Joshua Black has reviewed the new publication by Doug Munro, History Wars: The Peter Ryan – Manning Clark Controversy. Canberra: ANU Press, 2021.

At a public talk in Melbourne in 2011, historian Mark McKenna reflected on the challenges of writing a biography about a man whose own narratives often proved so empirically unfaithful. He was referring, of course, to that renowned Australian national storyteller (judged in some quarters to be a great national denigrator or worse, fabricator) Charles Manning Hope Clark. ‘Biography is not a court martial’, McKenna said. ‘It’s not a trial. It’s not a case where I place Manning in the witness box and I then condemn him or I close the book on him’.[1] The biographer still needed to sift through the total body of evidence, but McKenna astutely gauged that sweeping condemnation and moral judgement could only be a poor cousin to a more measured understanding of Clark’s character, life and work. For an expansive biography such as his, it is surely the preferable approach.[2]

A decade on, in his new book History Wars: The Peter Ryan – Manning Clark Controversy, Wellington-based historian Doug Munro has undertaken a very different kind of inquiry, for which a different approach is necessary. For one thing, Munro diverts our gaze away from Clark and toward one of the late historian’s most committed detractors, namely longstanding director of Melbourne University Press (MUP) Peter Ryan. For twenty-five years, Ryan sponsored and supported Clark’s six-volume History of Australia. Then, two years after Clark’s death, Ryan launched a visceral takedown of the History and its author, criticising his flaws as historian, storyteller and man. Clark’s History, Ryan declared, was a great ‘fraud’, indeed his ‘chiefest’ regret as a publisher, although the real blame for its national influence lay with the historical profession’s ‘dereliction’ of their duty to robustly critique it (p. xxvii). A flawed historian, Ryan also judged Clark to be a flawed man, formerly prone to ‘drinking sprees’ and latterly guilty of ‘neediness’, ‘humbug’, and ‘unworthy criticism of others’ to name just a few (p. xxvii). It is not that Ryan misrepresented Clark, Munro suggests; rather, Ryan misrepresented his own position in the story (writing falsehoods about MUP’s contractual obligations to Clark and its financial dependence on the History, and later presenting himself as the lone victim of Clark’s cheer-squad). Further, he produced only an ‘unoriginal denunciation of the History’ (p. 153). In total, Ryan is guilty of the same ‘wide-ranging dishonesty’ for which Clark’s reputation has suffered (p. 153).

In this masterful study, Munro’s dramatic prose rings out like that of a courtroom prosecutor, meticulously mining each piece of literary evidence to skewer Ryan as an insecure traitor whose visceral assaults on Clark’s reputation were driven by a confluence of ‘personal grievances, professional insecurities and political antagonisms’ (p. 124). If it is a courtroom drama, Munro is quick to assure readers that the defendant is no hero. Manning Clark, he reminds us, was an ‘unpunctual author’ with a remarkable ‘emotional neediness’ (p. 120), gifted with a legendary ‘ability to ruffle feathers’ (p. 10), and a flawed man replete with a ‘darker side’ that biographers such as McKenna have powerfully explained (p. 35). But Munro concludes that, for all of Clarks’ foibles, there was little justification for Ryan’s ‘frivolous and vexatious’ attacks in Quadrant, and that the publisher ‘perjures himself’ by misrepresenting the contractual foundations of their professional relationship (p. 149).

In making his case against Ryan, Munro has amassed a formidable body of evidence. First, there are the public invectives themselves, published in newspapers, literary magazines, or in edited collections of writing penned by the increasingly inveterate culture warrior or his equally infuriated interlocutors in the 1990s and 2000s. Then, there are the private archives, the letters that Ryan exchanged with Clark, with Robert Manne (then editor of Quadrant), and with countless onlookers who wrote to him variously thrilled or horrified to see his dismemberment of a historian of increasingly chequered credentials. In referring to these, Munro’s point is that Ryan was no solitary victim of Clark and his supposed sycophants. Finally, there are new testimonies and reminiscences, captured via conversation or email, or sometimes transcribed in marginal comments on earlier drafts of this book itself. In this fashion we hear from Michael Cathcart, Stuart Macintyre, Ann Moyal, Sylvia Martin, Frank Bongiorno, and Manne himself. The collective weight of their impressions proves insurmountable when pitted against Ryan’s obdurate but often evasive and un-self-aware criticisms of Clark and his History.

