Clark, CMH (Manning): A History of Australia

CMH (Manning) Clark

A History of Australia, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., six volumes, 1962-87; later editions

The sub-titles of some of the volumes attest to the deep themes running within the work: The Earth Abideth for Ever, 1851-1888 (Vol. 4) , The People Make Laws, 1888-1915 (Vol. 5), The Old Dead Tree and the Young Tree Green, 1916-1935 (Vol. 6). The ‘punishers’ and the ‘straighteners’ contest, history is a tragedy, the author searches for what lies in the hearts of men and yearns, like Dostoevsky, to be around when we find out what it’s all been for. He believes we all belong to ‘the fellowship of the deprived’. Sometimes, very occasionally, the facts are incorrect.

Clark’s history stops in 1935, although there is a brief epilogue and Clark also wrote A Short History of Australia (many editions) which covered more ground. Whether the work is regarded as literature or history (and there is surely no reason why it cannot be both) it is essential reading for anyone seriously interested in Australia’s story. The passion and commitment shown by the historian to his nation’s complex and contested history might well be emulated by his fellow Australians.

Mark McKenna’s 2011 biography, An Eye for Eternity, contains a comprehensive bibliography of works analysing and reviewing Clark and here there is a brief recording in 1986 of Clark himself talking about his work.

Regarding the place of Anzac in Australian history, Clark says this:

Some Australians were abandoning their hopes of creating a society free of the evils of the old world, a society where there was equality of opportunity without servility, mediocrity, conformity or greyness of spirit. For some Australians the void left by loss of belief in God and the life of the world to come had been filled by worship of a site and heroic deeds which held out no hopes for the future. Australians had acquired a sacred site. Gallipoli was the “most sacred corner of Australian soil”. The Anzacs were transfigured into folk heroes. (Vol. 5, p. 425)

The first three chapters of Clark’s final volume are titled ‘Two Australias’, ‘Victory of the comfortable classes’ and ‘A divided Australia’. Australians’ attitude to Anzac, at first conflicted then consolidating, is a theme throughout the volume.

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