Manning Clark

It was one of the most notorious episodes in the annals of Australian publishing. In September 1993, writing in Quadrant, Peter Ryan, the former director of Melbourne University Press (1962–87), publicly disowned Manning Clark’s six-volume A History of Australia. Clark had been dead for barely sixteen months. For scandalous copy and gossip-laden controversy, there was nothing to equal it, particularly when Ryan’s bombshell was dropped into a culture that was already polarised after more than a decade of the History Wars.

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This collection of Peter Ryan’s writings, Lines of Fire, is no grab-bag of oddments. The pieces included here are given an impressive unity by the author’s imposition of his presence, by his trenchancy, elegance of expression, a desire to honour the men and women of his younger days and to excoriate a present Australia in which too many people wallow in ‘an unwholesome masochistic guilt’. The finely designed cover shows a wry, ageing, wrinkled Ryan smiling benignly over his own shoulder, or rather that of his younger self, in uniform, in late teenage, during the Second World War. What happened in between is richly revealed in the elements of Lines of Fire.

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‘People are not entitled in a civil society to pursue a malicious campaign of character assassination based on a big lie.’ This was Andrew Clark, son of the historian Manning Clark, expressing understandable outrage on behalf of his family. The issue was the infamous allegation, based on nebulous evidence, that Manning was ‘an agent of Soviet influence’ and had been awarded the Order of Lenin. Unfortunately, as the Clarks will know, the big lie, even when refuted, spreads across generations. Although the onus is supposed to be on the accusers to prove their allegations, in reality it is easily, plausibly reversed.

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Recognising biography as ‘one of the new terrors of death’, the eighteenth-century wit John Arbuthnot made sure his life would be sparsely documented. Manning Clark, preoccupied with his inevitable extinction, took the opposite tack. He massively archived all his thoughts and doings as a strategy ...

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Against The Grain celebrates two iconoclastic Australian historians: Manning Clark and Brian Fitzpatrick. Comprising papers from a 2006 conference organised by two of their daughters, both distinguished academics, Against the Grain offers critical thoughts and reminiscences of family members, friends, colleagues, students and academic successors of the two men.

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Mark McKenna’s analysis of Manning Clark’s Kristallnacht episode (The Monthly, March 2007) – in which he shows that Clark was not in Bonn on Kristallnacht, that he arrived a couple of weeks later, but that in ensuing years he appropriated his fiancée Dymphna’s experience and account and made it his own without any attribution – may be further illuminated, given another dimension, if we look more closely not at Clark, who, as McKenna shows, wasn’t there, but at Dymphna, who was.

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I heard Manning Clark lecture just once. It was in 1981. He was addressing a hall packed with school students who were attending a history camp at the Australian National University. That night, Clark demonstrated two qualities which distinguish most good lecturers: he played a character who was an enlarged version of himself, and he convinced the gathering that his topic was central to any understanding of the human condition. He told his young audience that they were faced with a great choice. With their help, Australia might one day become millennial Eden – a land where men and women were blessed with riches of the body and of the spirit. But if they were neglectful, he warned, their country would remain oppressed by a great dullness: Australia would continue to languish as a Kingdom of Nothingness. (This speech, it should be noted, was delivered in the middle of that bitter decade which followed the dismissal.)

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I’ve told this story before, but perhaps I might give it one last run ... There I was at a NSW Premier’s Literary Award dinner, giving the annual address and I wanted to say, in passing, that much verse and most fiction, like most of anything else, are more likely to be products of imitation than of imagination. On the other hand, essays, history, philosophy, prose sketches, social, political and cultural analysis, popularisations of specialist scholarly stuff and all kinds of criticism can at times be more imaginative than verse or fiction – and display greater literary qualities.

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On 27 May, 1991, Manning Clark, Australian historian extraordinary, was buried from Canberra’s Roman Catholic cathedral by his friend the Jesuit Dr John Eddy, assisted by Professor Clark’s brother, an Anglican canon, and with the participation of his sons. After his death on 23 May, ABC national television had broadcast an interview of 1989 in which Clark had responded to the question of whether he believed in an afterlife with a firm no – to which he added that he saw merit in the response of a Mexican academic encountered twenty years before. On that matter, he harboured ‘a shy hope’. It is a smiling happy phrase, contrasting with the dark fear of future judgement that bedevils so many of the Protestant characters with which he populates his histories. And it was a qualification in harmony, not only with his occasional visits to the church that farewelled him, and earlier St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney and a multitude of European churches, but also with the ambivalence and perplexity at the heart of the man and his work. Some would call it contradiction or even evasion, but the native Australian sense of having a bob each way is sound policy, and Manning was not one for some pointless cremated affirmation of the kingdom of nothingness when he could have a touch of Catholic ritual and grandeur.

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Dear Manning,

I’m writing you this letter for want of better ways of continuing the conversation we’ve been having for the past eight years, sustained by weekly letters while I was in Japan. We began to walk and talk in 1983 as you were preparing for heart surgery and I wasn’t coping with a broken heart. You wanted someone to walk with, and I needed company.

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