Departed historians and their historical tales

As you know, I’ve recently been considering the 1840s depression in Port Phillip.  So, off to the library shelves I go. The title certainly looked promising- Forming a Colonial Economy: Australia 1810-1850 by N. G. Butlin.  It even had a chapter ‘Instability and Economic Fluctuations with Special Reference to the Depression of the 1840s and Recovery’.  But how strange- the name of the chapter is almost longer than the chapter itself, which starts on p. 223 and finishes on p.224 with a Postscript.  And there it is:

“Noel Butlin died before he could complete this chapter, and I have not sought to go beyond the material he actually wrote.  His intention in this chapter- based on conversations shortly before his death- was to…. Unfortunately, Noel Butlin could not complete the task.  Having stated the intention of this remaining chapter, it now remains a matter for other scholars of Australian economic history.  M.W. Butlin” p. 226

Thwarted again by the curse of the historian- dying on the job, so to speak.  I seem to have run into a bit of this lately.

[But permit me to digress.  I hadn’t thought of economic history as a dynastic profession, but it seems that it is.  The remainder of Noel Butlin‘s missing chapter was sketched out by M. W. Butlin, who has a string of publications in economic history to his own credit.  And Noel Butlin was the brother of Sydney James Butlin who wrote Foundations of the Australian Monetary System 1788-1851 which I’ve just finished reading.  And S.J. Butlin himself had a book posthumously edited and published by his daughter Judith. ]

But back to the departed historians and their tales.  I’ve also picked up Alex C. Castles’ Lawless Harvests or God Save the Judges: Van Diemen’s Land 1803-55, a legal history (2007) as Tasmania provides a different but parallel legal environment to that of New South Wales.  I opened the preface to read:

“This wonderful book might never have been published had it not been for a chance comment by the Law Society of Tasmania’s former librarian, Mrs Kate Ramsay.  The death of Professor Alex Castles in 2003 prompted her expression of regret that we had never published his work.  That remark sent me rummaging through the Society’s basement archives, where the part-completed manuscript was eventually discovered.

Kate then took on the daunting task of re-keying the manuscript into electronic form and enlisted the assistance of Dr Stefan Petrow to edit the work, write an introduction and complete the bibliography.  The Society owes a debt of gratitude to Kate and Stefan for their outstanding contribution to the resurrection of this book. (p.vi)

And not long ago, I read Donald Horne’s memoir Dying.  The book was in three sections. In the first, he described from his side of the oxygen mask, the experience of dying from lung disease.  His narrative falls silent, and is taken up in the second section by his wife Myfanwy. The final section of the book consists of a collection of incomplete essays that he had not finished writing when he became too ill to continue.  On one level they  are complete, self-contained works, but there is a fuzziness and hesitation about their conclusions that I think he would have tightened had he worked them up to publication standard.  It seems that the act of publication in itself acts as a fixative and stiffener to one’s ideas- that you only really know what you think once you’ve taken another reader or listener through your argument and have enough confidence in what you have written to endorse it under your name.

Another exposure I’ve had to a posthumous work is one step further back than this.  The State Library of Victoria holds the research notes for David Scoullar’s Ph D on public performance in Melbourne 1839-1851.  The catalogue record shows that “Mr Scoullar died before he could complete this doctoral thesis” in 1995.   It’s a strange thing to look through someone else’s incomplete thesis. It’s arranged by chapter into coloured manilla envelopes.  The chapters are in draft form, and you can see him pruning here, adding there but, as with Donald Horne’s work, there is a tentativeness about it as he’s working towards his larger themes.  I know nothing else about him other than this work, but feel grateful that someone recognized its importance to him enough to make it available to other researchers.  It will live on, incomplete though it is and despite the difficulties of citation,  in footnotes and bibliographies of other people’s work.

And, sobered by this reminder of mortality, I shall read on…..

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One response to “Departed historians and their historical tales

  1. Pingback: Now that you mention it… | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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