Henry Lives! Learning from Lawson Fandom

Brigid Louise Magner

Abstract


Since his death in 1922, Henry Lawson’s “spirit” has been kept alive by admirers across Australia. Over the last century, Lawson’s reputation in the academy has fluctuated yet fan support remains robust partly due to the efforts of Lawson societies in Victoria and New South Wales. Support for Lawson remains high in rural communities such as Grenfell and Gulgong in New South Wales which celebrate Lawson’s residence through annual festivals. Although cities have largely rejected the nationalistic cultural heritage that Lawson is seen to represent, the Melbourne-based Henry Lawson Literary and Memorial Society has worked tirelessly to maintain Lawson’s profile and disseminate his writing to the wider community. Through interviews with six members of the HLLM Society and participant observation at their meetings, I consider the ways in which members translate their passion for Lawson into a constellation of activities. Lawson fan practices tend to be celebratory and largely uncritical, an approach which is at odds with academic scholarship that encourages “suspicious” reading (Felski, “Context Stinks!”). Literary theory and criticism, Rita Felski argues, are orientated around a “hermeneutics of suspicion” that promotes a sensibility that prides itself on wariness and hyper-vigilence (Felski, “After Suspicion” 29). The traditional literary critic behaves like a detective, establishing connections and eventually finding a culprit. Instead of reading Lawson’s work suspiciously, HLLM Society members show enormous reverence for it, demonstrating some of the affective pleasures of literature in a social context. 

Fan studies scholars have extensively investigated the ways in which fans consume and re-deploy texts. Beginning with Michel De Certeau’s (1984) distinction between the strategies of the powerful and the tactics of the disempowered, another wave of scholars (Fiske, Reading the Popular; Understanding Popular Culture; Jenkins, Textual Poachers) saw popular culture fandom as a site of power struggle. The second wave of fan studies (Dell; Harris; Jancovich) found inspiration in the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and his sociology of consumption (1984). Rather than claiming revolutionary potential for fandom, these studies show how taste hierarchies among fans themselves might be seen as the continuation of wider social inequalities (Thornton). Since the 1990s, fan studies have focused on a wide range of audiences, reflecting fandom’s “mainstreaming.” Recent studies have explored the intra-personal pleasures and motivations among fans, thus refocusing on the relationship between fans’ selves and their fan objects (Thompson). Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington argue that the most important contribution of contemporary research into fan audiences lies in furthering our understanding of how we form emotional bonds with ourselves and others in a modern mediated world (10).

According to fan fic writer and blogger obsession_inc, there are two types of fandom: “affirmational” and “transformational” which are both “celebrational.” Affirmational fandom tends to re-state the original source text whereas transformational fandom re-works and re-creates the original source material. While the Henry Lawson fans do undertake a range of creative practices inspired by Lawson’s writing, their fandom could be properly defined as affirmational rather than transformational given that they are not “laying hands on the text” and “twisting it to their own purposes” (obsession_inc).

There is a growing body of scholarly literature on fandom among older adults (Bennett; Stevenson; Vroomen) and the impact of generational affiliation on fan communities (Brooker, Using the Force). Harrington and Bielby suggest that fan identities, practices and interpretive capacities have more age-related structure than has previously been addressed within fan studies. Will Brooker’s work on the Lewis Carroll literary society has shown how ageing fans of “high cultural” texts can bridge the perceived division between fan scholarship and academic scholarship (Brooker, “It Is Love” 862).

Henry Lawson’s writing inhabits a curious position within Australian culture; as “canonical” literature it may be described as “high cultural” and yet it has significant support across class boundaries, with his popularity sustained predominantly by older working class people. Lawson’s popularity now resides strongly in the regional and rural areas, particularly in the New South Wales towns of Grenfell and Gulgong, both of which are associated with his formative years. These outlying communities are the primary custodians of Lawson paraphernalia, bolstering their social identities through celebration of their famous literary figure through events that emphasise their bush heritage. Given that Lawson’s popularity is more intensified in rural and regional areas, the urban location of the Melbourne-based HLLM Society is especially noteworthy.

Although contemporary fan communities are often sustained by online communication, HLLM Society activities are largely orientated around regular monthly meetings that are held in the St Francis Monastery Hall in the Melbourne CBD. These meetings emphasise performativity, with all members encouraged to present a live event, reading or speech. A “roving MC” does the honours, with different members taking turns at the role each month. The program of performances is later written up in Henry Lives, the monthly newsletter for the HLLM Society which is sent electronically to members with email access.

