Telling Academic lives: An interview with Doug Munro and Don Longo

David Veltman's picture

Don Longo, A Historian Against the Current: The Life and Work of Austin Gough. Mile End, SA: Wakefield Press, 2021.

Doug Munro, History Wars: The Peter Ryan – Manning Clark Controversy. Canberra: ANU Press, 2021. Available as a free download: https://press.anu.edu.au/publications/history-wars

With history wars heating up again in many countries, particularly where histories of race, racism, and colonialism are concerned, it seemed like a good time to check in with some biographers who have studied historians in a history wars setting. As luck would have it, biographers Doug Munro and Don Longo have both recently finished books on Australian professors of history who were involved in their country’s history wars. One is a full-scale biography of Austin Gough (University of Adelaide) and the other concerns a controversy involving Manning Clark (Australian National University). Interestingly, both knew their subjects, if to different degrees. Longo was taught by Gough and they maintained contact for the rest of Gough’s life and Munro had a slight acquaintance with Clark. Since 1999 Munro has devoted a large part of his professional life to writing about academics in a biographical vein, while Longo is relatively new to this field. In this joint interview with H-Biography co-founding editor David Veltman, they reflect on their biographical approaches and the particular challenges they faced during their research. [The interviews have been woven together and lightly edited for clarity.]

Veltman: How did you become a biographer?

Munro: It was a case of lateral drift. My background is in Pacific Islands history and in 1994 I was working at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji. I suddenly decided that I’d like to write an intellectual biography of J.W. Davidson (1915–1973), the founding father of modern Pacific Islands historiography, and that’s how it started. [This biography is still in progress, but several journal articles and book chapters have emerged, most recently Munro 2012.]

One of the courses I taught was ‘Theory and Method of History’ and although it never contained a segment on biography, it provided the impetus to work on Davidson. I am saying this with the benefit of hindsight because I wasn’t aware of it at the time. But in retrospect I realise that a curiosity about the person behind a particular history book had led me, around this time, to buy a few biographies of historians – partly for my own interest but mainly to inform my teaching.

Longo: My formation as a historian is in the area of ideological and intellectual history, mostly of Europe and, more specifically, of France. I have also written on immigration to Australia as part of a history project by Adelaide’s Italian community. Thus for most of my writing career, biography has not been a particular focus.

In 2013, Australia was beginning its centenary commemorations on the Great War. Military history is a very strong area of research and publication in Australia. For my part, I wanted to focus on the ordinary soldiers in Flanders, the Dardanelles and Palestine rather than grand military strategies and heroic deeds. The discovery of a diary of a soldier from the farming districts of rural South Australia, and bundles of letters written by scores of others from the same area, led to two books: the life of the diary’s author (Longo 2015) and a collection of letters of soldiers supplemented by short biographies of the writers (Longo 2018). The intention of both books was to give a voice to infantrymen and stretcher bearers. The experience of collecting documentation and interviewing soldiers’ children and grandchildren was a powerful reminder of the intersection of the personal and the public, of individual destinies and international histories. It got me thinking about the power of biography to transform our understanding of contemporary issues.

Munro: In 1994, I was more interested in the history of the historical profession and historiography generally than in historians as individuals or in biography as a genre. By 1997, however, I was becoming focussed on biography in its own right, and was starting to identify as a biographer as well as a historian. This coincided with a sharply declining interest in my specialist field, which concerned the recruitment and employment of migrant labourers within the Pacific. I was starting to feel played out and was wondering whether I had much more to contribute to the study of labour migration and unfree labour generally. That said, I am under no illusions that my growing interest in biography in its own right contributed to my doubts about continuing in my old field.

Longo: My colleagues in Australia (among them Wilfrid Prest and Doug Munro) strongly recommended that I undertake a biography of my former mentor, the late historian Austin Gough (1926-1997). It would constitute ‘a great human story’ and a different sort of academic biography because he was an outlier in his department by temperament, background, career trajectory and conservative politics; in effect ‘a historian against the current’.

