“In Search of the ‘Actual Man Underneath’: A. W. Martin and the Art of Biography” by Inga Clendinnen


2004, 33p.

Sometimes you read the transcript of a paper given to a conference or seminar some time ago and wish with all your heart that you could be there to witness it, not so much for the paper itself (which, after all, you have a copy of) but to sense the response to it at the time.  That’s the way I felt reading Inga Clendinnen’s inaugural Allan Martin Lecture, delivered at ANU on 4 May 2004.  The title of her paper was “In Search of the ‘Actual Man Underneath’: A. W. Martin and the Art of Biography”.

Inga Clendinnen knew Alan Martin from his decade at La Trobe University as Foundation Chair of the School of History, when he appointed her to a tenured lectureship at La Trobe  to join the 33 other historians he hired within three years to establish the department.  In this paper she speaks of him as administrator and mentor as head of school, but also as an academic and writer – and this is where I wonder if the audience started to lean in and listen a little more closely.

Allan Martin conducted an honours course in biography, and staff members were welcome to attend.  Clendinnen did, and she characterized it in 2004 as “probably the most sustained intellectual adventure of my rather long life”.  She attended every class over two years where they discussed the psychological theorizing then being pioneered by Gregory Bateson and Gordon Allport, and they worked on real documents, sequences of letters and confessional writings.  Martin was working at the time on his biography of Henry Parkes, the colonial politician, and when the class was ready, he gave the class some of his toughest Parkes material.  

Then some years later Martin’s work, Henry Parkes came out.

In the preface to ‘Parkes’ Allan made a remarkable apology.  He apologized to his biography class for something not there: the matter discussed in those enthralling sessions.  He acknowledged that he had initially planned ‘to explore Parkes’s life history under other categories’, to expose ‘those intersecting patterns of experience, personality and circumstance which mould a man’s response to the contingent and hence lie under the existential surface.’  Instead he had chosen to adopt ‘a rigid chronological framework’ (which was, he granted, ‘in some ways an intellectual and artistic defeat’) because it was the political Parkes he was determined to pursue- although, he said, he would also ‘try to tell the story of the man’s personal life as far as the documents would permit it to be glimpsed’- as if the story were there, as if ‘the documents’ spoke in a simple tongue- as well as ‘Parkes’ successes and failures in mastering his political environment.’ (Parkes, xi) Clendinnen, p. 13-14)

She was disappointed and she told him so.

On that first reading, I thought that any unusually good and judicious historian could have written A. W. Martin’s ‘Henry Parkes’.  Where was the brilliant essay into the art of biography I had been expecting? To me it was seeing a bright sword sheathed.  True, you could look up every light-footed political manoeuvre, every tricky little factional dance, and it would be there.  But where was the grappling with Parkes’s beguiling personal complexities?… A. W. Martin says in this foreword, ‘because one person cannot attempt everything’, and that’s true.  But only Allan Martin could have unraveled this strange, secret, public man.  He also claims to have been ‘defeated by structuring problems’, and that I simply don’t believe.  Allan had preternatural literary skills.  He could make his prose do anything he wanted, while his mind was as sensitive, as penetrating, as intrepid as any I have encountered.  So why did he choose to step back- and for him, truly, it was a step back (why else the apology?)- to pursue a conventional public-political biographical model?  Why didn’t he write the international state-of-the-art biography of which he was capable?  ( Clendinnen p. 15)

She suggests three reasons.  The first was Martin’s criterion of ‘good’ history:  that you could look something up, it would be there; and it would be right.  I was reminded of the writer’s ethical statement that Tony Birch talked about at the Past Matters festival at Montsalvat, and I wonder, as I suspect Clendinnen did, whether Martin’s own ethical statement served him, and his writing, well.  Historians hold facts in different degrees of reverence: military historians in particular have a grasp on detail and dates that I could never master (and to be honest, I don’t really know if I would want to) and my own certainty on dates in my own work is often slippery and vague.  Yet I veer between annoyance and exultation when I find a mistake in work that I’m familiar with- the academic ‘gotya’ moment. But it’s a hollow and rather demeaning victory: often the error relates to such minutiae that it is  ultimately irrelevant to a bigger picture.

