Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 1 No. 2, 1987
Film, TV and the Popular
Edited by Philip Bell & Kari Hanet

The old dead tree and the young tree green

Humphrey McQueen


Review: History of Australia, vol. VI "The Old Dead Tree and the Young Tree Green" by C. M. H. Clark (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1987), 522 pp., $35.00.


In the twenty-five years between the publication of the first and sixth volumes of A History of Australia (1962-87), Manning Clark's achievement has altered the criteria by which his opus is judged. One index of this success is that he no longer has to stress that the title is 'a' not 'The' History of Australia: the indefinite rather than the definite article. Most reviewers judged volumes V and VI against a standard set by Clark himself in Volumes III and IV, prefacing their praise by an acknowledgement that the work before them was sui generis. The extent of this peculiarity is clearer when one ponders what has been necessary to produce rival surveys.

A dozen or more individuals have attempted a "Short History" of Australia. A score of others have produced accounts of one aspect of Australian society, for example, Bernard Smith on painting, Edward Shann on economics, Roger Covell on music and H.M. Green on literature. 1 These specialist accounts have had more to say about the meaning and shape of Australian experiences than several of the short histories. By contrast, Frank Crowley's five-part documentary history was often little better than a scrapbook of newspaper clippings - for example, the establishment of the Petrov Commission is given from the report in the Brisbane Courier-Mail. The Australians is a five volume set, with five supplementary source books, which boast of 200 contributing authors; even that vast crew took a decade to deal only with slices such as the years 1838, 1888 and 1938. The Oxford history will be another five volume set, albeit with only five authors attempting to portray the entirety of human settlement.

The personal and generalising elements in Clark's History had to be sustained against an academic tide of scientistic specialisation. Behavioural psychologists demonstrated by ratiocination that history was bunk. The PhD industry turned the brightest and the best into masters of the trivial and the non-telic. Would Russel Ward or Robin Gollan have been allowed to start their theses in the 1970s when the head of the history department at the ANU research school told a student that the quality of his doctorate would depend upon his locating facts that no one had previously uncovered?

In shifting the terms of debate about his own writing, Clark has also helped to change the perception of his subject, Australia. When he began to collect material for his first publication, the 1950 volume of Select Documents, 1788-1850,2 academic study of Australia was considered justifiable only as a sidelight on British Imperial history. That bias existed when the first volume of Clark's History appeared in 1962 and continues into 1988, although the put-downs have attained new levels of sophistry.

If the notion of writing a multi-volume history of Australia was seen as eccentric, Clark's approach to his material was seen as bizarre. Received opinion understand that Australian history was about things: land, sheep, gold. Events were few and far between: foundation, the rum rebellion, Eureka, the maritime strike, Federation and Gallipoli. Personalities were more common, that is to say, there were too many governors and premiers. Whatever Australian history might have been about it definitely was not about 'great ideas', or ideas of any kind. Clark accepted that view of Australia until the late 1950s. The shock in Volume I was its treatment of Australia as a place where answers could be sought to questions about the meaning of human existence. Instead of European Australia to 1821 being a chronicle of convicted and unconvicted criminals, Clark pictured a struggle between Roman Catholicism, the Protestant Ascendency and the Enlightenment. The villages of Sydney and Hobart assumed the significance of Athens or Bethlehem. Traducers could make no sense of an approach which failed to hold the mirror up to what they thought they already knew.

Clark's redirection of his subject-matter can now been seen as part of a wider transformation in the perception of European Australia. Hostility towards his History had been matched by resistance to White's rescuing of the novel from dun-dreary naturalism. That Australia could be a mythopoeic site had been shown by the Melbourne expressionists and Surrealists - the Boyds, Perceval, Drysdale and Nolan; and hinted at by playwrights such as Lawlor and Seymour. Bernard Smith's European Vision and the South Pacific3 showed how the antipodean world could sustain the most rigorous intellectual discussion. None of these creators was without some contrary feature, yet their works established a base-line beneath which the investigation of Australia - intuitive or scholarly - need never again sink. By 1987, no one was perplexed because Clark's sixth epistle posed problems about Australian civilisation. Many disagreed with his implied answers. None thought the asking impertinent.

