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Monday musings on Australian literature: Political biography

November 16, 2020

With the US election going, going … but not quite gone it seems … and with a new biography of President-elect Joe Biden, Joe Biden: The life, the run, and what matters now by Evan Osnos, hitting the bookstands, I thought it might be apposite to consider the political biography in Australia. By “political biography”, I mean, not those multitudinous memoirs that seem to come out with mind-numbing regularity soon after a major leader leaves the stage, nor the more formal autobiographies, but those extensively researched, analytical, and hopefully objective presentations of politicians’ lives written not by themselves.

Researching this topic, I found a 2006 monograph documenting a workshop on political biography and administrative histories held at the ANU in May 2005. (This workshop, incidentally, included autobiographies and memoirs.) In the final chapter, it says of an informally generated list of “favourite” political biographies that:

all of them tell us about how we are governed, explain the thinking of past leaders, and contribute to political science by illustrating how personalities affect our political structures and policy. … all have contributed to a greater understanding of how politics works.

However, in the monograph’s preface, the writers recognise that political biography is a tricky beast, often being written by those who have sympathy for their chosen subject and who, therefore, tend to write favourable books. But, they argue,

biographies (and autobiographies) have much to offer the student of politics. Political biography is an alternative narrative of events — a personalised view stressing the familiar and the specific. It contributes the views of political actors — sometimes in a contemporary context, sometimes with the benefit of hindsight. It can reinforce existing accounts of events or produce new accounts. It can add new perspectives and insights to existing accounts. It provides a medium through which the personal ‘take’ on politics is able to be ‘written in’ to conventional accounts. Crucially, political biographies are often the most accessible and widely read form of political writing, attracting readerships beyond the purely scholarly interest or the political junkie market.

One of the most famous and authoritative political biographies of recent times is American Robert Caro’s five-volume The years of Lyndon Johnson, of which four have so far been published. Caro is now 85, which begs the obvious question, but you can read about his progress at the Wikipedia link I’ve provided.

Selected Australian political biographies

Book cover

Below is a very select, and somewhat randomly chosen, list of recent-ish Australian political biographies. They are listed chronologically by date of publication, although to follow tradition I should perhaps have listed them alphabetically by biographical subject, or, even more interestingly, chronologically by birthdate of subject! Not surprisingly, these are all about prime ministers.

  • Blanche d’Alpuget’s Robert J Hawke: A biography (1982). One of the rare political biographies I’ve read (because my biographical interest tends towards literary subjects), this biography was published the year before Hawke became Prime Minister. It won the NSW Premier’s Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-fiction in 1983. D’Alpuget, who married Hawke in 1995, wrote a “complete biography” of Hawke, which was published in 2019, the year he died.
  • Allan Martin’s 2-volume Robert Menzies: A life (1993, 1999). I had to include this one, given Menzies was, in his time, and still remains, Australia’s longest-serving prime-minister.
  • Jenny Hocking’s 2-volume Gough Whitlam: The biography (2008, 2012). These volumes are just two of many biographies written about Whitlam, and just two of the several books written about him by Hocking. Hocking came to public notice recently for her successful court case to have the embargo lifted on secret correspondence [now dubbed the “palace letters”] between the then Governor-general, Sir John Kerr, and the Queen concerning the controversial dismissal of  Whitlam’s government.
  • Judith Brett’s The enigmatic Mr Deakin (2018). Deakin was Australia’s second prime minister, so Brett’s biography is certainly one of those able to “benefit from hindsight”. This book won the National Biography Award in 2018, with the judges calling it among “the very best political biographies written in Australia”.
  • Patrick Mullins’ Tiberius with a telephone: The life and stories of William McMahon (2019). Having studied political biographies, Mullins wanted to write one, and McMahon – funnily enough – was there for the taking. So Mullins told the audience at last year’s Canberra Writers Festival. Good decision, because Mullins won two big awards with this – the National Biography Award and the NSW Premier’s Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-fiction. The NSW Premier’s Award judges commented that this was “an impressive work of political biography, an achievement all the greater for its unpromising, though fascinatingly complex, subject”. Poor Billy! 
Book cover er

And here I’m going to sneak in one I have reviewed here. The subjects are not Australian, but the biographer is. The book is Hazel Rowley’s Franklin and Eleanor: An extraordinary marriage (2011) (my review).

