Obscuring the prominent, Miles Fairburn

The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography; Volume Four; 1921-1940
ed Claudia Orange
Auckland University Press and Dept of Internal Affairs, $130.00,
ISBN 8694 203 0

The dictionary of biography project has been a boon for academic historians working in New Zealand history and we are indebted to it. The considerable publicity surrounding the project has fostered popular interest in New Zealand history as a subject, helping to swell the enrolments in our courses and readership of our books. The prestige and authority of the project has enhanced the respectability of New Zealand history as a sub-discipline.

The monumental volumes produced by the project (four since 1990, which together cover the period 1790-1940) contain a wealth of reliable historical information about New Zealand’s past which would otherwise be inaccessible or difficult to obtain. Many of the entries in the volumes provide material that has proved invaluable for our teaching. The extraordinary scale of the project, involving over 1000 writers, 17 working parties, and a large editorial team (currently 27 in size), has generated jobs for our post-graduates, given us unrivalled opportunities for publishing articles, and allowed those of us on working parties to make connections with people outside the profession. Lastly, the commissions that have come our way have enabled us to extend our research interests, to obtain a mastery over subjects we had not mastered, and correct misapprehensions we might never have corrected.

As grateful, however, as we are to the Dictionary for conferring us with all these benefits, we also need to recognise that it has certain structural weaknesses. I should make quite clear that the structural problems I am referring to have nothing to do with the Dictionary’s excellent standards of accuracy; with its generally high standards of production; with the standards of sub-editing (also generally high); or with the eminently sensible policy of organising the volumes not alphabetically but by chronology. The structural problems I am talking about stem from the inadequacies of the Dictionary’s principles and practices of selection.

Let us discuss the problems in relation to the latest volume, which consists of 613 biographies spanning the period 1921-1940. Presumably the 613 entries were the maximum allowable given such physical constraints as the costs of production, the optimum length of the average biography and so on. But it is not at all self-evident why the volume should include these particular 613 individuals, and why it should span this particular range of years.

The editor is well aware of the importance of these issues for she explicitly addresses them in the Introduction. Although the discussion does not pretend to be profound, it is intended nonetheless to inform us that the selection of individuals and years was certainly not an expedient and arbitrary process but a careful and deliberate one involving some five criteria.

The first and most basic criterion is related to the choice of period. The volume, the editor claims, is based on the 1921-1940 period for good historical reasons. One is that the period is “[f]ramed by the two world wars – conflicts on a scale that had never been known before”; and the other is that the period is distinguished and dominated by its “transformations”, by the rapidity of social change.

The second criterion, which is dependent on the first, concerns the selection of subjects: they, apparently, had “to represent” the period. As the editor puts it, “[t]he 613 people chosen to represent the period were selected from 2,500 candidates in the Dictionary’s computerised database”. The third criterion is a finer sieve: the subjects had to be people of prominence – or so it seems, given the passing and somewhat oblique comment by the editor that the volume concentrates “on people who made their mark in those decades”.

The fourth criterion is quite different from the third. The editor repeatedly says that the volume covers a “diversity” of people, that it follows the practice of the other volumes in providing a “variety”, “breadth”, “range” of biographies. As in the Dictionary’s previous volumes, the selection criteria were wide-ranging; ethnicity, gender, activity and region were all significant. The opening essays in Volume Four indicate some of the diversity and contrast to be found in the volume as a whole. The Categories Index reveals the breadth of the range of people included. The fifth criterion is a convention followed by most dictionaries of biography. The Dictionary, the editor informs us, had a policy of not having entries on people who are still alive.

Before I look more closely at the structural problems stemming from these criteria, I must emphasise that I recognise that it is impossible for a reference work dealing with the human social world to have criteria of selection that will neatly fit every case and will satisfy every reader. Such are the complexities of social life, it inevitably throws up a multitude of borderline cases, thus presenting editors of reference works with hideously difficult judgement calls about which of these cases should be kept in and which left out. In this context, I must also stress that the editor of the volume under review devised a very sensible decision-rule about a certain class of borderline cases, people whose lives overlapped the 1921-1940 period. The rule was what we may call the “highest point of the career” rule. Subjects were included in this volume if the highest point in their careers occurred within the 1921-1940 period; but placed in Volume Three (1901-1920) or the yet-to-be published Volume Five (1941-1960) if they reached the highest point of their careers in either of these periods.

Although there are no laws about how historians should divide past time into phases and eras, the period covered by this volume is quirky. The period begins far too late to fit the common sense notion of the “inter-war era”, and the selection of 1921 as the beginning year and 1940 as the end year is inconsistent, strictly speaking, with the editor’s claim that the period is “[f]ramed by the two world wars”. Moreover, the Dictionary’s choice of years runs counter to convention; most historians would find it odd to take 1940 as a major turning-point in the 20th century, since they see the term of the First Labour Government from 1935 to 1949 as an indivisible whole.

Not much can be said in favour of the editor’s attempt to defend the choice of the 1921-1940 period on the ground that it is distinguished and dominated by “transformations”. The defence is weak, partly because transformations of one sort or another can be found (if we look hard enough) in every period of New Zealand’s history, and partly because the particular kinds of transformations specified by the editor for this period are certainly not unique to it: when has New Zealand not witnessed “new alignments in politics, the growth of new interest groups, major changes in Maori political life, and an expansion of the service industries and of state functions”?

The argument is misleading, furthermore, since in certain key respects the period is significant not for its transformations but its comparative stability and lack of social change. The rates of urbanisation and geographical mobility were lower in the 1921-1940 period than between 1901 and 1921 or during the 1950s and 1960s (especially for Maori); and there was far less demographic change – as measured by such things as external migration, population growth rates and so on – in this period than in the second half of the 19th century or in the era after World War Two. Contrary to what the editor implies, the Great Slump did not cause widespread social upheavals, except for the unskilled and the older age-groups in the population, who had long been the most vulnerable.

