Three Notes on True History of the Kelly Gang 3

Notes to my post on True History of the Kelly Gang:

[1] Personally, I dislike such obvious “Beware!” signs posted throughout the book. Literature graduate students become overjoyed when “texts” display this “self-referentiality,” but the game is too easy: Water damage erases both a dying man’s last letter and Ned’s favorite novel (which itself is about outlaws). Later, the ink from Ned’s manifesto “bleeds” down his shirt. Etc.

Even later, the cunning scholar Curnow flatters Kelly, which results in Kelly releasing Curnow as a hostage and consequently to Kelly’s last desperate showdown with the police. Curnow does so by noting that the manuscript of Ned’s memoirs, although admittedly not classically elegant, “should always be a little rough that way we know it is the truth.” Of course, Curnow is untrustworthy here, saying whatever he believes necessary for his escape. The novel’s gesture is not wholly unambiguous — Kelly’s writing skill does amaze and “captivate” Curnow — but we don’t need yet another reminder that “Ned” is misleading us and himself.

A more subtle literary device occurs when Carey’s Ned and his wife pore over newspaper accounts of his gang’s activity. They note multiple inaccuracies in the reporting, but the bushranger becomes most outraged when the journalists refuse to print his own words yet brand him as “a clever illiterate person… filled with morbid vanity.” According to Alex Castles, by 1880, “Victoria’s literacy rate was among the highest in the world,” with per capita sales of newspapers in the colony probably as great as in London or New York. Yet after Ned’s gang killed some policemen (in the so-called Stringybark Creek incident), even the liberal newspapers uniformly reviled him and cried out for his execution. Thus, both the actual and the fictitious Ned are horrified that the tendentious press won’t tell the outlaw’s side; but, the novel permits us to imagine Ned worried that he is, in fact, relatively illiterate and vain — that his self-created political and mythic aspirations amount to little.

[2] And, historically, the outlawry legislation expired before Ned’s arrest, so the government might on this technicality have been legally compelled to set him free. As Alex Castles describes in Ned Kelly’s Last Days, the authorities instead stacked the deck against Kelly before and during his trial, and he was hanged 137 days after his apprehension. (For book reviews, see here, here, and here.)

Incidentally, Carey introduces Ned’s lawyer Zinke as the outlaw’s staunch ally. In reality, Zinke was unprofessional, to say the least. He consorted with witnesses for the prosecution before Ned’s trial, and Ned fired him. The historical Ned then hired an intelligent, skilled, energetic, and radical solicitor (David Gaunson), who dauntlessly defended such an unpopular prisoner. Unfortunately, at trial, the barrister (not Guanson) was young, inexperienced, and ill-prepared (according to Castles 132 ff., 177).

[3] My post has only obliquely addressed whether it’s ultimately profitable to assess the “truth value” of autobiographies or indeed novels purporting to be autobiographies. Years before the James Frey debacle, I presented a paper on “Law and Autobiography.” As a practitioner of publishing law, I suggested to the audience that I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the foreseeable future, a class of readers sued an author of a faked memoir. Everyone was skeptical. By now, however, post-Frey discussion is rife. Allen Mendenhall has published a provocative piece. I’ve also enjoyed recent work by Ben Yagoda, Dan Kornstein, and Simon Stern. Is anyone interested in commenting further on this topic?


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  3. A very compelling and nice post.

    Regarding the “truth value” of autobiography, I do find it interesting that people tend to hold autobiographers to a higher standard of truth than even judges or attorneys, who often color the “facts” in the light most favorable to their clients. One would think that slanted or selective storytelling would be more outrageous in a litigation setting than in an entertainment setting, since the former carries the weight of law, which carries the weight of a lot of other things, not least of which is faith in the justness of law and the legal system (and so on and so forth). In what I hope is an interesting article, I have written on truth (among other things) in the Dred Scott decision: Even at the Supreme Court level, perhaps especially at the Supreme Court level, “facts” often become so sanitized as to become untrue.

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