Stephen Murray Smith, former editor of Overland, has argued that “while [Lawson’s] stories were regarded with reverence, his verses lingered in people’s minds, influenced their thoughts and actions, moved them, inspired them and made them their own” (31–2). The HLLM Society gatherings are overwhelmingly focused on Lawson’s verse rather than his stories, with many performers memorising poetry by rote and reciting it. James Howard, a regular performer at HLLM events, has suggested that this is because short stories need to be “edited down” whereas poems lend themselves more easily to public performance. The privileging of Lawson’s verse over his prose represents an inversion of the dominant academic approach to Lawson. In the context of HLLM gatherings, Lawson’s literature is valued for its dramatic qualities as opposed to conventional academic analysis which views the text as an artefact to be scrutinised for its hidden meanings.

Footscray’s Society

The Henry Lawson Memorial and Literary Society was formed in the Melbourne suburb of Footscray in 1923, predating the Henry Lawson Society of New South Wales. To commemorate the first anniversary of Lawson’s death, Steve Ford (1868–1946), a former miner and union leader, requested Footscray Council permission “to occupy for a few hours” a portion of the “People’s Park” for the purpose of honouring “Australia’s Premier Poet and Writer.” After a lengthy and heated discussion the event was allowed to proceed. On Sunday 2 September 1923, Ford stood in pouring rain on a grassy knoll in Footscray Hill Park and addressed a crowd of fifteen onlookers and one dog (Lee 173). In 1924, with the Footscray City Band in attendance, one thousand people came, and by 1926 the Council was proclaiming that “The Society Belonged to Footscray” (Lack 270).

Monthly meetings were held at the Footscray Town Hall throughout the 1930s and 1940s, providing a forum for Lawson devotees, academics, writers, and members of various cultural institutions. Steve Ford and a few other prominent members of the Lawson society were closely connected with the Australian Natives Association and the Australian Labor Party. In his addresses to the society Ford emphasised Lawson’s left-wing beliefs. For him, Lawson’s value lay in his “intense love of country, his firm belief in its destiny, coupled with his great love of humanity and passionate sympathy with the rank and file of life’s great army” (Lee 174).

Lawson has been aligned with the Bush legend in the public imagination, yet he was by nature an urban figure, therefore it seems appropriate that the first Lawson society arose in Footscray, a busy, highly industrialised area, named “Stoneopolis” or “Stinkopolis” by locals (Gadd). In 1928 Bertha Lawson, the writer’s widow, commended the society’s work for inspiring pilgrimages to Lawson’s grave in Waverley cemetery: “You showed his own city how to honour his memory” (qtd. in Lee 181). The Footscray society also agitated for commemoration of the Lawson homestead at Eurunderee in New South Wales from an early date, leading the way for other commemorations around the country. 

At a Lawson society gathering in January 1931, Robert Ross claimed that full appreciation of Lawson demanded “due emphasis . . . to the fact that he was a reformer, a smiter of injustices, and a rebel wherever Wrong was ruler” (Lack 280). However, councillors made objections to the fact that the Lawson birthday celebrations at the park had become a rallying point for Footscray’s unemployed and for radicals (Lack 280). 

When Steve Ford died, his ashes were scattered around a memorial gum tree in Footscray Hill Park at the annual gathering in 1941. In 1963, Ballarat Road was widened and a large portion was cut from the park, destroying the Lawson tree with its commemorative plaque (Lack 375). Though displaced, the Lawson monument has remained a focus for fans. Every year on Lawson’s birthday the HLLM Society holds a gathering near the memorial with readings, speeches, and a birthday cake. 

Fans for Social Justice

The direct association of the HLLM Society with left-wing politics shows that Lawson’s “legend” has been put to a number of uses. But the commemoration of Lawson has also served as a portal for expressing nationalistic and right-wing sympathies as exemplified by Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. Paul Kelly has described One Nation as “a descendant of the romanticism and racism of Henry Lawson whose hold on national identity was once so comprehensive” (92–3). Melbourne-based fans associated with the HLLM Society do not align themselves with his “sabre-rattling” and “racist” remarks. Members who were interviewed for this research tend to disregard Lawson’s more unfashionable comments, preferring to align themselves with a more benign, socially progressive version of Lawson.  As former HLLM Society President Tony Lambides-Turner notes, the fact that Lawson is out of fashion in some quarters makes their job harder but all the more important for that reason. The outreach activities organised by my respondents include readings and performance at aged care homes, the distribution of donated Lawson books to young people at bush festivals, and attendance at refugee rallies. Their interpretation of Lawson involves a consideration of the needs of the young and the old and an understanding of the plight of the disadvantaged.

