James Watson reviews Ryan Cropp’s Donald Horne: A Life in the Lucky Country (Collingwood: La Trobe University Press, 2023)
Did Donald Horne have anything meaningful to say?
It’s a harsh question of a man who wrote more than two dozen books, edited multiple literary journals at once, and published countless articles, essays, and reviews; a man who, in his role as public intellectual and academic after the publication of The Lucky Country (1964), shaped public understandings of liberalism, citizenship, and national identity. Horne spent more than half his life writing about and engaging with significant issues in a civic capacity that captured the public’s imagination. Clearly, he had something to say and he said it often.
But was there any substance to it? Or was it all just in how he said it?
Horne’s politics and ideas have been tricky to pin down. Was he left- or right-wing? Reactionary or progressive? Liberal or Labor? Even some of his firmest political ideas we might be most confident pinning onto him (his valorisation of suburbia and middle-class values) were vaguely defined and often contradictory (his simultaneous condescension towards small-minded people who never looked beyond their front lawn).
But the problem is more than simply that Horne’s politics were hard to define or categorise. It was that this messiness sometimes suggested a scrambled mind, rather than a deep thinker. Tim Rowse made this point in 1988, describing Horne as a middle-class patriot whose polemics about Australia were aimless and untied to any political goals. They were simply for show – all style, no substance. For Rowse and others with similar criticisms, Horne was a shallow, apolitical chatterbox whose writings signified nothing.
The challenge historian Ryan Cropp has set himself in this excellent biography is to identify and articulate a meaningful and cohesive ideology out of this mess. To rebuke Rowse’s cutting critique and take Horne seriously again. Cropp puts his central question thus:
What lay behind all his different personas: the republican radical and the anti-communist conservative, the irrepressible optimist and the fearful pessimist, the outraged activist and the level-headed observer? Was there a ‘true’ Horne, an essential set of principles and ideas that directed all of his thinking? Or was he simply a writer who changed direction with the breeze?
How Cropp approaches this challenge is to take us through the key moments and spaces of Horne’s intellectual journey – the books and articles he wrote; the novelists and historians he read; the intellectual and social circles he engaged with – in order to identity a ‘true self’ out of Horne’s various ‘personas.’
We meet Horne as the talkative only child who moved ten times in sixteen years and was more comfortable with adults than friends his own age. The teen poet who spent his evenings writing Joycean odes to women with ‘phantasticke breasts.’ The Sydney University controversialist and Honi Soit editor who fell under the spell of libertarian John Anderson. The bed-ridden soldier who broke his eye socket when his vehicle flipped at a training base in Newcastle. The Canberra public servant and journalist who ‘loathed Canberra.’ The Sydney reporter and socialite who moved quickly with women. The England-bound novelist and potential Tory candidate stuck in a small, rural town. Then, when no one bought his books, the man who ditched his wife in England to edit Frank Packer’s lifestyle magazine Weekend. The successful lifestyle magazine editor (success at last!) who became best friends with Packer’s son, Clyde, to weasel his way up Australian Consolidated Press. The less successful editor of the Observer and The Bulletin who was fired once Clyde’s favour waned (Horne would later regain The Bulletin in 1967). And only after all this, the author of The Lucky Country who defined public intellectual life in Australia.
For Cropp, the ‘true self’ behind these personas lay within how Horne engaged with the public. Through debate and thinking that was rigorous, intellectual, and liberal, and defined by a sense of play and style. Such intellectual back-and-forth was the sign of a people maturing into an independent nation after empire – one with its own histories, cultures, and myths. Horne believed Australia in the 1960s was still incapable of ‘great political dialogue or intense searching after problems.’ So that the country’s polity could finally speak for itself, Australia’s intellectuals needed to invent a vernacular and present to them an exemplary mode of discourse – a task Horne took upon himself.
