Did Henry Lawson create idyllic scenes of yarns around campfires because he was deaf and could not take part in them?
IF HENRY Lawson was alive today, what would he say at a press conference? For starters, perhaps he would make a sardonic comment about his profile on the old ten-dollar note. However we could be certain of one thing: he would not hear the questions asked of him.
It would not be obvious. Asked something, Lawson, like some of his characters, would probably pause and appear to be deep in thought. He might even suddenly launch on a strange or irrelevant tack to evade the question. It would be easy to regard such quirky behaviour as evidence of a character defect. But such behaviour would also be a normal response from someone who speaks but who does not hear. Appearing to be deep in thought, it is less likely that he would be formulating his reply; it is more likely his mind would be working furiously to decipher the question. If he evaded the question, he would have a good reason – he never heard it in the first place.
Henry Lawson was deaf. We know he was deaf because he wrote that he was, and in particular because others observed it. Strictly speaking he would today be regarded as hearing-impaired. It was a complex situation for Lawson in a society that had no recognition of deafness and very little understanding of it. The literary industry built around Henry Lawson has acknowledged his deafness, and left it at that.
Outside literary circles, Lawson’s deafness is largely unknown. He could scarcely bring himself to write about it. Out of his complete works, which fill two large volumes, there are brief mentions in his one attempt to write his autobiography. He wrote that when he was nine, deafness followed an excruciating earache, and he suggested his hearing declined until he was 14. He wrote that deafness was to “cloud my whole life”, and he even believed it was largely responsible for his writing. He also wrote a curious paragraph in which he excused people who took advantage of his deafness; it seems almost an apologia that reveals his own confusion.
The earache about which he wrote could have been an ear infection that caused an intense build-up of fluid that could have ruptured an ear drum or damaged the middle ear, causing conductive deafness. It may also have damaged the inner ear, the cochlea, which converts the mechanical energy of sound waves into electrical energy which is transmitted along the auditory nerve to the hearing centre in the brain. If Lawson had predominantly conductive deafness, he would have coped with fluctuating hearing loss, and at times he may have been able to hear in noisy surroundings. We could guess at a moderate level of hearing loss.
Although Lawson mentions the one ear being affected, we can be certain he had poor hearing in both ears. It is likely he endured successive ear infections, and this would explain why Lawson implies his hearing was decreasing. If only one ear was affected, Lawson would have had problems localising sounds, but he would have been able to follow what was spoken to him. The many passing references by others to his deafness do not hint at a man with a habit of twisting his head to the source of a sound.
It was confusing for those who knew him. His contemporaries could never be quite certain whether he heard them or not. Chances are he heard best in quiet surroundings with one or two others. Adding to their confusion, Lawson of course sounded the same as anyone else; there was no obvious indication of deafness. As a final twist, it is doubtful that Lawson tried to explain to others what he coped with.
To appreciate the impact of deafness on Lawson, we need to view his life through the complex, subtle and contradictory politics of deaf communication. Deaf people who speak depend on numerous elements to communicate, such as the environment, the occasion, the extent of noise and so on. For the sake of simplicity we can focus on two: there must be enough light present, and the face of the speaker must be in view. In other words, eyesight boosts the little that can be heard. Lipreading is important, but lipreading is also about reading the meaning off eyes, face and body. Eyesight and perception are absolutely critical.
Henry Lawson wrote that “perhaps, in a great measure” deafness was responsible for his writing. Of course deafness was responsible for his writing. Every time Lawson was surrounded by people, he could not always follow every word they spoke. Whether he could depended very much on the circumstances. At times he was likely to have understood enough to work out a thread of conversation, and he may have been burning with frustration at not being able to contribute. He quickly discovered that writing was a way to sate his urge to be a part of the world around him and thus overcome the isolation of deafness. Through writing he could create worlds that were emphatically hearing-unimpaired. These worlds were so unlike the world he coped with daily that we can only begin to imagine the effect on him as he realised the difference between the two, a difference that, with the exception of alcohol, he could do nothing about.
There is no better example to illustrate this speculation than his own creation, the yarn around a campfire. Think of a typical campfire gathering in terms of the two factors above: the amount of light present, and the extent to which faces can be seen. Take the latter. In Lawson’s time, a typical campfire gathering would have compromised of men. Look at any photograph of men of that era, and note how common was facial hair. For anyone trying to read meaning off faces, a beard is an impenetrable cloak.
If beards are bad enough, the erratic firelight from campfire makes communication worse. With a good blaze faces are quite visible, but much less so with a sedate fire with its deep and long shadows, and a flickering firelight contorts the appearance of faces. The effect of bearded faces in distorted, dancing yellow, orange and red light means Lawson could barely have followed anything.
What is revealing is that according to Tom Mutch, Lawson had fixed ideas about how a billy should be boiled. It should be placed, not on a fire but on the “nice red coals” after the fire had died down. If this was Lawson’s ideal for companionable camp-fire yarns, there would have been scarcely any light to illuminate faces and hence allow a deaf person to communicate.
