Henry Lawson Society - further thoughts

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Stephen Whiteside
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Henry Lawson Society - further thoughts

Post by Stephen Whiteside » Sat Feb 04, 2012 5:00 pm

With a view to further preparing myself for my talk tomorrow, I re-read 'The Drover's Wife' this afternoon.

I was, of course, reminded of all the things that we all love about Lawson. The unflinching honesty. The economy of style. The concern and compassion for the underdog and the anonymous.

Indeed, this is a story about a woman - a poor, isolated woman - and her children in a time when men wore the trousers - both literally and figuratively. In fact, there is a scene when the woman dons her husband's trousers to fight a fire, and causes almost more pain and confusion to one and all than the fire itself. When she later picked up the baby he screamed, thinking he was in the hands of a 'black man'. The dog backed the baby ahead of the mother, much to its subsequent embarrassment.

Speaking of the 'black man', to what extent was Lawson a victim of his times, and to what extent did he rise above the prejudices of the day? I am told (and I do recall from my own earlier reading, though I can't recall any examples) that Lawson was no fan of the Chinaman. To that extent, he mirrored the bias of his times.

What about the 'black man', then? He cracks a few mentions in 'The Drover's Wife'. Other than the one already mentioned, there is 'Black Mary', the "'whitest' gin in all the land" (presumably this is meant figuratively, not literally) who assists with childbirth. We're not told just how much success she has, but surely she scores points for offering her services, and (presumably) not expecting any payment for them. Lawson doesn't really give her any, though.

Later we hear of the 'stray blackfellow' who builds her a hollow wood heap while her attention is diverted. Not a very flattering portrait, that one. My impression is that Lawson is fairly neutral in his attitude to Aborigines, and does not have a great deal to say about them one way or another.

The other interesting phrase comes early in the story, when he refers to 'stunted, rotten native apple-trees'. I wonder what these trees actually were, and why they were 'rotten'. Were they, indeed, rotten at all, or was the fruit just over-ripe? It strikes me that he was seeing the landscape very much through English - or at least British - eyes, not that we can blame him for that. After all, he was very much a product of British culture, even though he was born in Australia.

And what about the snake? We are told that it was 'black', but not necessarily that it was a red-bellied black snake. Was the snake really as great a threat as he makes out? My understanding is that snakes are generally more frightened of us than we are of them, with the exception of tiger snakes, or snakes defending their young. There is no indication that either is the case here. So is Lawson once again reflecting a British bias in his lack of understanding of the native fauna and flora? Or am I reflecting an urban bias in my lack of understanding of the danger of snakes?

Finally, I want to turn briefly to the question of 'race relations'. I have in the past, in my own mind if nowhere else, compared Lawson to Mark Twain. Mark Twain, through the invention of 'Huckleberry Finn', seriously challenged the status quo with regards to black/white relations in the US. To this day, it is still regarded as the 'Great American Novel'. The beauty of Huck's character was not simply that he aided and abetted the runaway slave, Jim, but that he felt tormented about it. He was sure he would go to Hell for his actions, but could not deny his instincts to help his fellow man.

Lawson created no such parallel character. (Lawson also failed to develop himself into a novelist, but that's another story.) Then again, I am reminded that it is a common mistake to compare the plight of the American Negro with the Australian Aborigine. The Negro was native to Africa, not the US, and was brought there as a slave. Whatever appalling treatment the Aborigines received, at least we were spared the spectacle of 'slave auctions', where mothers stood by helplessly as their children were sold off to the highest bidder, never to be seen again.

A closer analogy to the Australian Aborigine is the American Indian, who is, of course, native to the US. (It's the colour of the skin that seems to cause all the confusion.) And what did Mark Twain have to say about the American Indian? All I can remember is Injun Joe, who was an unreconstructed villain in 'Tom Sawyer'. So perhaps the comparison is not so fair after all.

At the end of the day, we remember Lawson because of his concern and compassion for the downtrodden, the battler - woman as much as man, which was probably in itself fairly unusual for its time. We also remember him for his unsentimental portrayal of some of the harsher aspects of early Australia.

