Manning Clark’s A History of Australia has weathered scepticism, criticism and political rebuke, and the same can be said of the author. His A History of Australia excluded Aborigines and women from history, yet by privileging narrative, aesthetics and philosophy in his writing, by blurring of the line between fact and fiction, art and lies, Clark’s methodology was prophetic. The historian has been accused of straying from historical fact, of seeking to define the undefinable and therefore turning to the comforters of the Greeks – to myth, exaggeration and narrative.
But for too long Clark’s work has been tainted by the pursuit of those eager to discredit him. This paper recognises The History’s value and driving influence in the development of Australian history, and re-examines Clark’s use of narrative, myth and philosophy in the creation of an Australian identity. It asks whether Clark was able to solve his own puzzle, posited in 1979, that ‘there must be some reason why in the twentieth century we find it more difficult to answer the question: what is the identity of an Australian?’ (M Clark, 1980b:16). I suggest, with Richard White, that images of national identity are always inventions, and that there is nothing unusual in a national history of the past being written and studied in order to serve the present. As White notes, ‘When we look at ideas about national identity … we need to ask, not whether they are true or false, but what their function is, whose creation they are, and whose interests they serve’ (White, 1981:viii). I argue that Clark’s concern lay with the inner monologue of the nation, the guiding influence of human nature in history and his unyielding, Dostoyevskyan conviction that all history is tragedy.
History, Myth and the Ancient Paradigm
Historical discourse of any form will in some way doff its cap to the works of the Ancients, and history will forever be linked to narrative, to myth and to the legends it allows a reader to imagine and believe in. Heroes of Ancient Greek mythology and historiography such as Homer, Herodotus and Thucydides are planted into the fabric of historical pursuits, and have provided a template to which not only novice scholars of history but also experienced historians, novelists, reporters and the like so often turn before attempting their own studies. Homer wrote mythos, a narrative retelling and explanation of life’s events and circumstances. We can assume that Homer’s poetry reflected existing oral histories and traditions, and his works became the means by which the Ancient Greeks preserved their way of life. The mythic offered a structure they enjoyed; it was a touchstone, a way of understanding and explaining the natural world; it gave meaning to life and provided explanations of events and ideological movements. In the mythic interpretation, life was cyclical, predictable and ordered; it was intuitive, not intellectual.
The historian’s affection for myth has been variously enunciated. The need to map time,our time, to mark a path of nationhood, and the desire to make heavy our footsteps in the past lies deep in Western culture. One could comment that the genesis for themythos of King Arthur and his Round Table was the need to create for the Medieval Britons a worthy and noble national history that pre-dated Roman and Norman invasion – to prove to a wider Europe, and to the Britons themselves, that they possessed as much bravado and as loud a dialogue with the (Christian) divine as their conquerors. Manning Clark suggested in 1979 that human suffering was ‘one of the reasons why human beings build mythologies. They create mythologies to make life both intelligible and bearable. A mythology explains both creation and the existence of evil in the world: mythology is mankind’s great comforter’ (M. Clark, 1980b:20). Mythologies are created to cherish a moment and provide a road map for social development.
Myth and Young Australia
In Australia, the myth of the Anzac soldier has become folklore, a symbol from which national identity was forged and contemporary patriotic sentiment is promoted. It is this nation’s most favoured and accessible national story. The Anzac experience at Gallipoli was not only a tragically flawed military episode, it was a baptism of fire for the people of Australia – the first time a truly Australian corps had played on the field of battle and had not gone wanting, and the first time details and names of Australian dead appeared in the daily papers in great numbers.
The reports posted first by Briton Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett and later by official Australian historian C.E.W. Bean detailed brave and heroic acts, confidence in the face of battle and a fierce loyalty to Empire. Lists of the dead, wounded and missing ran alongside stories of valour, achievement and sacrifice. The legend was secure and young Australia, just fourteen years passed Federation, could hold her head proud on the world stage. The first newspaper stories spoke of a romantic Gallipoli where Allied troops were making inroads in battle and where only hundreds had fallen, not the thousands who actually perished. The brutality and reality of war did not enter the myth and had not yet reached the understanding of those on the home front.
