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Clinton Hartley Grattan (1902–1980)

by Laurie Hergenhan

This article was published:

Clinton Hartley Grattan (1902-1980), journalist, author, historian and commentator on foreign affairs, was born on 19 October 1902 at Wakefield, near Boston, Massachusetts, United States of America, son of Leonard Grattan, journeyman baker, and his wife Laura, née Campbell, both from Nova Scotia, Canada. His forebears were Scots, English, Irish and French-Swiss, the patronymic supposedly being changed from Gratteau to Grattan. Hartley deeply admired his maternal grandfather, a subsistence farmer and mineworker. His family background contributed to his pro-labour views and to his sense of being something of an 'outsider' in American society, though he always identified strongly, if critically, with the better aspects of American democracy.

Failing to gain a place at Harvard University, Grattan nevertheless valued his Alma Mater, Clark College, Clark University (A.B., 1923), Worcester. His most influential teacher was Harry Elmer Barnes, a polymath and a crusader for radical causes. Grattan saw himself as inheriting the left-liberalism of Barnes and others who sought to harness the social sciences in a struggle for social justice. By temperament, background and education, Grattan became a dissenter with a liking for combative polemics and a belief in ranging across the disciplines. He was a proponent of American cultural independence in the debates of the 1920s and subsequently a supporter of parallel impulses in Australian culture.

In 1925 he took up journalism in New York, having already begun writing iconoclastic articles on American literary figures for H. L. Mencken's American Mercury. On 22 October 1926, in New York, Grattan married with Unitarian forms Beatrice Kuper, an actress who used 'Kay' as her stage surname; they were to be divorced in 1937. He published three books in 1929 and more followed. While pursuing a career as an Americanist, he had visited Australia in 1927 when he accompanied Beatrice who was touring with the musical, Sunny. He devoted himself to learning about the 'new' country—which he felt could not be as dull as it seemed—by collecting books and reading widely in its literature. Although he made no contact with the intellectual community, he regarded Australia as a fascinating 'experiment' in democracy. The outcome was a slim booklet, Australian Literature (Seattle, 1929), one of the earliest attempts to synthesize nineteenth- and twentieth-century literary history so as to establish what was characteristically 'Australian'.

His essay earned the immediate interest of such writers as Miles Franklin, Nettie Palmer and Katharine Susannah Prichard because it detected a promise of distinctiveness in Australian literature and did not see it as a branch of Anglo-European culture. In his voluminous later writing, much of it in leading New York journals and newspapers, he expanded his interests into socio-cultural questions, politics, economics and international relations. The span and tone of his work appealed to Australian artists and intellectuals who promoted their country's independence in the 1930s and 1940s.

Among them were people whom Grattan met on his next and most substantial visit to Australia—made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation—in December 1936-September 1938: besides Franklin, Palmer and Prichard, he met Bert Evatt, Brian Fitzpatrick, Brian Penton, Sir Herbert Gepp, Percy Stephensen, Keith Duncan, William Macmahon Ball, and the economists Colin Clark and (Sir) John Crawford, his friend thereafter. Through Geoffrey Remington, Grattan forged links with the Australian Institute of Political Science. He published influential articles in the institute's journal, the Australian Quarterly, on Joseph Furphy (as an inspirational radical nationalist) and on Australian society's lack of self-definition and direction. Grattan lamented the country's conservatism in the late 1930s.

Following a speculative and influential article, 'An Australian-American Axis?' in Harper's Magazine (May 1940), he again visited Australia for nearly two months in 1940. His brief was to report on wartime conditions and opinion in Australasia. He produced a 49-page typescript, 'Australia and New Zealand Today', which was confidentially circulated in both countries, and which summed up their situations and future possibilities. Introducing Australia (New York, 1942) resulted from both his 1936-38 and 1940 tours. An accessible, professionally informed, generalist study, the book was widely read and served not only to introduce Australia to Americans, but, as Franklin pointed out, to interest Australians in their own country. It also appealed to younger nationalists, such as Geoffrey Serle and Stephen Murray-Smith.

In the mid- and late 1930s Grattan had moved farther to the left, without becoming a communist supporter. He married a former sweetheart Marjorie Sinclair Campbell on 3 June 1939 at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In January 1942 he was appointed an analyst with the Board of Economic Warfare, Washington, a sign at last of his official recognition as an American expert on Australian affairs. Chaired by Martin Dies, a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives (which was investigating un-American activities) accused Grattan of being both a communist and a Nazi sympathizer, forcing him to resign in April. This bitter disappointment threw him back on freelance journalism in New York. He consequently experienced financial difficulties and moved with his family to nearby Katonah.

After being employed by the Ford Foundation in the 1950s, Grattan produced The Southwest Pacific to 1900 and The Southwest Pacific Since 1900 (Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1963) which he and Sir Keith Hancock regarded as his magnum opus. The work was an ambitious synthesis and drew on a lifetime's study. It was well received, but some reviewers pointed out its limitations as a generalist history in which the component parts—Australia, New Zealand, 'the Islands' and Antarctica—tended to coexist separately. The approach, especially in 'the Islands', lacked a post-colonial perspective that characterized the work of later historians.

In 1964 the University of Texas at Austin bought Grattan's vast collection of Australiana and South Pacificana, which had become legendary among his steady stream of visitors from Australia. He accepted a post at the university as curator of his collection, with some lecturing duties in history; later made professor, he retired in 1974. On his seventh and final visit to Australia in 1977, he received an honorary LL.D. from the Australian National University in belated recognition of his contribution to the study of Australian culture. Survived by his wife, and their son and three daughters, he died on 25 June 1980 at Austin.

Grattan's wish that his ashes be scattered over Sydney Harbour testified to his extraordinarily enduring attachment to Australia. The country's most important foreign observer, he was, as Serle has said, its most persistent, productive and embracing.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Oliphant (ed), Perspectives on Australia (Austin, Texas, US, 1989)
  • L. Hergenhan, No Casual Traveller (Brisb, 1995), and for publications
  • Meanjin Quarterly, 33, no 3, Sept 1974, p 229
  • Overland, 121, Summer 1990, p 70
  • J. J. Healy, Bibliography of Grattan's Writings (manuscript) and Grattan papers (Grattan Collection, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre, University of Texas at Austin).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Laurie Hergenhan, 'Grattan, Clinton Hartley (1902–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 16 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


19 October, 1902
Wakefield, Massachusetts, United States of America


25 June, 1980 (aged 77)
Austin, Texas, United States of America

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