Patchwork, Deborah Montgomerie

Fragments: New Zealand Social and Cultural History 
ed Bronwyn Dalley and Bronwyn Labrum
Auckland University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1 86940 185 9

Fragments bills itself as a step towards a Brave New World of sophisticated histories of New Zealand life, histories attuned to “the newer influences in social history including literary theory, cultural anthropology, and subaltern studies”. In their introduction the editors carefully survey the existing terrain of New Zealand social history, and pronounce it patchy and somewhat old-fashioned, pointing out that it has often been more concerned with documenting New Zealanders’ experiences within carefully bounded categories than with squarely addressing issues of cultural meaning. We have well-established fields such as welfare history, immigration history, medical history, and women’s history but, they argue, few New Zealand historians “have evoked the fabric of life in the past in a broad or sustained way”.

These are bold claims, and Dalley and Labrum are to be commended for stating their convictions so plainly. Unfortunately, the critique offered by the introduction only serves to highlight the weaknesses of the collection as a whole. It is not clear why these particular contributors’ work has been brought together in one package. Labrum and Dalley note that none has as yet published a book in social or cultural history, but that in itself does not seem to be a sufficient rationale for juxtaposing their work in one volume. There seems to have been little dialogue between the authors, though several use the fragment metaphor in their work. The notion of historical research being composed of fragments, and of cultural history being particularly fragmentary, is probably not enough to sustain most readers. So this volume is more likely to be mined for nuggets than read in its entirety.

Though the collection does not come together as a whole, there are pieces worth reading in their own right. Danny Keenan’s work on the organising concepts of Maori historical narratives has languished too long in thesis form: his essay on fragments and unities in Maori history will be widely read. Surprisingly little has been written about the cultural meanings of work in New Zealand: Margaret McClure’s examination of the presentation of working bodies in diverse 19th century contexts engages with one of the central strands of New Zealand life. Her essay is thought-provoking and open-ended. Like McClure, Chris Hilliard successfully revisits themes that were the subject of thesis research, refining his interpretation of early 20th century history-writing and ethnography to include attention to form as well as content. Giselle Byrnes examines the spatial dimensions of empire in her account of the way colonial surveyors reconfigured their imaginative landscape.

The two Bronwyns’ own contributions are also respectable. Labrum focuses on an aspect of welfare history, one of the well-established fields the introduction suggests historians should move beyond. Her discussion of Pakeha families in the 1950s and ’60s would fit comfortably into any social history reader. Dalley is more innovative, working through the texts generated by the disappearance and death of seventeen-year-old Elsie Walker in 1928, with attention to the way narratives of sexual danger, murder mystery and criminal misadventure structured the public response to the story.

Other essays failed to engage me. I found Michael Reilly’s discussion of “Pakeha practitioners of Maori history” opaque, overlong on borrowed theory and rather lacking in local explication. Katherine Raine’s conclusion that European settlers gardened for personal satisfaction and to recreate a sense of “home” in the colonies will surprise no one. It is also hard to see how Fiona McKergow’s call for fashion history – which “examines artefacts” such as clothing more closely, to “explore the ways in which people ‘saw’ themselves in their clothes and the ways they thought about their clothing” – could work, short of inventing a time machine. McKergow, like others who work in this field, relies on textual evidence to make sense of her artefacts. Admitting that artefacts are “wordless” and “voiceless”, she is reduced to making a virtue out of anonymous guesswork: “If there is no documentation relating to the original maker, owner and user of the artefact, a judgement needs to be made regarding its integrity as a historical source”. By whom? And on what basis? Finally, Gavin McLean’s “Street-level Chemistry”, an account of the politics of New Zealand’s historic places, is pedestrian at best.

But what is social history? And, apropos of the question of how we are to read these self-proclaimed fragments, what is its relationship to cultural history? In their introduction Dalley and Labrum talk about social history as an “umbrella” sheltering a variety of sub-disciplines, including cultural history, but that does not strike me as an apt metaphor for the way that good cultural history depends on the broad evidentiary base and extensive research of social history. Without that grounding we have no way of making sense of the material. New topics, new theories and methodological innovation are important means to better understanding, but not ends in themselves. Fragments makes a well-intentioned call to expand the range of New Zealand’s social history and for more attention to questions of cultural meaning, but its delivery on those goals is – well – fragmentary.

 

Deborah Montgomerie teaches in the History Department at the University of Auckland. With Caroline Daley, she co-edited The Gendered Kiwi, which was reviewed in our August issue.

 

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review and Sociology
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