Laurie Hergenhan grew up on the south coast of New South Wales. After completing high school at St. Bernard's College, Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains, he attended the University of Sydney, receiving a BA then an MA during the 1950s. Hergenhan subsequently completed a PhD on George Meredith at Birkbeck College in London, returning to Australia in 1960 to take up a lectureship at the University of Tasmania.
At the University of Tasmania, Hergenhan taught and supervised postgraduate research in Victorian literature during the 1960s, but his research activities began to turn more to Australian literature. This was consolidated in 1963 when he became the founding editor of Australian Literary Studies, a position he would hold for almost forty years. In that time, Hergenhan published many articles and reviews on Australian literature and several books, including a collection of Marcus Clarke's journalism, A Colonial City: High and Low Life (1972), a collection of essays on convict novels, Unnatural Lives (1983) and No Casual Traveller (1995), a biography of the American visitor and promoter of Australian literature, C. Hartley Grattan. He was also general editor of the Penguin New Literary History of Australia (1988), first published as a special issue of Australian Literary Studies.
Hergenhan moved to the University of Queensland in 1971 and has since travelled widely as a visiting fellow at many international institutions. He was the founding director of the Australian Studies Centre and was appointed Chair of the English Department in 1992. He became an Emeritus Professor in 1995, continuing as editor of Australian Literary Studies until 2001.