Academic writing

Here is a selection of my academic writing:

Journal articles

‘”None of you will ever believe it”: Control, truth, and myth in the life of Billy McMahon‘, Australian Journal of Biography and History, 2021

Widely regarded as one of Australia’s worst prime ministers, William—‘Billy’— McMahon laboured in his retirement to produce an autobiography that would put forward the story of his life and laudable career as he saw it. But McMahon’s inability to reconcile that story with the archive of documents he had compiled, and the stories that his colleagues told in their own books, ensured that progress on his autobiography would be incomplete by the time of his death in 1988. This essay traces McMahon’s efforts to assert control of his story, via his archive and work with ghost-writers and publishers on his autobiography, and the effect that this had on the biography of McMahon that I published in 2018.1 I reflect on the two stories that my biography tells—of McMahon’s life, as I have understood it, and McMahon’s attempts to understand and portray his life—and the effect of each on the ontological stability and certainty of the other.

“Warren Denning and the making of Caucus Crisis“, History Australia, 2021

Warren Denning’s Caucus Crisis (1937) is widely regarded as one of the earliest and most influential works of contemporary political history to be authored and published in Australia. This paper details how and why Caucus Crisis was written. It finds that Denning originally contextualised the travails of the Scullin government in an autobiographical history of Canberra in order to advocate for the ideals with which Canberra had been founded. It suggests that Denning’s treatment of the Scullin government and his diagnosis of its problems reflected a personal disappointment. It also suggests that Denning’s revisions, which largely excised these autobiographical elements, were motivated by a desire to depict the personalities as he had observed them first-hand, and thus produced a book indebted to dramatic tragedy, establishing a form prevalent in Australia today — where narrative drive is strong, characters loom large, and where action is tightly circumscribed.

“Portnoy down under”, Philip Roth Studies, vol. 17, no. 1, 2021

Philip Roth’s third novel, Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), hit the trifecta: it was scandalous, it was critically acclaimed, and it was a bestseller. These qualities made it a potent weapon for challenging the strict system of censorship then in place in Australia—as Penguin Books Australia realized in 1970, when it decided to publish Portnoy’s Complaint, spurring trials that continued for three years. This paper draws on archival sources and interviews to argue that Portnoy’s publication in Australia upended the system of uniform censorship, emboldened publishers and activists to further defiance, drew public attention to censorship, and proved critical to the dismantling of the censorship system that followed in 1972–73.

“Mortuary Station”, Bukker Tillibul, vol. 12, 2018

Tracing a subject’s footsteps is a recurrent technique for biographers seeking to engage with their subjects. Richard Holmes, the most famous practitioner of this technique, believes that it fulfills biography’s innate mission – a ‘kind of haunting’ in which the present encroaches upon the past. To Holmes, it is an essential part of forming a connection between biographer and subject, allowing the juxtaposition of past and present experiences and facilitating empathic understanding. This essay adopts Holmes’ ideas while recounting the author’s journey to Rookwood cemetery, in which the family of William McMahon – the subject of the author’s forthcoming biography – is buried. The essay couples an exploration of the life of McMahon’s grandfather, James ‘Butty’ McMahon, with the author’s reflections on the transgressions that are involved in this kind of retracing. Most importantly, it portrays the author’s formation of a connection between the past and present.

“Chasing the future: Journalists writing political history”, Australian Journalism Review, vol. 37, no. 2, 2015

Journalists writing books of contemporary political history in Australia have generally drawn upon the model that was established by Warren Denning (1937), consolidated and popularised by Alan Reid (1969; 1971; 1976) and augmented by Paul Kelly (1976; 1984; 1992; 1995; 2009a; 2014). By some reckoning, this approach has reached its “zenith” (Bramston, 2014), with an inevitable question begging what should come next. This article studies the development of the genre and – using the work of Kelly as an exemplar of the traditional approach – explores how contemporary practitioners George Megalogenis and Annabel Crabb are finding new directions for its application.

