Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Shaping a historiography: Challenging mythologies

Melleuish observes that the radical nationalists Vance and Nettie Palmer influenced Hancock’s Australia, helping him to frame ‘a picture of the failure of suburban Australia to generate a vital, living culture.’[1] Where Hancock crafted a tough and realistic assessment of the national culture, Vance Palmer’s The Legend of the Nineties sought to revive the transformative power of myth. Palmer worked to reinvigorate a radical and nationalist interpretation of Australian experience, by focusing on the writers who had celebrated the struggles of convicts, gold miners and bush workers for economic justice and political rights.

The significance of this dream-time was that it turned the eyes of Australians inward and impelled them to discover themselves and their own country.[2]

Palmer acknowledged that ‘myth-making’ played a crucial role in any revival of a radical and nationalist consciousness.

It has been said that men cannot feel really at home in any environment until they have transformed the natural shapes around them by infusing them with myth.[3]

Since Scott, Australian historians had recognised the importance of the writers and artists of the late nineteenth century in helping to define the national character in its native environment. Crawford had observed that the writers of the 1890s ‘made room for the inspiration of Australian life’.[4] The Legend of the Nineties wanted to exploit the legend to inspire a new and distinctively Australian form of cultural vitality in the reactionary Cold War climate of the mid-1950s and at a time when consumerism seemed to diminish the strength of the radical heritage.

Brian Fitzpatrick had already provided radical nationalism with analytical depth in his studies of Australian economic and working life and critical examination of relations with empire. By focusing on the class relations and forms of structural injustice that Crawford and Hancock had tended to downplay, Fitzgerald argued that Australians were not quite masters of their own lives. It has been said that the ‘old left’ historians whose work came to prominence in the post-Second World War years ‘discovered that cultural tradition as young men in uniform.’[5] An idiosyncratic Marxist and journalist who was unable to secure an academic position because of his politics and his drinking problems, Fitzpatrick provided texts that clarified the radical tradition, pouring out a range of books across the war years that influenced subsequent generations of economic and labour historians and was the first historian to place the working-class at the centre of the national story. [6]

There was a touch of romanticism in Fitzpatrick’s analysis. In The Australian Commonwealth, he described how the working-class contributed its laconic traits to national life: an aversion to unnecessary conversation as most subjects are ‘hardly worth talking about’[7] and a reluctance to make heroes

The Australian people made heroes of none, and raised no idols, except perhaps an outlaw, Ned Kelly, and Carbine, a horse.[8]

Accounting for White Australia, Fitzpatrick also resorted to irony rather than confront the nature of working-class and labour movement enthusiasm for immigration restriction.[9] Robin Gollan was among those who acknowledged Fitzpatrick’s influence.[10] His Radical and Working Class Politics took up the theme of the labour movement’s intervention in national life and Labor’s emergence as ‘the party of Australian nationalism’, turning away from socialist internationalism to embrace White Australia through immigration restriction and a defence policy within the British Empire.[11] Manning Clark also recognised Fitzpatrick’s pioneering work.[12] Yet in 1954, he described Fitzpatrick as a ‘disappointed radical’ lamenting the collapse of Labor party from a pure force ‘working for the regeneration of mankind’ in the 1890s into a machine concerned only with the capture of political power. Clark scoffed, ‘this makes most of the histories of Labor read rather like the stories of fallen women.’ A history at once more coolly rigorous and understanding of human nature was required.[13]

In the same year that Palmer published The Legend of the Nineties, Manning Clark[14] challenged the assumptions on which it was based. In a lecture at the Australian National University, Clark declared that Australian history needed to be rewritten, a task specifically required to address ‘the problems and aspiration of this generation.’[15] Clark had been a student of Crawford’s at the University of Melbourne and had won a scholarship to Oxford. However, unlike Crawford and Hancock, he was demoralised by the experience of class-ridden pre-war Britain. A brief experience of the darkness of Nazi Germany in 1938 intensified his pessimism. In 1946, Crawford invited Clark to begin teaching Australian history at Melbourne, the first serious attempt to stimulate its study at a major Australian university and a spirit of high seriousness pervaded Clark’s efforts to rewrite the national story.[16]