I was intrigued. I wanted to understand Gough and his motivations. I wanted to explore a slice of my own life and that of Adelaide’s history department. It became a critical if sympathetic search for explanations. And I felt I owed Gough something despite our political differences. So I embarked on the biography as a journey among academics and ideas, institutions and passions, meteoric successes laced with anxieties and failures. ‘Every biography’, said the philosopher Bernard Groethuysen, ‘is a universal story’. Gough’s biography was at once a particular story and a cipher of a generation.

Veltman: In which kind of subjects are you interested as a biographer?

Munro: That’s what I mean by lateral drift – a historian writing about the historical profession and specifically about other historians. I did publish several journal articles on Davidson, and another on his mentor J.C. Beaglehole (1901–1971) [Munro 2007] but there was more to it. I wanted to become recognised as a biographer so I published a bit on biographical method and the problems confronting biographers (I had experience enough of the latter, having met with considerable obstruction in getting access to material on Davidson).

Longo: Though I started with ordinary soldiers of the Great War, it is mostly among writers and intellectuals that I feel most at home. My only proviso for biographies of either group is that there has to be some political component to a subject’s life, either implicitly (the grand event of national wars) or explicitly (a subject’s political involvement as an activist or public commentator or both).

Munro: Writing about the nature of biography was a passing phase and I continued with biographical studies of historians – especially historians of the Pacific Islands –culminating in a monograph, The Ivory Tower and Beyond, comprising five lengthy chapters on such historians (Munro 2009). That book was the product of considerable archival research in Australia and New Zealand. Right from the start I knew instinctively that it was pointless trying to understand historians from their writings alone, as if a historian and his or her works are unrelated to each other. This was confirmed when I read a couple of books on the historical profession which were solidly based on personal and institutional papers – namely, August Meier and Elliott Rudwick, Black History and the Historical Profession (1986) and Peter Novick’s incomparable That Noble Dream (1988). They are marvellous examples of what can be accomplished with access to a broad archival record.

I am also interested in historians’ auto/biographies (Munro and Reid 2017), academic controversies and the role of senior academics in institution building. For example, I engaged with joint work with Geoffrey Gray on the politics of senior anthropology appointments in Australasian universities [starting with Gray and Munro 2011]. When it comes to ‘telling academic lives,’ as I call it, my work is firmly located in the university milieu, so it’s as much about structures and as about individuals. Of course there is a paradox in all this in that I am writing about historians and anthropologists in their university setting and yet I am no admirer of the modern corporate university.

Longo: I’m mostly interested in three significant issues: One is related to settler societies like Australia in which public intellectuals are a relative rarity compared to European nations where they have been a feature of public life at least since the Dreyfus Affair. This characteristic of Australia makes the relationship between academia and the general public particularly challenging for the biographer since each group has different expectations of the other and the impact of the intellectual is more diffuse.

The second issue relates to a biography’s broader purpose: What’s the point of a biography? For historians context is crucial, but a life can be so excessively contextualised that it loses its impact as a ‘universal story’ (in Groethuysen’s sense). And how do we avoid hagiography? There are enough saints in the Golden Legend and we certainly don’t want to add more. Also, should a biography have an analytical or moral purpose? There’s an argument for each. In writing about Austin Gough I wondered about his story as an exemplary life, not in the sense of being virtuous but as containing lessons in personal and public conduct.

There’s a third issue that challenged me as a biographer: that of motivation or, more broadly, the relationship between psychology and biography. I’ve heard an Australian psychologist argue that a biographer without training in psychology cannot possibly understand the subject, so any such enterprise is at best misguided, at worst futile. When so many, and indeed most, biographies are written by non-psychologists this is patently wrong in a broad sense. But it does have a kernel of truth: how is a biographer to judge motives and decisions? Nietzsche reminds us that a life of glittering surfaces often had unsuspected and unsettling depths, and that shadows always stalk us in the brightest sunshine. If so, how can one penetrate the surface of personalities? Speculation and guesses about these ‘depths’ are necessary but how can we understand the operation of the subject’s mind in a useful way? I make no claim to having resolved this problem.

