Michael Cathcart (editor), 1989
Sitting down in his flat at Balliol College, Oxford, in October 1938, the drum beat of war growing louder across Europe, a twenty-three year old Manning Clark wrote an impassioned letter to his future wife, Dymphna.
‘I feel certain that I can write something one day on Australian history … I believe quite passionately that Australia is a ‘weird’ country and that its weirdness has never been portrayed except in landscape painting. Australia is virgin soil in this respect & I feel something can be done about it. My whole being is rooted in Australia, and I don’t feel the temptation to betray her, to leave her. The other night, I was invited to dinner … and held forth quite passionately on the ‘weirdness’ of Australia to an interested audience. I felt quite exhilarated afterwards.’
The idea never left him. Six years later, during his first year as an academic at the University of Melbourne, the departmental head Ian Milner would recall Clark bursting through his office door, wide-eyed, declaring his ‘real ambition’ ‘to write one day the history of Australia’.
Clark had the romanticism and fraud of the artist; the gift of the storyteller who reveals the grandness of the human experience but, so enamoured by the great drama of life that fidelity to fact gives way to invention. Clark’s biographer Mark McKenna has since illuminated the tensions and internal conflicts of Clark’s life, in his relationship to his parents, his wife, and his own perceived standing at home and abroad; how his grand visions and excruciating insecurities find their way onto the pages of his monumental six-volume A History of Australia, published between 1962 and 1987.
That is the weakness and the enduring quality of the work, the Australian story told as nineteenth century epic, in the mould of Macauley or Gibbon or Carlyle. Even the aesthetics of the dust jacket, its stately red covering and white patterned border, give it the look of a Loeb Classic. It feels from the beginning that this is a story worth knowing, that means something and is worth caring about. Michael Cathcart’s abridgement, published shortly after Clark’s passing in 1993, captures much of the essence of this achievement.
The political controversies surrounding the History were, at times, a distraction from its personal and idiosyncratic nature. Though not isolated from the progressive politics of the day: the radical nationalism, the antipathy to the British legacy – particularly in the later volumes – and a sprinkling of class rhetoric, these elements do not define the book. There is more D.H. Lawrence than Marx, in the evocation of the mystical, the aura of the barren landscape with ‘not a sign of life – not a vestige. Yet something. Something big and aware and hidden!’ This is the weirdness whose essence Clark sought to capture.
At his best, Clark combines a modernist sentiment with the epic history he loved to read. Thomas Carlyle’s French Revolution is an important influence. In that work are the tropes Clark would lean on in his own work: the clash of abstractions; ‘Royalism’ and ‘Sanscullottism’ to Carlyle, among others; Catholicism, Protestantism, and the Enlightenment to Clark. There is the stuff of sermon and Old Testament bluster in Carlyle, as there is in Clark. Evil stalks the land in his Australia, as convicts, officers, and free settlers strive to rise above the pits of depravity that suffocate the soul, unmoored by enlightened humanity.
Author of the 'History of Australia' Manning Clark
Equally as important to Clark was the influence of his beloved Dostoyevsky, who wrote of the ‘humiliating absurdity of human contradictions’. The History is replete with individuals suffering from inner turmoil. Governor Phillip was ‘two men’: one graceful and industrious; the other disgusted by his cargo of convicts and sometimes wanting their destruction. Governor King ‘was appalled by sexual promiscuity and the drunkenness’ but himself fell for infidelity and the bottle. Governor Bligh was ‘temperate in all the passions of the flesh’ but ‘harboured a deep and ungovernable rage’. The Reverend Samuel Marsden ‘wanted to be known as the dispenser of divine love’ but ‘became identified with one of the most savage punishments in the early history of the colony’ (flogging).
There is a storm raging in every character. Everything is heightened. Even poor old Robert Hoddle, designer of the Melbourne street grid, is described as ‘a man with geometry in his soul’. It is not enough that he simply enjoyed it.
The later volumes of Clark’s History were his weakest, overtaken by the ego of his celebrity, his republicanism, his fiery anger at the dismissal of the Whitlam Government. His description of the so-called Founding generation in Volume V lacks nuance. Barton is reduced to ‘an Australian bourgeois politician’. Reid is a clown. Federation is a disappointing compromise. Clark’s biographical sketches, so filled with life in the early volumes, lose their colour as his protagonists become cyphers for heroic or villainous ideas that support or denigrate the dream of independent nationalism. Still, flashes of his old brilliance emerge, and Cathcart does a commendable job in identifying the strong Clark while disposing of the indulgent. On the topic of Aboriginal Australia, Clark’s insights actually improve with each volume, as his own impressions mature with the times.
Heidi Smith’s Portrait of Manning and Dymphna Clark, taken at “Ness,” Wapengo, NSW in 1989.
What became lost in the controversy over Clark’s History was the majesty and dedication of the endeavour. Geoffrey Bolton called it ‘one of the major works of history undertaken anywhere in the English-speaking world during the second half of the 20th century’. And it was about Australia.
Bolton was perceptive, willing to tolerate the wrong dates, the misleading footnotes, the questionable judgement, for the larger project at hand – the work of a myth maker. For Clark’s History is myth, not in the pejorative sense but in the classical sense; what the playwright David Mamet called ‘the dramatic retelling of an underlying reality that can’t be expressed rationally’. Clark wanted us to know who we are and where we came from. He wanted us to feel. His yin and yang of our story, of ‘enlargers’ and ‘straighteners’, appears first in the third volume as a measurement of the human spirit, of hot tempers and big dreams clashing with cold and cerebral minds.
Today there is a crisis of interest in Australian History. Only one state, Victoria, provides it as a standalone subject in Years 11 and 12, and in that state, enrolment has declined by almost fifty per cent in seven years. In 2018, a report delivered to the Australian Historical Association concluded that ‘students do not appear to be particularly interested in studying their own country’s history’, and in 2022, the new federal government chose not to include a single historian in its five review panels that will inform its new cultural policy, belatedly adding one to its advisory group after criticism from the profession. Do we care anymore? As we move further away from Clark and his History, it is easier to see what we have lost. Fortunately, in reading Clark, there is much to be gained.
This article on Manning Clark’s History of Australia was written by IPA Research Fellow Andrew Kemp in 2022, specifically for The Genius of Australia. He has previously worked in the Commonwealth and Victorian Treasuries as an economist.
 Quoted in Mark McKenna, An Eye for Eternity – The life of Manning Clark, (The Miegunyah Press: 2011), 145-146