Date of Passing: 23/05/1991
I t is an odd irony, as he might say, that Manning Clark was a member of this Academy for nearly forty years (counting in its time as Research Council) after calling historians to abandon 'the vain search for a science of society'. Perhaps it is odd that he belonged to any Academy, when 'the academics' were one of the tribes whom he was apt to count among the people who walked in darkness. Yet he was also a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Admission to the American body gave no less delight to the anti-academic academic and Australian patriot than Manning Clark the republican had experienced when he received the insignia of Companion of the Order of Australia at Yarralumla from the hands of the Queen.
Do I contradict myself? asked Walt Whitman. Very well then I contradict myself. Manning Clark's vision is characteristically modern in deriving from both a powerful urge to believe and a painful inability to choose between contending faiths, or even to know, sometimes, which voice from the skies was divine, which the tempter's. Pilgrim jester, Anglo-Australian and boy from the bush, reverent if non- communicant auditor of Moscow and Rome, Apollonian and Dionysian: in self-portrait he lived all of these antinomies. His six-volume A History of Australia derives richness from them, as we are helped to see by the two books of autobiography he wrote after the prodigious task was done, The Puzzle of Childhood and The Quest for Grace. No other Australian scholar has left so revealing an account of the mental life that yielded a magnum opus.
He was born in Sydney, his father an Anglican clergyman who was the son of a blacksmith in London and his mother 'a fine flower of patrician and genteel Sydney' descended from Samuel Marsden, pioneer parson, magistrate and sheepowner. His schooling was first in the Victorian state system and then at Melbourne Grammar, which he entered as a scholarship boy; for that and other reasons he endured miseries for which he was to exact literary revenge by turning the Grammarians into the Yarrasiders, the ones who expected to be in the members' stand at the resurrection. As student of history at the University of Melbourne he was there for the last year of Ernest Scott and the first of R. M. Crawford. Like Crawford, W. K. Hancock and John La Nauze before him he set off for Oxford, though unlike them he enrolled not for another B.A. but for the postgraduate degree of B.Litt. His subject was Alexis de Tocqueville, but the study was abandoned when war approached and he had to find paid employment after marrying Dymphna Lodewyckz, who had travelled with him from Melbourne as his fiancée on the way to postgraduate study in Germany. His discomfort among English patricians at Oxford, as among the Australian version at Melbourne Grammar, was mitigated by prowess at cricket.
In 1940 Manning and Dymphna Clark, with the first of their six children, returned to Melbourne, and for three years he taught history at Geelong Grammar, enthralling sons of the rich and alarming their parents and his colleagues. To his old university he was appointed in 1944, teaching first political science and then history, after Crawford invited him to create a course on Australia. While at Geelong he had been awarded a Melbourne M.A. for his thesis 'The Ideal of Alexis de Tocqueville' and that great and divided liberal was one of the thinkers he invoked when inspiring students to find in their country's past more than the surveying of land and the carpentry of constitutions, to become aware that here, as in older centres of civilisation, the historian could explore the whole territory of the human condition.
In 1949 he went to the chair of history at the Canberra University College which he held until he retired in 1975, the college having become in 1960 the School of General Studies of the Australian National University. That admonition about a science of society was delivered at the end of his inaugural lecture in 1953, published as 'Rewriting Australian History' in T. A. G. Hungerford, ed., Azistralian Signpost, 1956. It is a severe farewell to the intellectual culture of Melbourne. The first object of his hostility was a Marxist orthodoxy which he believed had overtaken the university, or at least had occupied the commanding heights of the Arts building, during his years away, and which in his view denied truths about the human heart revealed by, among others in his vora9ious reading, Balzac, Stendhal and Ecclesiastes. The second was a Socratic enterprise of Cambridge-inspired philosophers who distracted historians from getting on with the job, so it seemed to him, by provoking them to worry whether their discipline was or was not properly scientific. When he attended the seminars in Theory and Method of History he wore what he would later call his granite face. Not only did he reject the social scientific hope of finding laws in history; he had little taste even for hunting particular causes. 'He did not write of causes: he gave no explanations ... Like Carlyle he told the story so that the reader had moments of illumination ... ' Thus Clark on Tocqueville; but he could be describing his own practice as writer.
Or rather his aspiration. By 1959, aged 44, his principal publications were a two-part article on the origins of convicts, two volumes of Select Documents in Australian History, another volume of Sources of Australian History, and that inaugural lecture. These works encouraged anticipation. The essay on convicts spelt out a declaration in the lecture that the liberal illusion about the character of our founding felons was one of the comforters Australians must abandon. A passage in that essay saying that Australia was a 19th century creation influenced almost exclusively by the ideas of liberty, equality and the pursuit of happiness had a footnote observing that the writer 'has changed his opinion on this point'. How? Readers had to wait six years for the answer. Through the introductory sections to his second Select Documents, published in 1955, were scattered gnomic and quivering passages which burst the form. Such sentences were missing from Sources, 1957, for by then his intellectual passion was being directed into first drafts for the History. Unspectacularly but indispensably, these editions of documents enabled other teachers of Australian history to follow where he had led.
