- City Bushman: Henry Lawson and the Australian Imagination
City Bushman, Christopher Lee's wonderful new contribution to Australian cultural studies, is not a new biography of Henry Lawson, one of Australia's most revered writers, nor is it a work of literary criticism. Rather, City Bushman is a cultural history examining the various forces and interests that have created and maintain Lawson's prominent position within Australian literature and society. Lee begins with a personal introduction describing childhood encounters with Lawson's work, which enabled him to better imagine his own family's rural past. Re-encountering Lawson as a University student changed Lee's perspective, teaching him that he held an "erroneous reading" of Lawson's work, and introducing him to the idea of Lawson as the developer of "an influential Australian form of the short story" (11). Lee went on to teach Lawson's work in both the city and the country, at the University of Queensland in Brisbane and the University of Southern Queensland in Toowoomba. Lee's range of experiences with Lawson lead him to the conclusion that the writer's "reputation is a phenomenon of private as well as public memories, and these memories have a continuing role in the constitution of gendered, class, familial, civic, regional, professional, state and national identities" (12). Consequently, Lee eschews a continuous narrative, and presents his account of Lawson's celebrity through a series of events and engagements "between the local and the national," recognizing "the alternative voices that have been drawn to Lawson's work and celebrity," and insisting "that no account of the national literature can be complete without them" (13).
Lee divides City Bushman into four major sections: "Early Reputation 1894–1922," "Posthumous Memorialisation 1922–1931," "Canonisation 1938–1988" and "Local Uses of Celebrity." Section one contains just a single chapter, "An Uncultured Rhymer and his Cultural Critics," where Lee addresses the question of how Lawson, "a poorly educated, hearing impaired, [End Page 380] working-class boy from rural New South Wales," became the first recipient of a State funeral granted in Australia for a "distinguished contribution to the arts" when he died in 1922 (20). Lee contends that Lawson's reputation was not acquired through the writer's genius, but rather the combination of several factors: the political situation, the "organisation of the literary estate in a colonial culture," and "the politicised investment of that estate in an emerging Australian readership" (20). Lee notes that Lawson's early writings were closely connected with the nationalist political movement in the Australian colonies during the late nineteenth century, especially through his publications in the Bulletin, a radical nationalist weekly magazine. Lawson's early publications are examined by Lee with regard to his championing of the working class, popular and critical reception, and Lawson's role in developing and perpetuating rural mythologies. Unable to attain the level of critical and popular success that he desired in Australia, Lawson moved to England. Despite some critical praise and commercial success, Lawson was attacked by English reviewers for "formal and linguistic crudities," a "lack of culture," and a "pessimistic outlook" (37). Lee contends it is unlikely that Lawson "could ever have achieved the artistic reputation he aspired to" (38). Failing to acquire the cultural authority he desired in England, Lawson returned to Australia, spending the last twenty years of his life in "a slow, inexorable decline into poverty and alcoholism" (39).
The second section of City Bushman, "Posthumous Memorialisation 1922–1931," contains three chapters. In "'They Buried Harry Like a Lord,'" Lee claims the political conflict surrounding Lawson's funeral "provided the momentum for the public valorisation of his name and reputation in the following decade and beyond" (46). Lee clearly demonstrates how politicians at both the state and federal level and newspapers from around the nation rushed to claim Lawson as a true Australian, elevating him to the position of "national poet." "Raising Money in his Memory" deals with efforts to memorialize Lawson undertaken by groups such...