Reading Inga Clendinnen
The late historian leaves behind a stunning body of scholarship
By October 2016
Inga Clendinnen (1934–2016) was an eloquent teacher of history and a brilliant scholar who did not begin to talk until she was three and did not learn to read until she was eight. As a child she watched, listened and absorbed everything; then sentences sprang from her fully formed. As an adult she studied, taught and read, became an admired teacher and thinker, and then – in her early 50s – started writing books of astonishing discernment and power. When Inga died in Melbourne aged 82 on 8 September this year, she was honoured and beloved by a wide reading public in Australia and overseas. In February she was awarded the international Dan David Prize in Social History, akin to a Nobel Prize for the Humanities. The honour went almost unreported in Australia, yet it was a remarkable tribute to the influence and stature of this highly original Australian historian.
Inga Jewell was born in Geelong and grew up in what she remembered as a largely silent household. “The only voices I could rely on hearing were on the radio,” she recalled. Her own cultivated voice was probably a product of pre–World War Two ABC announcers. She became a lifelong champion of the ABC (and of that other great, besieged national institution, CSIRO), and she must have felt a sweet symmetry when she was invited to give the Boyer Lectures in 1999 and her voice was broadcast weekly into Australian households on ABC Radio. That collection of lectures, entitled True Stories, was about the history of race relations in her own country, and signalled her rediscovery of the Australian past after decades of teaching and researching Mesoamerican history. This return to country came about because of a life-threatening illness in her late 50s, an experience that writing would help her to survive.
In 1955, Inga completed an honours degree in history at the University of Melbourne, where she “wallowed in the joys of promiscuous reading”, and was a history tutor there for a decade. In 1969 she was propelled into another intellectual milieu when she became one of the daring appointments of the founding professor of history at the new La Trobe University, Allan Martin. She taught Latin American history and was drawn into the circle of ethnographic historians that included Greg Dening, Rhys Isaac and Donna Merwick. This circle, which came to include scholars such as June Philipp and Patricia Grimshaw, was named “the Melbourne Group” by the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, whose work influenced them. Although Clendinnen generally rejected the label, she acknowledged the excitement of the historians’ common interests. Ethnographic history was characterised by its integration of anthropology and history, attention to lived experience, and focus on cross-cultural encounters and episodes. Inga recalled the 1970s and ’80s as golden years of learning and teaching; she drew inspiration from her students, completed a master’s degree in 1975 and was promoted to reader in 1989. She had married the philosopher John Clendinnen in 1955, and by the 1980s their two children, who had so rewardingly occupied her energies, were grown up – and now she consciously filled the gap in her life with sustained writing.
Inga’s first published article, which appeared when she was 45 in the journal Historical Studies, presented her historical vision, fully matured. It was written in praise of the English historian EP Thompson, whose masterpiece The Making of the English Working Class (1963) enchanted and challenged a generation of history students. Drawing inspiration from Thompson’s studies of the labouring classes of the 18th and 19th centuries, Clendinnen began to articulate her understanding of history’s special capacity – it could only bridge the gulf between fragmentary sources and complex past reality “by systematic intellectual procedures and without resort to ‘intuition’ or other esoteric magical formulae”. Just what those systematic procedures might be was to become the meta-narrative of all her subsequent work. She warned that one could not simply simulate complexity by projecting one’s own common-sense interpretations on the people of the past “in the eerie conviction that [they] are simply ourselves tricked out in fancy dress”. One had to recognise the strangeness of past peoples and interrogate the metaphors they lived by, employing methods like those used every day for the evaluation of gossip, always working close to the ground with “muddy actuality”. And good history, unlike flashes of intuition, was “at all points open to scrutiny, criticism and correction”. To be anything but humble in the face of what we have lost of the complex past was to be vulnerable to error. This conviction made her a brilliant and reflective scholar, and it could also make her – as she said herself – a stern critic.