It did not matter. Australians were captivated and comforted by the propaganda of war and Anzac is a legend as difficult to debunk as explaining to a group of school children that John Simpson was not an Australian. By the early-1920s the Anzac reputation was inviolable. During that period, reports from British command and personal accounts of April 25th revealed ‘debilitating errors of planning and command, that there was great confusion among both staff and soldiers, and that by the afternoon the men at the front, confused, exhausted and exposed to enemy shrapnel and counter-attacks, were suffering terrible stress’ (Thomson, 1991:7). Correspondents and historians in Britain were not exposed to the great legend Anzac had become and did not recognise how integral it now was to a nation rebuilding after war and struggling to manage with its devastating effect on the home front. The legend represented much more than a military offensive and it was to be faithfully defended, despite stories of desertion, straggling soldiers and shirkers. That Australian soldiers fought hard and earned the respect of the Allied Forces meant even more. The First World War affected nearly every Australian town and city and memorials to fallen soldiers outnumber those anywhere else in the world. Anzac was so celebrated because it was a myth, or an ideal, that was tangible and accessible. The Australian experience before this had been segmented, class-based and specific to the pre-Federation states.
As much as we create myth to understand the world we live in and to glorify the past, episodes in our history that place an uncomfortable pea under our mattress can be glossed over or omitted – if to suit a purpose. The histories taught at Australian schools and universities during the 1960s and 1970s, for example, reflected the social and political fabric – to create an understanding of national identity and to support policies of economic development and White Australia. Frontier conflict, Aboriginal Australia and the role of women in Australian history were pushed to the sidelines, if mentioned at all. Marilyn Lake notes: ‘It was a story of white men’s achievements: no Aborigines mentioned by name … Women feature in the index between wombats and wool, with the entries for the latter more numerous’ (Lake, 2003:162).
Yet there is nothing unusual in a national history of the past written and studied in order to serve the present. Nineteenth century nationalism was the domain of the white, pastoral male and Australia promoted itself as the Workingman’s Paradise. ‘A voyage to Australia is the working man’s only road to the future’ (White, 1981:41) was a cry loud enough to reach those on the British Isles and Asia in search of a gold rush fortune. So was the promise of better food, a warmer climate and working class affluence. 1888 Centenary celebrations heralded the successes of the nation and its abounding comforts, but they were the successes and comforts of the employed white man and did not extend to the unskilled, to women, or to children. The 1901 constitution ignored the minority Aboriginal population entirely.
Prime Minister Billy Hughes stayed on for sixteen months in Europe following the end of the First World War as he set about constructing his view of post-war Australia. While some had flirted with republican ideas in the late nineteenth century, Federation in 1901, the war and Hughes’ commitment to and reliance upon Imperial defence of the region left the nation fettered to Britain. As Holt asserts, ‘The fierce innocence of 1888, when radicals could still dream of an Australia whose destiny was not tied to Europe’s, was gone forever’ (Holt, 1999:201). Hughes projected his ideal for Australia at the Versailles peace summit in 1919 by petitioning that German New Guinea be restricted from Japanese migrants. He claimed to be speaking for ‘some 60,000 dead’ (Nairn & Serle, 1983:398), and that his move was essential to the defence of Australia – a White Australia. The glimpse of republican sentiment in the late-nineteenth century had done little to sway common feeling in the colonies, and it was clear that Australian national identity was as the Earth revolving around the British Sun. The convict heritage of the first generations of Australian-born was sublimated with an innate British respectability, and the stain of convict blood was seen as a mark of impurity until well after transportations were abolished in the 1850s, as ‘few respectable native-born Australians had the confidence not to quail when real Englishmen spoke of their convict heritage’ (Hughes, 1986:xii). This is where the Anzac legend found further resonance; the Australians’ baptism of fire cleansed them of the persistent shame of their convict past.
