A new biography of Donald Horne examines a life of indefatigable energy and intellectual curiosity

Donald Horne (1921-2005). National Library of Australia, A.T. Bolton/AP
Donald Horne (1921-2005). National Library of Australia, A.T. Bolton/AP

In May 2004, little over a year before he died, Donald Horne took to the stage at the Sydney Writer’s Festival for an event to mark the launch of the fourth edition of Griffith Review: Making Perfect Bodies. Donald had written an essay called “Mind, body, age” that vigorously burst from the page with life, while addressing death. He was 82.

With a voice frayed by age and the breathlessness that would eventually claim his life, Donald talked about the medical emergencies that had shadowed him since the “complications” accompanying his birth on Boxing Day 1921. He was frail but determined, outshining the other panellists, enjoying the adulation that came from the packed audience, proving the National Trust right in appointing him, a few years earlier, as a Living National Treasure.

The applause lasted longer than usual, and afterwards dozens of people pressed forward. Readers and former students wanted to shake his hand, to say how much he meant to them, how his work had changed their lives and the nation. To say thank you. It was overwhelming and emotional.

Review: Donald Horne: A Life in the Lucky Country – Ryan Cropp (La Trobe University Press)

As we slowly made our way out of the warehouse on the Hickson Road wharf that was then home to the Writer’s Festival, Donald and his wife and soulmate Myfanwy and their great friend Frank Moorhouse discussed the response with a note of pride and satisfaction. “You know this is the first time I’ve been invited to the Sydney Writer’s Festival,” he said with just a tinge of past hurt.

Donald was pleased to be back where he felt he belonged. Being out of the loop, no longer an active participant in the cultural life of his beloved Sydney, hurt him. He was tired, but he still had things to say, ideas to test, improvements to recommend. His energy, like his curiosity, seemed indefatigable.

It wasn’t, of course. But as Myfanwy demonstrated when their jointly authored Dying: A Memoir was published in 2006, he kept compulsively writing until the end, wrapped in her loving embrace and that of their children Julia and Nick.

In his accomplished and insightful biography Donald Horne: A Life in the Lucky Country, Ryan Cropp puts the man in his context and, without a heavy hand, helps us understand his motivating psychology. For all the vigour of Horne’s writing and his determination to make an impact, self-doubt invariably intruded – success was not a sufficient inoculation. He was a gifted salesman (of ideas), but without the salesman’s unreflective demeanour.

One of the many challenges Cropp faced in writing this book, and the doctoral thesis that preceded it, was how to use the archive the prolific Horne amassed. Which of the more than 30 books to focus on? Which of the countless essays, speeches, articles and chapters to skate over lightly or leave out? With more than 200 boxes of carefully curated and annotated records in the Mitchell Library, this was a task that could seem overwhelming.

But Cropp clearly has some of the determination, energy and resolve of his subject. He notes that it took six years to write this book. Good biographies can be like that – Robert Caro is still finishing the biographical series on Lyndon Johnson he started 50 years ago.

Read more: Donald Horne's 'lucky country' and the decline of the public intellectual

The Lucky Country

Horne is best known as the author of The Lucky Country – a book that seemed to capture the zeitgeist when it was published, reluctantly, by Penguin in 1964.

The careful stewardship of the company’s new Australian branch, led by Geoffrey Dutton, Max Harris and Brian Stonier, ensured the book hit its mark, selling 20,000 copies in the first few months. It continued to resonate as updated editions were published throughout the decade. It is still in print. Hundreds of thousands of copies have been sold.

The issues explored in The Lucky Country changed with new versions, but the critique remained: Australia got by on luck; it was held back by second-rate leaders who lacked vision, imagination and even a realistic assessment of its place in the world.

When Horne famously sat down in his backyard in December 1963 to begin writing the book that would make his name, he was changing. He was more settled, happy at home with Myfanwy and baby Julia, but dissatisfied with the work that had been his primary focus for decades. Many of the certainties that had shaped his public life since arriving at the University of Sydney in 1939 were also being found wanting.

A large part of Horne’s genius was his ability to capture on the page a personal intellectual journey that reflected one that much of the nation was also taking. The Lucky Country, which owes more to his journalism than the more ambitiously polished writing in The Education of Young Donald, was a two-way mirror, revealing the nation to itself and him to it.

One of the lingering criticisms of Horne was that he was a gadfly, jumping from one issue to the next, a dedicated follower of intellectual fashions. The gift of Cropp’s biography is that it puts the changes into context. We learn how Horne responded to events as they occurred, and as more was revealed. For someone paying as much attention as he was, events and changing times demanded sometimes personally painful recalibrations.

Read more: An armchair, a desk and 4000 books: the Horne family study gets a second life

Changing contexts

To my mind, as someone who worked with Donald from the late 1980s, it is the biography’s animation of these early decades that is the most revealing. By putting the conclusions reached and decisions made into the context in which they were formed, Ryan Cropp helps the reader make sense of how someone could go from being persuaded by the writings of Friedrich Hayek in the 1940s to a firebrand critic of neoliberalism, which Donald called economic fundamentalism, four decades later.

From a distance, it is easy to forget the context, to foreground things that were not known at the time and read back into the record knowledge that emerged later. Cropp shows he has mastered the historian’s essential skill of avoiding this trap, while keeping the narrative moving with fresh and lively writing.

