The Australian Legend, Russel Ward

I should of course have written up my ‘namesake’ book years ago, though if you wished, if you had the fortitude, you might always have read my Masters dissertation, The Independent Woman in Australian Literature, which is one of the pages above.

This book attempts to trace the historical origins and development of the Australian legend or national mystique. It argues that a specifically Australian outlook grew up first and most clearly among the bush workers in the Australian pastoral industry, and that this group has had an influence, completely disproportionate to its numerical and economic strength, on the attitudes of the whole Australian community.

Ward, Foreword

The Australian Legend (1958) arose out of Ward’s PhD thesis, and it’s themes must have been ‘in the air’, as it followed Vance Palmer’s much less well argued The Legend of the Nineties (1954). It had an immediate impact, I think, crystallizing the thinking around Australia’s view of itself as a nation of knock-about, rugged, bush-savvy (white male) individualists despite the great majority of us (around 80%) living quiet suburban lives in the cities on the coastal fringes of our ’empty’ continent.

Feminist Gail Reekie wrote in 1992 that “Russell Ward’s Australian Legend has since its publication in 1958 constituted an almost irresistible magnetic pole of historical debate about the nature of Australia’s difference.” That is less true today, I think, as the multicultural (and multi-gendered) nature of modern society belatedly makes its way into our literature; but is still important, to decode the dog-whistling of right-wing politicians who use the themes of mateship, independence and (laughably) lack of respect for authority, to valorise military service; and to secure our placid acceptance of their post 9-11 incursions into our civil liberties.

I had intended this post as an ‘open letter’ to Marcie/Buried in Print, who is of course Canadian, to introduce her to Australia’s master of the short story, Henry Lawson. But that brought up so many other things – in my mind, anyway – that I decided to start from here.

Marcie, however, would recognise the foundations of the Australian Legend which begin with North America’s “Noble Frontiersmen” – fur traders, buffalo hunters, and then cowboys.

The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought. It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin … he fits himself into the Indian clearings and follows the Indian trails. Little by little he transforms the wilderness …

FJ Turner, The Significance of the Frontier, 1893 (Ward, p.239)

In the C19th, in Australia as in America, the proportion of native-born was very much higher in the interior than on the eastern sea-board. Following Turner, the two most important effects of the frontier were to promote nationalism and to promote democracy. The US then was already a nation. I don’t know about Canada, but in Australia the outback (the “frontier”) was where the seeds of nationalism, independence from Britain, and the labour movement all took root.

Popular culture – from ES Ellis to Zane Grey to Hollywood – glorified the ‘wild west’, and while we outsiders always associated the US and cowboys, I imagine most Americans had a more nuanced self-image. The bulk of Ward’s thesis explores why in Australia this didn’t happen. Why we stayed fixated on the ‘frontiersman’.

He suggests that the difference is Australia’s aridity. In the US homesteaders headed out into the plains for their 160 acres of land, where their values were those of the small businessman. Australia however was taken up initially by squatters on runs of tens and hundreds of square miles, which only later were partially broken up so that settlers could take up square mile (640 acre) blocks. So by the recession of the 1890s there were great bands of itinerant workers roaming the interior seeking short term work – shearing, mustering etc, – and with a common ‘enemy’, the squatter, often an absentee living in luxury in Melbourne or London. Hence our real national anthem, Waltzing Matilda.

From the 1880s onwards, the Bulletin picked up on this, actively fostering nationalism, and providing a platform for descriptions of bush life. And so we get back to Henry Lawson, whose stories in the Bulletin provide much of the basis for the ‘Lone Hand’ myth or archetype; back also to my own thesis, and to Henry’s mother Louisa Lawson – born and married into poverty in the bush, single mother, raconteur, newspaper publisher, suffragist, Independent Woman.

