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Charles Manning Clark (1915–1991)

by Mark McKenna

This article was published:

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Manning Clark, 1985

Manning Clark, 1985

ANU Archives, ANUA225-222

Charles Manning Hope Clark (1915-1991), historian, was born on 3 March 1915 at Burwood, Sydney, second of three children of English-born Charles Hervey William Clark, Anglican clergyman, and his New Zealand-born wife Catherine Amelia Stuart, née Hope. Manning’s early years were spent in New South Wales and Victoria, moving with his father’s shifting ministries, the family finally settling in 1934 at Mentone, Victoria. After completing his early education at state schools in Cowes, Belgrave, and Mont Albert, Clark attended Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, where he was equal dux (1933). For the rest of his life, especially when reminiscing in public as an older man, he spoke of his childhood as a fusion of the bucolic idyll of Phillip Island—where he played cricket, fished, and went rabbit-shooting with his father, and the misery of the institutionalised culture of bullying he experienced at school. Underlying these experiences was the schism between the established pastoral background of his pious, Protestant mother, a descendant of Samuel Marsden, and the working-class origins of his Anglo-Catholic father, a division which he later dramatised, portraying the religious and class divisions of his family as Australia’s writ large.

After winning a scholarship to Trinity College, University of Melbourne, Clark studied history and political science (BA, 1938), graduating with first-class honours and securing a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford. In August 1938 he sailed for England with his fiancée, Hilma Dymphna Lodewyckx, who had received a scholarship to study German language and culture in Bonn. They were married on 31 January 1939 at the parish church of St Michael at the North Gate, Oxford. At Oxford Clark experienced the customary English condescension toward ‘colonials,’ displayed his batting prowess for the Oxford XI, read history, and began work on what would later become his MA thesis, ‘The Ideal of Alexis de Tocqueville.’ Declared unfit for military service because of his slight epilepsy, he taught history at secondary schools in England and Australia. They included Blundell’s School, Tiverton, Devonshire, and Geelong Grammar School, Victoria. He was appointed lecturer in political science at the University of Melbourne in 1944.

Clark’s interest in history, the lasting passion of his life, was evident from his early teenage years. In 1945 he transferred to the university’s history department. Under the guidance of the head of department, Max Crawford, he taught the university’s undergraduate course in Australian history. As he reflected later, ‘In the late forties and early 50s, the historical map of Australia was almost a blank: I had to set out on a journey without maps’ (McKenna 2011, 250). Although the statement is an exaggeration, he quickly gained recognition as an outstanding teacher. A born entertainer, he delivered lectures in a hushed, self-conscious voice and read as dramatic script. His talent was for self-dramatising, and this drew his audiences to him as much as it drew them to his subject. Before giving his first lectures he wrote in his diary, as if issuing himself an edict, ‘[If Australian] history is not interesting [then] make the events romantic’ (Clark c. 1964).

In 1949 Clark was appointed professor of history at Canberra University College, which in 1960 became the Australian National University’s (ANU) school of general studies. The inspiration for much of his historical writing was found not in Australia but in his travels to South-East Asia (1955), Britain and Ireland (1956), and the Soviet Union (1958).

Clark’s time in Canberra was the most productive and creative period of his life. Under his guidance, the history department, in line with those at other universities in the 1950s, expanded rapidly. Clark displayed an astute eye for recruiting staff, which included Ken Inglis, John Molony, and Humphrey McQueen. His appointments were sometimes made according to personal preferences rather than qualifications and experience. With a secure and prestigious academic position, his personal and professional life blossomed and he produced an exceptional volume of work. It included his two volume Select Documents in Australian History (1950 and 1955), which became the bedrock of university courses in Australian history for more than two decades; Meeting Soviet Man (1960), a controversial book on his visit to the Soviet Union; A Short History of Australia (1963); The Discovery of Australia (1976), the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s Boyer lectures; In Search of Henry Lawson (1978); a collection of essays; two volumes of short stories; hundreds of articles and reviews;  two volumes of autobiography; and the work for which he is best known, his six-volume History of Australia (1962-87). Four further volumes of speeches, letters, history, and autobiographical writings were published posthumously. From 1938 until his death, Clark kept personal diaries, documenting his inner life, often with fierce and uncompromising honesty and describing the personal lives of many of his friends and colleagues. In addition, he kept copious notebooks in which he recorded his reading and the conceptual development of his work.