Into the twentieth century the Workingman’s Paradise became the Lucky Country, but the image of Australia was relatively unchanged. Many in the working class succeeded in attaining the material comforts of home ownership and a new model Holden, but race, gender and class divisions drew a heavy mark through the Australian landscape distinguishing ‘us’ and ‘them’. Some believed that in signing the Federation constitution Australia had merely tightened its ties to Britain and that the young nation had failed to establish itself as anything more than a satellite colony. Where the post-war years had provided a period of wholesome and nostalgic attachment to the motherland, economic depression in the 1930s exposed the tyranny of distance and demanded the nation ‘grow up’. Global conflict in 1939 again drew the nation to war and forged new alliances with foreign superpowers. Australia’s history as much as her identity continued to be composed someplace else. As Robert Hughes wrote in The Fatal Shore, the reasons for a history curriculum that sought its stories elsewhere was ‘that there seemed to be so little in our early history to which we could point with pride. “History” meant great men, stirring deeds, useful discoveries and worthy sacrifices; our history was short of these. This made us even more anxious about our worth as Australians’ (Hughes, 1986, 12).
Studies of Australian history can be said to fit in one of two boats: the left and the right. This distinction could also be framed as the republican versus the monarchist, or the nationalist and the British loyalist. The period from the late 1850s through the 1890s was a time when the understanding of an Australian ‘national identity’ grew increasingly polarised. On one side these decades were a turning point borne of a renewed sense of nationalist fervour. Dissimilarity from the mother country ‘played a part in institutionalising iconic representations of “the Australian” and imprinting national values … Bushrangers, pioneers, swagmen also featured in this sunburnt, truly Australian landscape of droughts, floods and bushfires’ (Smith & West, 2003:640). The Bulletinmagazine emerged as a (then) platform for republican and libertarian sentiment at a time when the movement toward Federation was embraced as an opportunity for self-definition and independence based on the United States experience. But this opportunity was greatly unrealised, as those in the other, louder, camp sang intolerant policies and held a preference for Empire. The open-arms welcome once synonymous with the Workingman’s Paradise faded during the 1860s with the advances of the new industrialised world, and the many Chinese who had found wealth on the goldfields and made Australia their home were shunned by those who believed Australia should remain true to its colonial origins: a land, society and culture reserved for the white man and his descendants living peacefully under the watchful eye of the Crown. Clark observed, ‘The believers in the brotherhood of man and equality of all in the sight of God were silent. So the men who believed that the unity of labour was the hope of the world united with the apostles of Christian civilisation to preserve Australia for the white man’ (M Clark, 2006:234).
A united understanding of identity had never been realised and was unlikely to emerge. Ideological and political pursuits of the twentieth century – post-colonialism, socialism, the Labor Party split of 1916, Menzies’ referendum to dissolve the Communist Party of Australia in 1951, the Whitlam Dismissal in 1975 – cut a swathe through the vision of Australian nationalism. Each side pledged a nation founded on democratic institutions and the idea of the ‘fair go’. They embraced equally the larrikin tradition and significance of Anzac and colonial heritage. Yet one side had broken with Britain while the other remained her most loyal servant. Clark wrote in 1950 that ‘[t]he first settlement of Australia by Europeans was an episode in British History’ (M Clark, 1973:1), and throughout the twentieth century an equal share of Australian identity was built upon this belief as was by the party who rejected it. In recent times, and especially since the failure of the republican referendum in 1999, the polarity of the two schools of thought has again manifested – as notalgia for Empire increases in one camp, the other continues to question why the fathers of Federation didn’t strike a better deal.
