Saturday, August 10, 2013

Review: The Fatal Shore, by Robert Hughes

[Here you are, switters.]

I don't read a lot of American histories, and that's unfortunate right now, because I'd like to say with better authority that Robert Hughes' The Fatal Shore is better than any of them.  There's a good case to be made that Australia and the United States are cultural cousins, the English colonies anyway: each remote enough to grow their own satellite cultures; each stuffed full of the mother country's shipped-off hardcases and political misfits; each kicking off as tenuously claimed footholds that within a generation were tragically collapsing the native people as ever more of the Empire's excess white population arrived and pushed inward and along the coasts; and of course as countries go, they are both still historical toddlers, each directly descended from the immigrant government that settled the place, and each still atoning for those original sins.  The differences may well lie in the nature of those early stains, and I think one of Hughes' strengths as a scholar is to approach his own country's story with something like humility, which was always in much larger supply in the antipodes.

Most people were aware that Australia was founded as a penal colony, but this American never gave it much thought beyond that, imagining it as no worse than a forced settlement, a sort of national oubliette--forgetting place (which is a term I believe that Hughes cleverely used)--where the transportees resumed their relocated life much like immigrants did here.  But it's not so.  If there's one overriding theme in the book, it's that Australia was steeped to bitterness in the politics and awful contemporary understanding of class and morals and especially of punishment.  It was a society built on the bloody lash (with hardly enough rum and buggery to go around), of forced humiliation, broken solidarity, and institutional caprice that in reality took generations to breed away.   Even in the twentieth century, we read, this tarnished national character was a social factor, but at least it made for an excellent historical perspective.

Even a guy like Howard Zinn, who is the best local analog I can think of, couldn't keep a certain Americanness out of all of it, a triumphalist paradigm was something that too ingrained here to be left alone.  America is a place punctuated by gigantic bouts of violence, some of them explicitly sparked to consolidate the power structures that grew on these shores, and even a people's history feels required to answer to this.  What Hughes has in common with Zinn is his representation of the significant past as an interplay of individuals and factions of humans from all walks, how they lived and what they lived for. How they governed themselves, but also what their lives were like, and what their concerns were.  And while Australia has had its share of saints and ogres and characters, it does lack the drama of hard-fought shooting wars, and the language of Great Men and Great Events comes less naturally there.  You might argue instead that the figures of early Australian history emerged almost as folk heroes or villains.   Hughes takes conscientious pleasure in fleshing out the prominent figures of the day, but even in those cases, he doesn't elevate them to anything beyond human.

It helps, I will say, that Hughes is really GOOD at this.  It's actually an impressive feat to look at both noble and the base instincts that drive people and drive groups, and see all of those views with understanding and come out with a synthesis that's something like objective.  The illustrative anecdote is a great descriptive vehicle, and Hughes makes use of hundreds of them.   I get the feeling that he's read every extant piece of correspondence and documentation and absorbed every word.   There is an overriding moral compass there (that, in my opinion, is pointed perfectly true), but he's not preaching anything, and when opinion creeps in, it's almost given as a brilliant throwaway, as a statement of the perfectly logical and obvious.  He makes a few points, for example, during one of the gape-jawed tours of the depredations on prison colony's prison colony on Norfolk Island, how sadists are made and not born.  Early in the book, he takes an impressive broad-strokes description of English notions of criminality, both practical and comparative, that (cough) still bear some relevance to modern ones.  He's not shy about pointing out just how backwards the early settlements were without a skilled (or particularly inspired) workforce. 

There are times when the language sneaks in and gets lovely on you too.  Hughes likes to describe the landscape and the ocean, and he can do it almost heartbreakingly.  God help me, I liked best how he throws in the occasional editorial phrases, sometimes humanizing everything with just an adverb.  (People trumpeting causes are tiring; administrators can be malicious; sufferers suffer.)  Well worth reading, and sorry it took so long (and sorry the review isn't better!  The book could use a much longer one) to report.  Thanks for the recommendation. 


David Marlow said...

I've been trying to come up with something to say for the last few days. I'm afraid the best I can do is to say that I wish I were as thorough a reader as you are. This is just such an excellent piece. Now I'll have to read that damn book yet again.

Oh, and I'm really glad you liked it.

P.S. I've been listening a lot to this.

Keifus said...

Nah, it's not so much. [Fixed some grammaros at least.] Hard to take 600 event-filled pages and describe them in five paragaphs. I might have added, for example, something about American slavery vs. assignment. I probably should have put something in there about how Hughes sees beneath Australian anti-authoritarian bravado, a constant theme of submission to authority, a culture that grew to be self-reliant, but had an abusive childhood.

And I needed more on those examples to illustrate the points I was trying to make. I just feel so tired sometimes these days.

(And for a guy who sees things in so egalitarian a way, he did have some British islands stereotypes sneaking in: dour Scots, fiery Irish, and so on. What's up with that?)

That track (I'm not sure I can even call it a cover) sure takes you for a ride, doesn't it? And to no place that isn't beautiful and sad.

David Marlow said...

I stand by my critique of your critique. You just read very well. Which means you might at long last be able, finally, to sink your teeth into something with a little bit more meat to chew.

You know you want to.

When Live at the Village Vanguard was released back in 2000 (maybe earlier?), most of us were saying, "Well, looks like he's peaked early." I guess not after all. Does it make you feel any better that he's been fooling with that tune for about 16 years? Me either.

To make things worse, there was a Prairie Home Companion rerun several weeks ago, from May 2000, with Nickel Creek tearing it up, stupid kids all of 18-19 years old. Good grief. Now Mehldau and Thile playing gigs together? Go screw yourselves, assholes!

Keifus said...

Fucking talented people.

Here's a thing: when she's around the house, Wifey likes to listen to the "Elton John" Pandora station, which features, among others, Billy Joel, the Beatles, that eponymous guy.

Now, Elton John can be okay in the appropriate dose. (You know I like "Daniel" for instance.) There's something there, for sure, and if he layers it in the occasionally generous slab of velveeta, well, it's his prerogative, and he clearly enjoys doing so. Billy Joel I've come to really loathe. And while I've never been much of a fan, the unwilling Pandora experiment has made me appreciate the Beatles a lot more than I ever used to. I still think of their music as basically feel-good stuff, less deep than advertised, but admittedly it's well-composed feel-good stuff, and interesting if you feel like listening for it. (It beats the living fuck out of the thousandth repeat of "We Didn't Start the Fire," believe me.)

Anyway, Blackbird is a nice enough tune, pleasantly understated, but until the other week, I had never been tempted to listen to it over and over again, back to back. Mehldau dug in for the meaning, made it clear, and then made it do laps. Seriously good stuff; and he hadn't quite grabbed me like that before. So thanks.