Reflection: Europeans in Australia – Vol III

Book Cover of Atkinson's book.

The Europeans in Australia. Volume Three: Nation by Alan Atkinson (UNSW Press, 2014).

The last volume in Alan Atkinson’s trilogy, The Europeans in Australia has finally been published.  Volume Three: Nation caps a wide-ranging and unique view on the history of Europeans in the land that is now known as Australia.

For more reasons than one, this book is the reason why I am writing and researching history today. I have been extremely fortunate that Alan Atkinson has been a mentor to me for several years and gave me the opportunity to do some work as a research assistant for this book. My current work on the beliefs of Australian soldiers on the front line in World War I stems from discussions Alan Atkinson and I had about this period of history while he was writing the book.

For these reasons what follows is not a book review. This is not an independent critique. Instead I want to share with you why reading the final version of this book has inspired me.

This book has reminded me why I found the long nineteenth century such a compelling period when I was in year twelve. This was an extraordinary century. It was a maelstrom of awfulness and invention. It was an era of emotions and thought, violence and construction. It was revolutionary in most aspects of life.

In year twelve I wanted to learn about the history of humanity, not small history that was confined to the nationalist paradigm. World history was not offered so I took what I thought was the second best option and studied modern British history. During that year I was engrossed in a spectacular era of history – grasping from the curriculum little bits that told of a world embroiled in a ferment of destruction and creation.

Years have passed and I had forgotten the feeling of wonder and indignation I felt that year. Those sensations came flooding back while I read Europeans in Australia: Volume Three: Nation.

Covering the period from the 1870s to the end of the Great War, Atkinson shares his unique perspective of the human forces that shaped Australian societies during a tumultuous period. This is more than an Australian story. It is a history of humanity as lived in the antipodes. Atkinson writes about big themes that exercised people throughout the world. This is not simply a synopsis of research by other historians. As Atkinson says in the preface, he uses the extensive body of historical research that has been conducted by himself and others but he asks new questions of that work.

The common thread in all the volumes of Europeans in Australia is the focus on the imagination of the people of the past and communication in both writing and speech. In this volume he explores the implications of mass literacy which allowed the person living in the Australian bush to explore the vastness of the continent and the world beyond through a page of text and the power of their thought.

Atkinson draws heavily on the novels that appealed to readers of the time. He also pays attention to the other important new mass literacy of the time – reading maps.

Individuals, if literate, could share feelings with strangers spread across enormous spaces. Reading, including the reading of maps, made that possible. It was the main method of imagining the wide world…On the other hand, the smaller networks of family, town and city life, and the timbre and tenderness of ordinary conversation, were as powerful as ever.

p. 120

In Volume Three: Nation you will read about the environment, education, science, men and women in their diversity, religion, democracy, violence and more. But it is not the topics which distinguish this book. Atkinson goes deeper to uncover the human spirit as embodied in the Europeans in Australia. As other reviewers noted of Atkinson’s earlier volumes, the Europeans in Australia series is a work that explores the mentalité of the times. This approach to history was pioneered by historians of the Annales school. It seeks to understand the underlying consciousness, or subconsciousness, that animated people of the past.

’Brain’ was a word whose moment had come. The brain was the seat and engine of individuality… In earlier days, the soul had been the main register of human experience. Now it was the brain, its complexity, its efficiency, its productivity. The brain was a multilevelled cosmos, a mystery within, ever ripe for new things.

p 144

In his second volume, Atkinson observes that looking at imagination leads our history to be understood as inspired by imagery more than reason, thus becoming “an all-inclusive jigsaw of feeling and thought” (Vol II, pp. xv-xvi). Literacy stimulated imagination. It produced reflection and led to introspection. The era covered by volume three was the age of the individual:

In earlier times God had lived less in unexplored recesses, in our own inner depths, than in the transparent silences binding human beings one to another, in ceremony and in conversation… He had been the geological substratum of human thought.”

“Now God was off limits.. strictly confidential…”

(p. 266-267)

This is big picture history which easily shifts scale between the local and the soon to be national. It connects the intimate that occurred in a kitchen or a living room in various locales throughout Australia and Tasmania with the geographical vastness which affected the creation of a democracy on a continental stage. At points Atkinson connects this history to that of other continents, for vastness and new ways of governance were explored in many ways throughout the world.