Becoming Lawson

The practice of celebrating authors through costume has a long history, dating back to the tradition of Renaissance fairs and historical reenactment (Lamerichs). Contemporary Jane Austen fans are well known for their elaborate character costuming and fancy dress balls. At the Gulgong Henry Lawson Festival, the whole town stages an elaborate homage to Lawson, with scores of people dressed up in nineteenth-century costume for a parade through the town. James Howard, a HLLM Society member and impersonator, travels annually to the festival and leads the parade, attired in his characteristic sac suit with droopy moustache, hat and cane. 

James’s impersonation, though sanctioned by the Melbourne and New South Wales Lawson societies, might be seen in the context of a long history of often “unauthorised” imposture on the part of Lawson fans. In My Henry Lawson, Henry’s wife Bertha tells of the common practice of amateur “bards” taking the names of their “masters” (Lawson 128). John Le Gay Brereton in “Knockin’ Around” tells a story of camping overnight with Henry (or “Harry” as he was known to friends) in a haunted cottage at Gerringong—instead of being disturbed by a ghost they were joined by an “imposter” claiming to be Henry Lawson. 

Bertha Lawson claims that “throughout the bush such ‘ghosts’ appeared” but the “easy-going bushmen didn’t care much whether they were genuine or not—they just handed out beer to each imposter till he was ‘full’ . . . Among these poseurs was a large preponderance of Henry Lawsons” (132). Radical writer Frank Hardy tells of how he went thorough a phase of writing stories and dressing in the Lawson manner: “I went to the length of growing a walrus moustache and carrying my few belongings in a sugar bag with a rope attached to it like a swag over my shoulder” (Hardy qtd. in Lee 134). Hardy’s reminiscence about his Lawson “phase” reminds us that celebration of literature can often involve costuming and disguise on the part of the fan.

James first became involved with the Lawson society because he was looking for an audience. In the 1980s, he acted in a New Theatre play based on four Lawson short stories. Following this experience, he and a friend dressed as Lawson characters “Steelman” and “Smith” and “stormed” a Henry Lawson meeting. Ironically, this guerilla intervention led to regular impersonation gigs which continue to this day.

Drawn to the Dark Side

As well as the obvious themes of his writing, Lawson’s troubled personal history engages the empathy of fans, lending power to his words. James observes that he identifies with the “dark side” of Lawson: “I relate to Lawson’s vulnerability and his pain—his psychological pain.” Sue Tate remarks that Lawson was very perceptive, due to his own tribulations: 

He was a wonderful reader of people like he understood, mixed with bohemians—he was a pauper himself—he would give away his last penny—he had a good understanding of the harshness of the bush. I always vouch for the underdog so he’s right there for me, you know. 

However, she argues that it’s uninformed to fixate upon his alcoholism, without considering his superior qualities: 

It upsets me a little bit when they immediately label him as that—he was a great man in his own right. Don’t forget he had to overcome his difficulty with his poor hearing—he never mentions it does he? It’s greatly underestimating the guy—that’s probably people who haven’t read so much [. . .] the more you read, the more you learn about the guy.

Sue claims it’s “wrong” to reduce a complex person to a pathological stereotype because it fails to take his heroic qualities into account. Fans like James and Sue often recognise elements of themselves when reading Lawson. In this way, his writing is talismanic, reminding them of certain stages in their life course. To critics this might seem like an inappropriate entanglement between literature and life, but for Lawson fans this kind of recognition is often a source of self-reflection, and even pleasure.

Bush Poetics

A significant proportion of HLLM Society members identify as bush poets, publishing their work in The Lawsonian magazine and performing at Australian Bush Poets Association events around the country in places such as Corryong, Toolangi, and Gulgong. In 2015, when Melbourne fans visited the Grenfell festival, they realised that many New South Wales members had no knowledge of them. As Tony recalls, “Until we turned up, the people in the bush didn’t know about the Melbourne Lawson society.” In addition, Jan noticed that “the bush kids are aware of Lawson’s poetry while city kids tend not to be.” She observes that bush people often don’t know the living conditions of underprivileged refugees and migrants in the city; a gap she seeks to address with her writing: 

Bush people don’t know how people in commission flats live . . . I want to give bush people an insight into how people have to live in the city like migrants, refugees—they haven’t got a choice. 

A small group of fans have begun their own writing group to support each other’s poetry. Tony speaks passionately about how his fandom can provide an outlet for creative impulses denied by his everyday life:  

There are a lot of people like myself who are repressed, put down, everything, because they can’t express themselves openly . . . if you find the right writing group . . . you can relax and write whatever you can—write. 