Volume VI differs from its predecessors by not settling on two competing protagonists. Photographs of Menzies and Curtin are at the front but their careers before 1935 were but overtures for the contests of the following decade. Hughes dominates the opening chapters as he did Australian politics from 1916 to 1920, he is too spiteful to convey the moral burden of Clark's counterposing of Australia against the Empire. Hughes embodied that conflict but in terms of corpses, base metals and bombast. His downfall was managed by that other unappetising figure, Stanley Melbourne Bruce who presided over the 1920s, to be followed by the lacklustre Scullin and the lickspittle Lyons. Federal politics attracted characters and clowns - Anstey battling the Money Power in the "Kingdom of Shylock", or Walter Marks telling the House of Representatives that Armageddon would be fought in 1934. None of these could serve Clark's vision in the way that Deakin and Lawson had done. The problem was exacerbated by looking too much at the Federal sphere. 'Red Ted' Theodore was the coming man in politics and business, moving from Queensland to Canberra and out into Fiji gold and the Women's Weekly with Frank Packer. Other premiers dominated their domain for a time -'Moo Cow' Mitchell and 'Mightier-than-Lenin' Lang. Clark's inability to find a spokesperson to convey 'the Young tree Green' of Australia, or an attractive voice for the 'Old Dead Tree' of England, confirms his thesis about a people who could call 'home' a country they had never seen. The interwar years were a cacophony of choruses over which big men belted out pop-songs but were soon booed off-stage. None had the power of Parkes or Menzies to rewrite their scripts.

Volume VI is the part of the story that Clark has most wanted to tell for it covers the first twenty years of his own life. Volumes I to V are not prologue because they explore 'the old Australia' that Clark inherited as a descendent of Samuel Marsden. Clark appears in this volume as a source for his own information.

There will not be a volume VII or VIII to bring the narrative forward to 1975 or 1988. One reason is that Clark made himself ineligible for research grants by turning seventy in 1985. In the USA, a foundation or university would long ago have endowed his enterprise with a personal award of a million dollars to keep him producing at full steam for as long as he chose. The impoverishment of intellectual life in Australia is epitomised by the virtual monopoly which universities have had on research funds, and which the tertiary sector will inherit under the Dawkins rearrangements.ÊÊSupport from the Australia Council is limited. Otherwise, there is almost no source of funding for research in the humanities.

Labelling Clark as a 'literary historian' has rarely been followed by any textual analysis. Historians are rightly fearful of examining Clark's devices since their empiricism is predicated on the inviolable primacy of texts. According to that orthodoxy, visual sources are suspect, to be treated as little better than illustrations. Words exist to be quoted, perhaps in the context of other words and occasionally after allowing for the bias of their author. In fact, words are connected by implicit structures, not merely by conjunctions. The context is also rhetorical, not just verbal. Meaning is immanent in structure, tone of voice, and imagery, which have as much right to be cited and footnoted as the words which carry them. To overlook those metaphorical contents is to misinterpret every primary source. Labelling Clark as a 'literary historian' has been a safe way of avoiding a key question: is any other kind of historian possible?

In recent years, academic analysis has been infected with the opposite naivete. The fact that writing is constructed is used to support the false claim that all writing must be equally remote from what actually happens. Sometimes this position extends into a statement that nothing actually happens except writing. For the devotees of that outlook, the literariness of Clark's history has had a special charm. In Politics and the Writing of Australian History, John Lechte coupled Clark's A History with Patrick White's Voss, for possessing not only "a kinship of themes, but also a profound kinship in modes of representation." 4 Lechte was so excited by Clark's History that he wrote about "inertia that is set in motion": anyone who could leave that solecism uncorrected is not likely to be a guide through the demands of the writing trade.

In reviewing Volume IV, I saw Clark's use of repeated phrases as an application of Homeric practice and hence a sign of his mythologising intent. Reading Volume VI has led me to reassess this element in Clark's style as a musical technique, the motif that allows the reader to know where they are in a forest of information. Clark describes his structure as symphonic, noting that even Sibelius found it impossible to drive more than two principal themes.

The biblical allusions of the earlier volumes appear in the latest one where they continue their task of reproducing the texture of public debate and private reflection. A new element of popular song has been added, if not as successfully integrated as the language of the Testaments.

Positivists seize on Clark's errors of detail to disprove any idea that truth can be greater than the facts. Deconstructionists delight in what they have to be told are Clark's howlers for they take these mistakes as confirmation of their prejudice that history is another fictional genre. What neither extreme can appreciate is how those errors come to be constructed through the writing process, that the slips of the pen might be prose-slides. Good writing is almost always rewriting. Clark moves through several drafts. Each time a phrase is repositioned, or its inflection altered, the connection to its original source shifts one or more degrees. The more rewriting, the greater is the likelihood of sentences coming adrift from the minutia that spawned them. Clark has compensated for this liability by multiplying the instances so that mis-sightings might redress each other.

The politics of Clark's volumes is expressed in his reputation as the embodiment of Australian history. The prestige of that position affects what he can say in reviews where warm appreciation will read like wild enthusiasm and mild reservations resound as mortal blows. Clark has avoided silence by recycling a limited repertoire of quotations - for instance, he is fond of Goethe's contrast between the greyness of theory and the greenness of life. An occasional reader of these smaller pieces may not detect the nuances in Clark's usage. Taken en masse, an apparently trite remark can convey a riveting judgement. A Professor of Fine Art replied to inquiring artists with the single word 'Lovely'; those who knew the speaker well enough could interpret that seeming praise on a scale of one to ten.

