State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 70 Spring 2002

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Henry Lawson and E.J. Brady at the camp at Mallacoota, March 1910. Frontispiece to Henry Lawson by His Mates, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1931.

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Notes on Lawson's Books
by E.J. Brady

Popular Verses [Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1924]

The Truth about Henry Lawson

To tell the entire truth about any writer is the work of biographers at least two generations later than his own period.
Since Lawson's death in 1922 I have been cynically interested in what critics and admirers have written and said about him.
During his lifetime I was interested in Lawson. Some contemporaries have said that I understood him better than anybody else. Anyhow I was close enough to him to estimate his character, and understand his outlook.
Like most men of genius, poets at least, he was what the world calls, simple, simplicity being a term for normality in such cases.
Henry Lawson was entirely sane! Even a German alienist would have had to admit that he presented few complexes. He was not like Baudelaire for instance. He had weaknesses, no vice. His weaknesses were the result of local pressures. He drank beer, a very little of which popular beverage was sufficient to produce the desired anaesthesia with him. In a village the least display of intoxication is a matter for gossip; in a metropolis there is less publicity — Australia has the village mind.
In beer Lawson found a relief from his pressures: it enabled him to endure the life he was forced to live. I am no advocate for beer, but without some such relief Lawson would have found existence impossible in this country. His tribute to beer as I have said in the book Lawson by His Mates was that it saved his life.
He was not erotic. His literary approaches to the Sex Question are in the emotional mid-Victorian manner. The story of the ‘Bad Girl’ is based on the fact that a young prostitute once intrigued him, because she gave him good advice! In recounting the situation to me he said that what most attracted him was the girl's reiterated pronouncement — ‘Mr Larsen you must take a tumble to yourself!’ Coming from that source Henry accepted it as genuine appreciation — the bad girl's interest was more to him than the approval of a university professor. In this he was philosophically sound, he displayed the Walt Whitman vision for reality.
To the suburban mind of his period Lawson was a vulgar rebel, who expressed dangerous revolutionary ideas, a person to be vilified and held up as a bad example. Which accounts for the little encouragement he received at the hands of conventional critics and the social taboo which has followed him even to the extent of bowdlerising some of his lines in publication, a posthumous outrage on a man who insisted on his verses being printed exactly as he wrote them. In closing this book of Popular Verses, one can only express the hope that Lawson's popularity will
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never die.

While the Billy Boils [Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1896]

Here you have it — the Australia that Lawson saw, the real people of the Bush, and some, less real, of the city slums. LAWSON of 1896! — his most valuable experiences up to date are recorded in this volume.
At one time I used to think that Henry would be remembered more by his prose than his verse. Now I seem to think that his verse is more enduring than his prose.
When I said the ‘real people of the Bush’ I meant — on reflection — the people as Lawson saw them. I have lived much longer in the bush than Lawson, and I begin to fear that he invested some of his characters with his own qualities, which they did not possess, as far as my observation goes. Lawson's touch with humanity was no doubt more intimate than mine.
He was less interested in Australian nature than in Australians. I am interested in nature more than in the people who contact most closely with it. He found discord in nature and harmony in mankind — my complex is the reverse. Hence, I may be prejudiced against Lawson's bush sentimentalists — they are not Gippslanders certainly. They are somewhat melodramatic, boyish, unsophisticated. Still they are a nearer approach to bushman characters than one finds is those Australian novelists who are endeavouring to reap what the 1890 school sowed on different soil.
Since, we remember there has been an alleged call for the great Australian novel. Why? Fictional literature is the most impermanent part of a nation's expression, unless it is based on highly important, humanely important, ideology.
Lawson's serious prose is reflective rather than representative. His humour is of a different quality. At all times — except when he deals with revolutionary subjects in verse — his art is elementary. None the less precious for that. These matters we discussed together at Mallacoota in 1910. He aimed, so he asserted, at simple expression. He had a remarkably keen eye for personal peculiarity. He evolved his own methods of conveying his impressions. He did not write as easily as people thought, at times the task became a penance, at other times he was compelled to be careless by his pressing need for shillings — an urge which “has militated against higher production in Australia.
The truth about Lawson is that he was the life-long victim of sordid circumstances. With greater leisure and better payment for his output he would have gone further. Outsiders have said that he liked the life of the hard-up and the drinker, which is a damned lie. He enjoyed it no more than a skylark enjoys a cage. Such critics confuse effect with cause — Lawson's ‘carelessness’ was an effect — the result of enforced defeatism, the result of local causes.
If Henry Lawson's ghost ever returned to Sydney Domain it would grin sardonically at the bronze statue standing there. The £1,700 and all the eloquence expended on that shocking failure of Lambert's would have enabled him to live and work, carefree, for ten years!
The truth about Lawson and about our writers in general, if told in detail, would
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be a further justification for the Japanese contention that the people who claim the possession of this continent have proved themselves unworthy of the asset.
The truth about Henry Lawson is that he begged for money on the streets of Sydney and was put in gaol! He was released from gaol in 1910 and allowed to come to Mallacoota to me. Remember this happened fourteen years after In the Days When the World was Wide, While the Billy Boils, and other books of his had been successfully published, when his was already a household name!
To hell with the canting humbugs who discovered him only when he was safely dead! To hell with the parochial conventions that make life a curse! To hell with the social system that locks a genius, a poet, between four walls and lets a thousand commercial rascals free to enjoy the profit and applause of their legalised robbery!
High art or low art or no art at all, Lawson's prose stuff through and through shows his sympathy with the folk who belong to the broad strata of humanity. In that alone — if that were all, which it is not — Lawson is great.

