. As well as his story, ‘His Father's Mate', he had had published a number of poems, including two of his best known poems ‘Faces in the Street’ and ‘Andy's Gone With Cattle’ while his father was still alive. But the desire to write, as he presents it in both ‘A Foreign Father’ and the earlier ‘Drought-Stricken', was a desire to express a feeling about the lives of such humble people as his father:
And, as I turned away from his grave, I wished that I could write, or paint, or do something to help these people — my Bush people — for he was my father. (‘Drought-Stricken', 1900)
I went away and leaned on the cemetery fence, and watched the sun going down on the bush; and hated the bush, and the country, ‘my country!’ and the English that owned it — the squatters and bank shareholders who lived in luxury in the city — the hundreds who lived in idleness because of the wasted lives of toil of thousands of men like the man that lay yonder under the new mound of hard, lumpy clay that was already drying in the drought. And I wished that I could write. (‘A Foreign Father', 1902?)
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The lonely death is here associated with the young writer's expression of nationalist and democratic attitudes. The first time Lawson makes such a link is in the 1899 Bulletin article, ‘“Pursuing Literature” in Australia', where he writes:
I watched old fossickers and farmers reading Progress and Poverty earnestly and arguing over it Sunday afternoons. And I wished that I could write.12
In his autobiography he describes how, the night before he died, his father ‘had two or three young fellows up to see him who used to discuss Henry George's Progress and Poverty and other democratic subjects with him…'(p. 214). It is the most explicit association of his father with his own youthful social criticism.
Lawson's earliest specific references to his father present him as a representative pioneer. The most striking is in ‘The Romance of the Swag', written in 1901 in England. There he declares that he loves Australia above all others, ‘not because it was kind to me, but because I was born on Australian soil, and because of the foreign father who died at his work in the ranks of the Australian pioneers, and because of many things'. His father's status as a pioneer seems to be confirmed by the fact of his death.
At a distance Lawson could readily honour his father's memory, but in the crisis of his own life he brooded over his past relationship with his father — a ‘closed', lonely man, from whom he and his siblings had increasingly become separated. According to Gertrude, Nils was living alone when he died, having recently sent away both Henry and the youngest son Peter, saying that he wished to be alone. She is the source of the story that their father, a teetotaller, was deeply upset when Henry was brought home drunk on Christmas Eve 1888.13 If the story is true, the episode would have cast a shadow over the father's pride in his son's story (which Henry reports in the autobiography), and added to the son's grief.
What is unquestionably true is that there was a growing gulf between the father and the children, as both Henry and Gertrude state. ‘Not one of us really understood Father. If we had of known the real man we would have been kinder', writes Gertrude, summing up a feeling that the children shared: ‘Something always stood between him and his family'.14 Lawson's sense of regret and guilt — first expressed in a feeble poem ‘The Way I Treated Father: A Bush Song’ (1891) — is strongly present in the Joe Wilson story, ‘A Foreign Father'. It contains passages that are close to what he was to write in his autobiography, but in one respect more revealing than anything in the autobiography:
He died before I began to understand and appreciate him. He was a stranger and a foreigner to his own family — as are many of our foreign fathers in Australia. He had different notions, to us Australians, about family life. He had a different past to look back to, in a foreign country amongst strange people, that we could never realize. We spoke English, or, rather, Australian; he spoke broken English which was worse as he grew older. I remember one day mimicking his broken English amongst my chums. I wish I could forget that. The thought of it has hurt my heart many a time. He used to write long
