Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Mark McKenna, An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark, Melbourne University Press, 2011

Manning Clark, the Australian historian and cultural icon, would be happy to see a full-length biography of himself finally in print. But Clark is dead. And that, I think, is the best that can be said about McKenna’s book.

Clark taught the first course dedicated to Australian history at the University of Melbourne. He went on to write a six volume history of Australia – a work that has shaped our national identity. Away from academia, he was a chronic hoarder who shamelessly cheated on his devoted wife, Dymphna.

Having a subject who squirrels away every bit of paper about themselves is an absolute godsend. Clark went beyond this. Before he died, he scrawled helpful notes for future writers on many of his papers. Having a philanderer is also useful. It makes you wonder what else he’s cheated on.

It turns out Manning Clark occasionally cheated on history as well as his wife. He was not very good with facts. In his History, Clark has the First Fleet sail from and arrive in the wrong places. He saw Australian history as a fratricidal struggle between the forces of darkness (ie. conservatives) and light (ie. socialists and liberals). Reality is more opaque and complex, but Clark often ignored this.

Yet no-one deserves a biography quite like this. I suspect McKenna started off liking Clark, then grew to hate him. Every trivial scandal is picked at like a dried-up scab. What is lost is the scope of Clark’s achievement. Up until the late 1940s, Australian history was taught as an extension of British history. Clark changed all that. He helped show that developments that took centuries in the Old World happened over night here. He showed why that makes Australia and similar nations, such as New Zealand, Canada and the United States, unique social experiments.

Clark did not pull this out of thin air. Writing national history is an intense experience. Moments of understanding are painfully extracted from unyielding sources. There is occasion exhilaration when everything falls into place. But mostly there is doubt and despair that you will ever work out what really happened or finish what you began. You age prematurely and start drinking too much.

Clark may have been careless and annoying, but no-one else has produced an epic presentation of our past to rival his. Until someone does, I say let Clark rest in peace.

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