The history we read and practice in schools is, generally speaking, one that the government in power chooses to advocate. Richard White reminds us that images of national identity are inventions: ‘When we look at ideas about national identity … we need to ask, not whether they are true or false, but what their function is, whose creation they are, and whose interests they serve’ (White, 1981:viii). In 1996 The Courier-Mail newspaper alleged that Manning Clark had been awarded the Soviet Union’s highest honour, the Order of Lenin, some time in the 1970s and that he was an ‘agent of influence’ during the Cold War. Although doused quite swiftly as unfounded and unsupportable claims, the Mail’s posthumous case against Clark pushed the historian into the headlines where he became the subject of academic and political polemic. Attacks on Clark’s ‘leftist’ analysis of Australian history found new, albeit shaky, ground while his defenders recited their oft-spoken support. The attacks were not unusual. In that same year then Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer declined to present Clark’s six-volume History of Australia to a United States university, preferring a biography of Sir John Monash (McKenna, 1998; see also Holt, 1999:233 and Macintyre & Clark, 2004:68). For decades Clark had been the subject of historical controversy in this country; he was too negative of Australia’s past for those on the right, yet often seen as a ‘fence sitter’ (McQueen, 1997:74) by those on the far left.
Australia’s latest History Wars, spurred by Keith Windschuttle’s The Fabrication of Aboriginal History (2002) and the Howard Government’s Australian History Summit in August 2006, have given capital-H History a renewed public profile as debate over a national curriculum and contests of political principles rage. Within this debate the two schools of thought have presented themselves in a new guise – those wearing a black armband, and those with a white blindfold. The History Wars indicate just how much politics entwines itself with history:
Rising in the House of Representatives, [Prime Minister] Bob Hawke moved ‘That this house expresses its deep regret at the death, on 23 May 1991, of Emeritus Professor Manning Clark, AC, and tenders its profound sympathy to his family in their bereavement’. … John Hewson, the Opposition leader, suggested that Clark might have taken an unduly tragic view of Australian history; David Kemp observed that he had neglected the market economy and rejected the British heritage. Both joined John Carlton in expressing their deep respect for his art and his vision … Five years later a new prime minister, John Howard, said that he had always had ‘a less than rapturous view of the Manning Clark view of Australian history’, and found the ‘cultural rapture of the Left’ for it ‘rather nauseating’. ‘It’s too negative’, he explained, and accused Clark of trying to generate ‘pessimism about Australia’ through ‘his black armband view’ (Macintyre & Clark, 2004:50-51).
Manning Clarke and Australian Identity
So much has been written about Clark and about his six-volume A History of Australiathat there is no need to add to the oeuvre of critique. Instead it is worth asking if his achievement has been as successful in illuminating a national identity as Clark had hoped. Was he able to solve his own puzzle, posited in 1979, that ‘there must be some reason why in the twentieth century we find it more difficult to answer the question: what is the identity of an Australian?’ (M Clark, 1980b:16).
If a historical discourse nourishes an audience with an accurate understanding of an event, a movement or a moment in time, then we may claim it has been a successful endeavour. In Clark’s case, his historical writings are too often secondary to attacks on his reputation. As Stuart Macintyre concluded in The History Wars, ‘the quality of that work and its validity as an interpretation of Australian history were less important than the public figure who came to stand for a highly politicised view of the national past’ (Macintyre & Clark, 2004:71). A contemporary revision of Clark is therefore necessary, to acknowledge the critics but to put them aside, and recognise The History’s value and driving influence in the development of Australian history. Revisiting the volumes will also enable us to discover why Clark has been so instrumental to understanding Australian national identity.
Yet it has become impossible to extricate Manning Clark the man from Manning Clark the work. When assessing the figure of the Australian that Clark produced, we must also look at the character he came to be. Clark’s six volumes, published between 1962 and 1987, brought many honours and an esteemed reputation, but they also brought scepticism of the work’s accuracy and endless, heated discussions of whether the narrative should be embraced as historical document. From the late-1960s Clark moved on from the stable of academic journals and found fame in the media – television, radio and the press – and enjoyed regular appearances there until his death. He became a public intellectual and was identified most commonly with the controversy surrounding his History. At least 16,000 copies have been sold of each of Clark’s volumes but it is unknown if Australian families read the tomes or if they were purchased and placed unread on bookshelves as an act of perceived patriotism. Either way, to Clark the quest had been charged – answer the question of who Australians are, and articulate their true inner character.
