Mark McKenna: An Eye for Eternity

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 for ensuring some spectral posthumous existence. A telling photograph in Mark McKenna’s stupendous An Eye for Eternity shows the historian’s papers rising hubristically shelf after shelf like a personal tower of Babel in the National Library of Australia. Not content with writing two volumes of autobiography, Clark put his turbulent inner life on display in an excruciatingly and embarrassingly frank diary, intended for publication from the time he began it in his early twenties. Well before death came for him in 1991, he had taken to leaving notes in the nooks and crannies of his study for the benefit of the future biographers who, he confidently expected, would rise to his bait.

He had not long to wait. Brian Matthews was one of the first up the mountain, with Manning Clark: A Life (2008). He is now joined at the summit by McKenna and his more ambitiously subtitled The Life of Manning Clark. Clark’s multitudinous personal and professional failings tempt the reviewer to concentrate on the subject rather than on the author of the biography – a temptation that must be resisted so that McKenna may receive the credit he deserves for an absolutely smashing effort. Despite its formidable length, this is a real page-turner. McKenna compels admiration not just for the depth of his research and the unassuming grace of his prose, but also for the skill with which he constructs his narrative. He shifts between past and present without ever losing a powerful forward chronological drive. He puts his methodological and evidentiary base on display without ever appearing to be the slave of his overabundant materials. Most remarkable of all, he manages to maintain a degree of respect and affection for his subject, while unflinchingly detailing the damage wrought by Clark’s cavalier approach to historical truth and by his hurtful behaviour to those who least deserved it – most notably his long-suffering and devoted wife, Dymphna. Whereas Matthews concentrated on the tortured soul revealed in the diaries, McKenna pays close attention to the legion of Clark’s students, colleagues, and friends who knew only the public face. There must have been much to like, otherwise they would not be so unstinting in their praise for his classroom presence, tearoom banter, and his gift for making others feel special. Their testimony to the pleasure of his company is overwhelming.

The question remains, however, whether those qualities entitle Clark to the recognition he craved not only as a great historian but also as a great man. McKenna tacitly accepts the current scholarly consensus that he did not come within cooee of greatness as a writer of history. Although his six-volume history of Australia outsold – and in its condensed form continues to outsell – all competitors, it is marred by sloppy research, inadequate referencing, and an approach to quotation that most present-day professionals would regard as gross plagiarism.

In some ways, these faults are the most easily forgiven. Few historians of his generation received any advanced training in research. He came to prominence as a student for his élan and facility with written assignments and essays.That got him to Oxford, where he dithered about his course of study and eventually withdrew without taking out a degree. At that time the doctoral degree was still held in something like contempt by dons who regarded a good first-class honours degree as the best evidence of fitness for a university teaching position. With no one to show him how to frame a project of historical research, how to use archives, how to take and organise notes, he and his contemporaries had to find their own way. Few professors of history in Australia before the 1960s possessed a doctorate, and most won their chairs on the basis of what would now be regarded as a laughably slim output of publications. Clark was not wrong to see himself as at least as deserving as his peers, but it is a shame that hubris prevented him from filling in the gaps in his education as an historian. Rather than spending his days haunting the archives, Clark employed research assistants to collect data for him, which he would then digest and annotate in the quiet of his home study. This second-hand approach to material practically guaranteed the proliferation of innocent errors, misquotations, and faulty attributions.

At the time he got his first lecturing job at Melbourne in the 1940s, scholars on other continents were pushing the boundaries with innovative work in social, economic, regional, and intellectual history. Clark took the long-dead Carlyle and Macaulay as his models, and paid little attention to living historians. When he did read them, he did not engage or argue with them. McKenna’s bibliography of Clark’s publications lists not a single journal article. On the contrary, he frequently expressed his contempt for academic history as a soulless corporation, calling it ‘History Enterprises, Inc. Pty. Ltd.’. While standing apart from his profession, he craved recognition for pre-eminence within it. With each successive publication, he imagined spiteful, nitpicking, and envious rivals baying for his blood. That was rarely the case. Most commonly, his fellow historians lamented that he did not put his considerable gifts to better use.

Clark’s special talent as a writer of histories lay in the novelist’s trick of appearing to know the innermost thoughts of the characters who people his books and conjuring up the atmosphere of times past – sights, sounds, smells. Even McKenna hesitates to rank him among the real historians. In his words, Clark did not so much write historical fiction as ‘fictional history’. He did it well enough to capture a huge audience of lay readers who revelled in his knack for spinning a yarn and making yesterday’s dreary notables come to life. Those same gifts made him an inspiring lecturer. In small group teaching he was equally effective in drawing students out and making them feel valued as insightful individuals. His personal foibles and quirky dress only served to enhance his hold over undergraduates. Today’s advocates of cookie-cutter patterns for teaching and learning fail to grasp how important it is for university students to see their lecturers as diverse purveyors of eccentric lifestyles and outrageous opinions. Every history department needs its Manning Clark.

