Marxist Interventions(1)

"Walls of Cant and Walls of Custom"(1)

Henry Lawson and the "Australian Legend"

By SANDRA BLOODWORTH [email protected]

Marx and Engels wrote of the production of ideas, conceptions and consciousness:

"It is a matter ... not of setting out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh; but of setting out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life process demonstrating the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process." (2)

Russel Ward has argued of the 1880s and 90s (referred to as the "nineties" hereafter), that, "The bush ethos was romanticised, popularised and spread throughout society at this time by the new nationalist writers of the Bulletin school like Henry Lawson, A.B. Paterson and Joseph Furphy." (3)

Graeme Davison has argued that Ward’s apotheosis "...was not the transmission to the city of values nurtured on the bush frontier, so much as the projection onto the outback of values revered by an alienated urban intelligentsia." (4)

I stand with Marx and Davison. Australian society of the nineties shared many features with any developing economy. On the one hand there was expansion, but the depression of the early 1890s brought home that Australia could not be a utopia cut off from the rest of the capitalist world. The sheer size of the pastoral industry ensured that its impact on material life and therefore the ideas of the time would be considerable. (5) Shearers endured painful "swollen wrist", disease and long hours, to say nothing of tramping from station to station for work. As they aged, inability to keep up the pace loomed. Recurring crises were a regular reminder that "a fair day’s pay" was not a fixed an immutable feature of work under capitalism. There was not the sharp distinction drawn in some literature and exaggerated decades later between Bush and City. Workers often followed work from one to the other. (6)

Manufacturing grew only slowly in the cities. Nevertheless expansion of machinery led to tensions over de-skilling and sometimes the entry of women into new areas of employment. (7) Men continued to follow itinerant and casual, unreliable work, disrupting family life. If they did not travel willingly, charity or government organisations ordered them away to the country as the condition for assistance for the family’s dependents. During the depression, benevolent institutions were besieged by desperate women. (8)

Shirley Fitzgerald details the enormous disparities between wealthy and working class suburbs in Sydney. Life in Woollahra or parts of the North Shore "could compare favourably with the best in the world". But in West Sydney or Alexandria, life was "mean and cramped", with generous amounts of filth, disease and economic uncertainty." (9) In "Marvelous Melbourne" life was not very different. (10)

These were some of the widely differing conditions of social life in the nineties. They intersected with ideas brought from the old world of Europe and interpreted according to perceptions of life in the new to create the art and literature with which we are concerned. I am not convinced that they are as dominated by a Bush identity as supposed by both Palmer and Ward and their opponents. (11) Therefore I want to look at how the Legend was established and secondly why and by whom.

For an exercise of this length it is not possible to look at the whole of the literature from the nineties in detail. Instead, I have looked at Henry Lawson, with particular emphasis on his verse, to test how well his work fits the Legend to which he is said to be a contributor. (12) There does seem to be an emphasis on Bush life in his prose. There is the laconic humour which has become associated with the Legend, but I found little promotion of the "masculinism" so much part of the Bush ethos. "The Union Buries its Dead", claimed for the Legend emphasises the itinerant, rootless nature of Bush life as something to regret. (13) The Grinder Bros (city) stories immediately bring to mind the style and content of Dickens: grinding poverty and injustice, child labor, women carrying an intolerable burden because of it all.

I compiled a list of over fifty verses from his collected works up to 1900 which do not fit with the usual description of Lawson as a Bush poet. (14) This list illustrates how easy it would be to portray Lawson in a completely different light. I was rather startled by the challenge to my view of Lawson formed by reading selected works.

By looking at Ward’s treatment of Lawson, we can begin to build a picture of how the Legend was constructed. Firstly he does not include even one town ballad by Lawson in his collection of Australian ballads. (15) I am not a literary critic, but I do not accept that at least some of those on my list could not pass for ballads. In order to include as wide a selection of Lawson’s bush ballads as possible, Ward uses the category of "literary bush ballads". There are no "literary ballads" of the city. Douglas Stewart says that ballads of the streets and larrikins were excluded from his collection, indicating they exist. (16) So it is possible Ward has not only distorted the history of Lawson, but of Australian ballads more generally. This point would take a very detailed study to substantiate completely. It does not imply Ward is deliberately dishonest. From early this century, bush ballads were seen as most representative of an Australian ethos, so it is likely many town ballads have been lost for want of interest. Once the myth began to take hold, it affected the very research historians undertook.

