Australian history

The History Man: Manning Clark centenary — 1915-2015

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This year is the centenary of the birth of one of Australia's most influential, controversial and revered figures, the writer of 'A History of Australia', Professor Manning Clark. History editor Dr Glenn Davies reports.

This year sees the centenary of the birth of Professor Charles Manning Hope Clark AC, professor of history at Canberra University College and later the Australian National University, from 1949 to 1974. He was one of the most significant 20th century Australian figures. Manning Clark was one of the ANU’s most distinguished academics: a gifted teacher, brilliant historian and deeply influential public figure up to the time of his death, on 23 May 1991. Clark was the author of the best-known general history of Australia, his six-volume A History of Australia, published between 1962 and 1987 and been described as "Australia's most famous historian”. However, he was also a controversial figure, a staunch defender of Australia's right to be a nation independent of Great Britain and the target of much criticism, particularly from conservative academics and philosophers.

Born in Sydney on 3 March 1915, the son of an Anglican clergyman, Manning Clark won scholarships to Melbourne Grammar School and the University of Melbourne. He later attended Balliol College, Oxford. There he married Dymphna Lodewyckx from Melbourne and visited Nazi Germany on the eve of World War II. In the early 1940s, he taught history at schools in England and Australia. Ineligible for wartime service, he returned to teach at Geelong Grammar School, earned a great reputation as a teacher and was poached by the University of Melbourne to teach the first course in Australian history. He was then senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne and later professor of history in the School of General Studies at the Australian National University.

In Canberra, Manning Clark lived with Dymphna and their six children in a house designed by Robin Boyd. He became one of the local identities, conspicuous in broad-brimmed hat, spade beard and capacity for disconcerting comment. In 1972, he became the first 'professor of Australian history'. He held honorary doctorates awarded by the Universities of Melbourne, Newcastle and Sydney. In June 1975, Clark was made a Companion of the Order of Australia in recognition of his monumental A History of Australia. He was named Australian of the Year for 1980. Clark died in May 1991.

Manning Clark was one of the most influential Australian intellectuals of the last half century. His most enduring legacy, however, was his magisterial six-volume A History of Australia. In 1962, the first volume of A History of Australia appeared. For the next two-and-a-half decades, Clark unfolded his tragic celebration of white Australian history. Today, the six-volume history is one of the masterpieces of Australian literature. It is also one of the most passionately debated visions of Australian history.

In it, he reshaped the now familiar story of our nation's modern evolution — from the First Fleet's arrival, the convicts, the rum rebellion, gold, the sheep's back, Federation, and the glorious defeat at Gallipoli, up to the nation emerging from the Great Depression and on the threshold of a new world war. Within the dramatic narrative, which he envisaged as an epic, are highly original and insightful portraits of its great men with their tragic flaws: Phillip, Macquarie, Burke and Wills, Bligh, Wentworth and, above all, Henry Lawson. His heroes had flaws and often his villains had redeeming qualities. For Clark life – and indeed history – was not just about what we said and what we did bit also about our doubts and uncertainties on the one hand and our hopes and dreams on the other. His critics saw his approach as an unwarranted intrusion into the search for facts about winners and losers. History was for the historians and intruders like Clark were not welcome.

But behind this ambitious historical work – with its more than a million words and twenty-five, long slogging years of research and scholarship – was a man as flawed as the historical figures he was presenting, figures in whose personalities and life events he often saw himself dauntingly mirrored. He was wracked with self-doubt and dogged by fears of failure and personal weakness, and wrestled with an elusive Christ in whom he longed to have a secure faith. Behind the signature broad hat and the stern unsmiling visage was a tortured man.

The theme running through his six-volume A History of Australia was religion. Clark would show how the settlers of Australia brought with them three great faiths – Catholicism, Protestantism and the secular traditions that he described as the Enlightenment – and would chart what happened to those faiths in the ancient and unresponsive Australian environment. However, as the volumes progressed, the theme shifted away from religion to Australia’s failure, in Clark’s eyes, to generate an authentic nationalism.

Manning Clark seemed disappointed that Federation was achieved by middle-aged lawyers and politicians talking about Constitutional details, instead of through a republican war of independence. Australians rushed to fight Britain’s wars; Australian public men grovelled for British honours. This theme of an Australia divided between those who took up the call of freedom and those who wallowed in all things British seemed to really bother his critics. For Clark, the call of freedom was a call to take Australian history – its creations and failures and its heroes and villains – seriously. In this endeavour, Britain was part backdrop and part script but not the whole story. Aboriginal Australia, geographic location and the local environment had to be in the mix as well.

Clark came to republicanism in search of an Australian identity that recognised a diversity of influences was receptive to criticism and more open to the wider world and its future. Deep in the soul of too many of their fellow Australians they saw an internalised colonialism that acted as a barrier to ethical judgement and creative endeavour. Such personality analysis was seen by many academics and politicians as an insult to many.

The National Dictionary of Biography obituary commented:

'Thus he told our story with pride, while seeing our miserableness and failings, and excoriating them for what they were. To Manning, place was sacred, not only because the mighty dead had stepped there but because it was our native place from which we had drawn our being. He went on countless journeys through Australia, walked countless miles to see, to feel and to taste that place. He is the historian of the Australian place as well as its people.'

His biography of Clark, Manning Clark: a life (2008), Professor Brian Matthews is drawn a compelling portrait of the great historian, who attracted both critics and acolytes alike in equal number.

Manning Clark is renowned for his factual errors in his A History of Australia. It seems Clark disliked breaking the flow of composition in order to check facts and his memory sometimes let him down. These errors were mercilessly denounced by Malcolm Ellis, an accomplished but cranky historian of colonial NSW, but others also followed.

Professor Ross Fitzgerald wrote that Clark:

'... was never an objectively inclined academic scholar. Thus his magnum opus, the six-volume A History of Australia, had more in common with the vision of 19th-century English writer Thomas Carlyle, whose three-volume History of the French Revolution was inspired by a distinctly personal vision spelled out in an epic narrative style.'

Matthews argued in Manning Clark A Life that these factual errors in the end did not matter very much to the overall narrative endeavour. Clark’s most recent biographer, Professor Mark McKenna also acknowledged in An Eye for Eternity (2011) that Clark was a historian who placed narrative ahead of facts.

In 'Being There. The strange history of Manning Clark', The Monthly, March 2007, McKenna  wrote:

'Clark warned historians not to read what others had to say until they'd completed their early drafts, "and maybe not then". The duty of the historian was to create history anew from primary sources; he insisted that historians should never "start arguing with what others have to say". But Clark went much further than merely shying away from argument. In his histories, he could not even bring himself to discuss the research and work of others. To do so would only obscure the individuality of the historian's voice …'that of the artist-hero who stands alone on the cliff and gazes out to sea, seeking sublime inspiration.'

McKenna reinforced this comment in Meanjin:

It is not the “facts” of history that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language. ... Clark understood that the true power of stories lay not in their fidelity to factual accuracy but in the impression—emotional, intellectual and spiritual—that they left behind. Stories that resonated, stories that demanded retelling and stories that carried allegorical power were indeed the stories that shaped us.

The ANU Reporteron 12 June 1991, quoted from his friend and colleague from his teaching days at ANU, Professor John Moloney who said of Clark that:

'In him coursed the blood that made Australia – an Australia “he so passionately wanted to get up and ‘have a go’ at being herself”.'

Professor Manning Clark’s contribution and legacy continues in the ways that history figures in the public sphere. History is ultimately all about people — about individuals and how the great ideas instruct the narrative of their lives.

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