Bourke is considered to represent the edge of the settled agricultural districts and the gateway to the Outback which lies north and west of Bourke.
This is reflected in a traditional east coast Australian expression "back o' Bourke", referring to the Outback.
In 1892 young writer Henry Lawson was sent to Bourke by Bulletin editor J.F. Archibald to get a taste of outback life and to try to curb his heavy drinking. In Lawson's own words "I got £5 and a railway ticket from the Bulletin and went to Bourke. Painted, picked up in a shearing shed and swagged it for six months". The experience was to have a profound effect on the 25 year old and his encounter with the harsh realities of bush life inspired much of his subsequent work. Lawson would later write "if you know Bourke you know Australia". In 1992 eight poems, written under a pseudonym and published in the Western Herald, were discovered in the Bourke library archives and confirmed to be Lawson's work.