A second reason, she suspects, was Martin’s own Calvinistic mistrust of his own talents, that he would have classified as self-indulgent; and finally, she concedes there was the inadequacy of biographical models that were available at the time- most particularly Jerome Bruner’s idea of self-narration, encapsulated in his book Making Stories: Law, Literature and Life (I reviewed it here) , – which emerged in the years after Henry Parkes was published.

Yet Martin did not immure himself completely in his strictures for ‘good’, fact-based, accurate history.  In an article published in Historical Studies in 1974, Martin tiptoed towards an exploration of the ‘Actual Man Underneath’- a phrase used by Henry Parkes himself, and apostrophized in Martin’s article title (‘Henry Parkes: in Search of the “Actual Man Underneath”, Historical Studies, vol 16, No 63, 216-234.)  After drawing on a myriad of sources to describe in some detail a period of years where Parkes’ political career seemed finished, Martin inched towards the approach that Clendinnen looked for, but did not find, in the book.  It’s there, right in the last paragraph, dangling tantalizingly at the end:

…one needs also to observe in the documents we have discussed the manifold hints that a life might fruitfully be conceived in more dynamic terms- from the inside a range of self-identifications held in fragile tension, personality a process rather than the unfolding of a given core of self-hood, and action the fruit of a traffic between circumstance and these unseen worlds.  It may be that such a perspective could melt the discrepancies between actor and man underneath, to merge the two and reveal in the individual’s struggle for their reconciliation the sources and character of motivation- and hence, for the outside observer, important keys to explanation. (Martin, 1974, p. 234)

Clendinnen rues that Martin came so close to the ideas that Jerome Bruner later articulated, but that he chose instead to work within the existing frames for political biography.  She admits, too, her doubts that even if Martin had had  Bruner’s ideas available to him, his choice of biographical model was deliberate:

So… at the end, despite contingencies of the availability of particular theories, the time of writing and so on, I have come to think Allan’s biographical model was fully deliberate: that it mirrored his moral temperament- as it had to.  Writing being the solitary business it is- sitting alone, making the dozens and hundreds of tiny choices of emphasis and selection we must make- I doubt if we could effect an enduring divorce from ourselves even if we tried.  That mass of barely-conscious choices figures forth the most intimate processes of our thinking. (Clendinnen, p. 23)

I very much enjoyed reading this small booklet and its exploration of the book not written.  It’s made me think a great deal about my own writing and the relationship between an academic’s personality and the type of history they write, and the ethical tenets she holds.  And gee, I wish I could have been there for the response that followed when Inga Clendinnen stopped talking and sat down.

3 responses to ““In Search of the ‘Actual Man Underneath’: A. W. Martin and the Art of Biography” by Inga Clendinnen

  1. I haven’t come across Inga Clendinnon’s essay, but this really resonated with me. I remember being disappointed when ‘Parkes’ came out, and even more disappointed when I worked through Allan Martin’s notes for the book, which are in the Mitchell Library. There are shoe boxes full of (if I remember correctly) 6×8 filing cards of minute detail, filed chronologically, and I felt I could almost identify which page of the biography each card belonged to. It felt workmanlike but a bit plodding.

    And then he published Letters from Menie – all the touching interchanges between Parkes and his daughter – and I knew there was so much more to know about Henry Parkes. And clearly Martin knew that too, or he wouldnt have edited the letters. But it begs the question – does a biographer need a model to provide a structure for his/her own biography? I’m not so sure.

    • That’s a really interesting comment, because apparently Martin was very much aware that he was writing the ur-biography (my words, not his!) and that he had to be true to the ‘had to be there and had to be right’ model. I wonder if others had already written foundational biographies whether he would have felt liberated to write against them more bravely.

  2. Perhaps. Or even if the ADB had had articles of the same length and scholarly detail as the revised ODNB.
    Martin’s Parkes (1980) reminds me of Don Baker’s JD Lang (1985) – both ur-biogs: huge, detailed, almost unreadable except as reference material, and long anticipated. I know that in the 1970s when I was mulling over PhD topics, both these subjects were off limits because they were in the pipeline fromMartin and Baker. That must have been a terrible burden for them.

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