Tom Griffiths’ Art of Time Travel

Tom Griffiths, The Art of Time Travel: Historians and their Craft (Black Inc 2016)

For transforming young minds there is probably nothing more powerful than history in the hands of a charismatic teacher.

1863958568.jpgThat’s a quote from Don Watson in the current Quarterly Essay, Enemy Within. It could have been an epigraph for The Art of Time Travel, which tells the stories of fourteen charismatic teachers, practitioners of the craft of history in Australia. Most of them are or were university lecturers; all of them, individually and collectively, have transformed minds both young and old.

From Tom Griffiths’ very readable, richly anecdotal and often personal accounts of these careers, there emerges a fascinating story of how the mainstream understanding of Australia has expanded, deepened and, yes, transformed over the last three quarters of a century. Australian history, which used to be seen as a short, derivative footnote to the history of England, or occasionally as a collection of beautiful lies that happen to be true(as in Mark Twain’s famous quote), is now something quite different. No one could have imagined 75 years ago, for instance, that the Sydney Morning Herald would be reporting on a local Council being called on to defend its refusal to acknowledge that the Council meets on Darug land. Griffiths offers this summary of the changes:

Australians discovered that the New World was actually the Old, and that the true ‘nomads’ were the colonisers. The nation continent was reimagined as a jigsaw of bioregional countries, which had for so long been its state. The biological cringe about ‘monotonous gums’, ‘songless birds’ and ‘fossil animals’ was replaced by a deep historical narrative about the continent’s southern organic genesis. Australian history became as much about ecological, social and technological discontinuities as about the political stability and continuity for which the European settlers first celebrated it. British colonisation was seen as both an invasion and an awesome social experiment; there was dancing with strangers and there was war. Historians ventured to the other side of the frontier and peered back at the ‘white men’s eyes’, and Aboriginal people were compelled – and some chose – to cross the beach in the other direction. In remote parts of Australia, the Indigenous inhabitants became the custodians of white history as well as black, because they stayed on country while the whites moved away. In the coastal cities Aboriginal people were found to have always been part of Australia’s modern urban history. Indigenous scholars studied the nation’s unending frontier and the intense colonial revolution into which they had been thrown.

Most literate Australians will be aware of these changes. This book gives something of the nuts and bolts of how they came about, through the changing concerns of historians, the new resources (such as carbon dating) available to them, and a shake-up of historians’ methods to include sources other than official written records, and to approach their task as an art as well as a science. Among the historians discussed, some are little known outside the academic world and some are household names. Some of the most interesting developments have spread gently,as if by stealth or osmosis, from scholarly specialty to common knowledge; others have been fanned into spectacular controversy.

If you were to draw up a list of 14 key Australian historians of the 20th century, it would be a different list from Griffiths’, as he acknowledges in his Prologue (he mentions that Manning Clark rates only a couple of lines; that’s also true of Russel Ward). But the strong likelihood is that all of your chosen ones are mentioned either briefly or extensively in someone else’s chapter. Some of the individuals through whose lives and work Griffiths tells his story aren’t even professional historians. They include a novelist, a poet, and an archaeologist. But – he argues convincingly – they all practice the craft of history.

I won’t attempt to summarise the riches the book offers, but if you’ll bear with me, here’s a list of the writers discussed, with a taster from some chapters:

Eleanor Dark‘s 1941 novel The Timeless Land was fiction, yes, but also the product of intensive original research:

Dark was decades ahead of Australia’s historians in realising that the big story about British colonisation at Port Jackson was that of the encounter between settlers and Aborigines.

Keith Hancock, after a lifetime working in Imperial and Commonwealth history, returned to a study of his own country and produced a pioneering work of environmental history, Discovering Monaro (1972):

The rise of environmental politics in the late 1960s brought ecology and history closer together, directly stimulating historical scholarship and giving the new environmental history an occasionally apocalyptic and moralistic tone. Hancock placed Discovering Monaro in this new political and scientific context through his engagement with the insights of ecologists and also his twin invocation of the local and the global, a dialectic that bypassed nationalism, the central concern of Hancock’s earlier work.

John Mulvaney published The Prehistory of Australia in 1969. Among archaeologists in mid twentieth-century Australia, he was known as ‘the scientist’ as, among other ground-shaking deeds, he brought carbon-dating technology to bear on assumptions that Aboriginal people had been in Australia for a comparatively short time.

