Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 15, 2017

The Art of Time Travel: Historians and their Craft, by Tom Griffiths

I don’t really know what I was expecting – I only chased up this book because it was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards – but The Art of Time Travel, Historians and the Craft is such a wonderful surprise!  To describe it as a collection of portraits of fourteen Australian historians is underwhelming to say the least, yet it turns out to be a captivating book which charmed me from start to finish.

The very first historian chosen is Eleanor Dark.  Yes, the author of the much-loved novel that many Australians read at school, The Timeless Land. The choice of a novelist to lead the fray is emblematic of Tom Griffith’s approach: though Griffiths is himself a professor of history, he’s not hidebound by a formal academic definition of what historians might be, or where they might find their material, or what they do with it.  So the chapter about Eleanor Dark is a wonderful portrait of a novelist whose research and ways of interpreting it told Australians an important story about who we are as a nation.  This chapter kept making me want to retrieve my Eleanor Dark novels from the shelves and read them all over again, with fresh insights.

Curiously, Griffiths held me captive again with his next entry, Keith Hancock.  I’d heard of him, but I’d never read his stuff the way I’ve read Eric Rolls, Geoffrey Blainey, Henry Reynolds and Inga Clendinnen –  all of whom get their own chapter too.  So it was from Griffiths that I learned that ‘If there were a Nobel Prize for History,’ observed Stuart Macintyre in 2010, ‘Hancock would surely have won it.’  It was Hancock’s pioneering work of environmental history, Discovering Monaro (1972) that provoked this accolade, and by Griffith’s account of it, it’s one I want to read.  (I missed a lot of good books in the early 1970s when I was a young mother.  We had no money for books and the Seymour library wouldn’t let non-residents join.  I guess in the Vietnam years they had lost a lot of books to soldiers passing through via Puckapunyal, but it was the only time in my life when I was libraryless, and it’s a good thing I had a small baby to amuse me instead.)

With perhaps one exception, the portraits are not uncritical homage.  Griffiths points out that Hancock was writing at the same time as the dramatic beginnings of a revolution in understanding Aboriginal Australia. 

In Canberra in the 1960s and early 70s Hancock was at the heart of an archaeological and anthropological research frontier.  But he remained trapped in his culture’s blindness about frontier violence.  Although he acknowledged the general pattern of violent European conquest, he claimed that in the Monaro, ‘as almost nowhere else, resistance and retaliation did not ensue.’  It was the classic local historian’s apologia: it didn’t happen here.  (p.17)

Well, subsequent research shows that it did, and Griffiths – while admiring his subject in general – also notes another blind spot, that Hancock overlooked the unyielding endurance of Aboriginal identity in his region.  Geoffrey Blainey gets the same objective scrutiny: admiration as a master of narrative history who can evoke the material reality of past daily life with telling detail but also a flawed and sometimes stubbornly conservative historian who

stands apart from emerging environmental narratives that undermine dominant imperialist accounts of Australian origins and which attend to our distinct geological and biological inheritance.  (p.81)

(I’ve only ever read A Shorter History of Australia (1994) which for some reason I only reviewed at Goodreads, not here, and I was so unimpressed (and bored) that I have left unread two or three Blaineys which made their way chez moi courtesy of The Spouse.  (Well, I might have read The Tyranny of Distance, (1966) but I think it’s just one of those books referenced so often it seems as if I’ve read it).

The chapter about poet and activist Judith Wright is brilliant.  Once again I wanted to drop everything and ransack my shelves: I have The Generations of Men (1959) but not Cry for the Dead (1981).  These two works, Griffiths says, written decades apart, form the substance of his exploration of Wright’s purposeful discovery of a new kind of writing:

In the 1970s Judith Wright decided that she needed history.  Wright was arguably Australia’s best known and most admired poet of the twentieth century.  From the 1940s her poems had entered the national literary consciousness.  Her early poetry was popular and critically acclaimed because of its distillation of white pioneer mythology, yet she was to become a critic of that inheritance.  When her activism quickened in the 1960s, Wright’s poetry was judged to have suffered.  One of the ways that her career has been characterised is that she sacrificed her writing for her politics; her politics stole time from her writing, but it was also perceived to diminish the quality of what writing she could do.  But I think there has been insufficient attention paid to the new kinds of writing she was doing.  The two fires, the two passions that burned within her, were art and activism, and one way that Wright came to reconcile them was to choose a different kind of art, that of history.  Poetry and activism came together to produce disciplined non-fiction.  (p.94)

