The world’s most widely read history of early Australia, Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore, turns a quarter-century old this year. When it was first published, Australia was in preparations for its 1988 Cook Bicentenary, and a number of historical retrospectives entered print. Despite decades of fine books put out by respected career historians, like Geoffrey Blainey and Manning Clark, it would be the unlikely authorship of art critic Robert Hughes, previously known for biting proclamations against some of the fashionable Postmodernist movements of the 1980s, that secured The Fatal Shore its place in libraries around the planet (it has been translated into at least five languages, and is one of the rare Australian history books to have never been out of print in the US or the UK since its first edition). Hughes took his keen eye for examining art through its political context, and cast it on the society of convicts, career military officers, and adventurous free settlers who composed the first English-speaking inhabitants of Australia. His book was rewarded with a spot on the best-seller list and was one of only nine non-fiction works to be ranked among the New York Times Editors’ Choice books for 1987.
His exhaustive research and compelling prose aside, part of this global success may have been due to Hughes’ being a long-time resident of New York City, and a respected fixture in its intellectual circles. In addition to the Times review, my edition of The Fatal Shore bears gushing jacket blurbs from Susan Sontag, Gore Vidal, and one of my favorite students of American history, the late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. It’s hard not to notice that all of them, like Hughes, had resided in or near New York for some years at the time of the book’s publication and were no doubt familiar with his art criticism (most famously, his broadsides against Brooklyn’s Jean-Michel Basquiat and his insights into the abstract expressionists of mid-century New York) before they cracked open his first foray into history. Mapping these sources of early praise makes it clear that staking a cultural claim in one of the two global center-cities of the English-language literary world (London being the other) had done Hughes a great deal of good, where worthy efforts by his countrymen who had only rarely lived outside Australia had gone unrecognized. The “tyranny of distance” that Blainey had described as limiting the influence of Australia on the rest of the world also restricted the fame of Blainey himself and his counterparts.
Cultural geography may have made The Fatal Shore a smash hit, but it was Hughes’ unsentimental view of white Australia’s muddy origins, and his effortless glide between factual statistics, sober assessments, and shocking anecdotes, that made it a book worth reading. The author cuts off his narrative with the ending in the 1840s and ’50s of the transportation system that had seeded the Australian nation with a motley crowd of strivers and fortune-seekers. Over the course of the next two months, history buff Leonard Pierce and I will be honoring the book’s 25-year anniversary with an in-depth review and some attempts at tracing the line, left blank by Hughes for the reader to fill in, between how a hazily conceived slave-colony of thieves that was hoped to someday prove useful to its motherland, evolved into one of the freest and most prosperous sovereign nations in the world. We hope you’ll join us.