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Henry Lawson

Poet, Author and Balladist

Along with his contemporary Banjo Paterson, Lawson is among the best-known Australian poets and fiction writers of the colonial period and is often called Australia's "greatest short story writer". He was the son of the poet, publisher and feminist Louisa Lawson.


Henry Lawson was born on the 17th of June 1867 in a town on the Grenfell goldfields of New South Wales. His father was Niels Hertzberg Larsen, a Norwegian-born miner from Tromøya near Arendal. Niels Larsen went to sea at 21 and arrived in Melbourne in 1855 to join the gold rush, along with partner William Henry John Slee. Lawson's parents met at the goldfields of Pipeclay (now Eurunderee New South Wales), Niels and Louisa Albury (1848–1920) married on 7 July 1866; he was 32 and she, 18. On Henry's birth, the family surname was Anglicised and Niels became Peter Lawson.


The newly married couple were to have an unhappy marriage. Louisa, after family-raising, took a significant part in women's movements, and edited a women's paper called The Dawn (published May 1888 to July 1905). She also published her son's first volume, and around 1904 brought out a volume of her own, Dert and Do, a simple story of 18,000 words.

Full Name

Born

Died

Henry Archibald Hertzberg Lawson

17 June 1867

Grenfell Goldfields, New South Wales

2 September 1922

Sydney, New South Wales

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In 1905 she collected and published her own verses, The Lonely Crossing and other Poems. Louisa likely had a strong influence on her son's literary work in its earliest days. Peter Lawson's grave (with headstone) is in the little private cemetery at Hartley Vale, New South Wales, a few minutes' walk behind what was Collitt's Inn.

Lawson attended school at Eurunderee from 2 October 1876 but suffered an ear infection at around this time. It left him with partial deafness and by the age of fourteen he had lost his hearing entirely. However, his master John Tierney was kind and did all he could for Lawson, who was quite shy. Lawson later attended a Catholic school at Mudgee, New South Wales around 8 km away; the master there, Mr Kevan, would teach Lawson about poetry. Lawson was a keen reader of Dickens and Marryat and novels such as Robbery under Arms and For the Term of his Natural Life; an aunt had also given him a volume by Bret Harte. Reading became a major source of his education because, due to his deafness, he had trouble learning in the classroom.

In 1883, after working on building jobs with his father in the Blue Mountains, Lawson joined his mother in Sydney at her request. Louisa was then living with Henry's sister and brother. At this time, Lawson was working during the day and studying at night for his matriculation in the hopes of receiving a university education. However, he failed his exams. At around 20 years of age Lawson went to the eye and ear hospital in Melbourne but nothing could be done for his deafness.

In 1896, Lawson married Bertha Bredt Jr., daughter of Bertha Bredt, the prominent socialist. The marriage was ill-advised[vague] due to Lawson's alcohol addiction. They had two children, son Jim (Joseph) and daughter Bertha. However, the marriage ended very unhappily.

Henry Lawson's first published poem was 'A Song of the Republic' which appeared in The Bulletin, 1 October 1887; his mother's republican friends were an influence. This was followed by 'The Wreck of the Derry Castle' and then 'Golden Gully.' Prefixed to the former poem 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 20 years old, not 17.

In 1890-1891 Lawson worked in Albany. He then received an offer to write for the Brisbane Boomerang in 1891, but he lasted only around 7–8 months as the Boomerang was soon in trouble. He returned to Sydney and continued to write for the Bulletin which, in 1892, paid for an inland trip where he experienced the harsh realities of drought-affected New South Wales. He also worked as a roustabout in the woolshed at Toorale Station. This resulted in his contributions to the Bulletin Debate and became a source for many of his stories in subsequent years. Elder writes of the trek Lawson took between Hungerford and Bourke as "the most important trek in Australian literary history" and says that "it confirmed all his prejudices about the Australian bush. Lawson had no romantic illusions about a 'rural idyll'. "As Elder continues, his grim view of the outback was far removed from "the romantic idyll of brave horsemen and beautiful scenery depicted in the poetry of Banjo Paterson".

Lawson's most successful prose collection is While the Billy Boils, published in 1896. In it he "continued his assault on Paterson and the romantics, and in the process, virtually reinvented Australian realism". Elder writes that "he used short, sharp sentences, with language as raw as Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver. With sparse adjectives and honed-to-the-bone description, Lawson created a style and defined Australians: dryly laconic, passionately egalitarian and deeply humane." Most of his work focuses on the Australian bush, such as the desolate "Past Carin'", and is considered by some to be among the first accurate descriptions of Australian life as it was at the time. "The Drover's Wife" with its "heart-breaking depiction of bleakness and loneliness" is regarded as one of his finest short stories. It is regularly studied in schools and has often been adapted for film and theatre.

Lawson was a firm believer in the merits of the sketch story, commonly known simply as 'the sketch,' claiming that "the sketch story is best of all." Lawson's Jack Mitchell story, On The Edge Of A Plain, is often cited as one of the most accomplished examples of the sketch.

Like the majority of Australians, Lawson lived in a city, but had had plenty of experience in outback life, in fact, many of his stories reflected his experiences in real life. In Sydney in 1898 he was a prominent member of the Dawn and Dusk Club, a bohemian club of writer friends who met for drinks and conversation.


Popular poems, short stories and sketches

"A Child in the Dark, and a Foreign Father" (short story, 1902), "A Neglected History" (essay), "Andy's Gone with Cattle" (poem), "Australian Loyalty" (essay, 1887), "Freedom on the Wallaby" (poem, 1891), "Saint Peter" (poem, 1893), "Scots of the Riverina" (poem, 1917), "Steelman's Pupil" (short story), "The Babies of Walloon (poem, 1891), "The Bush Undertaker" (short story, 1892), "The City Bushman" (poem, 1892), "The Drover's Wife" (short story, 1892), "The Geological Spieler" (short story, 1896), "The Iron-Bark Chip" (short story, 1900), "The Loaded Dog" (short story, 1901), "The Teams" (poem, 1896), "The Union Buries Its Dead" (short story, 1893), "Triangles of Life, and other stories" (short stories, 1916), "United Division" (essay, 1888), "Up The Country" (poem, 1892)