In discussing these two books, Griffiths dissects Wright’s journey from a semi-autobiographical pioneer story to a lament for a damaged land dispossessed of its people.  It’s a journey that we as a nation all share, even those who choose to ignore it for the discomfiture it brings.  I am lost in admiration for the author of this chapter for his insight and the clarity with which he makes his case…

The Art of Time Travel is illuminating for non-historians because it covers interesting intellectual battles over what history is and how it might operate… The chapter about Inga Clendinnen analyses the dispute with Kate Grenville and of course The History Wars is covered too, but there was also, for example, a stoush over archaeological history, over whether the artefacts might not only speak for themselves, but should be kept free of documented history which might interfere with interpretation.  And there was disdain for public history in its early days, not just as it’s manifested in family history but also the history of public buildings and so on.  (There was a sad little aside about historians having more job opportunities outside universities than within them.  We will come to rue the latest round of funding cuts to our universities, the way the Americans rued the day they discovered that defunding language learning meant they had next to no one who could speak Arabic).

There is so much to tell you about this book, but I don’t want it to be a book you don’t need to read because the reviewer has told it all.  It’s too good for that. I’ll just tempt you more by listing the historians and their chapter names, an enticement in itself:

  1. The Timeless Land: Eleanor Dark
  2. The Journey to Monaro: Keith Hancock
  3. Entering the Stone Circle: John Mulvaney
  4. The Magpie: Geoffrey Blainey
  5. The Cry for the Dead: Judith Wright
  6. The Creative Imagination: Greg Dening
  7. The Frontier Fallen: Henry Reynolds
  8. Golden Disobedience: Eric Rolls
  9. Voyaging South: Stephen Murray-Smith
  10. History as Art: Donna Merwick
  11. Walking the City: Graeme Davison
  12. History and Fiction: Inga Clendinnen
  13. The Feel of the Past: Grace Karskens
  14. Dr Deep Time: Mike Smith

Author: Tom Griffiths
Title: The Art of Time Travel: Historians and their Craft
Publisher: Black Inc, 2016
ISBN: 9781863958561
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: The Art of Time Travel: Historians and Their Craft


Responses

  1. It’s always so pleasant to be surprised by a book, isn’t it?

  2. I have been so keen to read this since I first heard of it, but just don’t seem to get to it. Historians and the writing of history – more than the history itself, if that makes sense – has long fascinated me. I haven’t heard of some of those historians, but am interested in them all. My historian brother – works in a museum not academia – liked the book.

    BTW Do the chapters stand alone? That is, could one just decide to read one or two chapters and get value or is there an argument being developed as he goes as well?

    • Hmm, that’s a hard question… I’m not sure. He does follow a sort of chronology in historical developments, and here and there he references something he’s talked about before, but while I was tempted to read the Clendinnen chapter at the beginning, I’m glad I didn’t because it does just fit nicely where it is.
      It’s a very readable book… easy to read and enjoy three or four chapters at a time so I don’t think it would take a very long time to read the whole thing…

      • Thanks Lisa – well that’s as it should be really so I’m glad … but, will have to see how I go.

  3. I bought it as soon as it came out, and it’s sat on the shelf ever since! Perhaps I might follow Sue’s example and read a chapter at a time if it lends itself to that sort of reading. Thanks for your review- you’ve shamed me into moving it up the pile! (LOL)

    • Oh, you will love this, and I’d love to know what you think about some of the issues he talks about. #ChannelingGameofThrones: if I don a nun’s habit and ring a bell and shout Shame Shame Shame at you, will you read it soon? Please, pretty please!

  4. I’ve been eyeing this off for a while now – you may have just tipped me (& my bank balance) over the edge :-)

  5. I’m glad he acknowledges Eleanor Dark. I think The Timeless Land was an extraordinarily important first step towards an understanding that Australia was already occupied when the British got here.
    This is one of a dozen new books I have bought in the past year that I must read and don’t know when I will. (And I have an Eric Rolls that my father gave me decades ago which is still unread).

  6. […] Lisa Hill loved this book too – see her review at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog […]

  7. You have done a great job on this review Lisa! There is so much in this book that it is not an easy one to review. I didn’t read your review at the time because I knew I was going to read and review this book and I didn’t want my impression of the book influenced by others.

    • Thank you, Yvonne, I have very fond memories of this book, so it was a pleasure to read your review too.


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