Manning Clark (the man) is a complicated icon. The final volumes of the History show Clark ‘increasingly enunciat[ing] a view of Australia which was tinged with Biblical gloom and prophetic fears’ (Matthews, 1996:14). He depicted characters of Australian history as strong individuals troubled by tragic flaws, and this reflects his own (public) persona. He was identified with the political left and his outrage at the 1975 Whitlam Dismissal sparked a fire in Clark’s belly that was never doused, and did little to sweeten his already tempered relationship with the conservatives. But before this, following his inaugural lecture at Canberra University College in June 1954, Clark was heralded as offering the launch of ‘a counter-revolution in Australian historiography’ (Bridge, 2001), that explored and espoused the ongoing European sway in Australian society and questioned the weight of influence (then) given to mateship, the bush and the battler – principles of those nineteenth century radicals Clark would later come to indicate as crucial to this national identity. Clark believed his task was to fill ‘the lacuna of the twentieth century – written up by the Establishment boys of the Left’ (M Clark, c.1953, NLA), and Peter Coleman, former editor of the Bulletin, saw that by questioning orthodox assumptions Clark ‘did more than anyone else to release historians from the prison of the radical interpretation and to begin the systematic study of the neglected themes in history, especially religion’ (Coleman, 1962:7).
Journeys to Europe and Asia in the late 1950s as fieldwork research for Sources of Australian History (1957) had much influence upon Clark’s personal ideology and future approach to historical endeavour. He did not move to focus on the themes Coleman had suggested, instead returning to Canberra armed with the idea for the then two-volumeHistory of Australia. What began in 1953 as a need to revise and restate the instruction of Australian history and reject the earlier historical schools – the Nationalist, the Academic and the Left Wing (M Clark, c.1953, NLA) – became a rejection of progressive, or materialist, historiography. Clark turned to concentrate on the guiding influence of human nature in history and his unyielding, Dostoyevskyan conviction that all history is tragedy. When crafting the History, Clark wrote:
To be great as literature – the aim of all historians – [the work] must be written by someone who has something to say about human nature, but above all, it must be written by someone who has pondered deeply over the problems of life and death. Like the fox in the Greek fragment, the historian must know many things, but like the hedgehog, he must know but one thing – and feel it deeply (M Clark, 1980a).
In retirement Manning Clark reconciled the difficulties of writing history as narrative through an understanding that the lives he told were not the sheep and the cattle of the social scientists’ output; he understood rather that he was communicating ‘a vision of life … [he] believed in the Australia that was coming to be, that we here could contribute towards ending the “old-world errors, wrongs and lies”’ (M Clark, 1988b:53, 56). For Clark this was non-negotiable. His study was guided by the belief that he needed a ‘bank of his own excitements and disappointments, his success and heartbreaks, before he could write history as art – before he could write about the inner life of others, informing their world with the shared experience of his life’ (McKenna, 2007:27). This focus on the personal, the human and the tragic fuelled criticisms of the History from both the academy and the wider media. Studies of the psyche differentiated him from the ‘radical left’, and noticeable flaws in his historical analysis, combined with a reluctance to consider economic and cultural movements, prompted attacks of Clark’s methodology. He focussed on ‘men of great deeds’ and omitted women and Aborigines from history, he got dates wrong and anachronisms are easily spotted – he has Governor William Bligh shake hands with a man three years dead, he awarded Phar Lap too many Melbourne Cups, and in recent times we have learnt Clark placed himselfin an erroneous scenario. He manipulated and stretched the boundaries of erudite historical norms; he strayed far from the domain of capital-H History; he rarely read the work of contemporaries and did not respond to his critics.