Clark’s idiosyncratic, sprawling ode to Australian character and place in A History of Australia not only romanticised Australia’s past, for the first time it gave it an epic dimension. The scale of his undertaking was itself an attempt to see Australia as a unique site for the transplanting of European civilisation. Clark’s grand narrative—with its now familiar, but at the time quite revolutionary schema of seeing Australia’s past through the prism of three great belief systems (Protestantism, Catholicism, and the Enlightenment)—lurches from the inspired to the droll; finding tragedy, pathos, and existential crisis on every stump and street corner. Part Gibbon, Macaulay, and Carlyle, and steeped in the language of the Old Testament, it is entirely character driven, mostly by a succession of flawed, tormented males, who walk on stage at the allotted time to play out the drama of their biographical roles.

Clark was probably the first historian in Australia to write at length about the inner life of his characters. But his feeling was not only for character, it was also for place. Until his six volumes, historical melancholy was something that Australians imagined residing only in the layered, built environment of Europe. He found it in the landscape itself, a despondency born not only of exile, but of the continent’s antiquity and Aboriginal dispossession, the latter recurring as an underlying tragic refrain. Nevertheless, Clark later admitted that he had not paid enough attention to Aboriginal history. At regular intervals, the ghosts of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Henry James provided guiding aphorisms. His writing, which included fictional elements, was peppered with biblical quotations, the Book of Ecclesiastes being among his favourite sources of inspiration. Given the melodramatic nature of his historical writing, it seems entirely appropriate that A History of Australia was made into a musical in 1988, Australia’s bicentennial year (Manning Clark: the Musical). A History of Australia attracted considerable criticism, not least from reviewers, fellow historians and friends including Malcolm Ellis and A. G .L  Shaw.

Despite Clark’s frequent criticisms of ‘academia,’ his persona as a public intellectual traded in large part on the authority of his university position. In 1971 he was appointed professor of Australian history. It was the first time the title was used in Australia, and he wore it as a badge of honour until 1974 when he retired in order to devote more time to research and writing. At the ANU, from 1975 to 1981, he held the positions of emeritus professor and library fellow. Honorary degrees of D. Litt. were conferred on him by the University of Melbourne (1974), the University of Newcastle (1980), and the University of Sydney (1988). A fellow of the Social Science Research Council of Australia (later the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia) from 1952, he was a foundation fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities (1981). In 1988 he was elected a foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

His post-teaching life was dominated initially by a public alliance with the Australian Labor Party (ALP) government of Gough Whitlam. After its dismissal in November 1975, he and other prominent writers such as Donald Horne and Patrick White led a republican campaign against the actions of the governor-general, Sir John Kerr, and the Liberal prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, and demanded a new Australian constitution. His partisan role and dire public statements earned him the contempt of many conservatives.

After his retirement Clark, lean, grave, and goatee-bearded, wearing his trademark dress slightly tattered, black three-piece suit; watch chain dangling from the fob pocket; paddock-bashing boots and crumpled weather-beaten Akubra hat was renowned across Australia as an historical oracle. He addressed Australia Day events and citizenship ceremonies; launched books; opened art exhibitions, fetes, music festivals, opera and theatre productions; and endorsed rock bands. He also spoke at school speech nights, ALP campaign rallies, anti-woodchip meetings and church services. Clark appeared in every possible media site, including midday television and house and garden programs, and even managed a cameo role as the preacher in the 1985 film production of Peter Carey’s novel, Bliss. Appointed AC in 1975, he was named Australian of the Year in 1980. In Australia’s bicentenary year (1988), he wrote major critical essays for the popular press interpreting its historical significance.

The frantic pace of Clark’s public life had begun to take a toll on his health. He underwent open-heart surgery in 1983 and battled several emotional ailments, including rampant hypochondria and depression. As a younger man he had struggled with alcoholism, which he managed, by and large, to conquer in later life. His extra-marital affairs and attempted seductions resulted in Dymphna leaving him briefly in 1972. His diaries overflowed with criticisms of her and gloomy reflections on his mortality. Survived by his wife, five sons, and one daughter, he died in Canberra on 23 May 1991. Although he had never publicly professed his Catholic faith, to the surprise of many of his former colleagues and friends, his funeral was held at St Christopher’s Catholic Cathedral, Manuka.

