New edition of Manning Clark’s
‘A Short History of Australia’
This new edition of Manning Clark’s ‘A Short History of Australia’, Penguin Books, 2006, has a 25 page addendum by Sebastian Clark, and a striking new cover. ‘In this new edition, a postscript by his son Sebastian Clark brings the book right up-to-date, revealing many enduring parallels between the past and present.’ - from the book’s cover.
On Monday May 8 members and friend gathered in the gardens of MCH to hear writer David Malouf launch the newest edition of A Short History of Australia.
Sebastian Clark welcomed David Malouf, an MCH Patron. He also welcomed Don Baker and Bill Gammage, each fine scholars and long-time friends of Manning Clark and his family.
In thanking David, Bill Gammage referred to the cover of the book, a reproduction of a painting by Eugene von Guerard, Sydney Heads 1860.
Bill talked through the meaning of the cleared land in the painting. Its grassland with no tree stumps - Europeans would have left stumps - land cleared by Aborigines as wallaby traps. The audience, basking in the thin winter sunshine, was fascinated.
David Maloufs talk
It is now nearly half a century since the fourth Short History was first published, and exactly twenty-five years since the revision of 98 - a generation in one case, two whole generations in the other. The book is now in itself historical, so is the author, and I say this not to diminish the significance or interest of either; rather, to suggest that beyond its original attractions the Short History at this date has an added dimension that comes from its place in the time when it was conceived and written, and that Manning too at this point might have an added dimension as an exemplary writer and thinker of his time, the middle decade of what is now a past and historical century.
When Manning took up the work of telling his version of the story of Australia he had already fulfilled whatever might have been demanded of him as a scholarly historian; in the assembling - essential at the time - of the documentary sources on which study of our history can be based. He was free to develop his other great gift, as a storyteller.
Sir Ronald Syme, perhaps the greatest of 20th century ancient historians, says rather provocatively: To become intelligible, history has to aspire to the coherence of fiction, while eschewing most of its methods. The story Manning tells is a good one, and he makes a coherent and moving drama of it. It will always be that. He has a keen eye for character, and for the whole range of human grandeur and folly - grim, ironic, regretful. He recognises absurdity when he sees it as well as pity and terror. He has pace. He delights in variety and contradiction. There is a fine balance in his prose, especially here in the Short History, between 18th century terseness and wit and an elaborated, 19th century rhetoric of evangelical moralising that these days seems archaic but which might attract a contemporary reader by its very oddness. Most important of all, he presents our history as epic, and as affording a stage for social and spiritual struggles that are universal: much as his contemporary, Patrick White, took it for granted that Australian experience could be the subject, universal in its appeal, of serious fiction.
So what do I mean when I say that all this is now in itself ‘historical’?
First of all, let me say that very little of that has to do with the way we see our history in the light of new evidence - though there is something of that in latter-day readings of the setting up of the colony and of the early stages of settlement. Mostly what it has to do with is the terms Manning uses, both in his interpretation of what happened and in his telling of it. It is here that he now appears, very interestingly I would suggest, as himself a figure who is historical; who thinks and expresses himself very much as a man of the mid-20th century, born as he was two years before the Russian Revolution and dying two years after the collapse of what he, and so many of his contemporaries, had taken to be a decisive turning point in history, but even more in the way we might think about history; one of the worlds great experiments in the engineering of souls in the hope of what he calls better things for mankind. With Tolstoi rather than Marx as his model for dealing with large-scale action, and Dostievski rather than Freud as his guide to the human soul, he faces the dilemma posed by an essentially religious sensibility in a world that no longer offers the consolations of belief.
Attracted to the idealism of the Soviet Union, in the same way that he is attracted to Rome, his heart draws him in one direction, his critical good sense in another. He cannot, in all reason, blind himself either to the backwardness of the Church or the murderous terror of the Stalinist state, nor can he forgive the way both play on, and then betray, the faith of those who want, simply, as he does, to believe. He is torn apart by what he proposes as the great subject that Lawson, in his reading of the work, fails to address: the universal problems of man in a capitalist society deprived of the consolations of religion.
Evangelical Protestantism, with its insistence on discipline, responsibility, fortitude in the face of hardship and suffering, was at the heart of his view, but he despised the narrow rectitudes of Protestantism and the place it made for greed. He responded strongly to the drama of Catholicism, and the image of a compassionate saviour, but despised the Churchs insistence on dogma and hierarchy. He was drawn, as I suggested, to revolutionary socialism but feared the uniformity it imposed. His history is seen too much from the pint of view of the individual, of great men - their contradictory motives, their quirks, confusions, follies - to be conventionally Marxist. The result is idiosyncratic enough to be both typical of the age and unique.
The terms he uses also belong very much to the age. Times have changed so radically since the late sixties that references from the Hebrew Bible, and even from the Gospels, are not easily recognised these days by younger readers, and terms like bourgeois, even class in the Marxist sense of class warfare have an archaic ring to them; distinctions like the old world and the new, in a reactionary versus revolutions sense, have now become inverted; the first association of reactionary these days is Eastern Europe and the old Soviets rather than the West. The dustbin of history has turned out, in the whirligig of time, to be a receptacle for those who invented the term as a resting-place for others. Much of this must have been clear to Manning even while he was working on the last and additional chapter of his history, and accounts for some of the very interesting doubts and qualifications that give the work in the end its integrity - and accounts as well for the general feeling of disillusionment and melancholy. He recognises Australia as a great experiment, but is left wondering, as with any unfinished story, how it may end.
‘Suburbia’ he tells us with heavy disapproval, was to be the last fate of a country which in previous generations had produced - and he then offers us three rather surprising examples of what he calls giants in the land: W C Wentworth, Ned Kelly and Robert OHara Burke - surprising because he has harsh and dismissive things to say of all three of them in the body of his text.
He sees the arrival of the age of affluence as the beginning of an age of ruins, and says in summary: Ever since the beginning of European settlement, Australia has been fashioned to be a pioneer in the period of bourgeois democracy, and a conservative in the era of the peoples democracies. In Australia power belonged neither to the visionaries nor to women, but to ruthless and tough men. Throughout its history its people had been taught to equate material success with happiness, and material achievement with public virtue.
Its not entirely without hope, but its a grim view, and the world he leaves us with is very much the world we still have - which it is up to us, as it is to the men and women of any time and any circumstances, to make as human as it can be made. By keeping our heads and hanging on to our hearts. Ironic that it should be affluence now, rather than hardship and suffering, that will test us - but there it is.
It is the fate of books to change with the passing of time. The Short History is not the same book that was published in 1969 - revised in 1983 - or not anyway, as we now read it. It has developed a new dimension - and seems to me to be the more interesting for it, as Manning himself seems a more complex and contradictory and interesting figure. It is good to think of it being out there again and ready to make its way, still very much alive and kicking.