Manning Clark: A Public Life

People Involved

Associate Professor Mark McKenna

Project overview

Almost fourteen years since his death in 1991, Australia is still without a definitive biography of Manning Clark. More than any other historian in the twentieth century, Clark inspired the love and loathing of political parties, professional colleagues and the general public. Throughout his life, he played several roles – teacher, author of the epic A History of Australia, anointed historian of the ALP, prophet and stirrer. Walk into any good book store and Clark’s histories are still to be found on the shelves. His Short History of Australia has been translated into European and Asian languages. For someone who is today rarely read within the academy (few if any history courses in Australian universities include his work on reading lists), Clark the historian has retained a hold on the public imagination.

Clark was the first to give Australia a history of tragedy, drama, emotion and depth of feeling. In the years following the dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975, Clark became a national figure in a way that no other historian or public intellectual in Australia has managed before or since. In the 1970s and 1980s, he seemed to be constantly in the public eye. In the last decade of his life, Clark was drawn more and more into the role the media wanted him to play – the oracle with the broad brimmed hat. He believed in the public duty of the intellectual. He wanted to be a great public teacher and he wanted desperately to make a difference. For many Australians, he also became a spiritual leader, a man who spoke to the mysteries of the human heart through historical parables.

Such is the mythology of Manning Clark. Yet from any vantage point – intellectual, literary, political – Manning Clark’s impact on Australian culture is profound. As John Rickard wrote in 1992, he is one of our few ‘cultural monuments’. Clark’s posthumous influence has been more than equal to Rickard’s epithet. Within two years of his death, Peter Ryan, Clark’s former publisher from Melbourne University Press, disowned him. In 1996, Clark was identified by both Prime Minister John Howard and his former student Geoffrey Blainey as the chief architect of ‘black armband history’ and accused by the Brisbane Courier Mail of being a Soviet spy. Yet for all this the biographical literature on Clark is scant. To date, Clark’s own biographical writings (Puzzles of Childhood and Quest for Grace) outweigh those that have been published since 1991.

This project is not simply a life of Manning Clark. It is an attempt to understand one of the most crucial features of post-colonial Australia – the vexed relationship between the writing of history, the historian, government and nation making. It is impossible to understand Clark’s contribution without placing him in the broader context of Australian intellectual history. And it is precisely this that will set this project apart and make it significant in terms of scholarship and public debate. Only now, after the controversies surrounding Clark in the 1990s have subsided, is it possible to gain the necessary detachment to complete the project. Clark’s work and public life lie at the heart of the so-called ‘History Wars’ today. By understanding Clark and his legacy in a scholarly and non-partisan fashion, Australia might finally be able to transcend the ‘History Wars’ and come to a deeper appreciation of the country’s past. This is a project that transcends the interests of one discipline and goes beyond the life of one historian. It encompasses the breadth of Australia’s intellectual, political and cultural history in the twentieth century.

Selected Publications

"'I wonder whether I belong': Manning Clark and the Politics of Australian History," Australian Historical Studies October 2003, pp. 364-383

"An Article of Faith for a Sceptical Democracy: The Legacy of Manning Clark," Eureka St Vol.8 No.2, March 1998, pp.29-33 (this article shared first prize in the H.V. Evatt Foundation Essay Prize 1997)