D. H. Lawrence, Henry Lawson and Single-Author Criticism

Article excerpt

The place, Sydney, and the year, 1922, mark a curious conjunction in the writing careers of D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) and Henry Lawson (18671922). This conjunction points at a number of parallels, previously unremarked, but well worth drawing out. After their deaths and especially in the post-World War II era of the professional literary critic, a more significant parallel emerges, that of the ongoing reception of their works. This parallel, once pursued, throws new light on Lawrence criticism and serves as a provocation or challenge to reconfigure our understanding of that activity by bringing a more book-historical perspective to bear on it.

Sydney, 1922: Lawrence and Lawson

Today, Writers Walk stretches around Circular Quay at Sydney Harbor. Medallions set into the footpath commem orate the visits of various overseas writers to Sydney, as well as Australian counterparts. Both Lawrence and Lawson are commemorated there. The medallions constitute, one may say, a material act of reception of their works in Australia, a refusal to let go of the connection to the actual authors themselves to only the level of printed text. Again, in a little park in Thirroul, south of Sydney and just up the road from Wyewurk, a plaque set into a large rock commemorates Lawrence and Frieda's few months' stay in that wryly named house.

As a local author, Lawson is, understandably, more thoroughly memorialized in New South Wales than Lawrence. In the Domain parkland, not far from where Lawrence and Frieda spent their first night in Sydney, an elaborate statue of Lawson the Bushman was erected in 1931. It was at the time an act of homage to the writer whom many in Australia were by then coming to believe had created in his prose and verse the very habitus of the Australian character, the bush.

The memorial was sculpted by G. W. Lambert and partly paid for by the schoolchildren of New South Wales, who contributed their pennies weekly after the Teachers Federation answered the call of a committee set up to memorialize Lawson. This committee got to work following Lawson's state funeral, granted by Prime Minister Billie Hughes who happened to arrive in Sydney by train from Melbourne on the day Lawson died. Lawson gradually became the focus of a popular groundswell that peaked in the 1960s; he would finally be honored with his image on the ten-dollar note in 1966, when the Australian currency changed from pounds, shillings and pence. The iconic image was not replaced until 1993.

Lawson died in Sydney on September 2, 1922, nearly three weeks after Lawrence and Frieda had sailed for San Francisco on August 14. But some of Lawson's writings had been appearing in the Sydney Bulletin during 1922, and so, if Lawrence was keeping up with recent issues (Frieda many years later recalled that he read it regularly [120]), he would have come across the seventh item in Lawson's Elder Man's Lane Series, "His Burden of Sorrow," published in the Bulletin on June 29, 1922. The series consisted of vignettes of social life on the streets of North Sydney before the Harbour Bridge was built, connecting it to Sydney.

The sketch concerns a West Indian man called Jacky Harrison, who makes a living from scouring the local tip for rags, bundling them up, and then taking them on his horse-drawn wagon on the punt across the Harbour to the city and selling them. He has in succession lost his wife, elder son and his younger son from, as Lawson's narrator puts it, "Consumption or something of that sort, I suppose" (1922, 48), leaving him finally with the question of what there is left to live for. The narrator comes across the man on the punt after both of the first two deaths, but when a friend, Benno the bottle-o, tells the narrator of the third death while gesturing towards Harrison, who is standing at the front of the punt waiting for it to depart, the narrator cannot bring himself to come on board and decides instead to wait for the next one. …