Munro: My present path was by no means pre-planned. In the late-1990s I wrote a piece on Oliver MacDonagh (1924–2020) [Munro 1998], who was my history professor when I was an undergraduate at The Flinders University of South Australia in the late-1960s. Apart from my work on Davidson, I thought at the time that my article on MacDonagh, which I embarked on quite by chance, would be a once-off exercise. But one thing led to another and, willy-nilly, I’ve written about one historian after another, and not simply about historians of the Pacific Islands [e.g. Munro 2015].

Veltman: How can your research be aligned to some larger ‘project’, be it in national history or in sociology (to name just two examples)?

Longo: The research (some of which is continuing) on the characteristics of Great War soldiers of rural Australia is clearly aligned with historical events and also contributes to studies of enlistment patterns related to geography, class and other demographic characteristics.

My research on Austin Gough has been different. There is a personal element: of Gough as an individual making his way through life and career. There’s also an element of representation: Gough as a figure (of a generation, of a political position), as a marker (of a social group, of academics) and as a cautionary tale (in the manner of the French moralistes). There’s indeed a component of institutional history that illuminates the nature of universities. But there are also social and cultural elements that say important things about Australian intellectual life and the culture wars of the 1990s (a particularly fractious period of social and political history when Indigenous rights, multiculturalism and feminism, to name but a few issues, became everyday debates in public affairs and the media). In addition, Gough’s involvement in the polemics of current affairs diverted him from scholarly pursuits, and this challenges the presumed importance of academic research and writing in the hierarchy of ‘proper’ activities for a professional historian and a professor of history.

Munro: I’ve never thought of my work in those terms. To me, the term ‘project’ carries the neutral meaning of being the task at hand; it also has the negative connotation, to my mind, of the dogmatism of self-satisfied in-groups who think they’ve uncovered the mystery of it all and have all the answers. Gospel today, gone tomorrow would be a more accurate description.

Perhaps I can illustrate your question by reference to my recent book History Wars: the Peter Ryan – Manning Clark controversy. It is not, strictly speaking, a biography but it does contain a great detail of biographical detail and it delves into such biographical issues as character, motives and actions. What was originally intended as a journal article blew out into a small book. Along the way I realised that it had to be more than a finely-grained account of a particular controversy in and of itself. To keep it as such would not do. It had to be fitted into a wider context and illustrate larger issues. So I endeavoured to show how it reflected, and contributed to, Australia’s ongoing History Wars, which have been aptly described as ‘nasty and brutish but never short’ (Wright 2021: xxi). In that way, my book is aligned to larger concerns than its sub-title might suggest.

To answer your question more exactly, I hope that what I’m doing contributes to an understanding of wider questions concerning the historical profession, the historian’s vocation and in telling academic lives generally. When doing the latter, one has to combine the personal, the professional and the institutional aspects of the story. In the same way I hope that my book on the Ryan-Clark controversy is a worthwhile addition to the study of History Wars.

Longo: A future project is a biography of Raffaello Carboni, a participant and a leader in the abortive miners’ rebellion on the Australian goldfields in December 1854, known here as the ‘Eureka Stockade’. The event is the subject of much mythology but one of the characteristics of the rebellion was its multicultural nature as reflected in the diverse origins of the miners. Carboni was a polyglot Italian of the 1848 generation whose position in the Stockade’s history acquires special significance in view of the substantial Italian immigration to Australia in the twentieth century. The issues here are about race and empire, and about the nature of radicalism in an ultra-conservative settler society, of ethnic integration and a clash of cultures.

Veltman: How would you justify your decision to write a biography, not a monograph, on your subject?