The significance of this book lies not in its forensic treatment of a singular historiographical or personal conflagration – Munro rightly notes that the initial ‘media and talkback radio event’ effectively ‘lasted a fortnight’ in 1993 (p. xxix) – but rather in its locating of that conflagration in the intellectual bust-ups of the History Wars. In revisiting this familiar terrain, Munro brings a conceptual and linguistic clarity that is sometimes missing. History Wars and Culture Wars are terms that ought not to be used interchangeably, he notes, for while their ‘actual boundaries’ can often ‘converge’, only the former depends for its occurrence on the unique social interplay between past and present (p. 21). He offers a typology of history wars, including the internal (historiographic), the external (public), and the outside attack (in which a historian is subject to political criticism) (p. 20). Again, the lines are blurred, but the dotted lines are fruitful, particularly with a new round of the history wars unfolding around us. Indeed, the author himself could not have known how timely this work would be, given his passing remark that ‘battles over the content of the school history syllabus have quietened down’ (p. 22).

One of Munro’s valuable contributions in this volume is to explain how a history war is propagated, rather than who propagates it. Many of the major personalities associated with the history wars are present here, including Geoffrey Blainey and John Howard, Don Watson and Paul Keating, Robert Manne and Peter Coleman, Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark to name just a few. But the names are less important than the institutions in which they are enmeshed. The Australian Labor Party and the Liberal Party of Australia are seen in the 1990s crying out for a sustaining historical narrative, one that can be filtered through the conservative establishment with Quadrant as its secure mouthpiece (in the case of the latter), or one that can draw inspiration from Clark and his public performances (in the case of former). Dismayed by the rank partisanship engulfing them, professional historians dug in to defend the ideals of their discipline, its empirical epistemology and its robust but courteous culture of critique. Nearly thirty years on, it remains a depressingly familiar intellectual landscape.

Writing at the end of the 1990s, political psychologist Graham Little worried that Australia’s public life was ‘beginning to run on empty’, void of the feelings and emotions that ought to inform politics.[3] By way of contrast, Munro tells a story of the early 1990s that is fundamentally emotional, notwithstanding the prevalence of neoliberal thinking or ‘economic rationalism’ in Canberra.[4] Although he doesn’t put it in those terms, he implies this with his pointed remark that, in the context of the history wars, ‘no amount of reasoning was likely to change people’s minds’ about Clark, Ryan, or the larger narratives that they fed (p. 62). The competing sides of the history war competed for a partisan monopoly on pride, and both sought to repudiate or displace to other quarters an appropriate degree of guilt. I would add that Ryan, by far the most emotional character in this study, invites us to consider deeper questions about masculinity and Australian public culture. Why did this man, whose war service earned him distinction, and who spent nearly three decades as Australia’s ‘best-known academic publisher’ (p. 3), feel so personally insecure about an author whose work and character were already in question by 1993? More perhaps could be said on this score.

History Wars is a succinct, fast-paced and forensic treatment of the controversy surrounding Clark and Ryan, and it does an excellent job of casting a new light upon the history wars of the 1990s and 2000s. For those who remember the controversy, it will have a particularly strong appeal, but parts of this book will have long-term utility for anyone seeking to understand how and why the spectre of Clark acted as a lightning rod for so many competing personal and political anxieties in the 1990s.

[1] Mark McKenna quoted in Wheeler Centre, ‘Making History: Mark McKenna on Manning Clark’ (with Michael Cathcart), YouTube, 23 January 2015 [6 June 2011], https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-3SdWo-RuZA, (accessed: 6 December 2021).

[2] Mark McKenna, An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark (Carlton: Miegunyah Press, 2011).

[3] Graham Little, The Public Emotions: From Mourning to Hope (Sydney: ABC Books, 1999), p. 5.

[4] Paul Kelly, The March of Patriots: The Struggle for Modern Australia (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2009).

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Joshua Black
Joshua Black

Joshua Black is a postgraduate student in political history at the National Centre for Biography at ANU. In 2019 he was awarded the Research School of Social Science (RSSS), ANU Director’s Award for Higher Degree Research. Joshua is currently the Australian Historical Association’s Postgraduate Representative, and is co-editing a special issue of the Australian Journal of Biography and History with Dr Stephen Wilks.