Not that they find them easy to live with. Through much of his life, Clark was prone to afternoon revelries and drunken binges. His attention to administrative detail was woeful. His behaviour toward young women veered somewhere between courtly flattery and sexual harassment, just as his language swerved from oracular prophecy to alley-cat vulgarity. Women who found themselves the object of his desire were likely to be inundated with notes, impassioned letters, and untimely phone calls. Thankfully, he did not survive to the age of emails and the SMS. In today’s puritanical institutions of higher learning, he would be lucky to hold onto his job.

McKenna wonders more at how he managed to hold his wife. When they met as students at Melbourne University, many reckoned Dymphna the more promising aspirant to an academic career. Fluent in several languages, she was encouraged by her doting father to undertake doctoral studies in Germany. While Manning could only scrape by for a year at Oxford on a meagre grant, she won two handsome scholarships. From the moment she arrived in Bonn, Clark set about sabotaging her study plans. Every day the post brought another long letter explaining in the most passionate language how much he needed her by his side in order to fulfil his destiny. In addition, he could make a compelling case that Hitler’s Germany in 1938 was no place for an Australian girl. Not many months passed before he wore down her resolve and brought her to England as his bride. Soon she was pregnant with the first of their five children and resigned to a future as her temperamental husband’s helpmeet, translator of foreign languages, critic, proofreader, emotional refuge, childminder, cook, gardener, and general factotum. She came to believe as fervently as Manning in his destined greatness, and did what she could to promote him. In return she got a great deal less than she might have expected or deserved. He made no secret of his loathing for her parents. His diaries record his accumulating resentments; he repeatedly accuses her of despising and undermining him.

And, of course, there were the affairs and infatuations, many conducted practically under her nose. Occasionally it all became too much and she would run off, only to find Manning again beseeching, pleading, wailing for her return. No one, he would insist, could be loved or desired as much as she was, etc., etc., until resistance crumpled.

McKenna’s sympathies clearly lie with Dymphna. So will most readers’. At the same time, he conveys a sense that, without the damning evidence of the diaries, we might see them as the congenial, happily suited couple perceived by most visitors to their home. I am inclined to agree. So many men of his generation treated their wives far worse. Fellow academics took up with and took off with students. Many practised serial monogamy, leaving behind puzzled and damaged families. For all his philandering, Manning was a family man. He would not have left Dymphna; his life would have been empty without her. They shared too much. The trouble was, he wrote too much. A kinder, less self-obsessed man would have destroyed his diary lest it be read by the wife who subsumed her life in his. He was not as bad as Boswell, who left the journal of his betrayals open on his desk for his wife to read when she wished. But he was pretty bad.

If Clark fails to qualify as a great historian or as a great man, it might still be argued that he was a great Australian. He accurately diagnosed many of his nation’s failings at mid-century. The country had not engaged with Asia. White Australia had become an international embarrassment. The country could not continue as a distant appendage of Britain. Australians should imagine themselves capable of cultural as well as sporting triumphs. They must come to terms with the Aboriginal presence. Insofar as his history aimed to change the nation’s self-image, it made a timely contribution. It may be that anyone with the gumption to write a six-volume history at that time would have seized the popular imagination. Still, Clark was the one who did it. He was also the first academic (in 1946) to offer a full-length course in Australian history. He was not alone in seeing himself as part of a brilliant generation of creative minds spearheading a drive for cultural independence, along with people such as Patrick White, Sidney Nolan, Fred Williams, Arthur and Robin Boyd. In hindsight, Clark seems much less of an innovator. His overblown prose belonged to an earlier era. His premise that modern Australia was forged in the crucible of conflict between Catholicism, Protestantism, and the Enlightenment seems just daft. Yet by the late 1960s the man in the broad black hat and three-piece suit had become part of the national conversation. And did he ever love it. As his books flew off the shelves, he spoke to his countrymen on radio, television, and in the papers. For better or worse, he bound his fortunes to the Labor Party by hailing Gough Whitlam as the promised messiah. He called the double-dissolution election of 1974 one of the ‘decisive moments in the history of mankind’.

He did not live to see himself singled out by Geoffrey Blainey as the principal purveyor of ‘black armband history’ and consigned to the dustbin of biased left-wing history in the phony ‘culture wars’ of the Howard era. Worse was to come with the pig-ignorant charge in Chris Mitchell’s Courier-Mail that he had won The Order of Lenin and operated as a Soviet ‘agent of influence’. The irony was that Clark is as hard to classify in left-right ideological terms as he is in religious belief – in some ways reactionary, in some ways Burkean conservative, in some ways a Fabian socialist. In any case, his time has passed, and his influence on the practice of historical research and writing is practically nil. Future historians will regard him as source material for attitudes of a bygone era rather than for inspiration. In Mark McKenna, they will have a first-class guide to the man and his archive.