Honorary Doctor of Letters
Citation delivered by Dr Paul Sharrad, Senior Fellow, English Literatures, School of the Arts, English and Media in the Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts at the University of Wollongong on the occasion of the admission of Thomas Michael Keneally as a Doctor of Letters (honoris causa) on 23 July 2015.
Deputy Chancellor, I present Thomas Keneally.
Some guests arrive at our University with a record of achievements so significant and a body of work held in such high regard that to attempt description can be mistaken for flattery. Thomas Keneally’s achievements and his substantial body of work require no flattery: they speak for themselves. A leading literary figure for more than fifty years, winner of the Booker Prize, twice winner of the Miles Franklin, recent recipient of an Australia Council lifetime achievement award, Thomas Keneally, despite his modest physical stature and characteristic Aussie self-deprecating humour, stands tall as one of Australia’s most significant writers and thinkers.
Tom Keneally was born in Sydney in 1935, raised first on the Macleay River around Kempsey and then later in the Sydney suburb of Homebush. He was educated at St Patrick’s Strathfield and afterward studied at St Patrick’s Seminary at Manly. A life in the priesthood was not to be however and Tom worked a series of jobs in the years that followed — itemising tools bound for New Guinea for the Department of Territories, collecting insurance instalments and teaching. He placed stories under a pseudonym in The Bulletin. In 1964, his first novel was published: The Place at Whitton, a novel about a murder in a rural monastery.
Bring Larks and Heroes appeared in 1967, set in an unidentified penal colony neither sentimentalised nor rendered as unredeemable horror, the novel won the Miles Franklin Literary Award and was instantly claimed as an Australian classic. Keneally won the Miles Franklin again for Three Cheers for the Paraclete, a novel dramatizing the clash between theological idealism and institutional rigidity.
From there a long line of novels and non-fiction works followed. The novels are often set in historically precise and deeply researched moments: The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, recalling the Jimmy Governor case in the early 20th century; Schindler’s Ark, recounting the now famous Holocaust rescues by Oskar Schindler; and Confederates, exploring the world of Stonewall Jackson and the US Civil War. These are but a few examples from a body of work both deep and broad.
Tom Keneally’s works do not belittle the world, neither do they submit uncritically to it. They map its ever-changing moral universe and provide examples by which his large community of readers might navigate the complexities of the past, and discern directions for the future. The mysterious complexity of what humans do and why is foregrounded. Seldom is there heroism that precludes cowardice; violence that is not without some moment of beauty; love not untroubled by duty; or optimism not undercut by pragmatism. Tom Keneally’s long list of plays, novels and historical investigations are testament to a lifetime considering the contexts for living and dying in the world we inhabit.
Writing is about effort, but a writer’s efforts are not always adequately rewarded. Tom Keneally has worked tirelessly for the benefit of other artists, serving on the Australia Council, the Australian Society of Authors and supporting imprisoned writers through PEN. Writing is also an effort for something and Keneally’s literary practice has also entailed commitments to a just society and robust culture. His writing about world famine and its management by governments engages with Ireland, Africa and India, he has worked on Australia’s Commission for constitutional reform and has been a major voice in advocating fair and compassionate treatment for refugees.
One side of Keneally’s career that has not received a lot of attention is his role as a teacher. He has at times taken issue with academics in ivory towers, but also has worked amongst them, first teaching drama at the University of New England and later, once the craft became a part of university syllabuses, teaching creative writing at the University of California, Irvine. Correspondence in his papers at the National Library attests to his lasting and highly valued influence on his students, and it is our loss that early efforts by the then head of Creative Arts at Wollongong, Professor Edward Cowie, to entice Tom here, were unsuccessful.
Nonetheless, Tom is a friend of the University of Wollongong and only last year shared his wisdom with students and staff in a plenary talk, titled ‘50 Years of Fiction’. So it is my pleasure to welcome back Thomas Keneally today so we can acknowledge his distinguished career as writer, social critic, humourist, celebrity and living national treasure.
Deputy Chancellor, it is an honour and a privilege to present Thomas Keneally for a Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.