Twenty of the best; or, a bibliography for recovering pseudo-scholars
The following list of twenty classic books is obviously subjective - it speaks of my own passions and research interests, as much as anything else - and it is premised on a definition of 'human sciences' broad and fuzzy enough to include literary criticism as well as fields like archaeology and linguistics, which are closer in their methodologies to the natural sciences. Post your criticisms and amendments in the comments box.
Perhaps this list could serve as a bibliography for any recovering pseudo-scholars reading this blog. I'm sure that nobody who reads Judith Binney or HD Skinner will ever want to go back to the ravings of Martin Doutre or Kerry Bolton.
Judith Binney, Redemption Songs: a life of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki , Auckland University Press, 1995.
The big one. Decades in the making, Binney's biography of the nineteenth century prophet, guerrilla leader, church founder, and songwriter is an epic in every sense of the word. Binney's narrative manages to draw on an astonishing array of written and oral sources, and to do justice to the frequent contradictions between these sources, without ever being anything less than compelling. The chapter explaining the book's methodology is of enormous value to any scholar concerned to honour both oral tradition and historical fact. By treating the myriad local traditions about Te Kooti - stories that describe his ability to travel vast distances in a moment, or ride his white horse up a cliff to escape capture, or make volcanoes erupt - as expressions of the relationships of different groups of people to the man, expressions which must be sensitively interpreted, rather than either taken literally or dismissed out of hand, Binney steers a path between the rocks of Eurocentrism and cultural relativism.
HD Skinner, The Morioris of the Chatham Islands, Honolulu, Hawaii, 1923.
HD Skinner was the founder of modern archaeology in New Zealand, and this book helped establish his reputation. He'd been desperate to see the Chathams for years, but war service and then petty bureaucratic regulations thwarted him, until he was driven to tuck some mince pies into his overcoat and stow away on a boat leaving Lyttleton for the islands. Skinner eventually returned to the Chathams with a team of students, and his thoroughgoing examination of skeletal evidence, tree and rock carvings, artefacts, and oral tradition demolished the pernicious myth that the Moriori were a Melanesian people who had been driven from the North and South Islands by the ancestors of the Maori. If only the myth had died as quickly amongst the general public as it did amongst scholars. David Bedggood, Rich and Poor in New Zealand: a critique of class, politics, and ideology, Allen and Unwin, 1980.
It may be hard to imagine now, but thirty years ago 'class' was a forbidden word for many scholars of New Zealand society. Along with an important anthology of writing on Social Class in New Zealand edited by David Pitt, Bedggood's Rich and Poor in New Zealand helped make the dirty word an acceptable part of the discourse of social scientists. Keith Sinclair gave both books very bad reviews, denying that classes existed in New Zealand and protesting that Bedggood had not bothered to do any research in an archive. Bedggood has never been much of a man for archives: he is interested in broad social trends, and in what Marx called the 'laws of motion of capital', rather than in historical detail. Rich and Poor in New Zealand is a sweeping, acerbic history of this country which emphasises the brutality of colonisation, the reality of yawning gaps in income and opportunity between different classes, and the persistence of industrial conflict. Thirty years after it was written, the book still figures on reading lists given to undergradute sociology students at New Zealand universities.
Geoff Park, Uruora: the Groves of Life , Victoria University Press, 1995.
Geoff Park's book is the record of a series of journeys in search of New Zealand's mostly-vanished lowland forests. As he crosses sodden dairy farms, kayaks down weed-infested drainage ditches, and inspects crumbling middens, Park meditates on the ways in which European colonists sought to impose a 'Cartesian' order of straight lines and clearly demarcated 'natural' and 'inhabited' zones on the landscape they found in New Zealand. Park is a superb prose stylist, and his chapters are rich in references to philosophy, archaeology, and history, as well as botany. When he does discover surviving stretches of lowland forest in areas like Mokau and the northern West Coast, Park's writing becomes rhapsodic, in the best sense of the word.
Park is a conservationist, but he is critical of the tendency of many environmentalists to want to 'quarantine' supposedly 'virgin' parts of nature in 'scenic reserves'. He rightly points out that the whole notion of 'virgin nature' is a corollary of the industrial revolution, which divided humans from the natural world in unprecedented ways. Park laments the way in which the establishment of scenic reserves often led in the early twentieth century to the displacement of Maori, who had learned to live inside and with 'virgin nature' in a way which conservationists did not understand.
