March 07, 2007 | Graham

Putting the “story” into history

I wasn’t so much shocked by Manning Clark’s exaggeration of his experience of Kristallnacht by claiming to be there when he wasn’t, as his biographer’s view that you don’t go to Clark for facts.

So the question is, what do you go to Clark for? Do you go to Clark to look up who won the Melbourne Cup? No. Because for example, as it’s well known, you know Manning Clark has Phar Lap winning the Melbourne Cup twice. So you don’t go for those facts or details.
You go for example for things like his writing about landscape. He was probably one of the first to understand the sense of strangeness, the sense of melancholy about the Australian landscape and to express that in his history.

A melancholic landscape? I’d like to see an objective test for that!
So, what exactly is an historian?
When Keith Windschuttle’s work was criticised by the history establishment because he wasn’t a “trained historian” I dismissed it as a put down of an outside by insiders. I’ve always seen history, and a number of the other social sciences, as being varieties of literature. If you’re trained in logical thought and expression you should be able to turn your pen, or computer keyboard, to any number of genres without additional training.
But it appears that by not being trained in history, I’ve missed one of its nuances – that it is a branch of literature that is interested in subjective impressions rather than facts.
Which in fact means that I have been trained in history, because I spent 4 years studying those sorts of books in Queensland University’s English, French and Drama Departments.
No wonder the history boffins were so unperturbed by Windschuttle’s discoveries of errors of fact. The poor buffoon didn’t understand what history was about at all. He probably thought it was a sub-branch of science!

Posted by Graham at 10:05 am | Comments (3) |
Filed under: Australian Politics


  1. Graham
    I’m a trained historian. Studied it at PG level, taught it, worked in a number of history museums around the world before the lure of real money got the better of me and went into business.
    History is a fascinating topic, which as you rightly point out touches on literature amongst other disciplines. Because it’s about the interaction of humans it is also informed by geography, philosophy, politics etc etc..
    Ultimately, history is the interpretation of facts. And that is governed by your upbringing, education, political viewpoint, even racial background.
    Look at the American or French Revolutions. How many times have they been revisited by historians, re-interpreting the facts, re-emphasising some and de-emphasising others to fit their own take on the event.
    There are many types of historians; often their approach is dictated by their subject matter. Manning Clark was a big picture historian, concerned with painting a large impressionistic canvas for his view of what happened. Facts certainly informed his viewpoint but his focus was on telling the story of Australian settlement. And yes, he took a literary approach. And he got facts wrong. But the scope of his work was huge and he got most of the facts that were available to him right. Given time, he’ll be seen for the seminal figure he was; the politically-inspired revisionism course of the history wars will peter out.
    Windschuttle, on the other hand, is an empiricist, concerned overwhelmingly with facts. He doesn’t tell a story, certainly not the big picture sort of story that Clark did. So facts are important to him.
    But there’s a problem with relying just on facts. First off, historians like Windschuttle use only the written word. That means newspapers, parliamentary records, diaries etc. So you only get the official version, the version of the visitors, or what the writers wanted remembered. You don’t get the version of those who couldn’t write.
    Where do you get the latter? Only by putting yourself in the shoes of the people you’re studying. And you do whatever it takes – turn to geography, literature, even religion.
    Proving someone like Clark got some facts wrong doesn’t make Clark wrong on everything he did. I think it’s important that Clark did paint his pictures — that melancholic landscape, for example — because it helps me, as an historian, get into the head of the people whose lives I’m trying to give meaning to in writing history. How, for example, they would have reacted to the strange non-European landscape when they first arrived here and worked.
    So in the end I suppose you don’t go Clark for the facts; you go to the work of an empiricist.
    Hope you don’t mind the o/t rave.

    Comment by fugitivepope — March 7, 2007 @ 4:26 pm

  2. The argument that Windshuttle is not a trained historian is, as you say extremely weak. So it’s best ignored – a point made by a small mind. There are lots better arguments against Windshuttle – like his own small mindedness. Windshuttle’s problem is like ‘Media Watch’s’ problem. He is accusing others of bias – and often there’s a good bit of truth to that. But his remedy is an incredibly nit-picking account in which the evidence and the footnotes of others are read against the grain. Some errors are turned up – and beaten up. And Windshuttle’s alternative methodology? Aborigines are presumed not to have been killed unless there’s a white record of it. Well that’s a methodology that is patently biased don’t you think – when there are such strong motives for such killings not to be recorded.
    But you’re right the ‘he’s not a trained historian’ line is about as bad as it gets.

    Comment by Nicholas Gruen — March 7, 2007 @ 9:30 pm

  3. Nicholas, I think Windschuttle is right to insist on documentary evidence. Obviously more aborigines were killed than were documented as being killed, but I haven’t seen a good argument to justify Reynolds’ assertion as to what the figure should be (I was going to say guesstimate, but I think that would be too generous to Reynolds). Surely the professional position would be to say that according to records x number died, but the figure may well have been much higher, for these reasons.
    I think Windschuttle’s biggest problem is that he never asks the “so what” questions. Questions like, “How many aborigines killed is too many”.
    I have a problem with fugitivepope’s idea of history. While history isn’t science, surely the historian owes the same duty to the reader as a barrister does to the court. So, while their job is not just to list the facts, but to encase them in a powerful explanatory narrative, that narrative is devalued if it relies on facts that are incorrect, and a practitioner who knowingly or carelessly uses facts in this way ought to be disbarred.
    When I write my small histories of various elections I put my own interpretation on it, but I always try to ensure that my facts are correct, and that they are available for others to check.
    I use polling techniques to find out what the public is thinking because for me it is unprofessional to assert that the public is thinking a particular thing if you’ve never asked them. And I have a database that I am happy to let critics have access to so that they can check my narrative. But at the same time I try to make the narrative engaging and powerful, with a point of view.
    I hope that you can come to me both for point of view and facts. I’m appalled that apparently you can’t do the same thing for Clark, and I will never look at my six volumes of his History of Australia in quite the same way again.

    Comment by Graham Young — March 7, 2007 @ 10:27 pm

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