Clark's historiography has had its epigones, but no enlargers. His concern with belief and faith has been debased into a warrant to apply the methods of political history to the body of churches. Instead of suggesting a variety of religious experience, the results chronicle another bureaucracy. Less happily still, Clark's style has found its imitators. John Molony'sÊprose reads so much like Manning Clark's that it could have been written by John Ritchie.

Literary criticism has to deal with an apparent ubiquity of flaws in masterpieces. If Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina are less than perfect, should we throw out the standards that judge them so, or embrace imperfection as a necessary component of excellence? Historiography faces a similar dilemma when its great names are also the most wayward. Much as I admire Glen Lewis's A History of the Ports of Queensland (1973), I would not place it in the top category of historical writing. Why must perfect doctoralÊtheses be rewritten for publication? Certainly, such exemplars of scholarship cannot dislodge Blainey or Ward when they have synthesised their information around human purposes.

The inheritors of those whom Clark has chastised as 'straightners' and 'measurers' tell their students that while Clark is a mighty phenomenon, he is not, strictly speaking, an historian. They, like Xavier Herbert, see him as a novelist who has failed to think of a plot. Elsewhere, these guardians have decided that Gibbon, Macaulay and Carlyle should not be on the reading list. If Clark is not to be allowed into the first rank, the question arises where to place those lecturers whose own writings are known to no more than a handful of specialists? In The House of Intellect (1959) , Jacques Barzun reported that he:

once had occasion to tell a group of graduate students that any of them would be lucky to achieve the fifth or sixth rank among historians. The remark was prompted by their dissatisfaction with all they knew: Gibbon was a bore, Macaulay a stuffed shirt, Hegel and Michelet were fools, Carlyle and Buckle frauds - this from students who could not write ten pages of readable and properly documented narrative. Pointing out that even second and third-rate men, such as Milman, Bancroft, or Grote, were the superiors of these students' own instructors, who were by definition superior to the students themselves, was a sobering thought quite foreign to their experience. 5

In comparison with writers of fiction, few historians are read long after their death. The 'great historians' do not retain anything like the audience held by novelists and poets. Homer is preferred to Thucydides, Shakespeare to Plutarch, and Dickens to Engels. Historians are remembered for their style as much as for their narratives.

That Clark is read at all distinguishes him from his colleagues who depend on the discipline of exams and essays for their works to be taken off a library shelf. Moreoverr, Clark's History has passed the Cyrill Connolly test by still being sought ten years after publication. Yet Clark cannot be unaware that he too has been writing in sand. The chances of his being read in 2088 are slim. Perhaps some of his public appearances result from a recognition that in order to have his books remembered he must do things about which others may write. His growing readership has resulted, in part, from his vatic stance. Asked to explain his public role, Clark could well proffer the concluding passage from Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native:

Yeobright had, in fact, found his vocation in the career of an itinerant open-air preacher and lecturer on morally unimpeachable subjects; and from this day he laboured incessantly in that office, speaking not only in simple language on Rainbarrow and in the hamlets round, but in a more cultivated strain elsewhere - from the steps and porticoes of town-halls from market-crosses, from conduits, on esplanades and on wharves, from the parapets of bridges, in barns and outhouses, and all other such places in the neighbouring Wessex towns and villages. He left alone creeds and systems of philosophy, finding enough and more than enough to occupy his tongue in the opinions and actions common to all good men. Some believed him, and some believed not; some said that his words were commonplace, other complained of his want of theological doctrine; while others again remarked that it was well enough for a man to take to preaching who could not see to do anything else. But everywhere he was kindly received, for the story of his life had become generally known.

Clark's observation that the victors write history has been misinterpreted as a defence of 'spiritual bullies'. The danger is not that Kerr's reputation will be manipulated by political regimes. The danger is that political regimes will decide that memory of any kind of subversive, an insight at the heart of Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984; a subtler treatment of the politics of memory and imagination is in M. Barnard Eldershaw's Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow. 6 Clark's reputation in 2088 will depend on the value which future generations will be encouraged to attach to knowing about the efforts of those who laboured here before them.


Notes

1 See Bernard Smith, Australian Painting 1788-1970 (Melbourne: Oxford Univ. Press, 1971); Edward Shann, An Economic History of Australia (New York: AMS Press, 1977); Roger Covell, Australia's Music (Melbourne: Sun Books, 1967); H.M. Green, A History of Australian Literature , vols. 1 & 2 (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1961).

2 C.M.H. Clark, Select Documents, 1788-1850 (1950, rept. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1965)

3 Bernard Smith, European Vision and the South Pacific (1960, rept. London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1969).

4 John Lechte, Politics and the Writing of Australian History (Melbourne: Melbourne Politics Monograph, 1979), p.122.

5 Jacques Barzun, The House of Intellect (1959, rept. Mercury Books, 1962), p.126.

6 M Barnard Eldershaw, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow (1947, rept. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974).


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