After crossing the grand interior of Australia on the Indian Pacific Railway, we paused in Sydney just long enough to attend a symphony performance at the Opera House. Then it was on to the capital, Canberra, to join the deliberations of a think tank considering rural development policy for Australia’s National Party.
One afternoon, a little time on our hands, we searched out the home of Manning Clark, a house built in 1952, the year of my birth, at 11 Tasmania Circle, in the Canberra suburb of Forrest. This was the home of Dymphna and Manning Clark, Australia’s great national historian, when he served at the Australian National University. Our arrival here was a matter of pilgrimage.
This sort of thing has been going on with us for years, mainly on the prairies of North America. We have entered the childhood bedrooms of Wally Stegner (Eastend, Saskatchewan) and Willa Cather (Red Cloud, Nebraska) in order to view the world as they saw it, through their windows.
We have sought out the places of John Ise’s classic homesteading memoir from Kansas, Sod and Stubble, and stood on the grave, in Great Bend, of Oscar Micheaux, the novelist and film-maker. Likewise there was a pilgrimage to the grave of Mari Sandoz, in the Nebraska Sandhills. We never cross the border from North Dakota into Saskatchewan without breathing the words of the poet William Stafford, “This is the field where the battle did not happen.”
In Austin, Texas, we have savored moments of silence in the Death Alcove of folklorist J. Frank Dobie, on Waller Creek. We have located the quiet residence of Great Plains historian Walter Prescott Webb, climbed the stairs to his office; naturally, I sat in his chair.
So, in the natural course of things, we arrived at Manning Clark House. Dymphna, Clark’s widow and a scholar in her own right, deeded the place to a trust, now organized as Manning Clark House Inc., to serve as a cultural center. Arriving unannounced, we were welcomed by Clark House staff and by the Clarks’ maid, who still serves the house, and who pointed out Clark’s old broad-brim hat still on its peg in the kitchen.
We were invited to a literary event in the evening, and also to tour the house freely. Even more fortunate, we were greeted by historian Sebastian Clark, son of Dymphna and Manning, who provided a guided tour full of personal disclosures.
You have to climb a stair-ladder to ascend to Manning Clark’s upper-floor study, but it is well worth it. There are the curios of a distinguished career, as well as his extensive library, including a substantial section of Russian literature and history. Clark, you see, the Australian historian–like our historians of the Great Plains–believed that the influence of a vast landscape, like that of Australia, Russia, or North America, was fundamental to the character of a people.
I seated myself before the desk of Manning Clark. On encouragement from Bas, I opened the drawer to take out “Dad’s computer”–a handful of dip pens. Then Bas said, look at the surface of the desk.
There, in the middle, was the deeply worn imprint of the wrist, hand-heel, and knuckle of Manning Clark, who wrote his six-volume history of Australia right there. Six volumes x 250,000 words x 3 drafts, that makes 4.5 million words inscribed right there, in that spot, with ink dipped from a well.