LAWSON, Henry (1867-1922)

LAWSON, Henry (1867-1922)
short story writer and poet
was born in a tent near Grenfell, New South Wales, on 17 June 1867. His birth is officially registered as Henry Lawson, but his name has sometimes been given as Henry Herzberg Lawson, sometimes as Henry Archibald Lawson. In his books it appears simply as Henry, and his usual practice was to sign his name in that form. His father, Peter Hertzberg Larsen, was a Norwegian sailor, a well-informed and educated man, who had much appreciation of the poetry of the Old Testament, but had no faculty for writing. As it was known that Lawson's father's second name was Hertzberg it has been suggested that Archibald may have been a mistake for Hertzberg made at Henry's christening, but there appears to be no evidence that he was ever baptized. His father, having tried his fortunes on various goldfields, came to Pipeclay, now Eurunderee, New South Wales, and there met Louisa Albury (1848-1920), daughter of Henry Albury, a timber-getter. He married her on 7 July 1866, being then 32 years of age and his wife 18. She was to become a remarkable woman, who, after rearing a family, took a prominent part in the women's movements, and edited a women's paper called Dawn which lasted from May 1888 to July 1905. She published her son's first volume, and about the year 1904 brought out a volume of her own, Dert and Do, a simple story of about 18,000 words. In 1905 she collected and published her own verses, The Lonely Crossing and other Poems, the work in which is of more than average quality. She died on 12 August 1920, a woman of unusual character and ability, who probably exercised a strong influence on her son's literary work in its earliest days. Lawson believed that through his mother he inherited gypsy blood, but there is no evidence for this.
Peter Larsen was working at the diggings near Grenfell when Henry their first child was born, and apparently the family took the name of Lawson when Henry's birth was registered. The family soon returned to Eurunderee where the father took up a selection. The land was poor and little could be done with it, and as Henry grew up, like so many other bush children, he helped in the work; but, as he said in his autobiography, he "had no heart in it; perhaps I realized by instinct that the case was hopeless". Probably the strain of the hard life was partly responsible for his parents' married life becoming unhappy, but in the interview with Mrs Lawson, recorded on the Red Page of the Bulletin on 24 October 1896, she showed herself as a masterful woman with a strong prejudice against men in general, and one feels when reading it that even as a young woman she would probably have been difficult to live with. This is confirmed by private information from a relative of Mrs Lawson still alive at the time of writing. But the unhappiness of the family life re-acted on the child, and in his autobiography at the Mitchell library, Lawson said his home life "was miserably unhappy", and though he goes on to say, "there was no one to blame". the sketch in Triangles of Life, "A Child in the Dark and a Foreign Father", was in all probability founded on his own experience.
In 1876 a little school was opened at Eurunderee and on 2 October 1876 Lawson became a pupil. It was about this time that he began to be deaf, but his master John Tierney was kind and appears to have done his best for the shy sensitive boy. Later on he went to a Roman Catholic school at Mudgee about five miles away. Here again the master, a Mr Kevan, was good to Lawson and would sometimes talk to him about poetry. The boy was steadily reading Dickens and Marryat and such novels as Robbery under Arms and For the Term of his Natural Life, when they appeared as serials. An aunt gave him a volume of stories by Bret Harte which fascinated him and introduced him to a new world. These books no doubt helped to educate him for writing, for handicapped by his deafness he could learn little at school, he was no good at arithmetic, and never learned to spell.