Within two years of Clark’s death, a succession of controversies engulfed his name. His work was defended vigorously by the Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating; attacked for rejecting British heritage by the Liberal parliamentarian David Kemp; and identified by his erstwhile student, the historian Geoffrey Blainey, as being the chief exemplar of ‘black armband history’ (Blainey 1993). His former publisher at Melbourne University Press, Peter Ryan, publicly disowned his work, claiming that he was ashamed to have published history of such poor quality. Ryan accused him of being a fraud. Three years later, in 1996, based on claims that quickly evaporated under scrutiny, Brisbane’s Courier-Mail (Crozier 5)  alleged that Clark had acted as a covert ‘agent of influence’ on behalf of the Soviet Union. There was no evidence that he had been a member of the Communist Party, let alone a spy. In March 2007, Clark’s oft-told story about arriving in Bonn on 10 November 1938, the morning after Kristallnacht, was exposed as fabrication, a revelation that saw the Sydney Morning Herald (5 March 2007, 1) repeat Ryan’s allegation.  Despite the criticism that his writings and behaviour attracted, Clark made a significant and lasting contribution to Australia’s intellectual life and much of his work will stand the test of time. Paul Keating said of him, ‘More than any other Australian writer, he elevated Australian history to the point where all of us could say that the story of Australia was part of the universal story–uniquely Australian, but at every stage connected to the world beyond’ (Keating 52).

Clark’s life was framed by the ideological struggle that began with the Russian revolution in 1917 and ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. He also witnessed the gradual waning of the British connection in post-war Australia. Yet for all the controversies that have surrounded discussion of his legacy, his political allegiances have been largely misremembered. At various times throughout his life, he was embraced and reviled by both the left and right, and he frequently felt disillusioned with political systems of all kinds. He sat on the editorial board of Quadrant in the early 1960s and, for a short time, was the great new hope of conservative intellectuals in Australia. Like virtually every aspect of Clark’s life, his politics were ambiguous. He espoused radical positions but eschewed radical politics; he dressed like a rural parson but embraced modish political causes. Throughout all of these stances, the one consistent and lasting theme of his life, both as historian and public intellectual, was his passion for Australia. As the person so often credited with first arousing public interest in Australian history and giving the nation an epic past, his life story, probably more than that of any other intellectual in the twentieth century, is inextricably linked with Australia’s history. He is memorialised in several ways, including portraits of him by Arthur Boyd (in the family’s possession) and Rick Amor (National Portrait Gallery), the Manning Clark Chair of History and Manning Clark Centre at the ANU, and a Canberra street that bears his name. Manning Clark House, his former Canberra home designed by Robin Boyd, became a place for the encouragement of ideas and intellectual enterprise, and a place for visiting scholars to experience the house as Manning and Dymphna left it, including his loft study adorned with books, and mementos of his beloved Carlton Football Club. In 1999 Manning Clark House inaugurated an annual Manning Clark Lecture, which is given each year by a distinguished Australian.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Australian National University Archives. ANU 19, Manning Clark Staff Files
  • Blainey, Geoffrey. Sir John Latham Memorial Lecture, 1993
  • Bridge, Carl (ed.). Manning Clark: Essays on his Place in History. Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1994
  • Clark, Manning. Diary c. 1964. Papers of Manning Clark, MS 7550.  National Library of Australia
  • Clark, Manning. Interview by Hazel de Berg, 25 May 1967. Transcript. Hazel de Berg collection. National Library of Australia
  • Crozier, Brian. ‘The Agents of Influence’. Courier-Mail (Brisbane), Weekend, 24 August 1996, 5
  • Holt, Stephen. Manning Clark and Australian History, 1915–1963. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1982
  • Keating, Paul J. ‘The Story of Australia’ in Advancing Australia. The Speeches of Paul Keating, Prime Minister, edited by Mark Ryan. Sydney: Big Picture Publications, 1995
  • Macintyre, Stuart and Sheila Fitzpatrick (eds), Against the Grain: Brian Fitzpatrick and Manning Clark in Australian History and Politics. Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2007
  • Marr, David. ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There: Manning Clark’s Fraud Exposed’. Sydney Morning Herald, 5 March 2007, 1
  • McKenna, Mark. An Eye for Eternity: the life of Manning Clark. Carlton: Melbourne University Publishing (Miegunyah Press), 2011
  • McQueen, Humphrey. Suspect History: Manning Clark and the Future of Australia’s Past. Kent Town: Wakefield Press, 1997
  • Matthews, Brian. Manning Clark: A Life. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2008.  

Additional Resources

Citation details

Mark McKenna, 'Clark, Charles Manning (1915–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2015, accessed online 26 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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