Miles Fairburn, Nearly Out of Heart and Hope: the puzzle of a colonial labourer's diary, Auckland University Press, 1995.
Fairburn has a knack for combining microhistorical detail with historiographical speculation, so it is not surprising that his close reading of the diary of an impoverished labourer who wandered the backblocks of the lower North Island in the early twentieth century becomes an investigation into the causes of working class conservatism. Why did a man who suffered continually from the shortcomings of capitalism retain his belief in the hoary maxims of 'hard work and self-reliance', instead of identifying with the militant socialism that was a force in New Zealand in the first decades of the twentieth century? After an extraordinarily sensitive reading of his source material, Fairburn offers a convincing answer.
Judith Binney, The Legacy of Guilt, Auckland University Press, 1968.
Binney's first book does not have the narrative smoothness or the scope of Redemption Songs, but it is nevertheless an insightful treatment of the much-mythologised story of Thomas Kendall, the early missionary who 'went native' after becoming engrossed in the study of the Maori language and religion.
Dick Scott, Would a Good Man Die? Niue, New Zealand, and the late Mr Larsen. Southern Cross Books, 1993.
Dick Scott may be better known for his polemical histories of Parihaka and the 1951 lockout, but his study of the venal and brutal colonial regime that a police officer from a provincial New Zealand town established in mid-century Niue also packs a punch.
Len Richardson, Coal, Class and Community: the united mineworkers of New Zealand, 1880-1960. Auckland University Press, 1995.
Richardson wears his heart on his sleeve, but this study of one of New Zealand's most militant unions is much more than a celebration of battles won and a lament for battles lost. Richardson is attentive to cultural as well as political history, and his book includes fascinating details of miners' leisure time activities, as well as the time they spent down the pit and on the picket line. Today's postgraduate students should be made to read Richardson's account of how many West Coast miners would go straight from a ten-hour shift down the pit to an unheated 'study hut' where volumes of Marx waited.
Ian Richards, To Bed at Noon: the life and art of Maurice Duggan, Auckland University Press, 1997.
In Richards' sure hands, the truncated life of a minor New Zealand writer becomes a rich picture of Auckland in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Richards shows us the tight, working class Catholic community in which Duggan grew up, and then the even tighter Bohemian North Shore community which he entered after suffering a freak misfortune, before following his hero into Auckland's corporate world and its mental hospitals. Richards is currently living in Japan, but he is still turning out superb pieces of literary history, as this essay on Kendrick Smithyman's fear of flying shows. Nga Patai: racism and ethnic relations in Aotearoa/New Zealand, various, ed. Paul Spoonley, David Pearson, Cluny Macpherson, Dunmore Press, 1996.
If Nga Patai were more widely read our race relations would be in better shape. Almost every entry in this anthology is worth reading, but Evan Poata Smith's argument that Maori nationalism will become a political dead end if it does not take notice of class as well as ethnicity is particularly pertinent today.
Paul Spoonley, The Politics of Nostalgia, Dunmore Press, 1987
I'm obliged to mention this book, because I cited it religiously in the talk I gave on New Zealand's anti-semites for National Radio the other day. Spoonley's study of the strange flora and fauna of the extreme right - what other part of the political spectrum could give its organisations names like Zenith Applied Philosophy and the Church of Odin? - is distinguished by the connections it makes between ideology and class. Spoonley's discussion of the rural petty bourgeois basis of paranoid anti-semitic groups like the League of Rights is particularly impressive.
PW Hohepa, A Maori Community in Northland, Reed, 1970.
Hohepa's book is one of the first detailed anthropological studies of a Maori community conducted by a member of that community. Using his professional skills and deep 'inside' knowledge, Hohepa introduces us to a group of people who have inhabited a lush but isolated valley in the upper Hokianga for many hundreds of years, and who have in that time developed their own intricately beautiful culture.
Roger Neich, Painted Histories: early Maori figurative painting, Auckland University Press, 1993.
Neich's massive and sumptuous book honours a series of paintings that were for a long time considered grotesque symptoms of cultural decline. Often intricate and brightly-coloured, the paintings which adorn the meeting houses associated with Te Kooti's Ringatu movement fuse elements of the symbolic, stylised art of 'classical' Maori society with the realistic, sometimes jocular artforms of nineteenth century British culture. The result might almost be called New Zealand's first bicultural art. No wonder the Victorians were upset.