When Henry was about 14 he left school and began working with his father who had got the contract to build a school at Canadian Lead. His childhood was now at an end. He had lived in poor country, where the selectors slaved for a wretched living, and his experiences were to colour the whole of his subsequent literary work. Some time after this his parents agreed to separate, the exact time is uncertain, but in 1884 Mrs Lawson and her family were living in Sydney. The house, however, seems to have been taken in the father's name as he appears in the Sydney Directory for both 1885 and 1886 as Peter Lawson, builder, 138 Phillip Street. Henry worked as a painter and at 17 years of age was earning thirty shillings a week. Though his hours were long he also worked at a night school, and twice entered for public examinations at the university of Sydney without success. He paid for his night-schooling himself, and when about 20 years old went to Melbourne and attended the eye and ear hospital there. But nothing could be done for him and he returned to Sydney. There he worked as a painter at the low wages of the time, saw something of the slums and how the poor lived, and "wished that he could write". He was working as a coach-painter's improver at five shillings a day when in June 1887 the Bulletin printed four lines of a poem he had submitted and advised him to "try again". In October his "Song of the Republic" was published in the Bulletin, and in the Christmas number two poems "Golden Gully" and "The Wreck of the Derry Castle" appeared. Lawson has told us with what excitement he opened this Bulletin and found his poems. Prefixed to the second was an editorial note:—"In publishing the subjoined verses we take pleasure in stating that the writer is a boy of 17 years, a young Australian, who has as yet had an imperfect education and is earning his living under some difficulties as a housepainter, a youth whose poetic genius here speaks eloquently for itself." Lawson was then 20 years of age, not 17, but the editor showed remarkable prescience in recognizing the poet's ability so early. Lawson's first story, "His Father's Mate", was published in the Bulletin for 22 December 1888 greatly to the pride of his father, who, however, died a few days later aged 54. Lawson in his autobiography said of him: "I don't believe that a kinder man in trouble, or a gentler nurse in sickness ever breathed. I've known him to work hard all day and then sit up all night by a neighbour's sick child." Though Lawson may have inherited his capacity for writing from his mother, he probably owed the love of humanity that illumines all his work to his father.
Lawson went to Albany, Western Australia, in 1889, but found conditions no better there, and was in Sydney again for most of 1890. He then obtained a position on the Brisbane Boomerang at £2 a week, but the paper stopped about six months later, and Lawson was back in Sydney again working at his trade for the usual low wages, writing a good deal for the socialistic press, as a rule without pay, and getting an occasional guinea from the Bulletin and smaller sums from Truth. In 1892 he did some writing for the Sydney Worker at twelve and sixpence a column, and about the end of that year went by train to western New South Wales and carried his swag for six months doing odd jobs. Much of his experience of this period was afterwards included in his writings. Towards the end of 1893 Lawson landed in Wellington, New Zealand, with one pound in his pocket, worked in a sawmill for a short period, and tried his hand at a variety of tasks. He then found his way to Sydney again hoping to get work on the Daily Worker, which, however, had stopped publication before he arrived. In 1894 his Short Stories in Prose and Verse was published by his mother, a poorly-printed little volume of 96 pages, which was favourably received but brought in little money. He had made a life-long friend in J. Le Gay Brereton (q.v.), who had been introduced to him by Mary Gilmore, and other friends of his early literary days were Victor Daley (q.v.), E. J. Brady, and F. J. Broomfield. In April 1896, while In the Days When the World was Wide was in the press, he married Bertha Marie Louise Bredt, and soon afterwards took her to Western Australia. In August While the Billy Boils, a collection of his short stories mostly from the Bulletin, was published, and when Lawson returned to Sydney from Western Australia shortly afterwards, he found that both of his books had been cordially received by the critics and were selling well. He next went to New Zealand, where he and his wife were for a time in charge of a Maori school. There he met Bland Holt (q.v.) the well-known actor, who suggested that he should write a play. The play was written though Lawson had no knowledge of the technique of play-writing. Holt gave him an advance against it, and took it away hoping he might knock it into shape, but nothing more was heard of it. In January 1899 an article by Lawson appeared in the Bulletin which stated that in 12 years he estimated that he had made a total of about £700 by his writings. This included the receipts from his first three books. He had returned to Sydney and made a new friend in the governor of New South Wales, Earl Beauchamp, who gave him the financial help that enabled him to go to England with his wife and two young children. They sailed from Sydney on 20 April 1900. In the same year his Verses Popular and Humorous, and a collection of prose stories On the Track and Over the Sliprails, were both published at Sydney.