In his 1962 Bulletin review, ‘History Without Facts’, MH Ellis outlined inaccuracies in Volume I of the History ranging from the departure point of the First Fleet to the name of the ship the Macarthurs sailed on. Clark did not respond to Ellis’ letter and rarely revised his works to correct factual errors. Ellis and Clark shared a strained relationship and following the Bulletin article Ellis published frequent commentary outlining flaws in Clark’s work, amongst other writer-historians of the Left. Ellis found little professional reward in his pursuit of Clark, learning instead that, more often than not, a critique or review was a personal attack rather than a comment based on one’s work. In “Being There. The strange history of Manning Clark”, Mark McKenna narrates his discovery when reading Clark’s letters and diaries that it was impossible for the historian to have witnessed events of Kristallnacht in 1938 Germany as he had recalled, and that he had used the experience and memory of his wife, Dymphna, and claimed them as his own. ‘I felt a sense of disbelief and disappointment at having been misled … [believing] the historian, of all people, would not play with the truth in such a way’ (McKenna, 2007:31). But this incident could be an accidental appropriation of another’s memory, as much as it could be a trait of the author: ‘Typical Manning – theatrical, playful, pulling your leg’ claimed a novelist friend.
Antagonism toward Clark reflected the paradigm shift of late-1960s and 1970s Australia that saw those in Whitlam’s ‘cultural revolution’ fighting Menzies/Fraser-era conservatives. Clark was attacked for a lack of patriotism. Establishment critics claimed he dwelled too heavily on dark passages of Australia’s past and did not consider the great achievements of the colonisers. Conversely his break from the imperial-centred past tapped into an anti-British post-colonial sentiment gaining popularity in camps on the left, and of the new mobile working classes. The crux of his complaints with post-Federation Australia was not tied up in a black armband, rather in his belief that the nation had failed to fulfil its potential. Clark saw an Australia that remained shackled to the British past, with a constitution that had been installed in 1901 and remained unchanged and unchallenged since then. Australians were without a unique, tangible identity. Any identity that existed drifted in uncertainty – it relished the opportunities of multiculturalism and shaking off White Australia, yet struggled to define and understand its British heritage. Clark noted that ‘by the second quarter of the twentieth century Australians had grown out of the traditions and attitudes handed down from the past. They were remote from the lag of convict tradition, that tradition of glorying in crime, of making heroes out of bushrangers’ (M Clark, 1980b:15), and that each of the states bore an identity and concerns of its own. ‘In New South Wales there was a vested interest in free trade; in Victoria there was a vested interest in protection. New South Wales was a convict colony; South Australia was not. New South Wales and Queensland played Rugby football; the other colonies played Australian Rules’ (M Clark, 2006:216). Could these differences ever be consolidated to form something resembling the ‘Australian’?
Clark did not attack the colonisers, nor did he present a vision of Australia that his audience would be shamed to read, and he did not champion what has come to be known as the black armband view. What he did was recognise the need for a revision of the past, and in doing so popularised a critical reading of Australian history (McKenna, 2003:366). Clark saw that Australians were ‘ready to face the truth about our past, to acknowledge that the coming of the British was the occasion of three great evils: the violence against the original inhabitants of the country, the Aborigines; the violence against the first European Labor force in Australia, the convicts; and the violence done to the land itself’ (M Clark 1988a:12). In his 1988 Boyer Lecture redress Clark acknowledged his regret for the absence of Aboriginals and women in his histories: ‘I told only a part of what is possibility the greatest human tragedy in the history of Australia – the confrontation between the white man and the Aborigine. That, I believe, will probably fill the centre of the stage when the next historian tells the story of human beings in Australia’ (M Clark, 1988b:56). On contemporary themes of the black armband view Clark spoke with characteristic, prophetic intensity: ‘The fear of inferiority, of being condemned to a lowly position in the great chain of being, became one of the ghosts which haunt us from the past. Our country is full of such ghosts – the ghost of what our ancestors did to the Aboriginals, of what they did to the land, the ghosts of convictism, the ghost of foreign wars. We must live with our ghosts as best we can’ (M Clark, 1980b:9). But he did not contribute to the vast collections of the emerging, determined enquiries on the Stolen Generations, land rights claims and frontier conflict. He left that to both his contemporaries and to the next wave, the postmodern school – Geoffrey Blainey, Bill Stanner, Windschuttle, Inga Clendinnen, Richard Broome and Ann Curthoys among others.
