Munro, Doug: ‘How illuminating it has been’: Matthews and McKenna, and their biographies of Manning Clark

Doug Munro

‘How illuminating it has been”: Matthews and McKenna, and their biographies of Manning Clark’, Philip Payton, ed., Emigrants & Historians: Essays in Honour of Eric Richards, Wakefield Press, Adelaide, 2016, pp. 98-131 (pdf made available courtesy of the author and the publisher)

Update 29 October 2021: Doug Munro’s book, History Wars: The Peter Ryan–Manning Clark Controversy, has been published electronically by ANU Press and is available here (free download or $55 for print version). James Curran (University of Sydney) says this of the book:

In 1993, Manning Clark came under severe (posthumous) attack in the pages of Quadrant by none other than Peter Ryan, who had published five of the six volumes of Clark’s epic A History of Australia. In applying what he called “an overdue axe to a tall poppy”, Ryan lambasted the History as “an imposition on Australian credulity” and declared its author a fraud, both as a historian and a person. This unprecedented public assault by a publisher on his best-selling author was a sensation at the time and remains lodged in the public memory. In History Wars, Doug Munro forensically examines the right and wrongs of Ryan’s allegations, concluding that Clark was more sinned against than sinning and that Ryan repeatedly misrepresented the situation. More than just telling a story, Munro places the Ryan-Clark controversy within the context of Australia’s History Wars. This book is an illuminating saga of that ongoing contest.


This article focuses particularly on Brian Matthews’ Manning Clark: A Life (2008) and Mark McKenna’s An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark (2011), two different but complementary biographies of Clark. Munro also mentions the works of Stephen Holt and Humphrey McQueen. Munro gives a detailed account of how Matthews and McKenna came to write their books; the piece is in some ways like one of those television shows, ‘The making of X’, which goes behind the scenes to show what made it to the final version, how it did and, perhaps, why.

But Munro’s piece is more than that. It has a lot of useful things to say about the nature of biography, how the subject changes at the hands of the biographer – and Clark was a particularly difficult subject to pin down – and how the biographer is moved by his or her subject. There is discussion of the use of sources, the credibility of diaries (and of witnesses), the ups and downs of marriage, the bitchiness of (some) writers and publishers, the human drive to leave a mark, and the different perspectives of the historian (McKenna) and the English lit man (Matthews).

The key question for any biographer is the one Munro takes from Allan Martin’s 1974 essay on delving into Henry Parkes: ‘Where does “the actor posture-maker” end and “the actual man underneath” begin?’ Or, as Pilate said, ‘What is truth?’ Pilate knew his question had no answer.


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David Stephens

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