When John La Nauze addressed historians at the ANZAAS Congress of 1959 on 'The study of Australian history, 1929-1959' (Historical Studies Australia and New Zealand vol. 9, no. 33), he said of Clark: 'For me the importance of his work so far lies not in the apocalyptic vision of our history at which he sometimes hints, which I do not understand, and which I am sure I would disagree with if I did. It lies more in the particular flashes of interpretation which, anticipating the detailed treatment of his work in progress, give a new appearance to familiar features ... It lies most in his books of documents, the visible testimony to the wide and deep reading which has been a preparation for a larger task.'
That task was accomplished over the next thirty years, during which he wrote also A Short History of Australia, In Search of Henry Lawson and a book of short stories, delivered the ABC's Boyer Lectures (in 1976) published as A Discovery of Australia, taught history and on and off administered a department until he retired to an ANU Library Fellowship in 1975, sat on the Literature Board and other public bodies, and sent innumerable letters, postcards and telegrams to friends young and old, conveying encouragement and compassion and expressing his mood of the moment. He became, as no other university teacher in Australia had been, a sage, a prophet. The nearest equivalent, a long way off, was Walter Murdoch; in the UK, C. E. M. J oad and Bertrand Russell come to mind as figures given comparable regard, and in earlier times Clark's hero Carlyle, though not even he has yet been the subject of a musical.
'History was a drama', Clark recalls the young Professor Crawford encouraging him to think. 'History was what Thomas Hardy said it was – a rattling good yarn in which the mighty men of renown were brought to ruin by some mole in their being, some fatal flaw wherein they were not guilty.' That certainly describes Clark's own History. Like no other non-fictional account of Australia, it was full of scenes waiting to be animated on stage, of characters as ready as their maker, who loved popular music, to burst into song. Manning Clark's History of Australia: The Musical was the most fanciful of bicentennial happenings.
When the first volume appeared in 1962 readers discovered the meaning of that footnote in the published version of his inaugural lecture. The writer had come to see the making of Australia as an encounter between those ideas of the Enlightenment and the ideals of Protestant and Catholic Christianity. That triad was one organising principle of the series; the other was binary - the contest for and against an independent Australia, embodied in the second half of the work by the characters represented in frontispiece portraits: Henry Parkes and Henry Lawson (vol 4), Alfred Deakin and again Henry Lawson (vol. 5), R. G. Menzies and John Curtin (vol. 6). Tall poppies, all of them, with fatal flaws. This was history more for the people than about them; after vol. I, which has dense and vivid detail about what convicts did, you do not turn to Clark for workaday accounts of Australian life, except in dramatic vignettes. You can find plenty of that in other writers. When M. H. Ellis, journalist and biographer, reviewed vol. I in the Bulletin he sneered that Clark was obsessed with little things of the mind and spirit. 'Little' was self-revelation; the rest was right, and it is as historian of mind and spirit in Australia that Manning Clark has touched readers unreached by other academic writers. Ellis also said that vol. 1 was 'history without facts'. Bede Nairn rebutted that charge in a magisterial essay; Crawford and, Hancock spoke up for the book in terms which moved the author to dedicate vol. 2 to them. Some scholarly readers remained troubled on the score of accuracy; and as volume after volume appeared some expressed unease about the prose, and especially the use of incantatory repetitions and of archaisms which shaded into paraphrase leaving readers uncertain when they were hearing the author's voice and when the subject's. Some did not respond to what John La Nauze had called the apocalyptic vision. Clark remained silent in the face of particular criticisms. Towards the end he would say disarmingly that yes, he should have been more careful, and yes, his powers had been inadequate to express what he had seen. But by now he knew that the achievement had worn its critics down. Whatever the academics said, artists and novelists - the true creators, he believed – admired the History: Arthur Boyd and Clifton Pugh painted its author, Patrick White launched Vol. 4, David Malouf and Thomas Kenneally paid obituary tribute. So did the Forrest Primary School his children had attended, which flew the flag at half mast, and the Operative Painters and Decorators Union, who put a notice in the paper. He and his works (the media, above all television, inevitably blurred the two) had become a kind of national cultural property.
The last two volumes 'of the History, published in 1981 and 1987, glow with a geniality which derives at least in part from the author's knowing that so many people had come to cherish his words and to share is vision of Australia as (in Lawson's phrase) 'the' young tree green'. For Lawson that image stood opposed to 'the old green tree', and Manning Clark loved to proclaim the antithesis. Yet unlike Lawson he was thoroughly at home in, and revered, the traditional culture of Europe. Whether or not that amounts to a contradiction, he shared more ground with members of academies than was always evident in banter or in granite-faced demeanour at meetings. His hungry quest for truths both old and new is one more source of/Manning Clark's singularity as an interpreter of Australian history.
Email: assa.secretariat [at] anu.edu.au