Launch Speech by Joy Damousi – The Work of History: Writing for Stuart Macintyre

The Work of History: Writing for Stuart Macintyre, Edited by Peter Beilharz and Sian Supski, Melbourne University Press, 2022

This speech was delivered by Professor Joy Damousi at the Melbourne book launch of The Work of History: Writing for Stuart Macintyre, hosted by the Melbourne Athenaeum Library, 15 July 2022. You can find Graeme Davison’s speech from the same event here.

Thanks to Peter and Sian for the opportunity to say a few words to launch this wonderful collection of essays and to the Atheneum Library for hosting us on this occasion to remember Stuart’s work and contributions. It was a great privilege and an honour to be involved in a very small way in the production of this book and again I express my sincere thanks Peter and Sian for their invitation to be a part of it.

As we all know, Stuart was a prodigious writer and scholar and produced a vast volume of published work: the bibliography of Stuart’s work listed at the end of the book extends to and astonishing 16 pages! But sometimes it was what Stuart would say in an aside that often made you stop to think. I found this in Stuart’s Response in chapter 28, where he reflects on the actions and behaviours in others he admired: ‘Some of the most powerful influences on our own behaviour come not from tutelage but from observation’.

Joy Damousi at the Melbourne book launch (Photo: Sian Supski)

He then goes onto describe how as a junior member of the history department at Melbourne University, he observed how Geoffrey Blainey chaired meetings in a timely manner; how as a member of the Council of the National Library he was struck by Ninian Stephen’s capacity to win over the most prickly participants; and Davis McCaughey’s ability to deliver an admonition without rancour. Stuart writes that he did not consciously imitate any of them. ‘Rather’, he says, ‘when faced with similar tasks I found my mind going back to their example’.

And so, in this rich and marvellous collection, The Work of History: Writing for Stuart Macintyre, the lens is on Stuart and our own collective observation of him. None of us have imitated him, but I think it is fair to say all of us who have contributed to this volume would have many times found ourselves going back to the example he has set in our own careers. Whether as a historian, researcher, administrator, public intellectual, or mentor – Stuart’s example is an enduring one.

What observations are made in these essays in The Work of History of this example?

Even as a young doctoral student, Stuart lead by example. Geoffry Ely observes his shrewdness, on call critical facility, generosity, sense of humour, ‘not to forget that permanently ingrained work ethic’ as well as oppositional quality, as well as the clear political and ethical underpinnings of his scholarship. Keith Morgan elaborates further on this point by describing Stuart’s achievements in his histories of British communism. In Little Moscows Stuart left ‘a pioneering exercise in micro-history and an abiding reference point for local communisms; in Proletarian Science a ‘classic work of emphatic reconstruction and a testimony to the political engagements on which it drew’. What Terry Irving especially observes about Stuart’s work on Australian communism is not only the superb scholarship but also extra scholarly principles: ‘the insight they provide into enthusiasms and moral judgements’ – works which were humanist, progressive and socialist, providing civic instruction. Bobbie Oliver reminds us of these qualities too in the biography of Paddy Troy – historical subjects who are not mainstream should not be marginalised – including loyal militants. Ann Curthoys presents a telling observation that she experienced communism growing up in a way Stuart did not, but that Ann looked to his works for an independent assessment of the people and time she grew up in. There are lessons too of Stuart’s communist histories: they ‘make us think about the importance of our work as historians as we attempt to understand the tumultuous and contradictory world we live in’. This theme continues in Peter Love’s essay where he concludes, ‘how we can learn from history much that pertains to our current discontents’. Liam Byrne focuses on how Stuart also taught his students so much: ‘he taught us history, he taught us how to teach, and he taught us how to analyse and question’ and demonstrated the transformative power of history.