Geoffrey Blainey, a ‘genuine contrarian’, is deeply suspicious of intellectual fashion, and has repeatedly found himself caught up in controversy whether as a precursor to Hansonism in 1984 remarks about Asian immigration or in endorsing climate ‘sceptic’ Ian Plimer. His best known book is The Tyranny of Distance (1966), but The Great Seesaw: A New View of the Western World, 1750–2000 (1988) may be his central book.

Judith Wright, one of Australia’s great poets, wrote two works that earned her a place in this company. The Generations of Men (1959 – at last, a book I’ve actually read!) is what Griffiths calls ‘a semi-fictional novel’ about her grandparents, who were settlers in south Queensland. The Cry for the Dead (1981) revisits the same place a couple of decades earlier to tell a story of the frontier:

In The Cry for the Dead, the story of the land is inextricable from the story of its original people and equally revealing of what the invaders were doing, or not doing. It was a double ignorance and silence Wright was dealing with: ‘If the English settlers were contemptuously ignorant of the realities of Aboriginal life, they were equally ignorant of the country itself.’

Greg Dening‘s most famous book was Mr Bligh’s Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on the Bounty (1992). He shines out from these pages as a writer, but even more as an inspiring and much loved teacher:

Greg’s advocacy of the creative imagination was shaped by his engagement with two different worlds … On one side was the academy. His foundation lecture, ‘History as a Social System’, was his challenge to that institutional inheritance, and all his teaching was radical and dangerous in the way it undermined the academic poses of neutrality and dispassion and made explicit the socialisation of disciplinary knowledge. The other world he addressed with the phrase ‘the creative imagination’ was that of public literary culture … He urged his students to be ‘open to those other ethnographers of our living experience’ – our poets, novelists, comics, cartoonists, film-makers and photographers.

Henry Reynolds‘ world-changing book is The Other Side of the Frontier (1981). His books aren’t big on the literary elements encouraged by Greg Dening, but are ’empiricist, rational, highly structured, heavily evidenced, reinforcing and repetitive, professionally conservative, accessible to the courts’. That is to say, they’re not much fun, but they bring Australia’s frontier violence to light in ways that are defy attempts to dismiss them as pure ideology. In the chapter on Reynolds, Griffiths discusses Keith Windschuttle’s much-publicised attack on academic Australian historians as a body. Paradoxically, Windschuttle’s accusations of fabrication led to an upsurge of careful research into the frontier, which demonstrated that violence was even more widespread than had been thought before his attack. Griffith’s discussion is nuanced and respectful, but gives no quarter.

The chapter on Reynolds also includes a discussion of Noel Pearson’s complex take on the history of colonisation as ‘a third-generation legatee of mission protection’.

Eric Rolls, perhaps better known as a poet than as a historian, is another of the non-academics on the list. His A Million Wild Acres (1981), the history of a forest in northern New South Wales, is singled out for high praise:

In my mid-twenties and freshly home from my first trip overseas, I … wrote a brief letter to Eric Rolls, telling him that A Million Wild Acres was one of a handful of books about Australia that I would like to put in the hands of any visitor to elp them understand my country. Now I would make greater claims for it. I think it is the best environmental history yet written of Australia, and I would hope it could be read not just by visitors but by all Australians.

Stephen Murray-Smith was the founding editor of Overland. His chapter here focuses on a book written a couple of years before his death, Sitting on Penguins: People and Politics in Australian Antarctica (1988), and places it as a significant intervention in Antarctic politics. The Antarctic experience is also a spur to some elegant reflections – by Griffiths as well as by Murray-Smith – on the importance of history:

Murray-Smith argued forcefully that history is not a luxury in Antarctica, declaring; ‘We shall lack the essential tool to our understanding of Australian Antarctica until those with the interest and capacity to write its history are found. And not just one history. Preferably several, or at least a history that will provoke a debate.’ History down south, he was saying, as in any society, is a practical and spiritual necessity. But especially so in a place without families or normal generations, where no one lives their whole life, and where the coordinates of space and time are warped by extremes. And on a continent claimed by various nations but shared by the world, history carries a special international obligation. It is the fundamental fabric of a common humanity.

