clendinnenInga Vivienne Clendinnen AO, FAHA,  author, historian, anthropologist and academic died yesterday aged 82. What a sad loss to the Australian life of the mind.

Clendinnen’s sharp insights and beautiful prose were (for me) best displayed in Dancing with Strangers: Europeans and Australians at First Contact (2003, Text Publishing). This small but perfectly formed exploration of the relationships and interactions between the Europeans and the first Australians in the earliest years of white settlement in NSW is a book I have returned to many times. Clendinnen illuminates without failing to acknowledge the shadows left by unanswerable questions. And she brings the period, and the players, so vividly to life that it almost reads like fiction.

Which takes us, of course, to the other work for which Clendinnen is well known – indeed notorious. In the Quarterly Essay The History Question: Who Owns the Past (2006, Black Inc) Clendinnen took Australian novelist Kate Grenville to task, apparently believing Grenville had claimed that only fiction could deliver genuine historical empathy.*

Clendinnen, whose academic day job involved specializing in Aztec history, was an equally gifted essayist and memoirist. Tiger’s Eye (2000, Text Publishing) is an intriguing examination of illness and self.

In 1999 Clendinnen presented the 40th annual Boyer Lectures, which were published in 2000 as True Stories. In 2006, supposedly in retirement, she produced Agamemnon’s Kiss: Selected Essays (Text Publishing).  Just like Helen Garner, if Clendinnen wrote the blurb on the back of a box of cereal it would be worth the reading.

In 2014 Clendinnen was the subject of an excellent, and poignant, feature piece by former 60 Minutes reporter Jana Wendt.

Vale Inga Clendinnen. What an example you have set for us all.


Note: for a related Adventures in Biography post, which draws on and quotes Clendinnen’s work, see Saying goodbye to your children.

* Update 29 September 2016. Grenville actually never made any such claim. An earlier version of this post (hastily drafted) implied she did but I have subsequently amended the relevant sentences.