Monday musings on Australian literature: Political biography

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)?