Lawson “Opens Other Avenues”

Literary societies cannot be easily conflated with “fan clubs” although the Tolkien Society describes itself as “an educational charity, literary society, and international fan club” (Tolkien Society website). Membership of the HLLM Society can lead to fans joining other local literary societies. As Tony puts it, once you get involved with a society “other avenues open up,” socially and creatively. Jan Morris argues that total dedication to one writer can become too limiting at times, which prompted her to seek connections with other associations such as the C.J. Dennis Society and the Adam Lindsay Gordon Commemorative Committee: 

I was getting a bit bogged down with Lawson and then I found C.J. Dennis . . . Lawson is quite melancholy but C.J. Dennis is funny . . . I’m starting to enjoy other people’s poetry. 

As a member of a few different literary societies, James is in a position to offer an observation about how the HLLM Society differs from other societies devoted to English writers:

I’ve seen a range of societies. One big difference with the Shakespeare or Dickens society is that you couldn’t go and do your own poem. It just wouldn’t happen. 

The culture of the Dickens and Shakespeare Societies appears to be quite far removed from the DIY ethos of the HLLM Society. James notes that this may be due to different demographics, as the Dickens and Shakespeare societies tend to be composed of retired teachers and academics rather than “laypeople.” The inclusive culture of the HLLM Society derives, at least partly, from its vision of Lawson as a demotic hero, linked to republicanism and the rights of the working class.

Visual Props

The HLLM society meetings are notable for the wide range of performances from sketches to music hall. But until recently there was little visual art on show. For many years Jan Morris was her husband’s carer, with few social outlets. After his death, she joined the HLLM Society and started making props for use at meetings and outreach events. 

I began to enjoy doing backdrops for Lawson meetings . . . I go to the opshop and buy curtains with waterproof backs for next to nothing and then I cut them down to size and hand sew all the hems . . . now I’m putting it back on foam rubber which I used to do for kid’s drama . . . that’s a new way of doing things.

She says the visual props help the audience “wake up” and take notice at meetings. At a recent HLLM Society meeting Jan performed a little known poem “The Muscovy Duck” which finishes with these lines:

I love her for her waddle, and her patience, and her pluck,
Her wag of tail and nod of head—the quaint Muscovy duck. 

Jan recited the poem while holding a muscovy duck that she had painted and ended with a wag of her bottom to emphasise the final line. Jan’s banners and backdrops have brightened up many meetings, adding a visual dimension that was previously lacking. Her performances are open and unaffected, using props as devices to engage the audience of members mostly in their 70s and 80s. This contrasts markedly with academic conferences in which presentations must be carefully framed and referenced according to certain rules. “Feeling a love of Lawson” is the only prerequisite for attending an HLLM Society gathering or contributing to the nationwide Lawsonian magazine or Victorian Henry Lives newsletter (Tennison).

Fandom as Learning

The HLLM Society members regard their regular meetings as self-improving and, in some cases, as compensating for gaps in their education. Sue Tate, who followed her father into the Society, claims that she was only given English literature to read at school: “I did two years of it and never did Australian literature so I’ve only learned about it though my Dad. Not being a great book reader myself, I’ve joined 3–4 years ago, it’s also a history lesson as well.” 

Herb Jenkins learned about Australian literature at school from a teacher who “brought poetry alive” for him. He recalls that the choice was between the two most famous Australian poets, Lawson and A.B ‘Banjo’ Paterson. Referring to the well publicised stoush between Lawson and Paterson in the pages of the Bulletin, Herb says: “Paterson was interested in the romance of the bush but Lawson was a realist so I decided I would go for reality thank you very much.” Herb’s comment shows that the war of words between Lawson and Paterson, though fabricated to a certain extent, had very real effects on the preferences of readers.

Lawson’s canonical status means that intimate knowledge of his work, as displayed by all my respondents, has a certain currency outside of the Society, unlike the amassing of obscure information by some popular culture buffs (such as Star Wars fans for example). Unlike literary critics, however, HLLM Society members freely declare their enduring admiration for Lawson’s “genius.”

A Sense of Community

As Roberta Pearson observes, fans incorporate the cultural texts as part of their self-identity, often going on to build social networks on the basis of shared fandoms (102). For many members, connection with peers in a community of interest is the biggest dividend of belonging to the HLLM Society. Tony says, “Lawson brings people together, out of what they normally do.”