A matter of definition

But here’s the interesting thing. While Franklin and Eleanor is about two consummate politicians, Rowley’s focus was their marriage. This made me think about who writes political biographies – in Australia anyhow. They tend not to be our “professional” biographers – people like Rowley, Brenda Niall and now, I’d say, Gabrielle Carey – but historians, like Judith Brett, Jenny Hocking and Allan Martin. Is the driver for writing political biographies a little different?

Journalists – like Blanche d’Alpuget, David Marr, Chris Masters – also tend to write biographies with a political bent, though sometimes their subjects are not politicians. Would we call Masters’ biography Jonestown: The power and myth of Alan Jones a political biography? Would we call David Marr’s books, Barwick on Australia’s longest-serving Chief Justice of Australia’s High Court, and The Prince about Cardinal George Pell, political biographies? Not technically, perhaps, but politics surely inspired and drove these books. Your thoughts?

And now the obvious question: Do you read political biographies? And, if so, would you care to share some favourites (or, even, not-so-favourites)?

22 Comments leave one →
  1. November 16, 2020 23:55

    I am not keen on reading political memoirs, even when I like the politicians. As you say, well researched biographies are the way to go. I have not read too many contemporary ones, I think the most contemporary one I read was on Richard Nixon. I tend to read about figures who lived long ago.

    As to what defines a political biography, that is a tough question. Most, but not all that I have read were written by historians.

    • November 17, 2020 08:12

      No I’m not keen on those memoirs either, Brian, even if I like the politician. An exception perhaps is that I did read Obama’s autobiography Dreams of my father – I think it’s more autobiography than memoir, which makes a bit of a difference. But the post-power tell-alls don’t really interest me. I’m not a political junkie I guess.

  2. November 17, 2020 01:02

    I’ve read both Curtin and Chifley by David Day and these bios of our war time PMS are excellent because, as you say, although they tell the story of the life, they also give a political context as well as the subject’s way of thinking.
    I’d also add the recent Lowitja, the authorised biography of Lowitja O’Donoghue, by Stuart Rintoul, because of the political role she played in Indigenous politics in the highest levels of government and Maurice Blackburn, Champion of the People, by David Day the first ever barrister to become a Labor MP.
    I’d also recommend Penny Wong, Passion and Principle, by Margaret Simons, especially to the people who want her to be the leader of the ALP, because it makes it quite clear that she doesn’t want it.

    • November 17, 2020 08:19

      Thanks Lisa. You’ve read more than I thought! All of those would interest me for the reasons you give, particularly Lowitja. As for Penny Wong would interest me too – she’s so rational – but I don’t feel the urgency to do so to understand her (albeit I probably would understand her more if I did!)

  3. November 17, 2020 06:19

    Many new titles to choose from….thanks!
    I did read Mr Deakin and all the published books by Robert Caro. (..waiting for the last volume).
    Question: Could Brenda Niall’s biography of Cardinal Mannix be considered a political bio?
    Daniel Mannix (1864-1963) was the Roman Catholic archbishop of Melbourne for nearly half a century and an active force in Australian politics, especially in Victoria.
    BTW …it is an excellent book!

    • November 17, 2020 08:22

      Yes, I thought of Mannix too,Nancy, as a possible crossover/contender but just wanted to give a few examples to ask the question. I’d like to read it.

  4. November 17, 2020 08:59

    Confession time: I don’t read political biographies, even though I have the Malcolm Fraser/Margaret Simons one waiting for me on the shelf (it’s been waiting there for quite a while…). I did read Julia Gillard’s memoir, and I’m definitely tempted by the Lowitja O’Donoghue biography, though. I read wherever interest takes me and, like you WG, I’m just not that interested in the machinations of politics.

    • November 17, 2020 15:49

      Love it, Michelle. True confessions! Clearly we are alike in being selective about our political reading interests. I’d read a little more… Like Lowitja… If I had more reading time but I don’t gravitate to it as a priority in my reading.

  5. November 17, 2020 10:14

    Erhmm .. no.
    [grin]

    • November 17, 2020 15:52

      Well, special question for you M-R – Do you listen to it? My guess is no, but in the interests of accuracy I need to ask [grin back]

      • November 17, 2020 17:10

        Oh, I always reply in audiobook vein, ST !