Christina Jefferson, Dendroglyphs of the Chatham Islands: Moriori designs on karaka trees, Polynesian Society, 1956.
Jefferson did not get a very friendly welcome when she appeared on the Chathams shortly after World War Two and began to ask questions about the carvings Moriori had made on trees. Refusing to believe locals' claims that the carvings had all but disppeared, and would not have been worth studying anyway, Jefferson hopped on a sturdy horse and spent months travelling Chatham and Pitt Islands, camping amidst the groves of karaka she searched for dendroglyphs. The hundreds of charcoal drawings of carvings which Jefferson published in 1956 have aesthetic as well as anthropological value. Jefferson's role in preserving the heritage of the Chathams has been recognised by subsequent scholars, yet she never published again.
James Belich, The Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict, Queens University Press, 1986.
Belich would later gain acclaim for his detailed studies of half-forgotten primary material relating to New Zealand's military history, but in this early piece of research he focuses on reinterpreting well-known facts about the wars between Maori and Pakeha. In a series of exemplary arguments, he shows that Victorian commentators were prevented from recognising the military achievements of Maori by notions of racial superiority. When they pondered the very slow advance of General Cameron's British army into the Waikato Kingdom in 1863, for example, they tended to blame Cameron for being over-cautious or incompetent, instead of recognising that well-organised attacks by Maori guerrilla forces to the north of the Waikato were seriously compromising British supply lines.
The Origins of the first New Zealanders, various, ed. Doug Sutton, Auckland University Press, 1994.
A triumph of interdisciplinary cooperation, this collection brings together anthropologists, historians, linguists, and boatbuilders to suggest answers to an old question. The most remarkable contribution comes from linguist Ray Harlow, whose analyses of the differences between a variety of Maori dialects leads him to suggest that New Zealand was settled by several distinct groups of Polynesians. Harlow has since extended his research by analysing the speech of various members of the Maori battalion who recorded greetings to their whanau while they were stationed in North Africa in World War Two. Because the differences between the dialects of iwi were more pronounced in the 1940s, Harlow hopes these crackly recordings from the deserts of Libya and Egypt can provide new insights into the prehistory of Aotearoa.
Kai Jensen, Whole Men: the masculine tradition in New Zealand literature, Auckland University Press, 1996.
In the fascinating introduction to this neglected book, Jensen explains that he became a radical feminist in the 1980s, and enrolled as a PhD student at the University of Auckland because he wanted to expose the patriachal nature of traditional New Zealand literature. During the seven years it took him to finish his thesis, though, Jensen lost some of his polemical zeal, as he became immersed in the postmodern theories of Derrida and Foucault that were washing through the university's English department. The result of Jensen's labours is a book which is sensitive to the 'gendered' nature of much of the writing of Kiwi literary legends like Dennis Glover and Allen Curnow, yet generously understanding of the historical and social situations which determined what those writers produced. Jensen's smooth prose and aversion to unnecessary jargon should be examples to all our literary scholars.
James McNeish, The Mask of Sanity: the Bain Murders, David Ling Publishing, 1997.
Some of you will no doubt baulk at the inclusion of this book in my list, but I think that its combination of detailed reporting, historical reconstruction, and pyschological portraiture distinguish it from the sensationalism and special pleading that have marked most accounts of the Bain saga. I hope that the long-suffering jurors in Christchurch have been reading McNeish's book on the sly.
Harry Orsman, Reed Dictionary of New Zealand English, Reed, 2001.
I've always thought that Orsman's marvellous, meticulously-assembled inventory of 'New Zild' was really a cryptic epic poem of the sort that Richard Taylor or Louis Zukofsky might produce. John Reynolds evidently agrees with me that Orsman's book is the stuff of art - in a massive work that almost won last year's Walters Prize, he scattered seven thousand entries from the dictionary across the walls of two levels of Auckland's New Gallery. Danny Keenan, Wars Without End, Penguin, 2009.
The anonymous smart-alec commenter who was giving me grief last week for talking of New Zealand's nineteenth-century 'Land Wars' ought to consult Maori historian Danny Keenan's fine new book. In his first chapter, Keenan casts his eye over the bewildering variety of names the conflicts between Maori and Pakeha have been given, uncovers the political motivations behind these names, and settles for Land Wars, on the grounds that all the diverse causes of the conflicts were concentrated in the issue of land ownership. It's a very good start to a very good book.