This is why the very title of his 1896 collection of stories and verse, While the Billy Boils, carries the hidden irony of Lawson’s deafness: the man who created the idyllic, quintessentially Australian scene of yarns around a campfire did so because he could not take part in them himself. The significance of the campfire continues today; the 1984 Lansdowne Press collection of his works from 1885 to 1900 carries the title, ‘A Camp-fire Yarn’.
For all the times Lawson couldn’t follow the yarning, what could he do? It was obvious: he would sink an ale. Deafness played a crucial part in Lawson’s alcoholism. It was not the only reason but it was a significant reason. He must have discovered very quickly that alcohol blurred the differences between his hearing-unimpaired art and his hearing-impaired reality. With many ales on board, it no longer mattered that he could not hear his companions. He could have introduced any irrelevant comment without embarrassment or opprobrium, and it became easy to laugh long and hard at the jokes he never heard. The first known instance of his drunkenness, as a young man in his early twenties, took place during his time with the ‘Mountain Push’ in the Blue Mountains out of Sydney. It may be significant that this coincided with a description of Lawson by one of his companions at the time, Arthur Parker: “ . . . mostly he liked to smoke his pipe and listen, while we sang and told stories and yarned round the camp-fire”. The key word here is ‘listen’. A more accurate term may have been, ‘try to hear’. And perhaps even more accurate, ‘having given up trying to hear, was content to observe over an ale’.
According to those who observed him, Lawson did not like people shouting at him; Arthur Parker above wrote that Lawson needed people to speak “quietly and distinctly” to him. It may not be a coincidence that those are precisely the words Lawson’s estranged wife Bertha used to describe how she herself spoke to him. No-one likes being shouted at, even with the well-intentioned overlay of those trying to help the deaf. Shouting, especially in a strong emotional state, distorts faces. We will never know just what took place between these two as they quarrelled while their marriage disintegrated, but a great deal of Lawson’s frustration would have been made up of choking impotence. He knew he was certainly capable of rebutting Bertha’s taunts, assuming that was what she did, but rebut them he could not because they were shouted at him and he could not decipher them. To state the bleeding obvious, people do not speak “clearly and distinctly” to each other during blazing rows. Of course Bertha exploited Lawson’s deafness in a way that contradicts Lawson’s apologia; it was human nature for her to do so.
Reviewing Lawson’s life through the politics of deaf communication offers some alternative explanations of what others observed of Lawson. Fred Broomfield, a subeditor on the Bulletin and one of Lawson’s fellow Bohemians in Sydney in the 1890s, had this to say: “Lawson had humour, quaint and twisted, and a rare gift of assuming a mask of quizzical ignorance in furtherance of a jest” (my italics). Broomfield continues in more overblown prose: “He (Lawson) could cloak his speech in a veritably impenetrable macintosh of bucolic density when a subtle occasion demanded obfuscation.”
Broomfield’s ‘mask of quizzical ignorance’ was simply the delay common among hearing-impaired people who are struggling to work out what was just said. If the hearing-impaired person still cannot work it out, he or she might do what it seems Lawson did: quickly come out with something, anything, to cover social awkwardness caused by not hearing. Broomfield’s description of it as ‘rare’ merely suggests he encountered almost no hearing-impaired people, or was unaware that he did. Such was the complexity of social encounters caused by deafness that Lawson must have found alcohol a relief.
Why did Lawson fail to write anything about his deafness? My incomplete answer is that he had no reference point. He drew inspiration from the world around him, and it was a world that had nothing to offer about deafness. Lawson knew no other deaf people. There were certainly no deaf writers. If ever he read anything about deafness, it was quite likely to have included religious tracts about the need for temperance for the deaf-and-dumb to ensure their salvation. Apart from brief encounters with some ear specialists of his day, he had no-one to talk to about deafness, and in any case it is doubtful many would have understood. Writers have certainly written about being poor, in jail and in asylums, and so there was some precedent for him to write thus. But of deafness there was not even that certain status of such misfortunes as perhaps being enriching experiences of life. In short, deafness was a nothingness.
Not anymore. Today, deafness and hearing impairment are more easily acknowledged, although misunderstanding and ignorance of it are as rife as ever. There are research centres into deafness, there are community workers and educational specialists, and it is not difficult to obtain information about it. We know much more now about deafness and its effect on the individual. It is time to apply that knowledge to Henry Lawson.
Professor Geoffrey Blainey recently wrote of Lawson as a personal hero, and wondered whether Lawson may enjoy a resurgence of popularity. Like Professor Blainey, I too hope that Henry Lawson will rise again. This time we do have the knowledge to penetrate the clouds of which Lawson wrote; the deafness about which Lawson, himself a master of words, could find no words to express.
This article appeared in Coppertales, 10/2006, pp74-78