Winnowed Verse [Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1924]

The most interesting part of this collection to me is finding ‘Mallacoota Bar’ and ‘When Your Pants Begin to Go’ printed in sequence. The first was written about 1911, the second in 1894 or thereabouts.
He brought the MSS of the latter to me to read.
We stood together by Mallacoota Bar seventeen years later, where he got some local impressions.
‘One Hundred-and-three’ may be his greatest poetic height. It appeared after he was released from gaol — the first time. The blood of his unmerited, insane and vicious punishments in prison is on the heads of those responsible. There is no excuse and no palliation for that, and never will be.
The shame lies on them who permitted the outrage, on the nation at large perhaps. Certainly not on the friends who rescued him from the penitentiary, or on the authorities who in 1910 consented to his release to Mallacoota.
‘One Hundred-and-three’ is as good as ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ any day — if not better. But a terrible price to pay for such a poignant poem, for such an exposure of the punitive system which drives modern penologists to despair.
That Lawson should have been imprisoned is in keeping with the traditions of a convict settlement, which could not find any more intelligent treatment of its most popular writer — after it had become a nation. Of course Australian ‘society’ owed him some such recognition for his ‘Army of the Rear’ and ‘Faces in the Street’.

Joe Wilson [Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1904]

‘Water Them Geraniums’ is his longest story. It expresses a phase of Australian settlement as it appealed to Lawson. But it cannot be accepted as typical of bush life. Lawson had the bad luck to gain his early impressions under exceptionally drab circumstances. He admitted in 1910 that the Gippsland bush was altogether different;
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but he had gone too far and suffered too much for the gentler side of Australian nature to re-impress him. Looking back one can see how futile were any efforts to give this man a fleeting glance of Australia Felix and expect him to forget his vision of an Australia that he ‘knew in its severest aspects’.
His portraiture of the Dry Back Bush and its people of the early days is exact enough, in outline, but the colours are very sombre, too sombre at times to suit my personal idiosyncrasy.
The one must allow for temperament, Henry Larsen — as he sometimes liked to call himself — was greatly Norse. His mother, Louisa Lawson repeatedly assured me that his claims to gypsy blood on the maternal side were a fiction of her son's imagination. Either that or he had invented it to annoy her.

Joe Wilson's Mates [Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1904]

‘The Golden Graveyard’ and ‘The Loaded Dog’ gave Lawson opportunity to release the humour that was in him. ‘The Loaded Dog’ is one of the best short stories ever written — (funny stories).
We have to remember that the action takes place between the lighting of the fuse and the explosion of the charge. Lawson makes the most of it and we are so carried away by the story that a time element does not enter our minds — a tribute to Henry's literary work.
One wishes sometimes that he had written more straight-out humorous stories of the bush.
The incident which supplied the motif of ‘The Loaded Dog’ (like many of Mark Twain's Western American yarns) was an unwritten yarn in the bush for years before Lawson heard it.
But no bushman could ever tell the story of the dynamite stick and the retriever as Lawson re-constructed it.
© Edna J. Brady
—ooooo—
Edwin J. Brady (1869-1952), poet and journalist, was a contributor to the Sydney Bulletin which published his first book of poems, The Ways of Many Waters in 1899. (As Cecily Close notes, the volume was republished by Lothian in 1909.) Brady and Lawson were friends from their first meeting in 1891, as he describes in ‘Mallacoota Days and Other Things’ in Henry Lawson by His Mates (Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1931). In early 1910, Lawson's friends in Sydney persuaded him to stay with Brady at Mallacoota, on the Gippsland coast, for some weeks. The typescript printed above with minor corrections is in the J.K. Moir Collection (Box 23/5) of the State Library of Victoria. It is dated 1938 and is inscribed by Moir, ‘Notes on Henry Lawson by E.J. Brady / Originally written in Books by Lawson / J. K. Moir'. The books in which the notes were written are not in the Moir Collection, and may have been Brady's own copies.