Book chapters

“Profiling the biography of the contemporary political figure”, Offshoot: Contemporary Life Writing Methodologies and Practice, ed. Donna Lee Brien and Quinn Eades, UWAP, 2018

In 2010, the scholar Jackie Dickenson argued that the willingness of journalists to use insider knowledge to produce political histories was the result of a ‘convergence’ between journalistic and academic writing that had developed over the previous fifty years (2010, p. 119). Yet biographies of contemporary political figures—which Dickenson included in that category of ‘political history’, and which are almost exclusively authored by journalists (Dickenson 2010, Loveday 1985, Mullins 2014)—appear to remain stubbornly aloof to academic scholarship on biography and biographical practice. Despite considerable scholarly engagement and ongoing criticism (Blewett 2007, p. 8), James Walter argues that biographies of contemporary political figures invariably fail to address issues integral to politics that ‘could address larger questions’ (2014, p. 124). By their attention instead to the ‘romance of individual journeys’, Walter elsewhere argues that such books are ‘instantly redundant’ within the academy (2009, p. 104). This chapter would explore why biographies of contemporary political figures avoid the questions that Walter argues should be attended to and why they instead favour the individual ‘journey’. Drawing on interviews with practitioners and relevant examples, this chapter would map the interstices of the academic and journalist produced-biography of the contemporary political figure, with a view to sketching the redeeming features of the form as it is currently practiced in Australia—features to which academic scholarship remains stubbornly aloof.

“Chronicling the lives of the B-grade: The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate”, Recovering History through Fact and Fiction Forgotten Lives, ed. Dallas Baker, Donna Lee Brien, Nike Sulway, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017

Politicians are rarely forgotten. Thanks to the intersection of the Carlylean ‘Great Man of History’ theory and the Rankean emphasis on nation states, studies of the past are commonly framed through the actions and words of those who are most conspicuous. Yet in Australia, those politicians who serve in the Senate are more easily overlooked than their Lower House colleagues; with the exception of notable crossbenchers, senators are generally unknown to the broader public. As Senator Bob Collins one said, ‘The Senate, of course, is the B-Grade’ (Peacock 1996). The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate (BDAS) — commenced in part to rectify this — is nearing completion. Publication of the fourth and potentially final volume, which encompasses Australian senators whose terms of service fall between 1983 and 2002, will occur in late-2016. Whether to produce more volumes will be considered over the next decade, as the quota of former senators for another volume is established. This chapter considers the BDAS at this milestone. It explores both the rationale for the BDAS and its outcomes. Comparing it with similar examples worldwide, the chapter studies the limitations and opportunities of the BDAS as an example of biographical research and seeks to argue that — by its recovery of these overlooked lives — the Dictionary illuminates a dimension both inherent and outside the mission of biography: institutions, places, events and contexts.

“JENKINS, Jean Alice, Senator, Western Australia, 1987–90”, “BURNS, Bryant Robert, Senator, Queensland, 1987–96”, and “WEST, Suzanne Margaret, Senator, New South Wales, 1987, 1990–2002”, Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, 1983–2002, vol. 4, ed. Geoffrey Browne, Kay Walsh, Joel Bateman and Hari Gupta, Department of the Australian Senate, Canberra.

Conference papers

Justifying the profane: Ethics and biography“, paper presented at the 2016 conference of the Australasian Association of Writing Programs, University of Canberra, Australia

Since 2014, I have been researching a biography of Sir William McMahon, prime minister of Australia from 1971-72. The only prime minister to have not been the subject of a biographical study, McMahon has offered an exciting way to approach and explore the issues that confront biographers during their work. For me, the most pressing of these issues have been the ethical ones: questions of ownership, of the multiple responsibilities owed by a biographer, and the consequences of a finished work. In this paper, I examine the historical treatment and understanding of these ethical issues in order to contextualise my response to them as they’ve arisen in my practice. I argue that contention with these ethical issues is a necessary part of modern biographical practice and, indeed, demands both recognition of biography’s ‘profane’ nature and a justifying answer from the biographer—a tentative one of which, for my own work, I offer here.

“A new reality: Writing across gaps and thresholds in biography”, paper presented at the 2014 conference of the Australasian Association of Writing Programs, Wellington, New Zealand

In 1999, American biographer Edmund Morris famously and controversially inserted a fictionalised version of himself into what was expected to be a thoroughly conventional biography of Ronald Reagan. Arguing that the true Reagan could not be depicted through the techniques of orthodox biography, Morris suggested that by virtue of his research he ‘had, in a sense, been there’ throughout Reagan’s life; that he had become in effect Reagan’s ‘döppelganger’. As such, Morris argued, he was well positioned to write a ‘memoir’ of Reagan that drew on this knowledge, fictionalised though the mode of narration was: hence the resultant text, Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan.

Morris’s work in Dutch is perhaps the most extreme and radical example of the many ways that biographers may approach the gaps and thresholds of writing another person’s life. This paper explores the techniques used by biographers to surmount these and consider how the failure of these techniques to illuminate his subject spurred Morris to the radical approach found in Dutch.