Biography

Tongerlongeter was surely one of Australia’s toughest military leaders. Henry Reynolds and Nicholas Clements expressly narrate his story to affirm the place of the Frontier Wars in the Anzac pantheon. Reflexive conservative responses to such arguments – that Anzac Day commemorates only those who served in the Australian military – are flawed and outdated. The Tasmanian frontier is one of Australia’s best-documented cases of violent operations against Aboriginal people. In 1828, Governor George Arthur, unable to gain control over the ‘lamentable and protracted warfare’, issued a Demarcation Proclamation later enforced by the formation of Black Lines, military cordons stretching several hundred kilometres across southern and central Tasmania to secure the grasslands demanded by white settlers.

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Writing this review of John F. Kennedy’s formative years soon after the end of the Trump regime has evoked some surprising parallels between these two one-term American presidents (and perennial womanisers). They were both second sons born into wealthy families dominated by powerful patriarchs. Against the odds, they emerged as their fathers’ favourites and were groomed for success. Thanks not just to their wealth but to their televisual celebrity and telegenic families, they managed to eke out close election victories at a time when just enough disenchanted voters were looking for a change of direction in the White House. Despite their administrations’ profound disparities in competence and their differences in political outlook, they shared a deep distrust of senior bureaucrats and military officials, as well as an inability to work effectively with Congress. Bullets and ballots, respectively, ended Kennedy’s and Donald Trump’s presidencies, but not the cults of personality they had inspired. In the space of just over half a century, they have tilted the trajectory of American democracy and diplomacy from the tragic to the tragicomic.

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Kim Rubenstein’s biography of Joan Montgomery, the venerable former principal of Melbourne’s Presbyterian Ladies’ College (PLC), has been thirty years in the making and is the definition of a labour of love. It involves Rubenstein, a distinguished and worldly legal scholar and human rights campaigner, revisiting scenes from her own life. She was a pupil at Montgomery’s PLC. As a first-year law student, she addressed the remarkable public meeting in April 1984 that opposed Montgomery’s defenestration by Presbyterian reactionaries, who were avenging the formation of the Uniting Church seven years earlier by asserting control over the school. Rubenstein’s subsequent career has been that of a distinguished old girl following the tenets of a liberal education.

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Thirty-two years since his death, Colin Clark (1905–89) remains an obscure name in Australia and the discipline of economics. This relative anonymity may strike those who know of his academic achievements as odd, even unjust, as Clark was an outspoken and occasionally brilliant intellectual. A protégé (and later apostate) of John Maynard Keynes, a British Labour party candidate for South Norfolk, a Queensland state statistician, and a scholar at Cambridge, Monash, Oxford, and Queensland, the British-born Clark was a pioneer of national accounting and made numerous contributions to various fields of economics. These were tempered, however, by his ideological conservatism, peripatetic employment, and uneven record of economic forecasting.

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Why ‘burning man’? Because in this immense, obsessive, studiously unkempt work, the biographer brings accelerant to the raging bonfire that is D.H. Lawrence’s reputation and pours it with pyromaniacal glee. Frances Wilson’s new life of the writer stands athwart the accumulated crimes of which Lawrence stands accused – his obstreperousness, his intense and absurd hatreds, his dubious politics, the physical and metaphysical violence he committed against women – and demands a halt to the trial.

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The biographer Hazel Rowley enjoyed the fact that her green card – permitting her to work in America – classified her as an ‘Alien of exceptional ability’. This is close to perfect: her own biography in a few words. If not exactly an alien, she was usefully and often shrewdly awry in a variety of situations: in the academic world of the 1990s, in tense Parisian literary circles, and in the fraught environment of American race relations. It helped that she was Australian, and a relative outsider. The people she sought information from were less likely to categorise her and more inclined to talk. Her books – the major biographies of Christina Stead (1993) and Richard Wright (2001), Tête-à-tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre (2005), and Franklin and Eleanor: An extraordinary marriage (2010) – are certainly evidence of exceptional ability, as well as obsession and tenacity.

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George Berkeley (1685–1753) proposed a radical solution to the conundrums of modern philosophy. By denying the existence of matter, he dismissed the problem of how we can know a world outside our minds. Only minds and their ideas are real. The problem of understanding how mind and matter interact is dissolved by Berkeley’s immaterialism, and so is the difficulty of explaining how causation works. The source of all that we perceive, he believed, is God. Few philosophers have ever accepted this position. But the brilliance of his arguments for it earned him a place in the Western philosophical canon.

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Coralie Clarke Rees and Leslie Rees are not remembered among the glamour couples of twentieth-century Australian literary life. Unlike George Johnston and Charmian Clift, Vance and Nettie Palmer, or their friends Darcy Niland and Ruth Park, neither of them wrote novels and they both spread their work across a range of genres. Critics, journalists, travel writers, children’s writers, playwrights, they devoted themselves to supporting the broad artistic culture of Australia rather than claiming its attention. Their lives were spent in juggling their literary interests with the need to make a living at a time when Australian society was even less supportive of writers than it is now. They made compromises to suburban life and the need to care for their two daughters, without ever abandoning their determination to live by the pen.


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To write of Herbert Vere Evatt (1894–1965) is to venture into a land where opinions are rarely held tentatively. While many aspects of his career have been controversial, his actions during the famous Split of 1955 arouse the most passionate criticism. Evatt is attacked, not only on the political right but frequently from within the Labor Party itself, for his alleged role in causing the catastrophic rupture that kept Labor out of office until 1972.

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Far too few Australian artists have been the subject of comprehensive biographies. Gary Werskey mentions Humphrey McQueen’s 784-page Tom Roberts (1996) as an inspiration. Of course, there are art monographs and retrospective exhibition catalogues, but those are not life stories. With seventy-six colour plates and another fifty-one images in the text, Werskey’s thoroughly researched Picturing a Nation, set in rich historical and social context, is most welcome. As he observes, A.H. Fullwood’s life was ‘as full of pathos and plot turns as a three-volume Victorian novel’.

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