The historian Nicholas Brown made a similar argument in a 1997 Australian Historical Studies article, in which he noted that a ‘striking feature of much social analysis in the 1950s,’ by public intellectuals and artists like Horne, Robin Boyd, and John Brack, ‘was this search for a distinctive mode of engagement.’ For Brown, this mode was defined by ‘a sharp, sometimes corrosive irony, a particular construction of the self at one or two removes from the issues under discussion.’
Cropp has a more generous reading than Brown. Though Horne’s personality did brim with a ‘sparkling wit – infectious, ironic and caustic – and an educated accent’ that suggested pre-war British gentility, he was not the aloof, disengaged bystander that Brown suggests. Rather, Cropp sees Horne as a citizen-intellectual passionately engaged in national debates. ‘He yearned to bloody his hands in political battle,’ Cropp writes early in the book, and he did so, notably, in the manner of a critic and intellectual. Take, for example, Horne’s engagement with Labor politics after the 1975 dismissal: his letters and speeches, his participation at anti-John Kerr rallies, and his work with the action group Citizens For Democracy. These were the actions of an intellectual actively engaged in political conflicts – a sight all too rare now.
Perhaps Rowse wanted the more radical version of Horne – the version that occasionally appeared in his later writings on hegemony and capitalism – to come full force. But for all his dabbling with Gramsci, Horne was an animal of a specific form of post-war liberalism that sought reform, not revolution. Cropp rightly situates Horne’s liberalism in its international and national contexts, but he remarkably has also found a way to connect it back to the suburbs of Sydney that Horne knew so well. One of the highlights of the book is its psychogeography of Sydney’s urban landscape, remapping the city’s suburbs along the intellectual contours of Keynesianism, libertarianism, and Catholicism. For someone who believed so strongly in the possibilities of suburbia as the site of ideas and innovation, Horne would have been particularly enamoured with Cropp’s handling of his journeys between the paranoid anti-Communist James McAuley’s home in Ryde up to the anarcho-libertarian Doug McCallum’s Cammeray abode.
Absent from Cropp’s book is a wider discussion of how Horne’s ideas were received by the public. We get a sense that he was popular through the number of book sales Cropp provides, and that he went in and out of favour among literary critics, but what did the ‘general reading public’ (if we can presume there is such a group) take away from Horne? How did his influence change over time? Cropp gestures towards this in the book’s introduction, when he highlights the appropriation of The Lucky Country’s title for a podcast, a bus company, and even a Western Sydney Greek restaurant called Souvlucky Country. The book’s title clearly has had some staying power, but what of Horne’s ideas, manner, and personality? Can we still see him in our lives today? Perhaps not.
But as Cropp’s biography makes clear by its end, Horne’s model of public engagement would be useful today – especially as this country prepares for a referendum on the Voice to Parliament in October. The concentration of media outlets and the precarity of journalists’ careers (even for some of the most senior political journalists, as Andrew Probyn found out in June) has undermined the public sphere. A political and cultural landscape that fostered editors and journalists like Horne would be welcome in times like these. Cropp has shown, with intellect, wit, and a wonderful narrative voice, what a unique and powerful presence Horne was in Australian intellectual and civic life.
 Tim Rowse, “Culture as Myth, Criticism as Irony: The Middle Class Patriotism of Donald Horne,’ Island Magazine, no. 37 (December 1988): 12-22.
 Ryan Cropp, Donald Horne: A Life in the Lucky Country (Collingwood: La Trobe University Press, 2023), 179.
 Donald Horne, quoted in Cropp, 18.
 Horne, Confessions of a New Boy (Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1985), 137.
 Horne, The Lucky Country: Australia in the Sixties (Ringwood: Penguin Books, 1964), 15.
 Nicholas Brown, ‘‘Sometimes the Cream Rises to the Top, Sometimes the Scum’: The Exacting Culture and Politics of Style in the 1950s,’ Australian Historical Studies, no. 109 (1997): 49.
 Cropp, 242.
 Cropp, 23.