An Article on Man (1893)

Henry Lawson
Cobber’s Morning Herald
August 27, 2021

It is fashionable to sneer.

It could scarcely have been so fashionable in say, Byron’s time, or in the time of Thackeray, because had it been so those men would never have been considered the great and original writers they were. For in order to be original and to live, the writing of a man must be really against the ‘fashions’ of his time.

It is fashionable to sneer nowadays; it is fashionable to say that there is nothing good and pure in the world. It is fashionable to laugh at the idea of honour among men; and it is considered wisdom to believe and act accordingly. It is fashionable to be a liar, a swindler, a blackguard; it seems even fashionable to be ‘found out’, but not clever. It is fashionable to be a successful – thing.

I am not sure how it is in other lands. These conclusions are built in Australia.

It is not fashionable to write this way.

Gambling which is called ‘sporting’, is the most popular thing in Australia, and our best writers pander to it, because they are too blind to see that if they wrote as cleverly against it they would be thought a good deal more of.

This reminds me that a ‘poet of the people’ might write for them all his life and starve; they will scarcely recognise – just tolerate – him, that’s all; but if he turns round suddenly and stings ’em pretty smart they will immediately begin to think a great deal of him. A smart sting of that sort must necessarily have truth in it, you understand.

We may as well finish with writers now we have commenced. Here is a plan for a fashionable, or popular, Australian short story:

Write three inches of marriage, and put some stars underneath; then write about a foot of adultery, making it as dirty, or ‘racy’, as you dare, or as the law allows; put some more stars, and finish up with an inch or two of divorce. Then that ‘little thing of yours’ will be read, and thought a good little thing, and you’ll be considered a very clever writer. But your work won’t live longer than the issue of the paper in which it appears.

Speaking of popular things, the most popular man in an Australian country town is very often the greatest rascal and the man with the flattest head. Were he intelligent he wouldn’t be popular.

This brings up a famous remark made long ago by a man who would have been wise in any generation. He was reported to have ejaculated with feeling, “What foolish thing have I said that the people cheer me?” or words to that effect. It was more a remark than a question. Judging his wisdom from that remark alone, we are inclined to think that he did make a fool of himself on the occasion referred to. He must have been a wise man, or he wouldn’t have known it. He must have been an honest man, else he wouldn’t have said it. The funniest point of the business is that for generations after his death the wisdom of the world whooped louder for these few words than for many other observations of his; and, had he gone back immediately and mounted the stump and told the original crowd what he thought, the chances are that they would have barracked for him more enthusiastically than before. Such is man. But this is wandering from the point.

We will have to take writers, for instance, again. You need not be truthful, but you must be clever; you need not be just, so long as you are humorous. We didn’t say ‘funny’, because it would sound nasty there. The average reader looks more for humour than justice, more for smartness than truth, and it’s a pity that all those things couldn’t always be together.

It is fashionable to look for dirt nowadays, and find it in everything. The Australian boy does it because he hears the Australian young man, and thinks it clever. He wants to be ‘manly’ and for the same reason he smokes and drinks and becomes a larrikin. The young men see filth in most everything, because – because it’s fashionable. We admire the manliness of the age.

Suppose an average man-about-town to meet a girl who is as God intended her to be; the man would take her for a hypocrite; he wouldn’t believe in her, because he doesn’t believe in the purity of woman outside his own family circle. He might consider her the opposite to what she really is. Most likely he would see ‘encouragement’ in the very simplicity or innocence of her conversation, and come to the conclusion that “it would be good enough.” That last expression might seem offensive in print, but then, you know, it’s – it’s fashionable among men. If the larrikin language were to be printed a few times with suitable comments, it wouldn’t be used so much by gentlemen.

No, a pure true girl who speaks as she thinks would be put down either as a hypocrite or as being ‘a bit gone here’ by the average man-about-town. We admire the man-about-town, we have the greatest respect and admiration – almost awe – for the ‘man of the world’ of today. He is so clever, so witty, so bitingly sarcastic, so humorous (not “funny”); he so thoroughly understands human nature – men and women; he is so infallible, so unassailable (not to be had, you know); so blindly, ignorantly egotistical.

Damn him, for a blatant fool with a dirty mind and a dirty mouth.

Put aside all the bosh about Australia’s noble sport, her youth and beauty, her sunbright skies and grassy plains, her ‘shining rivers’, her enterprise and her ‘resources’, her loyalty, or, on the other hand, her Republicanism – put aside all the rot that has ever been written about Australia, and what remains? The remnant of a dying race of men who were men, though somewhat small-minded, and a rising race of ‘dudes’ and larrikins. What a land for swindlers!

We will not say that Australia is becoming ‘wicked’, because ‘wicked’ is an ‘old womanish’ word, and the user would be considered soft. You mustn’t be soft nowadays; you must appear manly.

It is not fashionable to prophesy, but we’ll chance it. In a few years, perhaps, Australian cities will be the most unprincipled in the world, and dirtier than ever the British hypocrite accused Paris of being. And when the societies of these cities are most vicious and their witty (not funny) men most grandly cynical, some great man will rise and turn his soul against all that is fashionable in his time, and his works will create reaction – and live.

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