Stuart’s contribution of this type is also identified in essays by Marilyn Lake and Frank Bongiorno. Marilyn highlights what she describes as the ‘rich memorable, sympathetic account’ of Colonial Liberalism and the imperatives of white, nineteenth century manhood – and how these shaped nation building in the decades to come. Frank observes how on arbitration, federation, and the state, Stuart ‘was never shy of drawing attention to Australia’s success; he ‘knew too much Australia history to be able to overlook the country’s notable successes’. When it comes to the dead and the living, Sheila Fitzpatrick observes how Stuart talked in the same way ‘about people who were historical personae and those who were our academic contemporaries’, ‘the normal line between a historian and his subjects seemed to become diffuse and permeable’. The dead and living together came together in his mind. In his engagements with the living, Stephen Knight describes his congenial and collegial interactions, exchanges and conviviality. Phillip Deery and Julie Kimba continue this theme observing Stuart’s ‘formidable and extraordinary level of commitment to his profession’. This commitment is reflected in Pat Grimshaw’s essay, who concludes how we were fortunate to have Stuart as a colleague – someone who could in his administrative roles sustain the core values of a faculty of arts, ‘in the face of successive administrators about the viability of the humanities and social sciences’.

Picking up on Sheila’s point, with past historians, Stuart was as equally congenial as he was with living ones. In my essay on Stuart’s biography of Ernest Scoot, I look at what Stuart’s discussion of ‘Scotty’ can tell us about the very practice of history: the use of evidence, interpretation, sources and methodology, the history of history and the imperative to keep the discipline alive. Sean Scalmer demonstrates how Stuart radicalised the writing of the Melbourne School and in so doing offered new perspectives on Australian history. Diane Kirkby describes Stuart’s prodigious output and his work on civil liberties as ‘eye-opening’.

The works discussed by Nick Brown, Rob Watts and Tim Rowse identify this ‘eye’ opening element in their essays. Nick describes how the Boldest Experiment captures the political complexity and creativity of what the period captured; Rob notes the conversation between historians and social scientists that inspired Winners and Losers is ‘still worthy of animation’. This relationship is explored further by Tim Rowse, raising questions about the knowledge of history itself as a hierarchy of power.

The dissemination of historical knowledge is further captured in the discussion of Stuart’s general histories. Alison Bashford notes Stuart’s capacity to ‘scale out and scale in’ – simultaneously to hold a large vision on the one hand and to intervene in sentence structure and sequence on the other’. Kate Darian-Smith notes Stuart’s capacity to see things as they are in connecting the historical experience and the present. Graeme Davison concludes his experience of editing the Oxford Companion of Australian History reflects another time – when political disagreement with the ‘circle of good scholarship and mutual respect could enliven rather than divide’. This collaborative effort extended across the Tasman, and Len Richardson describes Stuart’s contribution to making connections within the trans-Tasman bubble. Philippa Mein-Smith thanks Stuart for his example, clarity and steadiness, and as an observer, interpreter and communicator’.

These qualities are evident in the public arena, too. Carolyn Holbrook discusses Stuart’s legacy in civics and citizenship, while Anna Clark describes the central place of humanity and compassion in the discussion of the history wars. The advocacy of universities by Stuart was also underpinned by these qualities as Simon Marginson notes, ‘which continue to enlighten and elevate us’. In writing for, but also about Stuart, our observations of Stuart make this indeed an enlightening and elevating collection which captures Stuart’s scholarship, collegiality and astonishing contributions.

Sian Supski and Peter Beilharz (Photo: Holly Hendry-Saunders)

We are all indebted to Peter and Sian for their efforts in bringing the essays together and their brilliant editing of them, as well as their incisive and eloquent introduction. And we thank them for bringing us all together. The insights and wonderful discussion in each of the essays makes for an engaging reflection on a host of topics and themes, and this is because of your work and this collaborative exercise. MUP has done a superb job and thanks to Nathan Hollier and MUP for producing the arresting cover, visual material and a high quality publication. These essays allow for an ongoing discussion with Stuart himself and remembering his support. As Peter and Sian write: ‘Stuart became a constant adviser and inspiration, perpetual reader of manuscripts and general oracle, or encyclopedia, and quiz master. There was always more to come’. But now there won’t be more. We have this volume to remind us of Stuart and all he has done for us and for our scholarship.

And so it is appropriate Stuart has the last word. He writes:

A number of contributors express gratitude for my helping them make their way. Such is the nature of a project like this, although I was surprised by implication that this was unusual Throughout my career I have been the beneficiary of assistance from others.

It is typical of Stuart to downplay his assistance and help. We all know how exceptional Stuart was in our profession for his generosity, mentoring, support and nurturing of historians and their work.

The Work of History reflects his extensive contribution and much more. The observations we all make in it document the powerful influence of Stuart’s work, his humanity and above all his enduring example to us all as a pioneering scholar, a colleague and friend.

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