Don’t expect the head, George Griffiths

A People’s History: Illustrated Biographies from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Volume One, 1769-1869,
W H Oliver (ed),
Bridget Williams Books/ Department of Internal Affairs, $39.95

Taken alone, this collection of biographical essays can be summed up quickly. Wellwritten, handsomely illustrated and nicely produced, it introduces readers to a range of 19th century New Zealanders, male and female, European and Polynesian, notable for their individuality and colour. From Ben Crisp, the temperance reformer, to Tamairangi, the poet, the 125 essays ‘not only make good reading, but present a vigorous cross-section of contemporary life. And though the limitations of 19th century New Zealand illustration mean we see, yet again, Dicky Barrett’s pub and that inevitable photograph of Gabriel’s Gully, Moira Long’s research has produced much fresh and varied visual material. I think it is an excellent book.

A curious false note is the unqualified statement on the title page that it is ‘lllustrated from the collections of the Alexander Turnbull Library’ – a discrepancy which jumps to one’s attention when the opening illustrations come, in fact, from Australia and Christchurch. Persuaded to count further, I made it 83 from the Turnbull, 85 from perhaps 20 other collections: an individual preponderance, to be sure, but *by the political white lie giving Turnbull sole billing? One hopes it wasn’t part of some ‘deal’.

This book, however, cannot be reviewed in isolation, for it came into existence solely as an offshoot from The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. The fact that the two publications should coexist at all revives some of the interesting issues raised when the form of the original Dictionary was being debated. Because the previous biographical coverage in New Zealand had been rather limited and pious, there was a mood in some quarters to toss out the bishops, generals and civic leaders and replace them with a leavening of villains and prostitutes. I applauded the enriched range, but not the loss of the established names. Books should be true to title, and the word ‘dictionary’ implies (to buyers, at least) a certain degree of completeness. If a buyer expects to look up ‘stodge’, to find its spelling, origin and meaning, it is no consolation to be told that it has been omitted in favour of the more flavourful ‘poddy-dodger’. Fortunately the Dictionary, as published, reflected the editorial ability of Bill Oliver and Claudia Orange to avoid the extremes and combine authoritative reference with readable colour.

Now, perhaps better reflecting the mood of iconoclasm, we have A People’s History – incorporating a quarter of the Dictionary essays with (as Oliver puts it) ‘its élitist head cut off’. As it is not a ‘dictionary’, the buyer needn’t expect to get the head. Yet who decided to cut it off? And why? Was it because the unheralded ‘little people’ became lost in the parent Dictionary, where few buyers had ever expected to find them?

Since von Tempsky is omitted, the criterion for selection cannot have been colour. And if, as Oliver implies, the essays on the ‘great people ‘were too often packed with achievement to leave room for humanity, does that disqualify the subject, or the system which produced the essays? The omissions from A People’s History might suggest that it is not the subjects, but the well-educated biographers, who like to become weighed down by gravitas.

The success of the illustrations in A People’s History causes similar conjecture. For, if they could so greatly enhance the coverage of the ‘little people’ here, why on earth could they have not enhanced the ‘great people’ in the Dictionary proper? The world of the intellect for too long dismissed photography as a distracting superficiality. Although room is nowadays found, as here, for photographs as valuable illustration, very little attempt is still being made in the same world of the intellect to give photographs their proper rating as documents. Perhaps theories and fine thoughts don’t always live easily with the practicality of what the eye actually sees. Given the excesses of 18th-century phrenology, one would not care to have biography reduced to a photographic analysis of endo- and ecto-morphic characteristics. Nevertheless, stature, body language, dress and facial expression have too much to contribute to biographical understanding for photographs to be excluded from future volumes in the main Dictionary.

For those lessons alone, A People’s History has a significant additional value over and above its actual content.

 

George Griffiths was editorial writer, columnist and books editor on the Otago Daily Times until his retirement in 1991, and has written several books of regional history.

 

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Posted in Biography, History, Non-fiction and Review
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