University of Sydney historian wins top national literary award

25 July 2012

'An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark' by Associate Professor Mark McKenna.
'An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark' by Associate Professor Mark McKenna.

A landmark biography of the historian Manning Clark has won a 2012 Prime Minister's Literary Award for its author Associate Professor Mark McKenna of the University of Sydney.

An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark took the $80,000 prize in the non-fiction category of the awards, which 'celebrate the contribution of Australian literature and history to the nation's cultural and intellectual life' and are the richest in Australia.

Alongside Associate Professor McKenna's win were Foal's Bread by Gillian Mears in the fiction category, Interferon Psalms by Luke Davies in the inaugural poetry category and The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia by Bill Gammage in the Australian history category.

"This means a great deal to me, especially because the PM's award is a national award. Also because it's a literary award, and as an historian I've always spent as much time on how I express myself as I do on content and argument. So yes, it's an honour to win," Associate Professor McKenna said.

McKenna said he hoped his book would broaden public perceptions of Manning Clark's work as an historian and shed some light on the contribution made by Clark's wife Dymphna.

"I hope the book has helped to lift our understanding of Clark beyond the narrow confines of the history and culture wars that have dominated Australia's public culture for so long. Perhaps it has revealed the true nature of his contribution and also that of his wife, Dymphna. The book is as much her life as his," he said.

Manning Clark (1915-1991) taught the first full-length university course in Australian history and produced a six-volume history of Australia. He was a public intellectual who in McKenna's words "continued to ask Australians to think hard about the direction of their country".

He played a key role in public debates including the end of White Australia, the Cold War, the demise of the British Empire, the Vietnam War, the emergence of a new Australian nationalism, the dismissal of the Whitlam government, the bicentenary celebrations and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Since his death he has continued to be a figure of controversy making "his afterlife almost as vast as the life itself".

McKenna's research included reading Clark's extensive private letters, journals and diaries-many of which had never been read before. The biography includes accounts of Clark's friendships with Patrick White and Sidney Nolan and details his often turbulent marriage.

Associate Professor McKenna became a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of History at the University of Sydney in 2006 and in 2010 became a member of the department. He previously held fellowships at the Australian National University.

He is the author of several prize-winning books, including Looking for Blackfellas' Point: an Australian History of Place, which won the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction and Book of the Year in the 2003 NSW Premier's Literary Awards.

"I can say in all honesty that I have never experienced a writing project quite like this. I often felt as if I had to wrest control of the story from Manning. Yet in all the years of research and writing never once was I bored or exhausted by him. He took me wherever I wanted to go, from Australian and European history to music, literature and art. His intellectual curiosity was boundless."

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