Between 1946 and 1954, Clark clarified the research domain of Australian history and the parameters of his own project by editing several volumes of primary source documents.[17] This process of exploration and reconsideration resulted in a lecture that displayed the intellectual sophistication that Clark brought to his task. ‘Rewriting Australian History’ also set out many of the rhetorical and symbolic devices that Clark would employ in his A History of Australia, devices that turned from tools of creative revision to totems of his own myth over the course of the six volumes published between 1962 and 1987. Clark not only wished to explain the story of the Australian people. He was troubled about what Australian historiography was for: he declared the liberal ideal ‘bankrupt’ and accused the universities of producing its most persistent defenders.[18] Like Ivan Karamazov, Clark wanted ‘to be there when everyone suddenly understands what it has all been for.’ A disappointed idealist, Clark seemed unsure of a new path, reaching back to the 1890s for a metaphor of contemporary disillusion that he found in a sermon by Cardinal Patrick Moran: ‘in many respects it is an age of ruins’.[19]

Despite seeking consolation in history, Clark declared that in order to address the problems of the new generation historians needed to abandon ‘the comforters of the past’.[20] They had to jettison Hancock’s ridicule of Australian mediocrity and belief in Europe as ‘the creative centre.’ Historians had to explore the tension between ‘the Catholic and Protestant view of the world’, as revealed in Australian history. They had to abandon Wood’s liberal romanticism of the convicts, the ‘great majority’ of whom were professional criminals: ‘let us rather examine the habits and values of the criminals’, anticipating not only his own work but the rich field of convict history that would develop in subsequent decades.[21] Clark exposed the weakness of the radical nationalist interpretation: historians had to move beyond an unthinking embrace of ‘the ideal of mateship’ and locate it as a phenomena of a specific set of historical circumstances of nineteenth century bush life and recognise that ‘the conditions to which belief in mateship was a response have almost entirely disappeared.’ Mateship had also helped produce the White Australia policy and an insular nationalism. To address the problems of a new generation Australian history had to be written by ‘someone who had something to say about human nature’ and who could strike on ‘some great theme to lighten our darkness.’ [22]

Clark’s analysis initiated a ‘counter-revolution in Australian historiography’ and he certainly cast himself in a prophetic role.[23] Unlike previously published single volume short histories, the scale of Clark’s work asserted that Australian history was worthy of epic enquiry. No-one had previously thought, as Clark did in the first volume, to consider Australian history by posing epigrams from Nietzsche and Dostoevsky to examine the clash of Catholicism and Protestantism in a new land, in turn faced with the Enlightenment’s challenge to faith, and to follow these tensions at work in the dilemmas of individual and collective experience.[24] These themes set his history on a different level from what had come before and the work of his contemporaries. The national story Clark told seemed for a time to represent something more than the nation, elevating both its history and the Australian experience.

Discussing the historiography of Australian nationalism, Michael Roe observed that in 1954 Clark indicated his challenge to the ‘mateship’ stories of radical nationalism that found their most coherent and persuasive statement in Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend; yet by the end of his History Clark had seemed to agree with Ward, embracing nationalism and republicanism in the wake of the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam Labor Government by the Governor-General.[25] Published in 1958, The Australian Legend traced the development of the nineteenth century bush worker from its convict origins. Ward conceded that he cultivated a myth, but one that he argued expressed the actual experience of Australians and a myth that held values that should endure. According to the myth the ‘typical Australian’ is a practical man, rough and ready in his manners and quick to decry pretentiousness in others.

He is a great improvisor, ever willing to have a go at anything...He is a fiercely independent person who hates officiousness and authority, especially when these qualities are embodied in military officers and policemen. Yet he is very hospitable and above all, will stick to his mates through thick and thin, even if he thinks they may be in the wrong.[26]

This echoed Bean’s celebration of the digger and the social levelling that Hancock identified in ‘mateship’. Inglis has observed that ‘historians have put mateship at the centre of national experience.’[27] Ward reasserted the value of a myth for a changing Australian nation: ‘though some shearers are now said to drive to their work in wireless-equipped motor-cars, the influence of the “noble bushman” on Australian life and literature is still strong’.[28] Ward’s reassertion was largely accepted on its own terms. Despite the occasional note of scepticism, by the 1960s there had been no serious interrogation of the meaning of ‘mateship’ as a form of either masculine or national identity.