Just as important as quantitative assessment is an analysis of the content of Lawson’s verse. Ward claims that "the principal theme" of Lawson, along with Furphy and Paterson, is the contrast between the independence and freedom of the bushman’s life with the "drabness and meanness of life in cities". He also asserts that: "During the last century...Australia (was, as a new country), seeking unconsciously in part, for national self-consciousness and cohesion." (17)

This ignores political divisions and class conflict. Many intellectuals did strive for "national identity". This is a feature of capitalist ideology and self-image of intellectuals since at least the early eighteenth century. (18) It is common for nationalistic intellectuals to endow "the nation" with seemingly human characteristics. "Australia" does not seek anything, human beings, operating in various social groups and classes, do. In the late 1880s and 1890s they did so in often very polarised and bitter circumstances. (19) If those opinion-makers are to find a mass audience, they must present the ideas of "nation" in a way that connects with the experience of a broad layer of the population. It is this reality -- class divisions in Australia combined with the ideas of nationalism from Britain and Europe - not some mystical national ethos of the Bush -- which is reflected in Lawson’s verse. He clearly sees society divided by class and politics:

"Long the rich have been protected
By the walls that can’t endure;
By the walls that they erected
To divide them from the poor." (20)

The background to his earliest poem, "A Song of the Republic", is an indicator of the process of nationalism taking root. Mass meetings held in June 1887 to discuss Her Majesty’s Jubilee ended in "uproar, confusion, faction-fighting and ruffianism". The line-up of respectable "Toffs" on the Royalist side - from the Naval Brigade to the Loyal Orange Institution - helped entrench the conception that Australian nationalism and anti-colonialism were closely related to socialism and working class politics. It did not imply a united, classless society. (21) In "Faces in the Street" Lawson explicitly takes on the lie that Australia is the land of plenty and classless bliss:

"They lie, the men who tell us for reasons of their own
That want is here a stranger, and that misery’s unknown;
For in its heart are growing thick the filthy dens and slums,
Where human forms shall rot away in sties for swine unmeet,
I wonder would the apathy of wealthy men endure
Were all their windows level with the faces of the Poor?"

Even in the supposedly blissful Bush, where all males live in mateship, Lawson takes delight in exposing the class divisions, often by humour and irony. In the "Ballad of Mabel Clare", the heroine is downcast and ashamed on her wedding night:

"I am a democratic girl,
And cannot wed a swell!"
"O Love!" he cried, "but you forget
That you are most unjust;
‘Twas not my fault that I was set
Within the upper crust..."

All ends well because he is a rouseabout in disguise (having blown his cheque on swell "togs"), and he is satisfied she married him for love, "and not because I’m poor". But all the bush poems are not so jovial. Women are left lonely and anxious, drudging their life away while men roam for work or go droving. There are absentee landlords and banks which control people’s lives. Many of the swells are from Britain, building on the idea of nationalism as the creed of the oppressed. But it is clear enough that class divides us here in Australia both in the city and in the Bush.

Ward argues: "For long a homespun folk-hero, the bushman became from 1881 the presiding deity of formal Australian literature." He tells us in 1892 Lawson wrote in "The Southern Scout" about the "romantic notion that the bushman of the interior was the guardian of the ‘truly Australian’ values" "in its most exaggerated form". (24) But Poverty and Greed are not just in the slums, but also "far out beneath the gums". And the poem is a rallying cry for rebellion, a threat to all those who represent Humbug and Greed:

"When Freedom’s marching orders reach the Natives of the Land --
Of the land we’re living in,
The Natives of the Land;
They’ll sing a rebel chorus yet and play it on a band,
For the spirit of the country moves the Natives of the Land."

