Obituary: Sir Keith Sinclair
Wednesday 04 August 1993
WITH Keith Sinclair's death an era of great New Zealand figures is drawing to its close. A very small group of scholars, writers, and artists in the 1950s put forward the idea, for the first time, that sustained intellectual life was possible in New Zealand, that there could be a thoughtful politics of the left, and that there could be both academic and cultural productivity of the highest standards that reflected none the less a distinctive New Zealand identity. Of his generation, Sinclair became undoubtedly the finest historian, briefly a parliamentary figure, and a fine poet.
Trained at Auckland University College, Sinclair took every degree his faculty offered and, later, the LittD of the successor University of Auckland, where he spent his entire career. His two greatest historical works were produced in a condensed period. Origins of the Maori Wars (1957) and A History of New Zealand (1959) changed the way New Zealanders perceived their history. More importantly, they laid the ground for the Maori renaissance that began in the mid-1970s. Sinclair's work provided Maori activists with clear textual evidence to lay alongside their own reassertions and reinterpretations of cultural traditions. Although much historical work has since built on Sinclair's, his was the indispensable progenitor of an awareness of history, and the fact that history was not a European province.
In a prolific flow of works, his third great book, minutely researched, was his biography of the New Zealand Labour prime minister Walter Nash. A hoarder of minutiae, right down to his bus and tram tickets, Nash left personal archives of a staggering dimension. Sinclair diligently ploughed through them all, emerging himself with greyer hair, but deservedly taking the 1977 National Book Award for his pains.
About that time, the New Zealand photographer Marti Friedlander took a protracted series of photographs of Sinclair. Although Sinclair amused himself with the image of a middle- aged enfant terrible, he could at times be crustily conservative. By that time, however, his reputation was made: he held visiting appointments in London, Cambridge and Canberra; his historical and literary work was beyond serious challenge; and the Friedlander portraits depicted him as he was, a successful scholar with distinguished enough good looks to foray into the infant world - in New Zealand at any rate - of public relations. Sinclair became known by the public at large and, particularly in his later years, saw himself as a populariser of history for exactly this public.
In 1973, at the age of 50, Sinclair published his fourth book of poetry, The Firewheel Tree. It is a compendium of a model, middle-aged New Zealander, still energetic enough to bodysurf, to ogle the female researchers in the library, but full of social concern. It also contains some achingly beautiful love poems and, whether they were to or about her or not, it was around this time that Sinclair met his second wife, a colleague, Raewyn Dalziel, and the two became an intellectual couple of the sort rarely seen in New Zealand.
What Sinclair pioneered therefore was not just a humanised history, and not just the idea that history on New Zealand themes could reach international scholarly standards, but the idea that intellectual life could meet, indeed be successfully married to, the mainstream of New Zealand public consciousness. He worked hard, if not always consciously, at this, but remained always, warts, foibles and all, a model in academic life itself. In a country that knights ballad singers and cricket captains, Sinclair's was a rare knighthood for a scholar. He will be remembered by a very wide range of people, and this is surely what he would have wanted.
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