Michael Wilding: Henry Lawson's Socialist Vision

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Michael Wilding: Henry Lawson's Socialist Vision
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  <<Please read the copyright notice at the end of this article>> Michael Wilding: Henry Lawson's Socialist Vision Author: Michael Wilding Title: Henry Lawson's Socialist Vision Journal: Studies in Classic Australian Fiction Imprint: 1997, Pages 32-75   Nothing is more difficult to find in this generation than an English writer who identifieshimself successfully with the life of the working democracy, a writer who does not stand aloof from and patronise the bulk of the people who labour with their hands. This no doubt is because nearly all our writers have a middle-class bias and training, and so either write down to or write up to their subject when it leads them outside their own class, and accordingly their valuations thereof are in general falsified.… It is therefore an immense relief to the unsophisticated critic, after looking East and West and North and South for writers untainted by the ambition to be mentally genteel, tocome across the small group of able democratic writers on the ‘Sydney Bulletin’, of whom Mr  Lawson is the chief. (Edward Garnett) 1 Henry Lawson (1867—1922) was born on the Grenfell goldfield in New South Wales. His father was aNorwegian seaman who had jumped ship in Australia. His mother was the daughter of English immigrants.‘They were supposed to have come of English gipsies and were hop pickers in Kent’, Lawson wrote in hisuncompleted autobiography. 2  His parents separated and Lawson worked with his father as a carpenter andpainter, and then went to live with his mother in Sydney:  I worked about in various private shops and did a bit of housepainting too. I knew what it was, when I was out of work for a few days in winter, to turn out shivering and be down at the Herald office at four o'clock on bitter mornings, and be one of the haggard group strikingmatches and running them down thewanted columns on the damp sheets posted outside. I knew what it was to tramp long distances and be one of the hopeless crowd of applicants. I knew what it was to drift about the streets in shabby and patched clothes and feel furtive and criminal-like. I knew all that before I wrote ‘Faces in the Street’—before I was twenty. 3 In 1887 the Mayor of Sydney called a public meeting to plan celebrations for Queen Victoria's jubilee.The meeting and its immediate successors were taken over by republicans and freethinkers. ‘Recentimmigrants from the English working classes and the petty bourgeoisie touched with socialistic principles,aided by the old convict leaven, had humiliated the loyalists’, writes Manning Clark. 4  A Republican Unionemerged, attracting British born radicals like Thomas Walker, George Black and John Norton 5  as well asnative radicals like J. D. Fitzgerald and Louisa Lawson. Within a month the  Republican  was launched andHenry helped print it, contributed political articles, and was registered publisher. When the RepublicanUnion split after a year and the  Republican  ceased publication, Louisa took over the press to produce The Dawn , Australia's first woman's magazine. Henry continued to help print and to contribute. His first book, Short Stories in Prose and Verse  (1894) was produced by Louisa on the  Dawn  press. It was in this contextthat Lawson wrote his first published poem, ‘A Song of the Republic’ which the  Bulletin  published on eighthours day, 1887.Republicanism was—indeed, still is—a very broad category. It could express or conceal a numberof political attitudes. It could be both robber baron capitalist or socialist revolutionary. The first issue of the  Republican  appeared on 4 July 1887—independence day for the United States of America, a countrythat had broken free of British imperialism and become a dynamic, capitalist nation. Both capitalist andcommunistcould use republicanism as a catch-cry. Much of the radical reputation of the  Bulletin , establishedin 1880, derived from its republicanism. Disrespect for Queen Victoria, or Westminster, could be theassertiveness of the colonial businessman or the class hostility of the working person or unemployed. The  displacement of class-aware radical activism from confronting the social and economic situation withinAustralia to inveighing against the imperial rule of Australia was one of the achievements of the  Bulletin .Whereas anti-bourgeois or anti-capitalist sentiments were threatening the social order, the same feelingscould be displaced into anti-monarchical or anti-imperialist expression and have a certain nationalistrespectability.The socialist direction of Lawson's republicanism was quite clear in the political ballads that henow published in the  Bulletin:  ‘The Song of the Outcasts’ (12 May 1888), ‘Faces in the Street’ (28 July1888) and ‘The Hymn of the Socialists’ (24 August 1889). ‘Song of the Outcasts’ was reprinted in theBrisbane Worker  , and under the title ‘The Army of the Rear’ widely reprinted in the USA. ‘The Hymn of the Socialists’ was reprinted in William Morris's Commonweal  (30 November 1889). 