He provides the details of what happened when, so readers can speculate on the factors at play that lead some people down one path, while others exposed to the same events and a similar environment reached quite different conclusions. One striking contrast is between Horne’s confidence in Hayek’s wartime anti-bureaucratic, libertarian ethos, and Gough Whitlam’s rejection of it.

Gough Whitlam in 1959. National Archives of Australia
Gough Whitlam in 1959. National Archives of Australia

Whitlam was five years older than Horne, and he had an interesting and consequential war. Horne didn’t do much. He was shipped around the country, from the Hunter Valley to Darwin and back again. He sustained a major injury as a result of an unfortunate accident. He was bored and wrote many letters to his mother (like so many others now preserved in archival boxes). He felt like he was in exile.

Whitlam, on the other hand, was an air navigator who got his first taste of politics when he actively campaigned for the 1944 postwar reconstruction referendum that would have increased Canberra’s powers.

Horne opposed it. He did not share Whitlam’s confidence in the capacity of Canberra to do more. But decades later he became one of Prime Minister Whitlam’s greatest advocates. Times change, contexts shift, and responses by thoughtful people are recalibrated.

Intellectual tradition

At the University of Sydney, the self-described enfant terrible Horne came under the influence of John Anderson, the Challis Professor of Philosophy, who for three decades until 1958 fostered a libertarian contrarianism in his students. His teachings and methods helped shape a Sydney intellectual tradition that still echoes today.

Even in old age, Anderson’s former students would gather at Glebe Library, down the road from the university, to discuss the events of the day and major issues raised by articles published in international magazines – it was oddly affirming to hear old men arguing as if they were still undergraduates. For those untouched by this tradition it was mystifying, but for those like Horne, Murray Sayle, Paddy McGuinness and many others, it provided an enduring framework that had the benefit of flexibility.

University of Sydney Campus. Kanzcech/Wikimedia Commons, <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:CC BY;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">CC BY</a>
University of Sydney Campus. Kanzcech/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

So Horne moved from being a Cold War warrior, a comfortable believer in the British empire, comfortable about racial superiority, and a contributor to CIA-funded intellectual journals, to an outsider who chafed in class-riven Britain, an increasingly vociferous advocate of national independence, a republican, and the editor who, after half a century, finally removed “Australia for the White Man” from the masthead of The Bulletin.

The cynical, libertarian realist became, by the late 1960s, more optimistic and more open to what Cropp characterises as “opportunities for civic renewal”.

This all plays out against the backdrop of working for a living. Cropp details the highs and lows of Donald’s professional and public life with flair. His close attention to detail does not overwhelm. We learn a lot about Horne’s experiences and behaviour as a journalist, editor, academic and public advocate; about his ability to cultivate wealthy backers and his readiness to fall out with them; about the places he lived and the people he (endlessly) socialised with, in what was a much smaller and more homogeneous nation.

The discipline of a biography, even one as grounded in public events as this, is that it demands a singular focus. The times are brought to life from the subject’s point of view. The consequence is that if perspectives do not touch the life of the subject they do not feature as much as they might. For those surveying the period with a broader lens, enduring enmities might be more sharply defined. Cropp navigates this complicated terrain without losing his way in the morass of competing interests.

Read more: How the parallel lives of two influential editors shaped Australia's literary culture

The cultural conversation

The coincidence of the publication of Horne’s Observer, funded by Frank Packer, and Tom Fitzgerald’s Nation in the late 1950s spoke to the need to aerate the national political and cultural conversation.

Add Quadrant, with its European and US backers, and the smaller local journals – Meanjin, Overland, Australian Book Review – and later Nation Review, The National Times, and counterculture publications with a focus on feminism, music and surfing, and the debates became more vibrant.

Cropp conveys a sense of this through the slightly limited prism of Horne’s worldview, with its emphasis on business, religion, Asia and politics. It took a while before women, immigrants, the environment, Indigenous rights and culture intruded as seriously into the way Horne regarded the nation.

In his 2004 essay for Griffith Review, Horne approvingly quoted Cicero’s reflections on the satisfactions of old age: “he could admire the old man who had something of the young man in him, but also the young man who had within him, something of the old man.”

Ryan Cropp. Black Inc.
Ryan Cropp. Black Inc.

Reading this book, I suspect Horne would have found in Cropp just such a young man. He is one of several young men who are now seeking to make sense of Australia in much the same way Horne and his colleagues did several generations earlier.

There is a growing body of work by men with academic and journalistic backgrounds, who are excavating the past with considerable literary flair and scholarly discipline to better inform the present. It is a group that includes Sean Kelly, Billy Griffiths, Paddy Manning, Jeff Sparrow, Patrick Mullins, Carl Reinecke, Dominic Kelly, Tom Roberts and Sam Vincent, among others, but disappointingly few women.

Donald was a man who enjoyed the company of women – he provided many with career-defining opportunities – but feminism did not feature strongly in his worldview. He remained in many ways the man he was born to be: the precocious, much-loved, indulged only son of a teacher who returned damaged from the first world war. Cropp has captured a full life, well lived, that was a tribute to the importance of paying attention and making a difference.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Julianne Schultz, Griffith University.

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Julianne Schultz does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.