References to the rebel band coming from the "western plains" do not illustrate some generalised myth of the Bushman. In the context of the bitter shearer’s strike in Queensland, the reference clearly reflects a widely held feeling that the shearers were in the forefront of class struggle.

Ward simply dismisses poets who do not romanticise the Bush. He says in an introduction to Barcroft Boake’s "Where the Dead Men Lie": "...for him bush life is almost uniformly grim, bitter and tragic - which it was not, as the later balladists knew, though Lawson was often in danger of forgetting it."

This myth-making prevents historians recognising that the Bush ethos is of their imagination, rather than in the literature and social life of the nineties. It also ignores the class hostility which pervades much of it:

"Moneygrub, as he sips his claret,
Looks with complacent eye
Down at his watch-chain, eighteen carat
There, in his club, hard by;
Recks not that every link is stamped with
Names of men whose limbs are cramped with
Too long lying in grave-mould, cramped with
Death where the dead men lie."

Ward’s comments miss the point, telling us more about his agenda than Barcroft Boake’s [poetry]. Lastly on this, historians, literary critics, legend makers all, argue that Lawson, along with others, looks to the Bush as an escape from the horrors of the city. But poem after poem calls for rebellion both in the city and the Bush. And they are optimistic about the possibility of success. "The Australian Marseillaise" is not just a lament about poverty and oppression:

"Tyrants, grip your weapons firmer,
Grip them firmly by the helves;
For the poor begin to murmur
Loudly now among themselves.
We shall rise to prove us human,
Worthy of a human life."

It is when "Mammon Castle crashes" -- not if, that there will be "right and reason". (27) There’s the famous threat in "Freedom on the Wallaby" that blood may stain the wattle. In "The Triumph of the People", it is "the lifted hand of Labour" which will end oppression. (28) There’s "May Day in Europe" and "The Old Rebel Flag in the Rear -- a May Day Song". And "Faces in the Street", held up as the epitome of Lawson’s rejection of city life is not a call to emulate the Bushman. His call to God to show him a solution is answered:

"And lo! With shops all shuttered I beheld a city’s street,
And in the warning distance heard the tramp of many feet,
But not until a city feels Red Revolution’s feet
Shall its sad people miss awhile the terrors of the street."

Lawson is only one of the writers included in the Bush poets. Nevertheless, this study shows he fits the mold uneasily. A similar study may find others do not. Certainly Edward Dyson’s stories of "Fact’ry ‘ands" are more reminiscent of Dickens than the Australian Bush Legend. (30) Writers such as Lawon and Dyson, Victor Daley and Bernard O’Dowd did reflect much of life as it was experienced: poverty, hard work, often itinerant and away from their families for men in both the City and the Bush, loneliness and drudge for women rearing children in either slums or lonely rural stations. On the other hand, Greed, Moneygrubs, Banks, wowsers who wanted to deny workers the carnavalesque they snatched in their few hours of leisure. (31)

Lawson does not simply chronicle the bitter class struggles, which according to Brian Fitzpatrick, involved every colony and every key industry between 1890 and 1894. (32) He champions them as the way to build a new society. The defeats meant it was many years before the working class was able to mount such a militant challenge again. This led to pessimism about the possibilities of change not just in Australia but also in Europe, where there were similar experiences. As the nineties progress, Lawson is increasingly cynical. Class and the resulting ebbs and flows of struggle are what are reflected in Lawson, not a counterposing of Bush life and the City.

That said, romanticisation of the Bush was a strong current in sections of the art and literature of the nineties. A.B. Paterson does fit more closely Ward’s ideal Bush poet. In as far as he and others promoted these ideas, I find Davison’s argument persuasive. But nevertheless, Paterson’s "Waltzing Matilda" reflects the national experience of class strife at the time. (33) And it is evident that the Bush theme found popularity, capturing the imagination of urban dwellers on a large scale. Some of the reasons are not so different from those which influenced the intellectuals who produced it. Rural workers, especially in the pastoral industry, were not insignificant. (34) There were often two hundred or more men at one shed. Unlike the small manufacturing plants in the cities, they actually created an experience of collective strength. (35)