[1] Ibid, Melleuish, Gregory, Cultural Liberalism in Australia, p. 117.

[2] Palmer, Vance, The Legend of the Nineties, (Cambridge University Press), 1954, p. 52.

[3] Ibid, Palmer, Vance, The Legend of the Nineties, p. 172.

[4] Ibid, Crawford, R.M., Australia, p. 148.

[5] Macintyre, Stuart, ‘Old Left’ in ibid, Davison, Graeme, (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Australian History, p. 482.

[6] See, Fitzpatrick, Brian, British Imperialism and Australia, 1783-1833, (Sydney University Press), 1939, A Short History of the Australian Labor Movement, (Rawson’s Bookshop), 1940, The British Empire in Australia, 1834-1939, (Melbourne University Press), 1941 and The Australian People, 1788-1945, (Melbourne University Press), 1946. For Fitzpatrick and the development of Australian Labour History see, Garton, Stephen, ‘What Have We Done? Labour History, Social History, Cultural History’, in Irving, Terry, (ed.), Challenges to Labour History, (University of New South Wales Press), 1994.

[7] Fitzpatrick, Brian, The Australian Commonwealth, (F.W. Cheshire), 1956, p. 28.

[8] Ibid, Fitzpatrick, Brian, The Australian Commonwealth, p. 209.

[9] Ibid, Fitzpatrick, Brian, The Australian Commonwealth, pp. 158-164.

[10] Gollan, Robin, Revolutionaries and Reformists, (George Allen and Unwin), 1975, pp. 190-191.

[11] Gollan, Robin, Radical and Working Class Politics, (Melbourne University Press), 1960, p. 196.

[12] Clark, Manning, The Quest for Grace, (Viking Books), 1990, pp. 176-177.

[13] Clark, Manning, ‘Rewriting Australian History’, in Clark, Manning, Occasional Writings and Speeches, Fontana Books, 1980, pp. 14-15.

[14] Holt, Stephen, A Short History of Manning Clark, (Allen and Unwin), 1999 and Matthews, Brian, Manning Clark: A Life, (Allen and Unwin), 2008 provide contrasting biographical studies. See also, Russell, Rosalyn, (ed.), Ever, Manning: Selected Letters of Manning Clark, 1938-1991, (Allen and Unwin), 2008.

[15] Ibid, Clark, Manning, ‘Rewriting Australian History’, p. 4.

[16] Crawford, R.M., Clark, Manning and Blainey, Geoffrey, (eds.), Making History, (McPhee Gribble/Penguin Books), 1985, pp. 57-58, 61.

[17] Clark, C.M.H., Select Documents in Australian History, Vol. 1: 1788-1850, (Angus and Robertson), 1950 and Select Documents in Australian History, Vol. 2: 1851-1900, (Angus and Robertson), 1955.

[18] Ibid, Clark, Manning, ‘Rewriting Australian History’, pp. 18-19.

[19] Ibid, Clark, Manning, ‘Rewriting Australian History’, p. 7.

[20] Ibid, Clark, Manning, ‘Rewriting Australian History’, p. 4.

[21] Ibid, Clark, Manning, ‘Rewriting Australian History’, p. 10; see Quartly, Marian, ‘Convict History’, in ibid, Davison, Graeme, (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Australian History, p. 154.

[22] Ibid, Clark, Manning, ‘Rewriting Australian History’, pp. 15-17, 19.

[23] Coleman, Peter, ‘Introduction: The New Australia’, in Coleman, Peter, (ed.), Australian Civilisation, Cheshire Melbourne, 1962, p. 6.

[24] Clark, C.M.H., A History of Australia, Vol. 1, From the Earliest Times to the Age of Macquarie, (Melbourne University Press), 1962.

[25] Roe, Michael, ‘Nationalism’, in ibid, Davison, Graeme, (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Australian History, p. 463.

[26] Ward, Russel, The Australian Legend, (Oxford University Press), 1958, p. 2.

[27] Inglis, Ken, ‘Mateship’, in ibid, Davison, Graeme, (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Australian History, p. 420.

[28] Ibid, Ward, Russel, The Australian Legend, p. 13.

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