Monday musings on Australian literature: City, bush and outback
If today weren’t Monday, this would probably be a literary road post but it is Monday which means of course that it’s a Monday Musings instead! See how flexible I am?
I know I talk a lot here about the bush and the outback but they are topics that keep cropping up in my reading and thinking. They cropped up again yesterday during a performance we attended at the Ballarat Heritage Festival. It was Bernard Caleo of the Museum of Melbourne reciting Banjo Paterson‘s “Mulga Bill’s Bicycle” and “The Man from Ironbark“. He performed them beautifully, but even better he provided some background to Paterson and his times. He spoke of the rivalry between Paterson and Henry Lawson. They were, he said, friends but they saw the bush in opposing ways: Lawson thought Paterson was too “romantic” while Paterson thought Lawson was all “doom and gloom”.
Caleo didn’t buy into the argument. That wasn’t, after all, his reason for being at the festival, but he did say that through publishing their poems and stories in The Bulletin they debated and defined our understanding of the city and the bush or outback. And he was right. Whether we read Paterson’s comedy or Lawson’s gloom or, even, Barbara Baynton‘s gothic, what we get is not only a sense of a divide between the city and the outback, but a rather schizophrenic view of the bush and/or outback. However, I don’t think these opposing views are irreconcilable: Paterson’s view of bushmen as heroic, free, and unsophisticated, and Lawson’s recognition of the harshness of outback life and the despairing resilience of the people are mutually exclusive. The way I see it, Lawson’s drover’s wife is heroic and Paterson’s Clancy works hard for his living. It’s more a matter of perspective than of there being a single truth … Don’t you think?
And yet, it’s not quite that simple either, because there is the issue of intention, or, at least, of impact. Paterson’s main goal seems to have been for city people to respect not ridicule bush people whereas Lawson, with his socialist leanings, may very well have hoped his writings would lead to practical improvements in the lot of the people he wrote about. On the other hand, maybe both just wanted to make a buck! Regardless, these two views of bush people are still relevant today …. That’s what interests me the most when I read, or hear, their writing, the way those views persist. I’m sure to write more on’t.