Atkinson explains in the Foreword that this book and indeed all three volumes explore the concept of moral community. Communication is the way the community explores how they are to live together, to share in the ‘common wealth’ of the nation. Atkinson sees the two decades in which he wrote this series, 1993 to 2013, as a “turning-point” akin to the Federation period one hundred years earlier. At the heart of each volume says Atkinson, are the three chapters, ‘Men and Women’, ‘Black and White’, ‘God and Humanity’.

Some historians write with a remote narrative voice giving the impression that they are a neutral, objective arbiter of the past. Atkinson not only believes that the historian is necessarily intimately connected to the history they write, he reveals this connection to the reader. Many historians may have a family history which shapes and propels their work, but they regard this as private and shield this from the reader. Atkinson has no qualms about revealing his family history sparingly and when relevant. When he does it creates another layer of intimacy between the reader and the author. In Volume I: The Beginning, Atkinson shares that he is writing in the wake of the death of his parents. The conclusion to Volume Three: Nation ends with a birth at the end of The Great War. It is moving.

Atkinson eschews popularism by forging his own path, not confined by ideology or intellectual fashions. There may be moments of discomfort for the reader in this book, prickles which the reader must attend to. Will the reader be bold enough to confront these and consider the arguments presented?

Yet Atkinson treats his reader gently. Through the looping thread of quotes drawn from Brian Greene’s popular book about space and time, The Fabric of the Cosmos, Atkinson effectively asks the reader to ‘look at what I see’ and consider his argument. These quotes demonstrate that he is comfortable with the fact that each person will see this history differently.

Anyone who wishes to be abreast of developments in Australian history should read this book and indeed the series. There is also another group of people who should appreciate this book – those who read and write Australian literature. Atkinson provides the context for Australian writing of the time and his perceptive view of the spirit animating the age could provide fertile ground for the writer seeking inspiration and insights for their next novel.

I finished this book both inspired and excited. Europeans in Australia demonstrates the boundless possibilities of historical writing.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher, NewSouth Books.

Further Reading

Alan Atkinson has written extensively on Australian history throughout his long career. Aside from the first two volumes of Europeans in Australia you may also be interested in reading these articles Atkinson has written about how historians work which I drew on for this post:

  • ‘History in the Academy’, in Australian History Now edited by Anna Clark and Paul Ashton (NewSouth Books, 2014).
  • ‘Do good historians have feelings?’, in The Historian’s Conscience edited by Stuart Macintyre (Melbourne University Press, 2004.
  • ‘Irony and Bluster: an historian responds to his critics’, AHA Bulletin 88, June 1999.

Review of this third volume are coming. As I expected, the reviews focus on different elements. This is a book where each reader is likely to highlight different aspects of the book.

Here are some reviews of the earlier volumes of Europeans in Australia:

I will be referring to the Annales school of historians in another upcoming review. It probably deserves a post on its own given renewed interest in historical approaches developed by these historians. For the time being refer to this article to this important development in historical writing and research:

Awards!

This book has been shortlisted many times and has won the following awards:

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3 thoughts on “Reflection: Europeans in Australia – Vol III

  1. Absolutely! Some historians MIGHT write with a remote narrative voice giving the impression that they are a neutral, objective judge. But all historians can be intimately connected to the history they write.

    Even the very act of selecting an era or an event to examine can be loaded by family connections. If I write about the Ukrainians destroying Jewish synagogues and closing down Russian Orhtodox churches, it is because I think it is true. But it would be less than honest to hide the fact that my family suffered as a result.

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    • That is an important point. Lack of independence does not disqualify the historian from writing about the subject but your example shows that the reader should be informed. I suppose it is a matter of degree. I am going to be writing a WWI history. Does the reader need to be informed that my great-grandfather died in WWI? Probably not. I am researching the faith (whether religious or otherwise) of the Australian soldiers on the front line. Does the reader need to be informed that I am a believer – a Baha’i? Should atheist or agnostic historians making comment on the same topic reveal their own personal beliefs? I think that an historian’s personal beliefs do shape the history that they produce but historians generally don’t disclose this.

      Pondering…

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