Clark is one of Australia’s pre-eminent historians, with this work invariably featuring on the required reading lists of upper secondary and undergraduate history courses in Australian schools and universities.
Through twelve chapters covering the arrival of Europeans and subsequent British colonisation in 1788, convict and settlement experiences, immigration, the 19th century gold rushes, participation in both world wars and endurance of the Depression, Clark traces Australia’s political, economic, cultural, social and economic development. The book sketches the evolution of the Australian nation, moving from its origins as a settler society born of penal authoritarianism, through the inception and development of local economic and political institutions, to experiments with laissez-faire capitalism and social democratic welfarism, arriving finally at the “Age of Ruins”, the period from 1969-1986 covered in the final chapter, in which Clark laments the ascendancy of materialism and superficial cultural distraction.
Written with lively elegance, A Short History of Australia provides a sweeping overview of the white Australian historical narrative. Clark picks along the sectarian, class, racial and social fault lines that run through the nation’s historical experience, exploring divisions in an effort to identify a unifying concept of Australian national character.
He recognises the European cultural and political heritage from which the Australian experience is derived, but is at pains to delineate it from that past, lest it at all be considered derivative. Indeed, the concluding paragraphs celebrate the death of British philistinism in contemporary Australian society and Australians’ achievement in having secured liberation from a fate as “second-rate Europeans.”
Clark passed on in 1991, and the book, covering events up to 1986, misses nearly a generation of contemporary Australian history. Additionally, while the opening chapter recognises the prior occupation of the Australian Aboriginals, Clark largely marginalises indigenous experience, a syndrome endemic to Australian historiography up until the 1970s (the book was first published in 1963). Nevertheless, A Short History of Australia provides an excellent primer for the reader interested in both the fact and spirit of Australian history.