Donna Merwick‘s best known book, Death of a Notary (1999), isn’t about Australia at all: the notary of the book’s title lived and died in present-day New York State in the mid-seventeenth century. Her role in this book’s overarching narrative is to illustrate developments in the philosophy of history, in her writing and in her teaching at Melbourne University. It is through her that Griffiths talks about the ‘linguistic turn’, the arrival of postmodernism:

From the 19705, postmodernist intellectual fashions swept through Western universities, especially amongst literature and anthropology departments, and challenged the reliability of historical knowledge. All ‘facts’, it was suggested, were intellectual constructions; an independent empirical reality would thus be inaccessible. Fact and fiction blurred playfully, dangerously. The discipline of history, with its moral and civic responsibility to insist on that distinction, was challenged to the core … Some historians were angry and defensive; some were concerned about the consequences of extreme relativism and what they saw as an attack on the Enlightenment project of rationality; some were capsized. Donna welcomed the tempest because, as a champion of the literary and artistic dimensions of the writing of history, she saw opportunities in the new wind and harnessed them. Remaining steadfastly at the helm, she tacked tenaciously to new, secure lands she could not otherwise have reached.

Merwick did not regard postmodernism as an optional intellectual fashion, but a historical condition.

Graeme Davison gives Griffiths an opportunity to reflect on the current widespread enthusiasm for family history. Far from dismissing it, as some historians do, Davison brought his professional skill to bear on his own family in Lost Relations: Fortunes of My Family in Australia’s Golden Age (2015):

[The] book was a search for identity, as all family history fundamentally is, but it was also a reflective exploration of family history as a method – and what better case study could there be than one’s own family? But it is more than that. If a historian wants to examine the mystery of the relationship between generations, and he wants to do it in a personal and contextual way, then he has no choice about where he must go.

Inga Clendinnen died when I was reading this book. I hope she knew how much she was loved by many people she’d never met. Her Dancing with Strangers (2003) radically challenged the prevailing version of the early settlement in Port Jackson. Griffiths’ discussion of her technique of interrogating documents, both in that book and in Aztecs and Reading the Holocaust, is fascinating. But the spine of her chapter is his exploration of the different functions of history and historical fiction. He revisits the public tension between Clendinnen and novelist Kate Grenville over the latter’s The Secret River, and opens it out for what it can teach us:

Historians always have at least two stories to tell: what we think happened, and how we know what we think happened. So the ‘non’ in our ‘non-fiction’ signifies an edge that can sharpen our prose and heighten our sense of danger and wonder. It also acknowledges that there are things we don’t and can’t know. Silence, uncertainty and inconclusiveness become central to the narrative.

Grace Karskens rates a substantial mention in Inga Clendinnen’s chapter, because her ‘wonderful’ book The Colony (2009) aimed ‘to continue Clendinnen’s and Grenville’s project of re-examining and rethinking early colonial race relations’. She also has a chapter of her own, as an exemplar of a public historian – that is, a historian who works outside the academy, as a consultant, for example, on archaeological digs or local council history projects.

I sense that some of the power of Grace’s prose and analysis derives from her vocational commitment to pubic history, from her dedicated engagement with history as a human characteristic, from her intellectual curiosity in history as not just a product of the academy but as also the vernacular of our cultural and social systems. Her inquiries have arisen from a public hunger for history, from council commissions, from heritage processes and battles, from environmental threats and assessments, from the stimulus of real places and sensuous things, and from a desire to make sense of how the past is in the present.

Mike Smith ‘is an archaeologist who has revolutionised our understanding of the human history of Central Australia. His main work, The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts, is possibly as dry as its title suggests, but he engages deeply with the people who have lived in those deserts for many generations, and in his exploration of ‘deep time’ makes some profound discoveries.

When Europeans and North Americans look for cultural beginnings, they tend to assume that humans and their civilisations are products of the Holocene (the period since the last ice age) and that we are all children of this recent spring of creativity in the history of the world … In greater Australia at the last glacial maximum, we did not have an ice age so much as a dust age. And the history of Aboriginal people takes us back, if not into the ice then certainly into the dust, through periods of temperature change of 5ºC and more, such as those we might also face in coming generations. An Australian history of the world includes the experience of people surviving cold droughts in the Central Australian deserts from 30,000 years ago, and the sustaining of human civilisation in the face of massive sea-level rises and temperature changes.

If you’ve stayed with me this far, I hope you can tell that I found this book endlessly stimulating, and have come away from it with a reading list as long as my arm.

2 responses to “Tom Griffiths’ Art of Time Travel

  1. Pingback: Mike Smith’s Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts | Me fail? I fly!

  2. Pingback: Mike Smith’s Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts | Me fail? I fly!

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