Patrick White’ self-silencing and the fruits of disobedience

Encroaching silence is one thing, deliberate destruction another. When a physical document is gone, it is gone ... as Patrick White assumed and intended. White (1912-1990) was Australia’s first winner ofa Nobel Prize for literature and described by David Marr, his biographer, as ‘the most prodigious literary imagination in the history of this nation’.41 His output as a novelist playwright short story writer and poet, and role as a public intellectual and activist meant a large and growing collection of papers. On the other hand, it was common knowledge that he was someone who retained neither drafts of writing nor letters he received. And his correspondents were implored to destroy their letters from him. Several times in his life there were major incinerations of papers. Also, he had made his lifelong partner, Manoly Lascaris, promise to burn anything remaining after his death, and his will was similarly explicit.

Inevitably, White attracted interest from libraries that collected literary manuscripts. In April 1977, the Director-General of the National Library of Australia made his move. In a now famous rebuff', White replied:

I can’t let you have my ‘papers’ because I don’t keep any. My MSS are destroyed as soon as the books are printed. I put very little into notebooks, don’t keep friends’ letters as I urge them not to keep mine, and anything unfinished when I die is to be burnt. The final versions of. my books are what I want people to see and if there is anything of importance in me, it will be in those.

If you like, the reader emerges from the death of the author’s papers. Literary theory aside, this was all very Jenkinsonian.There was no business need to keep drafts after publication or keep copies of out letters (White had a formidable memory in any case), and the letters he sent were often full of gossip prompting explicit requests about confidentiality. The few copies he kept ‘as evidence of his reasons’ were of bitter dismissals of former friends’.42

Motives underlying destruction are rarely simple, and perhaps understandably it is those of writers as creators of archives who have attracted most scholarly interest.43 Yet as Richard Brown showed in his superb case study of an Italian tax official’s murder, many social and cultural factors are in play even with a single event. The human factor and gender are in there somewhere too. When White was shown Katherine Mansfield’s papers on a visit to New Zealand in 1961, he described her as ‘a good example of the letter-writer traduced’, her letters lingering on ‘to accuse her as a monster of sensibility and egotism’. His distrust of literary scholars and biographers grew.44 Marr regarded the burning of most of the papers in White and Lascaris’ custody up to 1964 just before moving houses as a ‘most thorough purging of his past, an act of renewal by fire’.There was a conflicted attitude to notoriety and autobiography too though he published several memoirs, in effect an ‘oscillation between repudiating literary celebrity and desiring recognition’, which was ‘made still more complicated by his homosexuality'’.4

In his final years, another human factor emerged. White found a writer (David Marr) he trusted to present him with honesty and insight;‘privacy was not now the issue; the biography was’. He ‘knew biographies fed on letters’46 and through Marr asked his correspondents to allow access and authorised copying - hoping they' had disobeyed his request to destroy. Most had kept them, and over 2000 copies were secured for the biography. Lascaris, who survived White by 13 years, also ignored directions to destroy and so did White’s literary agent Barbara Mobbs. When the National Library finally acquired her papers and those from the household after Lascaris died, they joined dozens of other collections it had acquired rich in White letters. Now libraries around the world have collections that include his letters, while others remain in private hands.47

The silencing reality of established arrangements

A person may intend to prevent access to their past, or at least a version of it, but success requires others to join the conspiracy. Patrick White destroyed much, yet his surviving distributed archive was created by a partner, literary agent and network of disobedient correspondents and collecting librarians who shared a belief about his and its significance.

No such single mind has ever directed the documentation of Australian society; no national cultural policy has ever guided federal state and local government cultural heritage programs. Attempts to establish a peak body representing archives libraries museums and galleries have enjoyed little success, the most recent effort, begun in 2015, limited to prioritising digital access to existing collections. In fact, it took the entire twentieth century to see all six states, both territories and the commonwealth pass legislation controlling the preservation of even government records. If there was a priority, initially it was the copying and publication of archives in Great Britain relevant to colonial administration, and documenting Australia’s participation in the First World War. In parallel, the leading collectors and public libraries preserved manuscripts of pioneers and explorers and controlled, until legislation led to their independence, government archives as well.48

What this uneven pattern reveals at work, as in any society, is a kind of organic documentation imperative. As Nesmith put it:

Socio-economic conditions, social assumptions, values, ideas, and aspirations shape and are shaped by ... [people’s] views and recording and archiving behaviour. Social circumstances shape what information may be known, what may be recorded, and what may be not, and how it may be recorded, such as in the medium chosen.

Whatever we call this - societal provenance, a discourse, archival mentality, archival consciousness, archivisation, archivilisation, or deeper still a ‘system of statements’ -it undoubtedly conditions the production management and use of records. It defines what can be, and shapes what will be documented but also what is forgotten. In a sense, the results are benign silences but should never be overlooked or accepted.49

This shaping mechanism has consequences. For example, in Australia both at the state and federal levels a governance culture evolved, which, when needing to respond to such pressures as scandals, intractable social issues and demands for reform, responds by establishing public inquiries taskforces Royal Commissions and reviews. One estimate of the numbers established by colonies, states and the Commonwealth from the mid-1800s to 1990 puts it at a staggering 3650. If anything, their use has proliferated since then, royal commissions becoming the ‘new normal’. Now, as a matter of course, their reports cite the numerous previous inquiries into the same issue. The documentation created and revealed, however, and increasingly when commissions aim at exposing injustices the voices heard, extensive and significant.50

A second example is the preservation of business archives. In the 1950s and 1960s scholarly interest in Australian business history and the creation of business archives councils in Sydney and Melbourne helped encourage the formation of collecting programs in several universities, the commissioning of corporate histories and the formalising of archives units within a number of banking, mining and other companies.This early momentum has not been sustained. Nothing other than self-interest and taxation and corporations law compel businesses to value recordkeeping or regard commissioned histories as reinforcing marketing, while the university-based archives that once specialised in their preservation now struggle for funds as the interest of historians and other potential users declines?1

A third example is best understood if we stay a moment longer with business archives. In Australia, unlike for example in Scandinavian countries, the business sector is poorly documented?2 Nevertheless, to those business archives that are preserved we can add the documentary by-products of inquiries (including Royal Commissions),53 liquidations and businesses placed in administration as well as the government archives and libraries collections, which include long runs of newspapers.

And, however limited, there is a degree of professional focus (a special interest group in the ASA, the occasional article in the professional literature). At least then business aligns with an acknowledged sector of society. Similarly, most social groups with a common history, interest or cause enjoy a natural standing in society.54 All directly or indirectly give rise to documentation and, as the decades pass and a sense of history develops, an incentive to preserve it. The same lens reveals a particular set of arrangements for national cultural institutions funded and legislated for by government: those with generic remits (national gallery, national portrait gallery, national library, national archives) would be taken for granted internationally, while others (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, war) link more directly to Australia’s history and culture. More selective still are programs that document significant themes such as women and science and individuals such as prime minister Bob Hawke and composer and performer Percy Grainger.55

Anything not covered by these sectors, communities, biographical collections, special themes and national institutions, must fend for itself. In archival terms it is silenced. Terry Cook’s macro appraisal model deploying structure (records creators) and function (e.g. education) identified a similar concern, namely the need ‘to remember the people who slip through the cracks of society’.56 His solution was to document an inclusive image of society by first identifying key points of citizenstate interaction then targeting the key functions and structures for preservation.

In Australia, there is no nationally coordinated macro-appraisal strategy and large cross-jurisdictional societal themes - such as the phenomenon loosely termed ‘the Bush’ - with no natural constituency to sustain or champion their documentation are, in truth, no one’s concern?7

 
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