Munro: My own feeling is that one has to take a horses-for-courses approach to these matters. Ideally, one takes the approach that is most suited to the task at hand. This is not to say that biography is necessarily the best way to proceed. To the contrary, biography is not the only, or necessarily the most appropriate way of writing history. There are things that biography can uniquely do. Conversely, there are things – lots of them – that biography cannot do, does not claim to do, and should not be expected to do. For example, the study of the British monarchy as an institution has been hindered by an overly biographical approach. Even so, the biographies of British royal figures illuminate a larger matter, and that is the extent to which biography as a genre has become ever less circumspect and cloying and ever more revelatory and hard-hitting.

Longo: I decided to write a biography for three reasons. First, because a biography on a professor of history is more accessible to the general reader than a monograph. I felt that the general reader would find academic details tedious and would need a lot of additional background information (for example on the Ultramontane and Gallican debates on which Gough wrote).

Second, the project started with a comparative approach, i.e. it was going to be a book of parallel lives about Austin Gough and a colleague of his at the University of Adelaide, Hugh Stretton. (The two men were on different sides politically, though they had a lot in common when it came to contemporary cultural and social changes.) For a number of reasons, the life of Stretton (to be written by Doug Munro) had to be abandoned. I therefore embarked on a detailed life of Gough.

Third, a monograph would normally be reserved for a person whose body of work was substantial. This was not the case for Gough, whose energies strayed to public polemics for political purposes and he never wrote the works he’d planned post-retirement. Moreover, Gough only started tertiary studies at the relatively mature age of 29 years, and that too was of intrinsic interest. All things considered, a biographical approach appeared a better fit his life trajectory and to explain his successes and failures.

Munro: The focus on individuals in my work is simply to acknowledge that people and group dynamics are central to any explanation of how a university works and how an academic discipline depends so much on its practitioners at every level. All the same, biography is simply one vehicle to an understanding of problems and it ought to be aligned with other approaches. There is no one key to unlocking a problem. To put it another way, social history, say, is not intrinsically superior or inferior to, say, diplomatic history. Every approach – well, almost every approach – has its contribution to answering the big questions. By a process of triangulation, the various approaches, each from a different angle, will add to overall understanding, one would think. Histories of the British Liberal Party, for example, and the biographies of Liberal Party politicians are complimentary rather than oppositional, with each adding to the mosaic.

Yet there remains considerable academic prejudice against biography. This was not something I noticed when I was younger. When I was an undergraduate, several biographies were on the reading lists – those of Martin Luther, the Emperor Charles V, Sir Robert Peel and Alfred Deakin, from memory, and doubtless there were others. Also, there was a tradition of biography among Pacific historians. I was later to find that anti-biography prejudice and downright snobbery are prevalent enough. As Don Longo recently remarked to me, ‘biography seems to elicit a lot more critique than standard history texts’ and a lot of it ‘smart-arse’. I have been earnestly advised to give up biography and resume doing ‘real history’ again. A recent paper of mine on George Rudé (Munro 2021) prompted a referee to make the sadly typical remark: ‘an interesting run through the life of an important historian … The article is clearly not written as a conventional research-based paper, but as a biographical paper by a sympathetic biographer. There is no shortage of this kind of biography but the genre does raise scholarly eyebrows’. The fact I had footnoted almost forty secondary sources and several sets of personal and institutional papers does call to question such an assessment, but what can you say? After all, there is good and bad biography, just as there is good and bad history. I don’t know how to counter the clueless negativity of the naysayers except to advise prospective biographers to hold their ground and not to be put off by what others say and think.

Veltman: What are the implications of the COVID-19 crisis for your future research?

Munro: Well might you ask! There’s no doubt that COVID-19 has thrown a spanner in the works. I live in New Zealand but much of my current research still centres on Australian topics. It’s an uncomfortable thought that my book on the History Wars would have been put in mothballs, or perhaps even abandoned, had I not completed the archival research in Canberra and Melbourne before the COVID-19 outbreak. I’ll eventually need to conduct further research in Australian archival repositories and that raises practical difficulties. Hopefully the travel restrictions and the quarantine requirements will be lifted, or at least significantly relaxed, but even then I am in a bind because my wife has dementia and I need to be here in Wellington to look after her. So I am grounded for the foreseeable future. Actually it’s not as bad as sounds. Even though I have to be in the apartment most hours of the day, I have enough resources in my bookshelves, on my hard drive, and inside my head to keep going for the meanwhile. I’m very lucky indeed in that respect.

