Title: The Reluctant Bushman

Author: Bill Pearson

In: Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays

Publication details: Heinemann Educational Books, 1974, Auckland

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Paul Millar

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

Keywords: Literature

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Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays

The Reluctant Bushman

page 151

The Reluctant Bushman

This essay was first published in the New Zealand Listener, 1 October 1965, as a review of The Stories of Henry Lawson (3 vols.), ed. Cecil Mann (Angus & Robertson).

The only Australian writer to have a State funeral and a statue in the Domain, Henry Lawson has never been fully collected between hard covers. Lawson criticism has been haunted by biographical issues. His venerators, insisting on the Noble Bushman or the tireless champion of the working man, have been embarrassed by his later less heroic years or by his violent insularities. If his biggest readership outside Australia is probably in Russia, there must be uneasiness at his racism and his yellow-peril jingoism. His mates in defence insisted on 'the real Henry', a gentle sensitive man with brown searching eyes.

One can't ignore the biography because it contributes so much to his subject-matter. And it is necessary to sift him because at his best he is in the line of the great English comic humanists.

The clue to Lawson's contradictions is his loneliness: it gives passion to his recognition in others of his own humanity. It was a loneliness extending to desolation. Deaf, neglected as a baby, pushing a plough at ten, victimised by his workmates as a youth, the young man who tramped, often hungry and workless, for six months in the Darling Country, felt the loneliness and desolateness of the great outback in which every nomadic labourer needed a mate (and the Union) to survive. His most revealing personal discovery was that booze was a way to communication with his fellow-men.

Cecil Mann begins this new selection with Lawson's 'Fragment of an Autobiography'—for the first time (except for a few sentences) published in full. A deprived childhood recollected in self-pity, it is as Mann says satisfying, because (whether his account is true or not) the pity extends to the mother who hurt him, to the narrow community that thought him peculiar, even to his persecutors at his first job in the city. His strength page 152 originates in his weakness: from self-pity to understanding and love.

The strip of New South Wales running north-west from Sydney to Hungerford in Queensland is almost the whole of Lawson's Australia; it can be read as a hostile world in which individuals are beaten unless they have the defences of personal courage or sad delusions or the protection of a mate.

Lawson's attitude to his fellow men is ambiguous. The Union buries its dead, but the funeral is a farce and most of the mourners never get out of the pub. He could see the bushman as narrow and selfish, the city worker as brutish and corrupted by sport, yet he could write of the splendid type of bushman he had known out West, and on a letter from a shearers' union secretary seeking permission to use his lines on a tombstone for a shearer killed in the '91 strike, he wrote that this made him 'prouder than anything'. He knew he idealised his bushmen and in one place, cancelled and stetted, he said so.

His idealised bushmen are apostles of mateship; the cult is sentimentalised in yarns of men who fight if their mate's name is traduced, who each carry in their swag a personal grief their mates never inquire about. The code is at odds with domesticity, and two men owe it to their boss to lie to his widow about his death in the d.t.'s. It is hard to admire the martyrdom of the 'hero' whose secret is five years' hard for attempted bank robbery, willingly suffered rather than sully the name of the bank manager's niece he had been visiting by night.

At the other extreme there is the bitterness of 'A Rough Shed' and 'The Little World Left Behind'; it is less offensive than the sentimentality or the agonies of 'The Selector's Daughter', with death and suicide. Lawson occasionally uses a death to shame the reader into bowing his head. One suspects that the crucial incident in the Sydney stories of Arvie Aspinall, the death of the overworked exploitee of industry, is a sort of retrospective revenge on the mother who sent Lawson to the carriage-works where he was persecuted.

But in genial mood Lawson is pleasant, if undemanding, company. The wry ambling humour of 'Coming Across' and 'The Darling River' fully employs his intelligence and observation. There are the yarns of practical jokers, of jackeroos and city coach-passengers taken down by simple bushmen, the confidence tricks of the New Zealander Steelman. There are the generous human sketches of Baldy Thompson the squatter, Peter McKenzie the digger and the wild Irishman of the West Coast, of Brummy Usen who couldn't convince anyone he was alive because the bush telegraph said he was dead; there is the genially ironic sketch of Mr Smellingscheck; the yarn of the retriever with a mouthful of explosive and burning fuse that sent the diggers scattering; of Jimmy Grimshaw's cool winning of the desirable widow who owned a shanty.

In the best of the stories there is harmony between human nobility and human smallness. Character, setting, irony and pathos are admirable page 153 in 'The Bush Undertaker'. In 'The Drover's Wife' he celebrates the toughness of one of those 'leathery women with complexions like dried apples' but there is a metaphysical context as well. The dog shakes the snake 'as though he felt the original curse in common with mankind'; 'the sickly daylight breaks over the bush.' There is pity and admiration for suffering and strength in 'Water them Geraniums' and 'No Place for a Woman'.

There is little development in Lawson. There is a calm dignity and honesty in the Joe Wilson stories but they are ultimately disappointing. Mann imputes the intermittent stiffness of style to Lawson's writing for a British publisher; the reason might rather be that Lawson was breaking new ground, trying to examine his own faltering marriage and imaginatively set it right again. But the self-analysis and self-knowledge demanded were beyond him.

Lawson was twice in New Zealand. Each time he intended to settle, but was back in Sydney in less than a year. 'This intensely cautious country' he called it and, 24 years later, 'Toadyland'. His 1897 visit was productive, but of the romantically conceived Maori sketches, there remains only the embittered 'Daughter of Maoriland'. Poor Sarah, helping herself to the groceries of the teacher who is kind to her catches the full outcry of the affronted paternalist. Steelman carried off bigger loot with no more than a wink from the writer, but his victims were mugs and Steelman was white. The indulgent tone limits the kindly sketches of Black Joe and Ah Soon, humanity tussles with prejudice, but if Lawson protests in 'Madame Bong Fong' that he cannot hate the Chinese, one recalls 'His Mistake', a joke about an Aboriginal who killed a Chinese shepherd mistaking him for some new pest.

This edition contains the 137 stories of the Prose Works reprinted frequently since 1935; besides the Autobiography what is new is 500 pages of a selection of prose (artificially grouped into 'books') taken from periodicals from 1893 to 1923, but most of it from Lawson's latter days. The criterion has been 'fair-average-quality Lawson'; but the later prose is less assured. The vision is retrospective while Australia goes to the dogs; he tries to catch his earlier effects, and his attempts to write of England don't succeed. There are several essays by and about Lawson, including those of A. G. Stephens and H. M. Green.

Cecil Mann knows his Lawson, but his notes are long-winded, repetitive, contradictory and concern themselves with superannuated issues. There has only been random collation of the text with the manuscripts, typescripts and corrected clippings in the Mitchell Library: but one error, Aliaura for Ahaura on the West Coast (which has been appearing since 1894) seems to be Lawson's own; if he knew of the error he did not correct it. Lawson usually took pains to get his Maori names right.

This is probably the fullest collection we shall ever have. Besides the outstanding stories, what one remembers is a rich impression of a period page 154 and place; a scattered society of shearers and rouseabouts, drovers and bullockies and swagmen, shanty-keepers, struggling selectors and diggers, spielers and hatters and tough uncomplaining women. Lawson's subject is loneliness, the consolation and comedy of comradeship, the beauty of courage in the face of suffering. In the best stories the 'real Henry'—a gentle, kindly realist—is attractively present.