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letters home in Norwegian, about once a year. May-be he thought in his own language, when he sat, as I have often seen him, smoking quietly by the fire — or walked to and fro, to and fro, with his hands behind his back, and after a hard day's work too. He used often, and after I was well on in my teens, come and tuck the blankets round me, if I coughed in the night, and say:
‘You must keep yourself warm sonny’.
The episode of the son mimicking his father may be invented, but it reads like a painful memory. Moreover, it helps to explain why the theme of the foreign fathers speaking broken English recurs in Lawson. In writing ‘A Song of Broken English', years later, was Lawson atoning for the long-distant childhood betrayal of his foreign father?
The most obvious mark of foreignness is one's speech. None of the reminiscences by those who knew Nils Larsen make any reference to his speech; and he could hardly have stood out among fellow-miners and the selectors at Eurunderee, who included other Scandinavians and Germans. Among the selector families at Eurunderee, Nils was more popular than his wife — she was ‘hated and feared', according to the schoolmaster's wife, Mrs Tierney (Tierney letter), who remembered ‘old Peter’ (as Nils was known) as ‘a man of some real accomplishments, quite a linguist, excellent company — when the mood was on him'.15 His linguistic accomplishments and his sociability are pointed to by both Gertrude and Henry. Gertrude's claim that he ‘spoke French and Russian fluently’ is less likely to be accurate than Henry's: ‘He was well educated in his own language, could understand and appreciate German poetry, knew French well enough to understand a Frenchman, was a good penman, and wrote good English'(p. 194). Henry records: ‘He was said to have been a very natty, or “dapper” little fellow in his single days, and the best dancer in the district. (He grew very different as I knew him.)’ (p. 194). His father is portrayed sympathetically in the autobiography as hard working, ‘obstinately independent', gentle and caring with the children. The portrait is in no way darkened by the memory that the boy's wish to be a writer ‘exasperated Father'. The bare acknowledgement that ‘Mother encouraged’ is followed by a mention of her reading aloud the poems of Edgar Allan Poe, which prompts the dismissive remark: ‘Not very healthy reading for a child, was it?’ (p. 190). In another place he seems to distance himself from her, with the remark: ‘The mother was ambitious. She used to scribble a lot of poetry and publish some in the local paper’ (p. 187). Louisa Lawson's role in publishing Henry's first book is well known, but he never acknowledged publicly during her lifetime how much he owed to her encouragement. She died only two years before he did, and through his adult life his relations with ‘The Chieftainess’ (as he called her) were uncomfortable at best and openly hostile at worst.
Lawson's memory of his father embraced both his tender care and his apartness. Towards the end, when Henry worked on contracts with Nils, ‘Poor Father had become closer and more “cantankerous” (p. 200); Mrs Tierney is said to have remembered him as ‘crochetty', and Gertrude represents a man who was silent
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but could quickly become enraged. There are gaps in the Lawson's account of his father — things passed over, left unexplained or left unsaid. What, for instance, were his ideas about ‘home life’ that the Australian-born mother and children resisted? How much did he tell his wife and children of his past? There is an extraordinary sense of remoteness in a remark Lawson makes (in the autobiography) about his father's intentions not long before his death: ‘I was told that he had an idea of going back to Norway before he died and taking at least his youngest son with him, leaving the rest provided for as well he could’ (p. 200). ‘I was told…’ By whom? When? The effect of reading such a remark is to make one aware of how little is on record about the complex dysfunctional family of which Henry Lawson was the most talented member.

