Here’s a helpful tip for today’s biographers. If you have an intention to make unproven allegations about your subjects, it sure helps if they have attained a rest-in-peace status. Two recent tomes demonstrate the point.
In the first half of the year, biographies of important Australians — one living, the other dead — were published. There was David Day’s Paul Keating: The Biographyand Brenda Niall’s Mannix.
The first work covers the life of the former Australian prime minister who was born in 1944 and remains a vocal commentator on politics, economics, architecture and the like. The second is an account of Daniel Mannix, who was born in Ireland in 1864, arrived in Australia in 1913 and held the position of Catholic archbishop of Melbourne between 1917 and his death in 1963.
Paul Keating: The Biography is Day’s first study of a living subject. It has not been successful. On May 9, Fairfax Media carried a story by Mark Kenny that the publisher and author have apologised to the former prime minister and agreed to pulp all unsold copies.
Paul Keating: The Biography, in which history is written in real time, contains 480 pages of text, about 60 pages covering endnotes and a bibliography, a three-page acknowledgments section and a very detailed index. It is only when the reader gets to the second page of the acknowledgments, at page 542, that the author lets on that “there has been no co-operation” between him and his subject. None whatsoever.
A central thesis of the book is that Keating suffers from a reading difficulty. At page 40, Day writes that his subject “seems to suffer” from dyslexia. However, by page 364 there is no doubt at all. Day claims that, when Keating was prime minister, certain office procedures had to be adopted “because of his dyslexia”.
The problem is that there was no evidence for this assertion. Day maintains that Peter Walsh, a minister in the Hawke government and long-time critic of Keating, recalled seeing Keating reading with the aid of a ruler. He also cities the former Labor MP John Langmore, another critic of Keating, as claiming that Keating was “probably ‘mildly dyslexic’ ”. Just probably and just mildly.
There is also an endnote reference to John Edwards’ Keating: The Inside Story(1996). But Edwards merely observed that “Keating reads speeches badly and speaks from the heart well”. Day makes much of the fact that Keating once told Phillip Adams that he often marks books and re-reads them if he is unsure of their meaning. So what?
I have observed Keating over many years. I have seen him read speeches fluently. On one occasion, I published an article, without editing, which Keating had drafted in handwritten form. Keating has never seemed dyslexic to me.
Day’s allegation is a serious one, since he claims that Keating’s (alleged) reading difficulty made him over-dependent on the verbal advice of his advisers. Day has subsequently acknowledged that his theory was a deduction that had never been put to Keating for a response.
Day has made a lot of false deductions in his career. In Menzies & Churchill at War(1986), Day maintained that there was a serious move in 1941 for Australian prime minister Robert Menzies to replace Winston Churchill as leader of Britain. Yet Day cannot provide the name of one Churchill biographer or one historian of Britain in the 20th Century who holds this view. When Day put forward this particular “deduction”, both Churchill and Menzies were dead.
These days Daniel Mannix would be regarded by some as a DWM — that is, a dead white male. So he cannot defend himself against deductions and the like. Niall’sMannix starts with the assertion that “it took three days to burn his private papers”. She supports the view that this was an act of deliberate vandalism.
There is no clear evidence that such a bonfire ever took place. In an earlier book, The Riddle of Father Hackett (2010), Niall claimed that “Mannix had all his papers burned, so as to frustrate biographers”. I said at the time that this could not be the case since many of the archbishop’s papers were cited by B.A. Santamaria in his 1984 book Daniel Mannix: The Quality of Leadership, published about 20 years after Mannix’s death.
Niall changed her position. Now she maintains that Mannix issued an “order” that his private correspondence be burnt. But her introduction in Mannix, where this assertion is made, is replete with such words as “if”, “must have”, “would have” “might have” and the like.
So, what are the known facts? Well, Mannix left no instruction in his will that his papers be destroyed. Moreover, the key material concerning Mannix’s disputes with the Vatican over conscription, Ireland and the Labor Split of the mid-1950s have survived. Also, the Melbourne Diocesan Historical Commission contains some 11 boxes of Mannix’s papers, including some private material. Against this documentary material stands the reported verbal claims of deceased persons.
Both Day and Niall are highly regarded as empirical historians. Yet much of Day’s work and some of Niall’s latter biographies appear to be based on suppositions from which deductions are drawn. A biographer can get away with this concerning the dead — but not always with respect to the living.