This brings us to the problems associated with the Dictionary’s apparent policy of selecting “prominent” people. In theory this is an entirely appropriate policy. It is a well-established convention for national dictionaries of biography to give the highest priority to covering prominent people as opposed to the obscure. And there is a good reason for this convention: a dictionary of biography is a reference work, the prime purpose of a reference work is to be useful, and a dictionary of biography on prominent individuals is far more useful than one on obscure individuals.  As prominent individuals by definition have played important roles in key events and institutions, it is in the nature of things that there are bound to be all kinds of occasions when we encounter their names and want to know more – or have better information – about them.

I have laboured this point because the Dictionary does not apply its principle of selecting prominent individuals with any consistency at all: although Volume Four certainly includes many prominent people, it excludes a great many others of equal or greater standing and importance. Let me cite a few examples. The volume includes the son of Wiremu Ratana, the Maori prophet and leader of the highly influential Ratana movement who was most active in this period; but it inexplicably excludes Wiremu, the famous man himself. It has a myriad entries on Maori who had little more than local renown; but it does not have one on Apirana Ngata, a leader of great national prominence who reached the highest point in his career in the 1920s and early 1930s.

Although it has biographies on Walter Nash, Peter Fraser, Michael Joseph Savage, the leading lights in the First Labour Government, it has none on Gordon Coates and G W Forbes, even though both were prime ministers earlier in the period, reached the highest points of their careers in the period, and in their different ways epitomise certain aspects of New Zealand political conservatism which dominated the first third of the century. It gives space to many second-rank figures in the Labour Party such as H G R  Mason, Clyde Carr, Mark Fagan, W E Barnard, and James O’Brien but none to Robert Semple and Paddy Webb who were at least as important. It has a biography on Karl Popper (the famous philosopher who lived in New Zealand from 1937 to 1945 and was only too glad to leave) but not on notable expatriates such as Raymond Firth (the anthropologist), Ronald Syme (the classical historian), and A C Aitken (the mathematician). It covers all manner of nonentities – including Isabel Aves an abortionist, Rona Hurley a tobacco grower, Annie Chaffey a recluse, Gareeb Shalfoon a Bay of Plenty dance-band leader, Ellen Anderson a district nurse, Barrett Crumen a swagger, and Merekotia Amohau a member of the Rotorua Maori Choir – but neglects the mayors of the period (only 23 of the volume’s subjects are designated local politicians) many of whom although not in the front rank were certainly not nonentities.

The volume is not much more helpful as a reference work on prominent literary and artistic figures. The standard text on the high culture of New Zealand for this period is Peter Gibbons’ chapter, “The Climate of Opinion”, in the Oxford History of New Zealand. Of the figures named by Gibbons, the volume omits James Cowan (which is extraordinary since he was a notable amateur historian), W Guthrie-Smith (the author of the classic ecological study, Tutira), H C D Somerset (the educationalist), Archibald Baxter (the pacifist), Peter Buck (the ethnographer), Hector Bolitho (the journalist and biographer), and numerous artists such as Dorothy Richmond, Mabel Hill, Mina Arndt, Raymond McIntyre, Robert Dunn, W H Allen, Roland Hopkins, and Russell Clark.

What to a large extent explains the big gaps in Volume Four’s coverage of the prominent is the premium it has placed on fulfilling its fourth criterion of selection – of choosing a “diversity” of people. By diversity of people what Orange really means are obscure people. Some idea of the high priority the volume has given to their representation can be gauged from the Nominal Index. This lists in alphabetical order all the individuals mentioned in the volume, with references under each name to all the entries where the person in question is cited. Thus from the Index we can infer that Peter Fraser, the Labour Prime Minister, must have been a highly prominent figure since his name crops up in 96 biographies whereas Elsie Smith, a Wanganui nurse appears in only one entry, her own. According to my count, 368 of the 613 entries are devoted to people in the Elsie Smith category. In other words, the majority of the people allotted biographies in the volume, 60 percent of the total, are not important enough to rate a mention in any entry other than their own.

Quite why so much space is devoted to the obscure we can only speculate. Perhaps it was a desire for “colour” (some of the obscure seem to be chosen for their eccen-tricity) and to be different from other national dictionaries of biography. The preference, I suspect, may also have been driven by modern egalitarian ideology, by a fear of appearing to be elitist, sexist and racist. This seems to be borne out by the careful announcement in the Intro-duction that 80 of the entries deal with Maori (13 percent of the total, three times their rate of representation in the general population at the time) and 30 percent with women – which is another way of telling us that the volume practised a positive discrimination policy.

Apart from cutting down space that otherwise could have been allotted to important people, and thus preventing the volume from being more useful as a reference work, the positive discrimination policy is not pursued with any discernible logic: the volume greatly over-represents Maori but substantially under-represents women. The selection of the women, furthermore, is strongly biased (for some unknown reason) towards nurses, in an era when there were far more female teachers, and of course, women at home without pay.

In addition, the policy is unhistorical and presentist; it represents the assumptions, values and beliefs of late 20th century New Zealand and the editorial team; and not those of the society at the time. As far as a professional historian is concerned, it is very difficult to see what such a motley collection of obscure individuals is supposed to tell us about the structural and cultural patterns of the society and about why major events unfolded as they did.

Miles Fairburn is Professor of History at the University of Canterbury.

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Posted in Biography, History, Non-fiction and Review
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