I have written at some length in the past about both Louisa and Henry –
Brian Matthews’ biography, Louisa (here)
Louisa Lawson vs Kaye Schaffer (here)
My Henry Lawson by (his wife) Bertha Lawson (here)
Poetry Slam, Lawson v Paterson (here)
All My Love, Anne Brooksbank (here)
The Drover’s Wife, Frank Moorehouse ed. (here)

Henry Lawson (1867-1922) was born on the bush block in Grenfell, NSW where his father scratched out a living fossicking and droving, often away for long periods until Louisa got sick of it and moved to Sydney in the early 1880s. Henry’s education was greatly restricted by deafness, but he read widely. While working with his father as a labourer he had some poems published, notably A Song of the Republic in the Bulletin in 1887.

Meanwhile Louisa had purchased a small newspaper which in 1888 became Dawn, a newspaper for women, mixing housewifely tips with suffragism. In 1894 she published Henry’s Short Stories in Prose and Verse. I can’t see when his stories began appearing in the Bulletin, but in 1896 they brought out the collection which made his name, While the Billy Boils.

If you read Lawson closely, you can see Louisa almost as much as you can see Henry. So, The Drover’s Wife is a story Louisa recounted and embroidered on while Henry was growing up; in the Joe Wilson stories leading up to Water them Geraniums Henry redraws a young Louisa and Peter falling in love and then falling apart. Louisa has made Henry aware, in a way that adopters of the myth of the Lone Hand generally are not, that the lifestyle of the itinerant bushman is based on the subjugation of women. Henry just doesn’t know what he can do about it.

Ward concludes that “admiration for the simple virtues of the barbarian or the frontiersman is a sentiment which arises naturally in highly complex, megalopolitan societies.” Maybe. In any case, the Bulletin took Lawson’s “mates”, made them archetypal at a time when Melbourne and Sydney were still very conscious of the ‘frontier’ just over the ranges; united them with the nationalism which led to Federation in 1901; and then had them caught up and incorporated into the new myth of the brave, ruffian ANZAC, created in 1915 and which has proved ‘the last refuge of scoundrels’ ever since.


Russel Ward, The Australian Legend, first pub. 1958. OUP, Melbourne, 1981. 280pp.


13 thoughts on “The Australian Legend, Russel Ward

  1. Fascinating stuff, thank you. It’s interesting how the Australian self-myth has stayed constant (though perhaps changing now as you say), whereas the American one has fractured away from just cowboys and settlers. In my mind, the American labour movement starts in towns and manufacturing industries, though I don’t really know enough about it to make such a sweeping statement.


    • Certainly, the Lone Hand/brave Anzac myth still holds – at least among Anglos. The voices of Mediterranean and Middle East immigrants aren’t so loud, not in literature anyway, but you can see Indigenous men and women on Twitter and in their writing, reforming a modern myth – I’m not sure about men, but the women’s seems to be of super-capable aunties. Perhaps modern Indigenous society will be matriarchal.

      I look to Chris Tsialkos for a new myth but then, his father is a trucky, so maybe he’s happy with the old one.

      The ‘myth’ of the Australian Labor Party is that it was started out of a major shearers’ strike in outback Queensland. Might be true.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Really enjoyed this post – thank you. I find the development of national myths very interesting and sometimes wonder what ours is in the UK, or specifically in England, perhaps. And it’s interesting to know where your blog name comes from!


    • I’m glad English people are liking my post. Very little seems to stick as a generalisation for Englishness – I wonder if that’s down to class. What is true of one class is untrue of another. Think for instance of the difference between Boys Own heroes, honourable young men, nearly all upper middle class; and the ‘typical’ Brit holidaying in Majorca.


  3. American myth seems to change constantly, in my opinion. First, I’m picturing the Puritans and their fears of witch craft and wild devotion to religion. Then, I’m picturing the “go west, young man” cowboy trope that you mention. But soon it gives way to the development of cities like San Francisco and Chicago and the notoriety around industry. I think today some folks still enjoy this idea of the rancher in states like Wyoming or Montana, but there is also a senes that that is utterly a failing endeavor due to climate change and the total domination of factory farming.

    When I was in elementary school I read a book by E.B. White called The Trumpet of the Swan, and I remember how we get the swan’s perspective; he thinks about how the boy in the story isn’t rowdy and trying to destroy things like most boys. He’s peaceful and watches nature; he walks “like an Indian.” Now that I’m thinking about it, that connection between dominating wilderness, which you discuss here, goes back much further than I suggested in my post on Fat Girls Hiking.