Many workers in the cities could identify with those workers, as their own work intersected, transporting wool to the cities and through the ports. Their strikes such as the 1891 Maritime Strike, could involve not just solidarity, but over-lapping issues. This intersected with the tradition which linked radicalism with land reform, creating an alliance of liberal middle class reformers and trade unionists. With the qualifications above, this leads us back to Davison:

"... Sydney’s radical intellectuals’... ideological preoccupations - secularism, republicanism, land reform and anti- Chinese feeling - (closely) match the ‘anti-clericalism’, ‘nationalism’, bush sentiment and ‘race prejudice’ which Ward has identified as the defining features of the ‘Australian’ ethos." (36)

However, this restricts the explanation to Australian conditions. The idealisation of rural values and conditions of life by the urban intelligentsia is not specific to Australia, a fact which undermines both Vance palmer and Ward’s promotion of this ethos as the embodiment of a peculiarly Australian spirit of the nineties. The Narodniks in Russia, unlike the Australian purveyors of this romanticism, actually tried to live amongst the peasants. (37) The Green movement which rose to prominence in the 1980s shares some of these features, romanticising rural living and the so-called "wilderness". And faith in the peasantry of the Third World sustained many revolutionary students in the West for decades after World War II and led to romanticisation of peasant life. (38) In the nineties, Australian writers and artists were influenced by a European intelligentsia very much enamoured of rural life:

"The veneration of the bushman...may be seen with some justification as a minor offshoot of a more pervasive European movement. Peasant subjects had assumed a profound moral significance for European painters of rural life in the 1880s. With the encroachment of modern industrial developments into more and more aspects of daily life, the peasant was increasingly viewed ‘as a symbol of man’s lost affinity with nature’. (39)

In fact, the idealisation of the Bush by artists and writers means that when they attempt what they consider a "realist" representation of life, they do so as in a "camera obscura". For instance, Leigh Astbury points out that Tom Roberts’s "Shearing the Rams" is just such a representation. The painting has more to do with the striving by the Impressionists both in Europe and in Australia to universalise "man’s" relationship to nature. Roberts’s painting is regarded as nationalist because it denotes the democratic traditions by the absence of "exertion, sweat and grime". And the station owner "surveys the scene with a placid sense of enjoyment". There is no hint of the bitter class antagonisms of the time. (40) In as far as such representations depict Bush life and ideals, they distort quite significantly, rather than reflect directly, social life of the time. But only up to a point: the owner is not working - he lives from the labor of those he placidly surveys.

So far I have argued that art and literature are as much a reflection of the influences and ideas which motivated the intellectuals who produced them, as reflections of real life. Graeme Davison and Leigh Astbury have shown they were influenced by European thought, trends and conventions. Also the interpretation of them has often been re-worked by later historians and critics such as Vance Palmer and Russel Ward.

While there are the images of Bush life which make up the Legend, there is another strong myth of the time which has almost been forgotten by the Legend makers. That is the myth of "Marvellous Melbourne", that Australia was a "working man’s paradise". (41) At least some of the Impressionists were just as interested in city life and if anything, promoted this view of their society. From Charles Conder’s "How We Lost Poor Flossie", his "Departure of the s.s. Orient - Circular Quay" to W.T. Smedley’s "Spring Street" or "Saturday Night in George Street", Tom Roberts’s "Coming South", his "Going Home", or Arthur Streeton’s "Circular Quay" and "The Railway Station", to the paintings of beaches by members of the Heidelberg School, there is a whole genre of painting which does not fit with the idea that the intellectuals were dismayed by the cities. Rather, in these, we see romanticism similar to that of the Bush. Life in the city is represented as well-dressed, middle class, leisurely. Not for these artists are there the slums, the noxious smells, the cramped living of working class suburbs described by Shirley Fitzgerald, who argues conditions in Sydney were no better than in London, contrary to myth then and now. (42)

I can’t help feeling, with John Docker, that: "...the writers of the cosmopolitan and Francophile Bulletin (would be surprised) to find that commentators in the second half of the twentieth century...would be claiming that the Nineties was obsessed with the bush." (43)

Much of this Legend has been invented, created or inferred, whichever you like, by later historians, romantics and so-called radicals. Davison notes that the material from the Bulletin collected and published at the turn of the century by A.G. Stephens omits most of the city influenced works. (44) C.E.W. Bean, Nettie and Vance Palmer built on it followed by Russel Ward. His Australian Legend reflects the "popular front" politics of class collaboration and Third Worldism of the Communist Party in the 1950s.