C.M. Wilson, photographer. Henry Lawson at Bourke in 1892. Journal of Royal Australian Historical Society, vol. 45, part 3, 1959.

It was when he himself became a father in a marriage that seemed increasingly like that of his parents that Lawson began to write most directly about his own father. ‘A Child in the Dark', which draws on his memories of his own childhood and his recent experiences as a father, was begun in England as a novel; and ‘A Foreign Father’ may have been a part of the same work originally. In his autobiography he talks of his hope, ‘in another book, to go deeper into the lives of Bush people', and quotes a friend: ‘“Treated ruthlessly, Rousseaulike, without regard to your own or others’ feelings, what a notable book yours would be!“’ (p. 178). Fiction would have allowed him more freedom in treating the painful facts of his own life and that of his family than the autobiography (which was being written while his mother was alive). Although that book was never written, its focus on the immigrant father is stated clearly: ‘There were lonely foreign fathers, speaking broken English and strangers to their wives and families till the day of their death’ (p. 178).

IV

Norwegian Nils Larsen became ‘Peter Lawson’ in Australia and the head of a family that had no contact with his relatives or his culture. In a truly patriarchal household
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Henry Lawson might well have been Henrik Hertzberg Larsen and have learnt about his father's family and culture, and perhaps even have learnt some Norwegian. Instead, he grew up in a household dominated by a strong, if frustrated, native-born woman, who apparently had no interest in her foreign husband's background and no contact with his family. (There are some passages in his writing in which a faint Norwegian trace may perhaps be discerned.16) Nils was in the classic situation of the migrant for whom the act of migration means the complete severance of past ties. It has been said that ‘every migrant carries with him a mixture of anxiety, sadness, pain and nostalgia, on one side, and expectation and hopes, on the other'.17 The image of Nils Larsen that emerges from the recollections of Gertrude and Henry is of a man whose expectations had been defeated. One cannot say what he initially hoped for in going to the goldfields, except for the obvious dream of making a fortune. In that his hopes were not fulfilled; he had no greater success as a farmer; but on his own as a builder he prospered in a modest way.18 In his marriage he undoubtedly hoped for conjugal happiness and domestic comfort. The memories of his children, supported by comments from the neighbours at Eurunderee and also Bertha Lawson, indicate that he was more ‘domestic’ than Louisa.19 Perhaps his deepest disappointment was in his hopes of a home and family.
During Lawson's life-time — and, indeed, since then — there has been much discussion of what he ‘inherited’ from his parents, with commentators taking sides. Lawson lived at a period when the ideology of ‘race’ went almost unchallenged, and ‘national characteristics’ were frequently appealed to as explanations of individual behaviour. One of the most interesting contributions to what was mostly a rather futile debate is E.J. Brady's suggestion that Lawson's ‘greatly Norse’ temperament was responsible for his ‘too sombre’ view of the Australian bush and the people who lived there. Whether or not there is such a thing as ‘the Norse temperament', it is worth considering how Lawson's view of the world, and specifically of his surroundings, may have been influenced by the attitudes of his father.
For a nationalist, who strongly affirmed his love of Australia, Lawson is surprisingly alienated from the Australian landscape. Although he did not always go as far as he did in ‘Some Popular Mistakes’ (Bulletin, 1893) — ‘We wish to Heaven that Australian writers would leave off trying to make a paradise out of the Out Back Hell’ — it is the harshness of the Australian environment that he emphasizes. James Edmond, editor of the Bulletin from 1903 to 1914, overstates perhaps in saying that he ‘hated the country with a robust hatred';20 but in some of his finest stories, ‘The Drover's Wife', ‘The Union Buries Its Dead', ‘Hungerford', ‘On the Edge of a Plain', for instance, the land seems to deadening to the spirit, threatening the humanity of those who live on it. There is no sense of a bond between the land and the people who live there. Lawson writes in ‘The Drover's Wife’ of ‘that monotony which makes a man long to break away and travel as far as trains can go, and sail as far as ships can sail — and further’ — a comment which suggests the perspective of a traveller rather than that of the native-born to whom the place is ‘home’.
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How much did he absorb from his father, whose childhood, had been lived in a country of mountains — the country that the middle-aged Lawson dreamed about? During the ‘hell’ (his word) of his childhood he had seen his father struggling unsuccessfully on a poor selection. What did that experience contribute to his own sense of a land as unyielding? These are imponderables on which he never speculated. Nor does he talk about the stories that he may have heard from his father in early childhood? Nils's Norwegian past was shut out and remained a romantic blank, but the boy heard stories of his life on the goldfields — and he also heard stories from Louisa's father of ‘the days when the world was wide’ — which fed a nostalgia for a past that he had never known. His lament for the passing of the ‘roaring days’ (the time before he was born) was written the year after his father died.
It was not just the sense of a picturesque past that he picked up from his father. Harry Hodges is probably right when he associates [see p. 73] ‘his intense mateship’ with his father's influence on him. Lawson knew of the ‘rough crowds’ on the goldfields, but he identifies with the diggers (whom he praised in two callow verses on Eureka in 1889 and 1890). ‘My diggers are idealised, or drawn from a few better class diggers, as my Bushmen are sketched from better class Bushmen', he acknowledged in his autobiography (p. 187). The clearest example of this is an attractive sketch, ‘A Old Mate of Your Fathers', which celebrates the bond between the two ex-miners, who have now ‘settled down’.
The significance of mateship on the goldfields was well stated by a fellow-Scandinavian, a seaman of the same age as Lawson's father, who left his ship at Melbourne about eighteen months before Nils Larsen. Claus Gronn, a Dane, had various partners or ‘mates’ on the goldfields, and noted in his diary that ‘digging mates’ didn't necessarily become ‘friends'; but ‘mates of the right sort became as dear as brothers'. He had no illusions: ‘to learn to appreciate, respect, and yes, even love a mate, none of this could be proof against the overall starkness of the digger's lot'.21 For a single man like Nils, with no family support, the friendship of Slee — which endured the whole of their time on the diggings and after both had married — was central to his life in the colonies. There is no doubt that this friendship gave the young Lawson the idea for the sketch, which ends with a reflection that takes on a greater significance in the light of what is now known about the father-son relationship:
Those old mates of our father's are getting few and far between, and only happen along once in a way to keep the old man's memory fresh, as it were. We met one to-day, and had a yarn with him, and afterwards we got thinking, and somehow began to wonder whether those ancient friends of ours were, or were not, better and kinder to their mates than we of the rising generation are to our fathers; and the doubt is painfully on the wrong side.
What this suggests is that it was in his father's life that Lawson found the pattern of male bonding which is idealised and placed at the centre of his image of bush life.
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VI

