In this Q&A, Professor Mark McKenna from the University of Sydney describes his varied professional career before taking up academic history, the importance of form as well as substance in conveying a message, and his desire to communicate to a broad audience.
Mark McKenna is a professor of history at Sydney University who is the author of many books about Australian history including The Captive Republic: A History of Republicanism in Australia: 1788-1996, Looking for Blackfellas’ Point: An Australian History of Place and From the Edge: Australia’s Lost Histories. Mark is probably best known for his multi-award winning biography of Manning Clark, An Eye for Eternity. Mark’s most recent work is the Quarterly Essay, Moment of Truth: History and Australia’s Future, about the need to develop more subtle and less contentious understandings of the Australian past in order to make progress on vital issues such as Indigenous recognition and republicanism.
1. Tell us about your childhood and early adulthood.
I was born in 1959 and grew up in Toongabbie, in the western suburbs of Sydney. I completed my undergraduate degree (English literature, European and American History) at the University of Sydney, before living in Germany and Europe for several years (1982-4). I returned to Australia and taught the history of the Russian and French revolutions to matriculation students at TAFE, before teaching English and History in a number of state high schools in Sydney in the late 1980s. Around this time, I developed an interest in photography, and I had exhibitions in Sydney in the early 1990s after travelling in West Africa. Returning from another year in Europe in 1986, I saw an advertisement in the Sydney Morning Herald, “Donald Horne teaches MA in Australian Studies at UNSW”. My reading and interest in Australian history really began under Donald, to whom I owe an enormous amount. I completed my PhD on the history of republicanism in mid-nineteenth century Australia under the supervision of Conal Condren in Political Science at UNSW. I always looked forward to my meetings with Conal. Pastries, a pot of coffee, long conversations (not only about my thesis) and the most precious gift of all for any postgraduate student: time.
2. Was there a moment when you discovered your love of history?
There was no blinding flash of revelation. A gradual awakening would be more accurate. Reading AJP Taylor as a high-school student probably ignited my love for history. Taylor didn’t know how to write a dull sentence.
Living in both East and West Germany for several years in the 1980s also made me acutely aware of how historical consciousness shapes present-day politics and society.
3. Why did you become an academic historian?
I was always uncertain of what I was ‘becoming’. I drifted in and out of several jobs and possible careers until I settled on writing as my first choice. I wanted to teach history and I wanted to write scholarly history with a literary sensibility.
4. Your work has ranged from the history of republicanism and Aboriginal-European relations, to a biography of Manning Clark. Is there a theme or a burning question that inspires your research?
I follow my instinct as much as anything else. The themes and questions have naturally changed over time, but there have been some have been abiding preoccupations. Place. The republic. Indigenous Australia. Historical consciousness. Biography.
5. How did you find the process of writing biography as compared to other forms of history? Would you do it again?
There are many things I miss about biography, particularly having the license to speak to novelists, artists, historians, journalists, politicians, and all manner of people about my subject. I also miss the total immersion in another life, and the challenge of capturing it on the page. The Clark biography consumed 7 years of my writing life, but I have no regrets. I hope to write at least one more biography, although I have no desire to become a ‘serial biographer’, or a serial anything for that matter.
6. Did you have inspiring teachers as an undergraduate or historians whose work inspired you greatly? Which scholars have had the greatest influence on the way you research and write?
In Year 12, I was taken for “a walk in the woods” by my history teacher, Brother Rupert, and told that I had a talent for writing history. I’m not sure what he saw, given that his extension history lessons consisted of reading our textbook – Two Centuries, by Cosgrove & Kreiss – aloud. One by one, the granite-faced Rupert would go around the class. “McKenna, read from the Congress of Vienna”. Somehow, my interest in history survived.
As for inspiring teachers and writers, Greg Dening would surely be one, Inga Clendinnen another. And of course, there are many historians writing today whose work continues to inspire me. I read like a bower bird, and I have found inspiration in fiction, poetry, history, essays, long-form journalism, and music, which plays almost constantly as I write.
7. Do you think of academic history as an art or a social science? How important are good prose and the persuasive powers of a talented stylist to history writing?
I don’t see myself as a writer of ‘academic history’. In any case, labels are usually misleading. The key questions are the age-old ones. Why do I write? And for whom?
I spend as much if not more time thinking about how I write as I do reflecting on my selection of content or the formulation of my argument. Narrative, voice, and the quality of the prose matter enormously. They are not separate from ‘the argument’, they carry it. I want to be read by as wide an audience as possible, without flicking the switch to vaudeville. I’m at my happiest when I’m lost in my writing. Every new piece of writing is an opportunity to improve and learn more.
8. Have you had mentors over the course of your career? How important are they?
Mentors have been extremely valuable, especially in the earlier stages. Donald Horne and Conal Condren were probably the most important. And undoubtedly the scholarly environment at the Research School of Social Sciences at the ANU in the late 1990’s, where the opportunity to work with so many brilliant scholars in law, politics and history influenced the direction of my work significantly.
9. What advice can you give to history ECRs about their careers?
It’s tough, much tougher than when I started out. Given that the course of my own career was never pre-planned I can’t claim to be a source of wisdom. The best ‘strategic positioning’ is to allow the quality of your work to shine through and speak for itself, both as a teacher and a scholar.