By accepting the myth as a reflection of reality, historians see the Bulletin as not only homogeneous, but also hegemonic. (45) Louisa Lawson’s Dawn, the suffrage campaigns, to say nothing of the steady numbers of women entering new industries, had their impact. The fact that the Bulletin found it necessary to lampoon the "new woman" and her practical dress makes her if not as prominent, then as interesting a character from the nineties as the Bushman. The social experience of feminist agitation was reflected in literature from Rosa Praed, Tasma and Ada Cambridge’s romance to Barbara Baynton’s Gothic. (46) Women’s participation not just in middle-class movements, but as working class fighters, (47) is reflected in Lawson. In "The Australian Marseillaise", women are the ones who will lead the fight for a new and better world. And their oppression is dealt with sympathetically both in prose and verse. (48)

The influence of nationalist ideas, socialism (in many varied and often confused forms), trade unionism, utopianism, ideas for and against woman’s suffrage and equal rights serve to emphasise the varied nature of the social and national life and the art and literature it spawned. It also highlights not so much a peculiarly Australian view of the world, but the connections with the rest of the capitalist world.

1. Henry Lawson, "The Australian Marseillaise" in Colon Roderick, (ed) Henry Lawson Collected Verse, Vol I, 1883-1900, Angus & Robertson, 1967, p. 87.
2. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, "The German Ideology" in Marx and Engels, On Literature and Art, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, p. 43.
3. Russel War, "The Australian Legend Re-Visisted, Australian Historical Studies, no 71, October 1978, p. 183.
4. Graeme Davison, "Sydney and the Bush: An Urban Context for the Australian Legend," in Australian Historical Studies, no 71, October 1978, p. 208.
5. Brian Fitzpatrick, The British Empire in Australia 1834-1939, MacMillan Australia, 1969: Wool exports were 55 per cent of Australia’s total in 1891, only to decline to 30 per cent by 1901. The crisis which this fall reflects contributed to the bitter class war in both Bush and City. Pp. 134, 242, 194-198.
6. John Merritt, The Making of the AWU, Oxford University Press, Melbourne 1986, p. 43, 59-68.
7. Fitzpatrick, op. cit.
8. Bruce Scates, "Knocking Out a Living: "Survival Strategies and Popular Protest in the 1890s Depression", in Susan Magarey, Sue Rowley and Susan Sheridan (eds), Debutante National: Feminism Contests the 1890s, Allen & Unwin, 1993, p. 38-39.
9. Shirley Fitzgerald, Rising Damp: Sydney 1970-90, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1987, p. 41.
10. Graeme Davison, The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1979, p. 41-71.
11. Though their view is the received one.
12. Marilyn Lake, "The Politics of Respectability: Identifying the Masculinist Context", in Historical Studies, vol 22, no 86, April 1986, p. 121.
13. Henry Lawson, "The Union Buries its Dead", in Colin Roderick (ed) Henry Lawson, The Master Story Teller, Angus & Robertson, 1984, p. 81-84. Union burials for men separated from their families were common. In Broken Hill there are numerous such graves in the graveyard. And in Koroit, Western Victoria, one such bears the inscription, "The Union Buries Its Dead".
14. Colin Roderick, op cit.
15. Russel Ward (ed), The Penguin Book of Australian Ballads, Penguin, 1964.
16. Douglas Steward and Nancy Keesing (eds), Australian Bush Ballads, Angus Robertson, 1955. To clarify this point further, one would need to examine at least the sources in their bibliography. I have not been able to see them.
17. Russel Ward, The Australian Legend, p. 252-3.
18. Chris Harman, "The Return of the National Question", International Socialism, No 56, London, Autumn 1992.