    • Myths continue for as long as they are useful, eg. the resilience of the British in the face of the Blitz; or the idea of the (male) ruggedly independent bushman which cons Australian suburbanites into war service and acceptance of the surveillance state. I’m sure the gun toting cowboy thing has some resonance throughout the US. But you are so diverse – almost equal thirds white, African-American and Latino – not to mention North/South, Mid West/Metropolitan that it must be difficult for any one myth to stick. Including post-Trump the democratic beacon to the world thing.


      • I just got to the end of your comment and realized I’m sitting here with my mouth opening and closing like a fish. I’m not even sure how to fully understand the horrible ramifications of Donald Trump, including striking down laws about abortion and government rules around climate change, and even how 96% of Republicans just voted NOT to codify into law birth control.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Mitch McConnell deserves a lot of the credit for those things.He’s the evil genius who organized the stacking of the Supreme Court. Trump was just his tool. But either way, US democracy is f*****d for now. And when the red states trash all non-red voting in 2024, with the Supreme’s support, then it will probably take you a generation just to get back to where you are now – and by then NY and Cal will probably have seceded.


  5. Ha, I remember this, now. I stand reading it and felt it was more complex than I had time to give to it at that moment – you can take that as a compliment if you like! – and that I would come back, and never did. If I’d made a “holding” comment at the time, I would have seen the discussion and have come back.

    Now, it’s a bit late, but I will say that I think some things are more nuanced. Take “and (laughably) lack of respect for authority” for example. I know where you are coming from and yet aspects of it are true as Mr Gums found when working in the USA, the home we thought of individualism. He found workers far more compliant there than in Australia where 1) workers have a strong sense of their rights, and 2) where workers expect to have their opinions listened to rather than just do as they’re told. In Australia, there’s far less of the servile “sir” and “ma’am” stuff, and more use of first names between employer and employee than he experienced in the USA, and this suggests that Australian workers don’t “embed” authority (hierarchy?) in their communications with each other at least. (This was the 80s and 905 so things may have changed.) I know some think Australians showed too much compliance over the pandemic, but an element of that was recognition of common good, I believe. That said, I appreciate that surveillance opportunities have increased and that maybe Aussies have accepted that too easily … but I go off on a tangent.

    I really need to read Russell Ward though to make serious response to your main discussion.


    • I’m really sorry I badgered you into reading one of my old posts. More so as you are meant to be enjoying your holiday. I get cranky when I express an opinion that I think is worthy of argument which just falls with a thud (in Australia, anyway, in this case, where it should have had more resonance). But me getting cranky is my problem, not yours!

      My observation over decades as a blue collar worker is that calling your boss by his first name does nothing to lower his status or to raise yours. And over and over I see workers doing things – I see myself doing things – out of loyalty to the job, to the business, to the boss’s interests; and that loyalty being taken advantage of and discarded.

      If workers had any idea of their own self-interest they would treat wage cuts as Capital and insist on being awarded shares. The great ‘Twiggy’s’ wealth is built at least partly on mine workers taking cuts in pay and conditions during the GFC. Usually it is just the occasion for management bonuses.

      You mention Covid. I think that the state governments were able to rely not on obedience but on the residual feelings of mutual self interest from back in the welfare state days. Which we all miss but which it does not suit politicians nor their masters to reinstate.


  6. You didn’t badger me at all Bill. You just mentioned a post that I had missed commenting on. Two very different things.

    Your comment that “My observation over decades as a blue collar worker is that calling your boss by his first name does nothing to lower his status or to raise yours” makes sense to me, but yet for some people it is still expected.

    Some of these issues – including companies giving employees shares – came up quite coincidentally in my conversation with Kim tonight. You are right of course about management bonuses. Even now, when wages have stagnated, some industry/business leaders have seen their incomes increase by over 100%. How they can justify that when inflation, until recently, was very little, beats me.

    Yes, I agree that the COVID compliance was not based on obedience but on “common good” or mutual self interest principles. Let’s hope we move more towards that welfare ideology in the next few years under our new racism.


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