Though it was not easy for either Lawson or his wife to fit themselves into the conventional pattern of the England of 1900, for a time everything went well. Blackwood and Sons took two books of prose for publication, The Country I Came From and Joe Wilson and his Mates, both of which appeared in 1901. Methuen and Company also took a book made up of prose and verse, Children of the Bush, which was published in 1902. Lawson stuck closely to his work at first, but for some time drink had been a temptation to him, and he began to have trouble with it again. His wife had a serious illness, both found the long winter months very trying, and both pined for the sunshine of Australia. They were glad to return to a little cottage at Manly before the end of 1902. But difficulties arose between husband and wife and they agreed to part. An account of their association, written by Mrs Lawson without rancour and with understanding of Lawson's temperament, will be found in Henry Lawson by his Mates.
At 35 years of age most of Lawson's best work was done. When I was King and other Verses was published in 1905, The Rising of the Court and other Sketches in Prose and Verse, and The Skyline Riders and other Verses in 1910, Triangles of Life and Other Stories, and For Australia and other Poems in 1913. My Army, O, My Army! was published in 1915, and reissued in England under the title of Song of the Dardanelles and other Verses in 1916. Various minor works, reprints, selections, and collected editions will be found listed in Miller's Australian Literature and Serle's Bibliography of Australasian Poetry and Verse. Lawson lived mostly in Sydney, but had a happy holiday in 1910 with his friend, T. D. Mutch, at the home of another friend, E. J. Brady, at Mallacoota, Victoria, and in 1917 Bertram Stevens (q.v.) and other friends arranged a deputation to the premier, W. A. Holman (q.v.), which resulted in Lawson being given a position at Leeton on the Yanco irrigation settlement. Lawson described it as the driest place he had ever been to, but his health improved very much while he was there. On his return to Sydney he reverted to his old habits, and became a rather pathetic though lovable figure in the streets of Sydney. He was only a shadow of his former self when he died on 2 September 1922. He was survived by his wife, a son and a daughter. He had a small allowance from his publishers and a small literary pension. That he did not lack friends may be gathered from the volume Henry Lawson by his Mates published nine years after his death. He was given a state funeral. A portrait by Longstaff (q.v.) is at the national gallery, Sydney, and there is a monument by Lambert (q.v.) in Hyde Park, Sydney, erected by public subscription.
Lawson was tall, spare, good looking in his youth, with remarkable eyes. He was shy, diffident and very sensitive, with great powers of attracting friends to him. A convinced socialist as a young man, he was always passionately concerned about the under dog. There has been much discussion about his place as a poet, and opinions have ranged between those of people who consider him to be no more than a mere verse-writer, and those who speak of him as "Australia's greatest poet". The truth lies between these extremes. No one can surely deny the title of poet to the author of "The Sliprails and the Spur", "Past Carin'", passages in "The Star of Australasia", "The Drover's Sweetheart" and that pathetic little poem of his later days "Scots of the Riverina". But a large proportion of his poetry is merely good popular verse. However, every writer is justified in being judged by his best work, and in virtue of his best work Lawson is a poet. There is no difficulty about his position as a prose-writer. His short stories are practically all based on his own experience, and that a proportion of them are gloomy should give no surprise to anyone familiar with the struggling lives of the men on the land in Lawson's youth. He had had little education, and no doubt his earliest efforts were sub-edited to some extent by Archibald and others. But fundamentally he was an artist, and his absolute sincerity and sympathy with his fellows counted for much. He had a quiet sense of humour, his pathos came straight from the heart, his gift of narration is unfailing. The combination of these qualities has given him the foremost place in Australian literature as a writer of short stories.
"Henry Lawson's Early Days", The Lone Hand, March 1908; The Bulletin, 21 January 1899, Geo. G. Reeve, Windsor and Richmond Gazette, 4 December 1931; Peter J. Lawson, ibid, 5 October 1928; Ed. by G. Mackaness, introduction to A Selection from the Prose Works of Henry Lawson, 1930; Henry Lawson, by his Mates; J. Le Gay Brereton, Knocking Round; E. Morris Miller, Australian Literature; H. M. Green, An Outline of Australian Literature; T. S. Browning, Henry Lawson Memories; D. McKee Wright, preface, Selected Poems of Henry Lawson; A. G. Stephens, Art in Australia, third series, No. 2; F. J. Broomfield, Henry Lawson and His Critics; Bertha Lawson, My Henry Lawson; private information.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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