The men who interest Lawson are not the strong, energetic, tough, optimistic nation-builders that ‘pioneers’ are traditionally imagined to be; they are characters like Joe Wilson whose ‘natural sentimental selfishness, good-nature, “softness” or weakness — call it which you like’ (Lawson's description of Joe Wilson) incorporated his insight into his own nature and that of his father. His miners and bushmen are predominantly isolated men, more often finding an answer to loneliness in male mateship than in marriage. Historically, Lawson's consistent celebration of mateship was embraced as part of the Australian self-image; and ‘mateship’ became a cliché of nationalist discourse, sitting comfortably alongside a commitment to White Australia.
However, while he shared the basic assumptions of his contemporaries about the superiority of the white race, and was ‘all for White Australia', there are interesting indications in his writing of the absence of racial feeling. His sympathies embraced both Aborigines and the Chinese. In 1899 he was writing of ‘my strong and enduring sympathy for those black countrymen o'mine’ (‘The Golden Nineties'); and in 1914, on a visit to Eurunderee, the stoicism of an Aborigine whom he had known in his childhood prompted the poem ‘Trouble Belongit Mine'. Lawson thought (as he reminded readers of his story ‘Ah Soon: a Chinese-Australian Story') that ‘one may dislike, or even hate, a nation without hating or disliking an individual of that nation'. Against the anti-Asian sentiment that appears in his work from time to time (‘…the tide of invasion goes west') is to be placed his warmth of feeling for the individual Chinese that he has known.
Despite his own cruel experience, Lawson wanted to believe that the world is full of human kindness — and wanted to see his father as its embodiment. In ‘Ah Soon’ (1912), when the Chinese man needs help, Lawson's father is on hand — ‘he generally was in times of sickness, trouble or danger'. That story, which shows the outwardly comic Chinese as full of ‘human kindness', begins ‘many years ago, when saints and sinners, Christian and heathen, European and Asiatic were fighting a long cruel drought'. The narrator draws the obvious moral: ‘If men couldn't be brothers, or at least charitable and kind and courteous to each other and forgetful of nationality and creed under such conditions — when could they?’
It grew harder to be ‘forgetful of nationality’ as the First World War approached. Lawson's war verses reveal a great deal of emotional confusion, but he never joined in the vociferous denunciation of ‘the Hun'. While he did produce some embarrassing martial effusions, there are at least two poems left unpublished at the time of his death in which he resists the denunciation of the foreign enemy. In ‘A Fantasy of Man’ the ‘Son of a Foreign Father’ represents the German's defence against the vilification of a whole way of life; and in ‘Sons of Foreign Fathers', he recognizes the dilemma posed by the war for Australians of German descent, telling those who, like him, had a foreign father and are ‘Silent in the crowd!', that ‘You have many reasons / To be brave and proud'. (An interesting detail in verse written during a period of anti-German hysteria, is his praise of von Mueller, who ‘Did his thankless duty / Like a
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knight of old'.) But that was as far as Lawson was able to go in resisting the war propaganda in the name of brotherhood.
Another unpublished poem, written some years earlier, amounts to a rejection of the unthinking chauvinistic ‘ocker’ nationalism with which he is now often associated. Instructing Australians on their duty to new arrivals in the country, he urges that, when the stranger is foreign ‘and his English very young', he should be taken ‘where he'll hear his native tongue'. The stranger is to be looked after because ‘He'll be the father of Australians, as our foreign fathers were’.
This sympathy, indeed, identification with the foreigner, the stranger, the migrant, is a distinctive characteristic of Lawson's nationalism, and sets him apart from the other writers of the nineties. ‘Australia is the land of strangers, as were the Western States of America,’ he writes in ‘The Stranger's Friend’ (one of the stories published separately by Lothian). He does not claim mateship as any sort of exclusively Australian virtue — or even Christian, for that matter; though he often gives it a distinctly Christian flavour. ‘One of the beauties of human nature is the fulfilment of its duty to the stranger', he writes in ‘The Stranger's Friend', which is a kind of bush version of the parable of the Good Samaritan. In the image of ‘The campfare for the stranger set, / The first place to the stranger’ (‘The Shearers'), which sums up the central ethic of his writing, one can see how fundamental to his notion of mateship is the acceptance of the foreign.
Lawson did not challenge the prejudices of his generation directly — indeed, he sometimes rehearsed them — but it is a misreading of his work to identify him with the exclusionist ideal of the Bulletin, as is usually done. The ideal of a tolerant and diverse society, which is now publicly embraced in Australia, is implicit in what he writes. The man who wrote ‘Australia! My country! her very name is music to me’ (‘The Romance of the Swag') never forgot that he was the son of a foreign father.
John Barnes
John Barnes is the editor of The Penguin Henry Lawson: Short Stories, published in 1986.
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1

