Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


Remembering Rhys

Today I will leave the parabola of Rhys’s remarkable academic career and his remarkable writings for other people to celebrate. I want to remind you of another quality, even more remarkable in my view, which will live as long as we hold him in our memories: his natural eloquence—that light, quick, preternaturally clear voice, every consonant and vowel articulated, in beautiful, fountaining flow; shapely but exuberant. Thinking about it—it ought to have been possible to write it as melody, as music. Rhys was unusually sensitive to the signs of eloquence left on the dour historical record (think of those gaunt preachers stalking those feckless Virginians) and he wrote in his own natural voice, which most academics do not, so it’s true we have a kind of notation of the voice in his writings, as in that incantatory opening to the first chapter of Transformation: “Water and trees—trees and water.”

But we have lost the joy, the instant elevation in spirits, induced by hearing it. However long History staff meetings at early-days La Trobe used to drag on, I always woke up, inwardly and probably outwardly smiling, whenever June Phillip began to speak, in delicious dread of what she might say, and when Rhys spoke because he spoke so well—the words precise, the phrases sculpted, the movement useful, forward.

I think my sudden cheerfulness induced in the paranoid a conviction of conspiracy afoot. There was no conspiracy, beyond the great and impenetrable conspiracy of the joyful association of like minds, which intensified when Greg Dening came to teach at La Trobe, and brought his wife Donna Merwick along with him. I know nostalgia can falsify, but they were truly golden days.

Rhys’s eloquence made his lectures aesthetic as well as intellectual experiences, though in later days he sometimes mucked them up, in my view, with that accent which gave him so much pleasure. But I was most gratefully aware of his eloquence in seminars. The paper-giver would speak, sometimes well, sometimes ill, but with every word mattering to them; the chairman would speak, usually drearily, the predictable staff member would ask the predictable question—and then would come that light, quick voice, and we and the paper-giver would begin to see the astonishing, the exhilarating possibilities embedded in this paper. He was especially good in postgraduate seminars, where he would identify with delighted admiration a possibility the paper-giver might have brushed but had not properly “seen” at all—until Rhys pointed to it. And we’d separate in a buzz of excitement at what were suddenly fountaining possibilities for our own work, too.

I was privileged to attend an earlier celebration of Rhys by his family and what you might call his personal community: the people whose lives entwined with his as neighbours or bush-walkers or weekend sailors or in the wide, deep band of Isaac kin-by-blood-or-adoption. That night two things struck me powerfully: that women trusted and loved Rhys because he naturally assumed their equality and naturally accorded them intellectual respect, which in this country continues to be a rare quality, especially among ageing male academics. The other thing, even more obvious though I had not seen it clearly before: that Rhys expected to be happy and almost always was. He could be stirred to vigorous action by injustice, but anger and disapproval didn’t suit his nature.

I have seen him stricken, his warm vitality quenched, only once, 25 years ago, when his mirror-twin brother Glynn died. I feared, then, that he would be crippled for life, but in time his extraordinary family—his parents, his sister, his daughters, his wife Colleen—together with his own courage, got him through it. Thereafter he carried a wound, but he still pursued happiness and almost always found it.

I only now realise that with Rhys, right to the last, you could still see the face of the boy in the face of the man. I think that was why small children loved him so much. They trust and hope to be happy, too—and they could see the boy.

An immeasurable amount of that marvellous, childlike insistence on happiness was sustained by the loving daily labour of his wife Colleen. His joy, his openness, his infectious exhilaration would have been impossible had Colleen not always been there, fielding ideas as they flew past, sorting them—making delightful possibilities real. He was a loving and a loveable man, but a man infatuated with ideas can be a hard man to live with. Colleen lived with him, loved him, and wove the daily textures around him which maximised his freedom, sometimes, in my view (as she knows) at the cost of her own. The first time I laid eyes on her was at Melbourne University forty-seven years ago, when Rhys had just arrived from South Africa with his almost new wife. I looked at this person, and thought: “What a magnificent woman!” All these years later, and now with deep knowledge, I say: “What a magnificent woman.”

When I think of Rhys, I think of the distinction between foxes and hedgehogs first made by a Greek poet —“the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”—famously parlayed by Isaiah Berlin into what he called “the great chasm” between those thinkers “who relate everything to a single central vision, one system . . . in terms of which they understand, think and feel” and those who “pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory—these last seize upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing . . . unitary vision.”

The hedgehog, squatting in the path, bristling over his one big idea, doing his best to swell to block the way; the fox, slipping lithely through the hedgerows, alert, questing, following some frail, intoxicating scent . . . Rhys was a fox, a fox, a fox.

In his Autobiography of an Historian G. M. Trevelyan had this good thing to say:

“The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, upon this earth, on this familiar spot of ground, walked men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions.” Trevelyan goes on: “But now all are gone, one generation vanishing after another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall be gone, like ghosts at cock-crow.”

Rhys admired Trevelyan, but he would never have agreed to the claim that past men and women were utterly vanished. How could he, when he could summon them back? Landon Carter, his unruly slaves, his even more unruly family, live again in Rhys’s words, as beloved ghosts continue to live in the living memories of those who love them.

We will remember Rhys Isaac, and miss him, and mourn him, and love him, long past cock-crow.

Inga Clendinnen, La Trobe University