19. Raymond Brooks, "The Melbourne Tailoresses’ Strike 1882-83: An Assessment", Labour History, no 44, May 1982; Brian Fitzpatrick, op cit, cahpter VI; Raymond Markey, The Making of the Labor Party in New South Wales 1880-1900, New South Wales University Press; R.J. Sullivan, "The Maritime Strike, 1890" in D.J. Murphy (ed) The Big Strikes: Queensland 1889-1965, University of Queensland Press, 1983.
20. From "The Australian Marseillaise" or "A Song for the Sydney Poor" in Henry Lawson Collected Verse, p. 87.
21.Manning Clark, In Search of Henry Lawson, MacMillan, Sydney, 1978, p. 26-27.
22. Henry Lawson Collected Verse, p. 15.
23. From "Ballad of Mabel Clare" in Walter Stone (ed), Poems of Henry Lawson, p. 130-133. This is not in the collected verse to 1900, so in spite of increasing cynicism (see below), he could still capture upper-class snobbery with biting irony.
24. Russell Ward, The Australian Legend, p. 227.
25. Henry Lawson Collected Verse, p. 224.
26. Barcroft Boake, Where the Dead Men Lie", in Russel Ward, The Penguin Book of Australian Ballads, p. 111-113.
27. Henry Lawson Collected Verse, p 87-88.
28. Henry Lawson Collected Verse, p. 129-130.
29. Henry Lawson Collected Verse, p. 15-17.
30. Edward Dyson, Fact’ry ‘ands, Geo Robertson & co Pty Ltd, Melbourne, 1906. These stories were published previously in the Bulletin.
31. Compare Chris McConville, "Rough Women, Respectable Men and Social Reform: A Response to Lake’s ‘Masculinism’", Australian Historical Studies, Vol 22, no 88, April 1987 with Henry Lawson, "Here’s Luck!", Henry Lawson Collected Verse, p. 257.
32. Fitzpatrick, op. cit., p. 219.
33. Jim Brown and Michel Dickinson (dirs) Banjo’s Australia: The Poems of A.B. Paterson, video 1988. The cover tells us the verse is matched by filmof "genuine outback characters".34. Fitzpatrick, op. cit., p. 197 gives a figure of 30.7 per cent of the workforce.35. John Merritt, The Making of the AWU, p. 38-43.
36. Graeme Davison, "Sydney and the Bush", op. cit., p. 200.37. Vera Broido, Apostles into Terrorists: Women and the Revolutionary Movement in the Russia of Alexander II, Maurice Temple Smith, London, 1977. This book tells the story of the early radical groups in Russia who, before the influence of Marx and uprisings by the urban working class, romanticised the peasantry.38. The Greens also shared another feature of such ideologies, myth-making, call it what you will, which does not need to be pursued here. That is disappointment by a layer of intellectuals that an upsurge of struggle did not produce the "utopia" they hoped for. In the case of the Narodniks, and later the Third Worldists, the very tentative nature of industrialisation in those counties led them to look to the peasantry rather than the small working class. What all these movements share is a looking back to a romanticised past, based on rural living when they can see the horrors of capitalism, but no way forward.
39. Leigh Astbury, City Bushmen: The Heidelberg School and the Rural Mythology, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1985, p. 8.
40. Ibid, p. 110-113.
41. Shirley Fitzgerald, op. cit, p. 197-198.
42. This is based on the works listed in the notes plus a visit to the National Gallery of Victoria. The list is not exhaustive.
43. John Docker, The Nervous Nineties: Australian Cultural Life in the 1890s, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1991, p. 241.
44. Graeme Davision, "Sydney and the Bush", p. 209.
45. I think most of the essays in Debutante Nation, beginning with Marilyn Lake’s "The Politics of Respectability" Identifying the Masculinist Context", make this mistake.
46. John Docker, The Nervous Nineties, p. 235.
47. Bruce Scates, "Knocking out a Living", p. 46-48. Chris McConville, op cit, reveals the problems when myth and reality are conflated, as Lake does.
48. Michael Wilding, The Radical Tradition: Lawson, Furphy, Stead, Foundation for Australian Literary Studies, James Cook University, 1993.�

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