Undated note on his poems ‘The Good Samaritan’ (1904) and ‘The Reformation of the Elder Son’ (1911) in Mitchell Library, A 1870, p. 235. Quoted by Colin Roderick, ed., Henry Lawson Collected Verse, Volume Two 1901-1909, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1968, p. 417.

2

Lawson to Sister A de V MacCallum, 7 January 1910 (no. 99). As early as 29 July 1901 Arthur Maquarie wrote from London to J.F. Archibald, editor of the Bulletin, denouncing the ‘rampant and criminal lies’ about Lawson (Roderick, Letters, p. 441.) Writing from London on 11 February 1902 Lawson told David Scott Mitchell: ‘These are lies a man cannot fight’.

3

Information from Jack Vincent to J.K. Moir. Box 23/6, Moir Collection, State Library of Victoria.

4

‘A Sordid Tale’ (1914) in Colin Roderick, ed., Henry Lawson: Collected Verse, Vol. III, 1910-1922, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1969, p. 353. Another unpublished poem, ‘A Riddle in Remorse’ is on the same theme.

5

Lawson to George Robertson, n.d., possibly 1911 (no. 143).

6

‘About Dreams', Lone Hand, December 1915; reprinted in Colin Roderick, ed., Henry Lawson Autobiographical and Other Writings 1887-1922, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1972, p. 244.

7

Colin Roderick, Henry Lawson: A Life, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1991, p. 4.

8

Cited in Olavi Koivukangas and John Stanley Martin, The Scandinavians in Australia, Melbourne, AE Press, 1986, p. 37. Koivukangas and Martin refer to desertion by sailors as ‘a time-honoured Scandinavian custom’ (p. 146).

9

‘A Fragment of Autobiography’ in Colin Roderick, Henry Lawson Autobiographical and Other Writings 1887-1922, p. 190. In later references to Lawson's autobiography page numbers are given in the text.

10

Footnote by J. Le Gay Brereton in Henry Lawson By His Mates, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1931, p. 82.

11

Gertrude O'Connor, ‘The Lawson Family', MSS 314/255, filed at A 1898, p. 2. [Mitchell Library].

12

Bulletin, 21 January 1899; collected in Colin Roderick, ed., Henry Lawson Autobiographical and Other Writings 1887-1922, p. 109.

13

Gertrude O'Connor, p. 79.

14

Ibid.

15

Quoted by her son, John Tierney (‘Brian James') in a letter to J. K. Moir, n.d. Box 23/2, Moir Collection, SLV.

16

In a private letter Colin Roderick told me that he thought that Greta Hort, sometime Principal of Women's College, Melbourne, and Professor of English at Aarhus University, was possibly right in detecting the influence of Anderson's fairy tales in some of the cadences of Lawson's prose; but he does not appear ever to have discussed this suggestion in print.

17

Leon and Rebecca Grinberg, Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Migration and Exile, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1987, p. 9.

18

Colin Roderick reports that Nils's estate was valued at £1036, a significant sum in 1889 (Henry Lawson: A Life, p. 29).

19

The harshest criticism (‘the children dirty, fed as best they could scramble themselves, ragged and uncared for in every way, and the place like a pigsty') comes from Bridget Donnelly (née Lambert), a childhood friend to whom Lawson is said to have proposed. Her reminiscences are quoted in Xavier Pons, Out of Eden, Sydney, Angus Robertson, 1984, p. 24.

20

J.E., ‘Henry Lawson and Bret Harte', Red Page, Bulletin, 7 November 1928.

21

Gold! Gold! Diary of Claus Gronn: A Dane on the Diggings, ed. Cora McDougall, Melbourne, Hill of Content, 1981, p. 121.