The black armband debate positions Australian history writing in two camps and creates a diametric opposition. Since Blainey coined the phrase at his 1993 Sir John Latham Memorial Lecture, critical observations of the past have been cloaked with a black shroud. As Anna Clark observes, ‘to imply that revision is inherently critical or biased is to misunderstand the way the past is continually re-evaluated’ (A Clark, 2002:2). The historian must apply new knowledge, discoveries, endeavours and ideologies to his or her study. Acknowledging and allowing a ‘black’ consideration of the Australian past expands the breadth of historical focus and enriches our understanding. The term ‘critical’ does the study a disservice; it is a misnomer commonly misconstrued as ‘negative’. Clark cannot be forgiven for omitting crucial aspects of Australian national history, yet it would be short-sighted to discredit the ongoing impact of his History on this basis alone.
Historical pursuits, as ever, reflect the ideology of the Federal Government. Geoffrey Blainey charged Manning Clark and Prime Minister Paul Keating with promoting the black armband view and not surprisingly the most recent attack on Clark began with the change of Federal Government in 1996, and mirrors the climate of Howard’s Australia. For in an Australia with flagpoles in every schoolyard ‘there is no room for those who wonder whether they “belong” or dare to doubt the legitimacy of the national project. We are “free to be proud of our country” but we are not free to repudiate our country’ (McKenna, 2003:383). To use Blainey’s own metaphor – the pendulum of Australian history swings from black to white; from attacks on Clark to attacks on Blainey and back again. We can reflect and praise, but we cannot question or intend indifference. The 2007 Anzac model, not the 1915 vision, is testimony to this.
Manning Clark’s A History of Australia reflects the modernist method of the post-war intellectual milieu and many of the preconceptions and concerns of his era. It is the role of the historian not to judge the past against contemporary standards but to reflect from a retrospective advantage, to use the staircase of time to survey the landscape of all that has come before. Clark has been called a ‘travesty of a historian’ who strayed so far from the structures of ‘history’ that he is best labelled a novelist, and that his greatest works were completed before he began the six-volume History. He is judged, often furiously, by contemporary norms by critics who fail to see his works as one man’s aesthetic, passionate, yet nonetheless considered rendering.
Manning Clark believed myth telling is used as a comfort when we are unable to pinpoint something tangible, authentic and truly ours. Neither Clark nor his work could be pigeonholed in the way that his antecedents and contemporaries could: Keith Hancock (too radical), Henry Lawson (a drunk radical), Blainey (too conservative) and Ellis (an envious, ‘honorary’ academic). Clark’s exposure in the media increased the spread of his works, while friendships with prominent intellectuals and performers – Patrick White, Barry Humphries – pushed his vision of Australia even further, aggravating detractors. His sympathy for Gough Whitlam’s desire to ‘revolutionise’ Australia’s reputation as a cultural wasteland was welcomed, especially in the decade after the great exodus of young Australians to Britain and the United States.
Manning Clark’s oeuvre has had long-lasting influence. Each of his papers, lectures, studies and personal reflections mirrors the last, and undoubtedly, his works cannot be deemed those of a ‘fact-grabbing’ historian. But that was never Clark’s intention. His obsession with the personal, the tragic was as much an attempt at self-definition as it was to discover the ‘Australian identity’ and he spoke through the voices of literary heroes – Dostoyevsky, Lawson, Tolstoy – rather than any scholar of historical expertise. Clark’s diagnosis of the true, inner character of ‘Australianness’ was not one proud of the pioneering progress of the nineteenth century, he did not glorify a peaceful reputation of the settler communities, nor did he champion war heroes. His diagnosis is incomplete and remains as ill defined as the identity itself. Clark’s concern lay with the inner monologue of the nation and attempted to clarify what could not be done – to attempt an explanation for what is abjured, ambivalent and constructed could never be articulated. So in seeking to define the undefinable, he turned to the comforters of the Greeks – to myth, to exaggeration and to narrative.
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