6  Manning Clark haswritten of ‘Faces in the Street’: This was poetic rhetoric, the confession or revelation of a warm and a passionate heart. It lacked any coherent ideology, and theory of history, or ideas on the future organization of society. It was a profession of faith in the power of the people to rectify their wrongs, to seek revenge against their oppressors. 7 But what Clark presents as a lack of any coherent ideology was a strength of this and its companionpoems. These were not divisive songs. They were not appropriate or acceptable only to a specific sect orgroup. Lawson's appeal is to all the oppressed and all the sympathisers with the oppressed. It is a popularfront attitude: ballads that will focus on the shared aspects of radical movements, that will unify all thevarious sectional interest groups into a cooperative drive. The lack of ‘any theory of history, or ideas on thefuture organization of society’ allowed theballad its place in the  Bulletin . Its openness was strategic.The especial force of ‘Faces in the Street’ was its showing poverty and oppression existed in this newworld just as they existed in the old. The dominant myth was that Australia offered a new world free fromthose exploitations. ‘The workingman's paradise’, Henry Kingsley had called Australia in The Recollectionsof Geoffrey Hamlyn  (1859). This mystification is confronted in ‘The Song of the Outcasts’:  I looked upon the mass of poor, in filthy alleys pent; And on the rich men's Edens, that are built on grinding rent; I looked o'er London's miles of slums—I saw the horrors there, And I swore to die a soldier of the Army of the Rear. 8 And in case there was any remaining ambiguity that might claim these English conditions were notreplicated in Australia, he opened ‘Faces in the Street’: They lie, the men who tell us in a loud decisive toneThat want is here a stranger, and that misery's unknown. The programme Lawson offers is unambiguous:  But not until a city feels Red Revolution's feet Shall its sad people miss awhile the terrors of the street. 9 The encouragement of nationalism of an Australian republican variety was a strategy that servedto break down the powerful transnational working class alliances that were being established, notablydemonstrated in the £31,000 collected in Australia and sent to support the London dockers. Lawson wrote:  I have seen the stern-faced unionists of Sydney gather in thousands (forming a meetingthat had to be divided into three portions) andstand for five long hours arranging plans of campaign and subscribing funds to carry them out, simply because a body of men, whom theyhad never seen and who were separated from them by fifteen thousand miles of sea, sought their assistance against a bitter wrong. I refer to the great dock labourers' strike.… 10 The vision of international solidarity was stressed by E. W. O'Sullivan in the Centennial Magazine :  The working classes of Australasia are, in fact, the reserve force of their brothers and sistersin Great Britain, and at the crisis of the battle, they may be relied upon to enter the field and decide the control in favour of labour, if it has right and justice on its side. The London Dock Labourers' strike has opened up a new development of the conflict between capital and labour, and the probabilities are that further developments will take place, until the poor down-trodden industrial serf of Great Britain is enabled to tread the soil of Freedom with theelastic step of his Australasian brother. 11 The success of the appeal and the expression of solidarity provided a major impetus to the expansionof the Australian union movement. The eight hour day had been first achieved by the stonemasons of NewSouth Wales and Victoria in 1856. The iron workers and shipwrights achieved the eight hour day in 1872.‘The principal object which led to the formation of the few unions of the 'fifties and 'sixties was the desireto secure recognition of the eight hour day.’ 12  The first intercolonial trades union conference was held inSydney in 1879, the second in Melbourne in 1884, and thereafter the conference was held annually. 13  T. A.Coghlan wrote: The strong feeling everywhere enlisted on behalf of the dock labourers exercised a verygreat influence upon the minds of the Labor leaders in Australia who did not discriminatetoo nicely between the position of the London dock labourers and that of the Australianworkers. 14 In 1889 the first of a series of shearers' strikes began in Queensland, against a refusal to employ unionlabour. The newly established Australian Labor Federation in Brisbane coordinated support from waterfrontworkers who refused to ship non-union shorn wool, and the strike was won. The success encouragedthe unions to a more combative stance and the shipowners and pastoralists to combine to break the newmovement. In August 1890 the Maritime Officers Association proposed to affiliate with the MelbourneTrades Hall Council. The shipowners refused to negotiate with the officers till they broke their Trades Hallaffiliation; the officers walked off their ships and the wharf labourers and other maritime unionists came outin sympathy. The strike lasted two months, and was broken by the ‘fairly large surplus of unemployed laboralready on the market.’ 