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Victorian Poetry 40.1 (2002) 87-104

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An Uncultured Rhymer and His Cultural Critics:
Henry Lawson, Class Politics, and Colonial Literature

Christopher Lee

But the curse of class distinctions from our shoulders shall be hurled,
An' the influence of Kindness revolutionize the world;
There'll be higher education for the toilin' starvin' clown,
An' the rich and educated shall be educated down. 1

IN THE 1950S AND 60S ACADEMICS CONTESTED THE VIEW WHICH WAS BEING promoted by many prominent Australian intellectuals that HenryLawson was an exemplary representative of the Australian national character. They also quickly dismissed the socialist principles which cultural workers in the Communist Party of Australia were rediscovering in the famous Australian's work. In the "end of ideology" climate of the Cold War, academics were justifying the inclusion of Australian literature in the academic curriculum by establishing a canon of the "very best" Australian writing. Admission to this canon was achieved through a professionally authorized process of critical evaluation that concentrated upon formal analysis and metaphysical inquiry. Canonization was understood as an aesthetic judgment, while political ideology, formal convention, and the social purchase of popularity were considered as anathema to both creative genius and academic discipline. 2 Accordingly, Lawson's short fiction was re-evaluated for its evidence of technical sophistication, formal innovation, and the presentation of existential themes that linked Australian writing to the modernist traditions of other nations. Lawson's politics were seen as a destructive influence on his art, and his significant body of poetic work was largely considered unworthy of professional attention.

Michael Wilding takes issue with the legacy of this academic opinion when he argues that a particular form of working-class politics provided the inspiration for Henry Lawson's "enduring" literary work. 3 Wilding explores socialist politics as a pervasive theme in a number of Lawson's [End Page 87] short stories, particularly in those "classic" stories through which the academics of an earlier generation were able to establish his literary significance. Wilding does not unpick the relation between literary judgment and class politics, however, continuing, as he does, to neglect the verse. He reads the early political ballads as evidence of the "socialist direction of Lawson's republicanism," and he interprets the famous verse debate with A.B. Paterson as a demonstration of the writer's interest in a sense of class (Wilding, pp. 34-35, 44). 4 Nevertheless, his concern with Lawson as "a conscious and sensitive and sophisticated writer" continues to share many of the aesthetic assumptions of earlier critics (Wilding, p. 75).

Lawson's desire to achieve a literary reputation during the 1890s coexisted with an aspiration to mold the social and political will of his audience, and both of these impulses were significantly influenced by his material situation as a working-class colonial writer. Lawson developed his writing through the periodical outlets available to him at the time and then collected it in book form for social, commercial, and cultural profit. The reception of this writing significantly influenced his understanding of himself as a writer and brought substantial pressure to bear upon his political interests and his understanding of his relation with his readers. If we are going to reconsider Lawson as a political writer, then, we cannot rest content with a literary analysis of the classic stories. We need to understand Lawson as a popular writer, and this means that we have to pay renewed attention to the neglected verse and the role it played in the development of his literary career.

A Political Career in Popular Poetry

The development of Henry Lawson's writing is inextricably connected to the political ferment in the Australian colonies at the end of the nineteenth century. Lawson began his writing career with a poem inspired by the Republican riots in Sydney that occurred during the celebration of Queen Victoria's jubilee. "A Song of the Republic" expressed outrage at social injustice and class privilege, and called its readers to arms in defense of the democratic potential of a new colonial society:

'Sons of the...


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