        • November 17, 2020 20:51

          I thought you probably did, but I needed to make sure. Now, I am sure and won’t check again!

  6. George permalink
    November 17, 2020 11:40

    Roy Jenkins wrote excellent biographies of Gladstone and Churchill. The latter was not as engaging, perhaps because 1939 through 1945 so overshadows the rest of Churchill’s life. He wrote one of Asquith also, and that I have not read.

    Biographies of presidents seem to be a staple of the American publishing industry. I suspect that the shelves of any American man who actually has bookshelves and is not eccentric in some way will have at least one biography of a president. (I think that so far this is mostly a male reading habit; maybe a Clinton victory in 2016 could have changed that.) Whether they are read, I don’t know. I’ve read Edmund Morris’s The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, but that carries him only to his first oath of office.

    I should say that Robert Caro does not to know how to leave things out. That may be in a fine American tradition also, though. Parson Weems, who made up the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, had previously spent quite a while trying to get John Marshall to finish the multi-volume life of Washington he had contracted to write. Dumas Malone gave Thomas Jefferson six volumes (well, Jefferson and His Time).

    • November 17, 2020 16:01

      Great stuff George. Love that comment about the American male’s bookshelves. I’m sure we wouldnt say that here, not because we aren’t readers but because Aussies in general don’t have the reverence for our leaders the way Americans do, which is interesting given you are seen as more individualistic than we are which would suggest a lesser willingness to venerate authority. What a weird mix we all are.

      As for Caro. I must say I thought exactly that about not leaving things our when I read about him. It makes for a thorough record I’d say but not necessarily good reading ;for any but the die-hards).

      These multi-volume bios are interesting. I found some two-volume ones here but not 4, 5 or more ones!

      • George permalink
        November 17, 2020 22:38

        The presidents whose biographies seem to keep selling, and keep being written, are those whose administrations summed up a change in the national governance, perhaps character: Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, maybe Wilson. In reading their biographies, one can learn a good deal about how the nation developed. You won’t see a lot of lives of Van Buren, Arthur, Coolidge, etc. So perhaps we are reading as much to find out about ourselves as to learn about great men.

        • November 18, 2020 08:11

          That makes perfect sense to me George… And is why Whitlam is one of our most popular subjects.

  7. Meg permalink
    November 18, 2020 17:03

    Hi Sue, I don’t have much time for politicians, and I think I learn enough about them from the media. I have read a few and Obama was quite good. I rather read a biography or memoir about people who interest me. I have just finished reading The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes (a terrific writer). It is about the “Belle Epoque France”, before WW1. Politics plays a very small role in this witty story about people and influences of that time. A much better read that one about politics or politicians.

    • November 18, 2020 17:06

      I understand completely Meg. Mostly I feel the same about reading biographies about people who interest me, though sometimes it is the era as much as the person that might interest me which is where political biographies occasionally attract me.

  8. November 20, 2020 22:05

    It hurts to miss an MM but Monday night … anyway I’m home now, till Sunday at least (so I might miss another one). My first response was I have read just one biog of a politician – King O’Malley: American Bounder (and founder of Canberra), and then I thought ok, maybe two – Dad gave me and I read a biography of the Duke of Wellington as Prime Minister (somewhere during Queen Victoria the Brits got to their current system and the how still fascinates/mystifies me). And now a third, and certainly the most enjoyable, comes to mind – Mango Chutney’s two part, living with Pauline Hanson.

    • November 21, 2020 17:05

      I did notice your absence given you are often one of the first to comment, Bill. I hope your Monday night was OK.

      I have heard of course of King O’Malley (particularly since the suburb of O’Malley is near mine) but haven’t read much about about him. Love your comment on the British political system. How America got its system also mystifies and fascinates I think! But oh dear, Living with Pauline Hanson? Are you having me on? Mango Chutney? I believe you are …

      • November 21, 2020 17:12

        Margo Kingston wrote a quite famous book and follow up about being on the election trail with our own orange idiot. Blame Phillip Adams for ‘Mango Chutney’.
        Monday was just the first night of a trip home. And, no rest for people who are expected to be out of iso by xmas morning, tomorrow I’ll be on my way again.

        • November 21, 2020 17:20

          Ah, I wondered if it was Margo Kingston’s book you were referring to! Thanks for the clarification.

          And I hope you have had enough rest. I truly don’t know how you do it.

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