When Inga came to write history, she found that she could write boldly because she already knew her audience: they were like her students. She felt she could take them into her confidence; she could invite them to share with her, as she had done in tutorials, the exhilarating challenge of scrutinising evidence for meaning. This confidential intimacy, which stemmed also from her pleasure in “the secret society of readers”, became a hallmark of her engaging prose style. Clendinnen had discovered that her readers were as enthralled by the tough issues as she was. “‘Popular’ history need not mean – must not mean – dumbed-down history,” she declared.
Her books on Maya and Aztec culture, Ambivalent Conquests (1987) and Aztecs: An Interpretation (1991), won her acclaim and honed her method. In analysing the confronting culture of human sacrifice that distinguished the Aztec empire in the early 16th century, Clendinnen found her curiosity sickened at “the terrible matter-of-factness”, the bureaucratic calculation of these brutalities, “the combination of violence with apparent impersonality”. Empathy and intuition failed her as a means of accessing such a past. And she felt haunted, too, by those other victims who, in her own century, “had filed to their deaths”. In 1995, she was propelled into a study of the literature of the Holocaust and again “invaded by a paralysis, a chilled inertia in the face of what seemed an impenetrable monotony of suffering”. How was she to overcome bafflement in the face of such horror? The resulting book, Reading the Holocaust (1998), argued that it was the craft of history – a discipline of steady, methodical scrutiny, a kind of unflinching moral intelligence – that might enable us to hold these terrible things in our contemplation.
At the beginning of the 1990s, Clendinnen was hijacked by serious illness, and, in a noisy hospital ward, waiting for a liver transplant, she wrote desperately, to escape and to survive. After the operation, she experienced hallucinations, which were “like ancient flints” deep inside her that had worked their way to the light. Her research was circling back in haunting ways: “Everyone commented on the irony of me specialising in Aztecs taking living organs out and then me getting a living organ installed.” Her memoir of this period of her life, Tiger’s Eye (2000), was written with the encouragement of her publisher, Text Publishing’s Michael Heyward, who recognised that he was working with “a writer on fire”. Strangely liberated by her illness and the blessed renewal of the transplant, Inga wrote herself back into vigorous life and citizenship. Reading the Holocaust became a New York Times best book of the year, and her 1999 Boyer Lectures responded in part to Prime Minister John Howard’s denunciation of “black armband” historians. Unable now to travel to Latin American archives, Inga turned to local sources. Her first venture into Australian history was an essay in 1995 called ‘Reading Mr Robinson’, a portrait of George Augustus Robinson, chief protector of Aborigines in Port Phillip District, drawn from the journal he kept in the autumn and winter of 1841. It is classic Clendinnen: a theatrical act of scholarly reading, drawing deeply on a single source, and full of insight.
Inga’s rediscovery of Australian history achieved its full realisation in her late, great work Dancing with Strangers (2003). Again she deliberately focused on a set of sources that captivated her – the First Fleet journals – and wrote of the first years of British settlement at Port Jackson as a “springtime of trust” in Australia’s history of race relations. It was a re-reading of anthropologist WEH Stanner’s 1963 interpretation of those first years, where he believed that “the history of indifference” between colonists and indigenous people began. Clendinnen, by contrast, elaborated those early interactions with the positive metaphor of “dancing”, which evoked intimacy, sympathy and engagement as well as strangeness. Her book was a welcome antidote to the history wars in its focus on hope, innocence and idealism at first contact, thus offering a historical source of reconciliation.
Clendinnen knew that historians “have to live with the fact that ordinary people are practising historians too”. That is, history is a democratic craft and everyone has to deal with the past. Her respect for the intelligence of her readers, her sacred sense of the moral responsibility of history, and her luminous prose won her a large and devoted public. This distinguished writer and world-class reader loved the way literacy connects “the living with the living, but also with the great company of the dead”. She saw her art as achieving a kind of triumph over death, as denying the immutability of time. “Of course humans die,” she wrote, “but I have a friend called Michel de Montaigne who died more than four hundred years ago, and he is still alive to me.”