Historians’ Auto/Biographies: What’s Happening Down Under

Monograph-length biographies of Australian historians, including historians of other nationalities with significant Australian connections, are not exactly numerous. They amount to 18 separate volumes, and even to reach this number involves a generous definition of who constitutes an historian and what constitutes a biography. One might even say that 18 such books is a paltry total, but another way of looking at it would be to say that this is a proportionally high figure – almost one biography per million of national population. Furthermore two of the more recent biographies are of a very high standard – namely Jim Davidson’s A Three-Cornered Life: the historian WK Hancock (Sydney, 2010) and Mark McKenna’s biography of Manning Clark (An Eye for Eternity: the biography of Manning Clark (Melbourne, 2011). By way of comparison, I have only been able to locate 11 biographies of Canadian historians, or a ratio of one biography for every three million of population. In Australia, by contrast, the total (and the proportion) starts to look appreciable when the seven edited collections dealing with one or more Australian historian are included.

There is nothing out of the ordinary about this corpus of biographies of Australian historians. In line with world-wide trends they have become more numerous in recent years; they are becoming larger and more deeply researched; they are becoming increasingly concerned with private as well as professional lives; and the thematic coverage is patchy. The parallels continue: whether or not a given historian becomes the subject of a biography boils down to the chance event of someone being prepared to be their biographer. Another sign of serendipity and individual initiative is that a journal will occasionally devote a special issue to a history, most recently the coverage of Russel Ward in 2008 in the Australian Journal of Colonial History. An interesting sideline to that project was the reluctance of potential contributors who disliked Ward to be involved.

Autobiographies of Australian historians are in another league, notable for their sheer quantity. If a generous definition is again applied, some 50 have appeared since the publication of G. V. Portus’s Happy Highways in 1953 followed by W. K. Hancock’s Country and Calling the following year (as against a dozen autobiographies by Canadian historians in the same period). The frequency of Australia historians’ autobiographies has been directly addressed by Jeremy Popkin [‘Ego-histoire Down Under: Australian historian-autobiographers’, Australian Historical Studies, 38, 129 (2007), 106–23] and he suggests a convergence of reasons. These autobiographies have often made an important contribution to national debates, not least on the recurring question of national identity. They are often of high literary quality and are recognised by literary scholars as having made ‘an important contribution to their society’s overall tradition of first-person writing’. The autobiographers are often prominent historians who are well integrated into the country’s intellectual and national life, and so have cultural authority. The cumulative effect is to impart historians’ autobiographies a respectability and legitimacy that encourages imitators. As Popkin says, one can now ‘speak of a genuine corpus of historians’ autobiographies, as opposed to a few isolated individual initiatives’. The genre is propelling itself forward under its own momentum. The downside is that Australian historians’ autobiographies are not an exportable commodity – they are little read outside Australia. Such are the trade-offs for living in an isolated country.

Such constraints are felt even more keenly in New Zealand. There are only two biographies of an historian – a large biography of J. C. Beaglehole and a much smaller one of the same historian. Unlike Australia, there are no multi-authored histories of history departments and there is no quasi-history of the New Zealand historical profession along the lines of Rob Pascoe’s The Manufacture of Australian History (1979). Neither are there edited volumes that deal with different historians or else a particular historian. Market forces largely explain why so little has been published on New Zealand historians. Such biographical work would have a small readership at home and an even smaller one abroad. Instead of gaining momentum and traction, there is a sense of being bogged down under the weight of its own inertia.

On the autobiographical front the picture is rosier. Four New Zealand academic historians have published their memoirs (W. P. Morrell, Keith Sinclair, W. H. Oliver and Nicholas Tarling). Sinclair and Oliver’s memoirs are well-enough known in New Zealand, because both authors achieved public prominence. Sinclair was not only an historian but a published poet who once stood for parliament. More notable is that four historians outside the academy have published their memoirs (Michael King, Philip Temple, James McNeish and Edmund Bohan). This suggests that full-time writers without an academic position and the salary that goes with it are prone to autobiography, precisely because they have to make a living. The autobiographers outside the academy have doubled the number of New Zealand historians’ memoirs. Even so, the total is insufficient to form a critical mass that would lead one to acknowledge that these books constitute a recognisable genre.  Half of the autobiographies have been published since 2009, which leads one to hope that momentum will take over and that imitators will follow.

Doug Munro

University of Queensland


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