Longo: Australia’s relative isolation has always posed a problem for academic research. My future research in the area of biography is to be on Raffaello Carboni (as explained above) who left a trail of documents in Europe, Australia, and the East between 1840 and 1875. To that end, COVID-19 will continue to pose significant challenges. The accessibility of Australian documents is likely to be good as the States remove restrictions on border crossings, especially as vaccination rates continue to increase. But COVID-19 remains a problem for overseas research. The additional effort and complexities of travel and extended stays in foreign countries (India, Italy, the UK, among others) is going to be a discouragement. I wait and see how the pandemic unfolds internationally in 2022.

Munro: There’s a difference between ‘interruption’ and ‘disruption’. Sooner or later my inability to travel to Australia will start to bite, and this could end up in being quite an impediment. Now that History Wars has been published, I’ve returned to a book manuscript called Varieties of Historians, and I haven’t completed the Australia-based archival research. I can write begging letters to archivists requesting to be sent material and there is the expensive option of hiring research assistants, both of which are poor substitutes for doing the actual research myself. I’ll just have to deal with problems as they arise and in the meanwhile be grateful that I’m far enough down the track for the book to remain a viable proposition – until proven otherwise. In the meanwhile I’ll carry on writing for so long as I can. I’m in my seventies (b. 1947) and after seeing the declining performance of some of the people I’ve studied, I just hope that I know when to stop and not be remembered for that last crappy article or that last bum book.

 

References:

Longo, Don, ed. 2015. ‘The Ties That Bind’: Southern Yorke Peninsula and the Great War, 1914–1919. Androssan SA.

–. 2018. Pens and Bayonets: Letters from the Front by soldiers of Yorke Peninsula, South Australia, during the Great War. Mile End, SA: Wakefield Press.

Gray, Geoffrey and Doug Munro. 2011. “Australian Aboriginal Anthropology at the Crossroads: Finding a Successor to A.P. Elkin, 1955.” Australian Journal of Anthropology, 22, no. 3, pp. 35169.

Meier, August and Elliott Rudwick. 1986. Black History and the Historical Profession, 1915–1980. Urbana/London: University of Illinois Press.

Munro, Doug. 1998. “Oliver MacDonagh at Flinders University, 1964–1968.” Australian Historical Association Bulletin 86, pp. 45–58.

–. 2007.J.C. Beaglehole―reputation, fortuna, biography.” Journal of Historical Biography, 2, pp. 1–32, http://journals.ufv.ca/jhb/Volume_2/Volume_2_Munro.pdf

–. 2009. The Ivory Tower and Beyond: Participant Historians of the Pacific. Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Press.

–. 2012. “J.W. Davidson on the Home Front.” In Scholars at War: Australasian Social Scientists, 1939–1945, edited by Geoffrey Gray, idem, and Christine Winter, pp. 187–206. Canberra: ANU E Press.

–. 2015. “Michael Turnbull, G.R. Elton and the Making of The Practice of History.” Historical Journal, 58, no. 3, pp. 80525.

–. 2021. “George Rudé: The Contours of a Career.” French History and Civilization, 10, 206–19, https://h-france.net/rude/volume-10/.

Munro, Doug and John G. Reid (eds). 2017. Clio’s Lives: Biographies and Autobiographies of Historians. Canberra: ANU Press.

Novick, Peter. 1988. That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wright, Donald. 2021. “Foreword—Doug Munro: A Very Short History.” In Doug Munro, History Wars: the Peter Ryan – Manning Clark Controversy, pp. xxvii–xxxiii. Canberra: ANU Press.