At a monthly meeting, Marilyn Nagy-Juhasz thanked the society publicly for making her so welcome and chose the first verse of Lawson’s “The Roaring Days” to illuminate her fellow feeling:

The night too quickly passes
And we are growing old,
So let us fill our glasses
And toast the Days of Gold;
When finds of wondrous treasure
Set all the South ablaze,
And you and I were faithful mates
All through the roaring days! 

The activities of these Henry Lawson society members can remind us of the affective pleasures that can be derived from being part of a fan organisation. 

An Ageing Demographic

With an ageing membership and declining numbers—membership is approximately 113 at the time of writing—the HLLM Society is increasingly concerned with sustaining Lawson’s influence into the future. Indeed, the name of the regular newsletter Henry Lives sums up the society’s concern with keeping him alive in spirit. The editor of the newsletter says, “Henry is not dead . . . Henry Lives in Our Hearts. Henry may have died but he still lives in our hearts and minds.”  

A few younger members sometimes attend monthly meetings, like Darren Hughes who read from Don Watson’s American Journeys (2008) because Watson has claimed Lawson as a major influence. Darren is quoted in the July 2017 edition of Henry Lives, saying that he “loved the conveyor-belt of performers and readers” at the June meeting. To newcomers, the culture of the meetings may seem quaint and old fashioned, simulating a kind of “time warp effect” (Brooker 874).

The advanced age of many HLLM members means that their practices are often overlooked, let alone studied. HLLM fans operate within a specific interpretive community which gives them a unique perspective. As Maree Stapledon, the secretary of HLLM Society, observes, 

His words of wisdom live on for a lot of the older generations who remember the difficult times and some of my family came from farming stock and I know from experience how hard it is to farm the land and make a living [. . .] The kids all have their iPhones and Facebook and the internet and Henry’s tales of hardship are not relevant to their lives. 

Maree identifies the appeal of Lawson for an older demographic while urbanised young people have the internet and social media to occupy them instead. Due to their age, the outsider might expect HLLM members to be conservative in their views. Although some of their activities might be seen to reinforce cultural values such as mateship and national pride, others are politically progressive, focusing on disenfranchised members of the community such as residents of social housing and asylum seekers.

Conclusion

During his lifetime, Lawson had an uneasy relationship with critics, as articulated in his fiery poem “The Uncultured Rhymer to His Cultured Critics.” In 1930 Fred J. Bloomfield observed that critical patronage has “been poured around and about [Lawson] in streams of varied viscosity” alternating “from treacle to pitch” (7). Lawson’s critical reputation has ebbed and flowed; nonetheless, he has retained a substantial number of devoted followers.

Literary scholarship, especially biographical work, can be dependent on the collections initiated by fans, yet academics may find it uncomfortable to acknowledge the value of such “amateurs.” Becoming a critical reader, Felski argues, “means moving from attachment to detachment and indeed to disenchantment, undergoing not just an intellectual but also a sentimental education” (“After Suspicion” 30). From the perspective of professional readers, fans seem hopelessly “uncritical” and therefore unable to “objectively” evaluate literary merit. The HLLM Society members have differing reasons for their affective attachments to Lawson—and various modes of expressing them—yet they all acknowledge that Lawson can bring people together. 

The pressure on academics to be innovative often results in the production of complex reading strategies far removed from those of fans. As William H. Galperin notes in relation to the Jane Austen Society of North America, in which academics are overwhelmingly outnumbered by laypeople: “The JASNA culture is all about repeating and repeating and repeating . . . Whereas people who are in the knowledge business are trying to get away from repetition, if they can. They’re trying to do something new” (qtd. in Yaffe 113). HLLM Society members engage in repetitive activities but they also translate texts into other “amateur” forms—such as bush poetry, sketches, craft objects, films, and plays—while remaining faithful to their idol. 

In my role as participant observer—and fan/academic—I have been moved by the sense of camaraderie amongst HLLM Society members and the joy they derive from sharing Lawson’s writing in various forms. As a number of commentators have shown, it is possible for academics to be both analytical and passionate at the same time (see Jenkins, Textual Poachers; Hills). Catherine M. Roach has observed that academic observer participants within particular cultures can elicit great pleasure from their interactions with their subjects. This, she argues, has wider implications for the status of academic research which is traditionally steeped in norms of “objectivity and distance, staid and sober” (46). Many HLLM Society members also inhabit dual identities as both fans and creators, drawing upon their love of Lawson to produce their own works. An acknowledgement of the value of the emotional investments of Lawson fans could point the way towards a broadening of the range of acceptable reading practices within Lawson scholarship. 

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Keywords


fandom, Henry Lawson, Australian literature



Copyright (c) 2016 Brigid Louise Magner, Brigid Louise Magner

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