Biography of a Book traces the life of an iconic Australian literary work in the lead-up to, and for a century after, its initial publication: Henry Lawson's 1896 collection While the Billy Boils. Paul Eggert follows Lawson's gradual development of a pared-back bush realism in the early 1890s, as he struggled to forge a career, writing short stories and sketches for the newspapers. Lawson’s famous collection came out at a decisive moment for the development of a fully professional Australian literary publishing industry, then in its infancy in Sydney. The volume’s editing, design, and production were collaborative events that changed the feel and nature of Lawson’s writing. He had to give ground on the order in which his stories were presented and even on their texts—especially the idiosyncratic wordings that helped breathe life into his characters.
While the Billy Boils went on to be reprinted and repackaged countless times. Its production and reception histories act like a geological cross section, revealing the contours of successive cultural formations in Australia. In unraveling the life of Lawson’s classic work, Eggert’s book-historical approach challenges and clarifies established understandings of crucial moments in Australian literary history and of Lawson himself.