15  Colonel Price's instructions to the Mounted Rifles on how to deal with massedstrikers—‘Fire low and lay them out’ 16 —encapsulated the class war aspects of the strike. Lawson's poem‘The Lay-'em-Out Brigade’ ( Truth , 20 March 1892) alludes to the episode.Lawson had been in Western Australia looking for work when the strike began. He returned to Sydneyand then was offered work on the Brisbane  Boomerang , a weekly paper established by William Lane in1887. Lane, born in Bristol in 1861, had emigrated to the USA when he was 15, and then settled in Brisbanein 1885. The  Boomerang  ran into difficulties with advertisers because of its unionist sympathies, and Laneresigned to start Australia's first union paper, the Worker  , backed by the Australian Labour Federation inBrisbane in 1890. Lawson worked for the  Boomerang  under its new owner, Gresley Lukin, from Marchtill September 1891. At the same time he contributed to the Worker  ,a centre of radical activity in the bitterQueensland shearers' strike, which had begun in January 1891 against the employers' attempts to refusethe closed shop, and to reduce general labourers' wages by a third. The strike continued until June, bywhich time the union leaders had been arrested, the funds consumed, and non-union labour shipped intoQueensland under military and police guard. Lawson's poem ‘Freedom on the Wallaby’ appeared in the Worker   amidst the struggle: ‘They need not say the fault is ours if blood should stain the wattle.’ 17  It wascited in the Queensland parliament as evidence of a violent conspiracy, which provoked him to write anotherpoem, ‘The Vote of Thanks debate.’William Lane was in the forefront of the movement to transform the old craft unions into a massivesocialist federation. ‘When the task of analysing and assigning the causes and effects and course of thephenomenon of Australian socialism, Lane's writing in the Worker   will be found the  fons et srco  fromwhich all further and subsequent explorations must begin.’ 18  Lawson, recalled his brother-in-law, Jack Lang,later Labor premier of New South Wales, gave ‘glowing reports about Lane.’ 19  The  Boomerang , shortly to cease publication, reduced staff and Lawson returned to Sydney. He foundwork house-painting with a group of radical English immigrants, including W. A. Holman, later a Laborparliamentarian, and two former members of the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League, G.Chandler and A. G. Yewen, a personal friend of William Morris. 20 When the trade failed me I used to write a column of red-hot socialistic and libellous politicalrhymes for Truth. I still believed in revolutions, and the spirit of righteousness upheld me.Truth's ‘ghost’ was eccentric, and the usual rates for outside contributions were from 5s.upwards; but John Norton gave me 15s. to £1 for special stuff. He cursed considerably; and there were times whenit wasn't advisable to curse back; but he saw that I, and one or twoother poor devils of scribblers on their uppers were paid—even before the comps. I haven't  forgotten it. 21 John Norton was born in England in 1858; he spent time in Europe, became a subeditor on the  Levant  Herald   in Constantinople, and arrived in Sydney in 1884, establishing himself as a journalist. He wrote thereport on the 1885 Intercolonial Trades Union Congress (TUC), and represented the unions at the EnglishTUC Congress and the International TUC in Paris. In 1890 he joined the newly established Truth , a paperwith radical sentiments, sensationalist copy, and various dubious business practices involving corruptland deals and blackmailing businessmen into advertising rather than having their sexual foibles reported.Lawson's first contribution to Truth —signed ‘Joe Swallow’—had been ‘The Australian Marseillaise, or,A Song for the Sydney Poor’, 23 November 1890, at a point when the maritime strike had been defeated.The Marseillaise was ‘the then international revolutionary song of the world's workers,’ 22  and was sung atsocialist and union meetings. Lawson provides an appropriate revolutionary, class-war text.Lawson's first story, ‘His Father's Mate’ (  Bulletin , 22 December 1888) has as its central incidentthe death of a child helping his father on the gold workings. A subsidiary theme is the fate of the elderbrother who got into trouble with the police and has disappeared. Drawing on a true incident told him byhis grandfather, 23  Lawson presents the tragedy as emblematic of the wretchedness of working class life,with its limited choices of useless toil, death, or criminality. This same set of choices structures the group of stories he wrote about urban working class conditions and child labour: ‘A Visit of Condolence’ (  Bulletin , 23April 1892), ‘Jone's Alley’ ( Worker  , Sydney, 1, 8, 15 June 1892), ‘Arvie Aspinall's Alarm Clock’ (  Bulletin ,11 June 1892) and ‘Two Boys at Grinder Bros’ ( Worker  , Sydney, 7 October 1893). Drawing on hisown experiences working for a firm of coach-builders when he first arrivedin Sydney, Lawson turnsthe experience of humiliation and exploitation into the weapons of political action. Bill, Arvie's youngworkmate, calls to find out why he's not at work, and is told he's dead. Talking to Arvie's mother he asks‘How old was Arvie?’ ‘Eleven.’‘I'm twelve—going on thirteen. Arvie's father's dead, ain't he?’‘Yes.’‘So's mine. Died at his work, didn't he?’‘Yes’.‘So'd mine. Arvie told me his father died of something with his heart.’‘Yes’.‘So'd mine; ain't it rum? You scrub offices an' wash, don't yer?’‘Yes’.‘So does my mother. You find it pretty hard to get a livin', don't yer, these times?’ 24  The paralleling of shared experiences generalizes the individual tragedy into a larger class oppression.These are not individual calamities resulting from individual failure, but the consequence of the social order.Lawson uses the same device of parallelism in Bill's dialogue with Arvie in ‘Two Boys at Grinder Bros’.This is the technique of socialist education, of awakening the oppressed to the nature of their conditions, tothe shared exploitations. These stories have generally been labelledDickensian and sentimental by Lawson'scommentators; 25  as if infant mortality, the exploitation of child labour, and slum life were somehow literarytropes and not all too common, everyday realities. That they were everyday realities was a provocation topolitical action. Lawson was developing a political consciousness that could work strategically, that couldsee in the individual suffering the basis for a shared sense of outrage. This was exactly William Lane'sstrategy in The Workingman's Paradise  (1892), where the child born at the beginning of the novel dies at thebeginning of part II, a victim of poverty and the unhygienic conditions of Sydney's slums. ‘The Slaughterof the Innocents’, Lane titled the chapter in which the child dies. 26  The dying child is not at all an easysentimental trope but a directed, political symbol for Lawson, as for Lane. The death of Arvie Aspinall is thetriggering or concluding incident for four stories: Lawson is not being wanton with death. Quite remarkablyand significantly he does not give us a succession of deaths like a Jacobean dramatist or contemporarythriller writer. That he uses the one incident for a number of stories suggests a shocked reverence in itseconomy.Arvie's work is described in the final section of the last story of the group, ‘Two Boys at Grinder Bros’:  Arvie was late out of the shop that evening. His boss was a subcontractor for the coach- painting, and always tried to find twenty minutes' work for his boys just about five or tenminutes before the bell rang. He employed boys because they were cheap and he had a lot of rough work, and they could get under floors and ‘bogies’ with their pots and brushes, and do all the ‘priming’ and paint the trucks. His name was Collins, and the boys were called ‘Collins' Babies’. It was a joke in the shop that he had a ‘weaning’ contract. The boys wereall ‘over fourteen’ of course, because of the Education Act. Some were nine or ten—wages from five shillings to ten shillings. It didn't matter to GrinderBrothers so long as the contractswere completed and the dividends paid. Collins preached in the park every Sunday. But thishas nothing to do with the story. 27 These details are presented almost perfunctorily, as if to say, these are the normal conditions of urbanexploitation, why make anything of it, how can you be surprised? The perfunctory presentation of Arvie'sdeath that concludes the story is in part a necessary strategy since Lawson had already published the threeother Arvie Aspinall-Jones's Alley stories, so the event cannot be given in any full-blown way. But thissuited Lawson's skill in the oblique, the understated. The perfunctory account of exploitation and death,undramatized, flatly recorded, serves as an explosive conclusion to the earlier dialogue between Bill andArvie, the development of a relationship, from persecution to comradeship and solidarity. The story openedwith Bill calling out ‘Here comes Balmy Arvie’ as he sat with ‘five or six half-grown larrikins.’ 28  But thisfirst section ends with an expression of friendship, comradeship, mateship: ‘Look here, Arvie!’ he said in low, hurried tones, ‘Keep close to me goin' out tonight, 'n' if any of the other chaps touches yer or says anything to yer I'll hit 'em!’ 29 What provokes the solidarity is Bill's perception of a shared pattern of class exploitation in theexperiences of the two families. He realizes, silently yet so clearly—such is Lawson's art—that these areno serendipitous coincidences, but the demonstration of their shared situation as workers, as proletarians.Nothing is spelled out—there is no generalizing, no theory, no moral-drawing. The bare facts, presented inparallel, reveal the socio-political truth: ‘I say, Arvie, what did yer father die of?’‘Heart disease. He dropped down dead at his work.’
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