Reading some of the final lines of 'The Drover's Wife': "The dirty-legged boy stands for a moment in his shirt, watching the fire. Presently he looks up at her (his mother), sees the tears in his eyes, and, throwing his arms round her neck, exclaims:

"Mother, I won't never go drovin'; blast me if I do!"

it suddenly occurred to me that this was the young Henry talking to his own mother.

To me, the judge of great literature is how it makes me feel. I always find that, while I am reading the masters, and for a short time afterwards, I feel as though I am a better person - more compassionate, more imaginative, able to get a better perspective on life, to see a bigger picture. In my book, Lawson passes this test in spades.
Stephen Whiteside, Australian Poet and Writer
http://www.stephenwhiteside.com.au

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Glenny Palmer
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Re: Henry Lawson Society - further thoughts

Post by Glenny Palmer » Sat Feb 04, 2012 5:59 pm

Thoughtfully prepared Stephen. Is this the actual talk you will be giving?...and where are you speaking tomorrow?

(You possibly could be challenged re the slavery issue via the Kanakas in Nth Qld....I know they aren't ideally indigenous to Australia, but some undoubtedly would be born to Kanaka/Aboriginal? I really don't know for sure, but just thought I'd mention this.)

The best of luck with it.

Glenny
The purpose of my life is to serve as a warning to others.

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Stephen Whiteside
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Re: Henry Lawson Society - further thoughts

Post by Stephen Whiteside » Sat Feb 04, 2012 6:42 pm

Fair enough, Glenny. I'd be happy to concede the point. I don't think it really affects the broad thrust of what I'm saying.

I've been asked to address the annual meeting of the Henry Lawson Memorial & Literary Society in Footscray Park in Melbourne tomorrow afternoon. I also spoke last year, and they've asked me back, so I must have done something right. Barry Dickens will also be speaking. I'm hoping Hugh McDonald will be there also. He was last year.

This is the second post I've made about this. I won't be speaking from notes - well maybe a few - but I find writing my ideas out helps me to organise and crystallise them. The feedback is also useful. I don't think it's likely that many people will be both reading these posts and attending the meeting, so I'm not particularly worried on that front.
Stephen Whiteside, Australian Poet and Writer
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Glenny Palmer
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Re: Henry Lawson Society - further thoughts

Post by Glenny Palmer » Sat Feb 04, 2012 7:38 pm

I expect that's quite an honour to be extended to you Stephen. Well done. I wasn't meaning to sound 'picky'; I just thought that depending on the subject/venue that someone may have raised this. I mentioned it because I thought your post was seeking feedback.

I would love to attend one of your presentations one day....time & distance being co-operative. (I still reckon the poets should all chip in & buy our own liitle Principality...an island or something...so we can be within coo-ee of each other's presentations....and contribute to our own exclusive nursing home. What a riot that would be.)

Anyway...all the very best tomorrow, & do let us know how it all went.

Cheeers
Glenny
The purpose of my life is to serve as a warning to others.

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Stephen Whiteside
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Re: Henry Lawson Society - further thoughts

Post by Stephen Whiteside » Sat Feb 04, 2012 7:55 pm

Yes, I'm grateful for your comments. I hope I didn't say anything to suggest otherwise. I certainly didn't mean to. Thanks for your good wishes.
Stephen Whiteside, Australian Poet and Writer
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Re: Henry Lawson Society - further thoughts

Post by Stephen Whiteside » Sun Feb 05, 2012 8:48 pm

Went well this afternoon, though the weather made it a bit of a challenge. We normally meet in a rotunda in the park, but with a hot northerly blowing on a very humid day it was decided to retreat to the shade of the nearby pond. However, I was just getting in to my stride when the rain came. We beat a retreat to the rotunda, and it truly bucketed down for about twenty minutes or so. I eventually managed to complete what I wanted to say, and a number of others spoke as well, but by the time we were all finished it had become quite cold, and it was mostly a matter of packing up folding chairs, food, etc., and heading for the cars. I tried to be a bit controversial, but everybody was rather distracted, I think - either that, or they just agreed with everything I said! Anyway, it was a great afternoon in spite of all the difficulties.
Stephen Whiteside, Australian Poet and Writer
http://www.stephenwhiteside.com.au

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