Munro explains that -
This essay is not intended as a review article of A Life of J.C. Beaglehole, although I engage with the biography here and there. My purpose, rather, is to trace the trajectories of J.C. Beaglehole’s reputation, using the biography as the empirical bedrock, but drawing on other sources as well as on my wider experience. The word "trajectories" is used quite deliberately to signify that reputations have multiple dualities—earlier and later, contemporary and posthumous, public and private, intellectual and activist—and to indicate that reputation is both unstable and often contested. Beaglehole was initially made to suffer for being regarded in conservative circles as a dangerous young radical, but a change of government brought patronage and preferment. This, in turn, leads to an examination of the extent to which individual reputation is a function of the wheel of fortune and of the degree to which the interplay of institutional and intellectual structures is predicated on personal preferences toward an individual. Finally, I look at Beaglehole’s posthumous scholarly reputation and make observations on the role of biography in raising or lowering a reputation, as the case may be. There is a certain irony in discussing Beaglehole and reputation in the same breath, because his unusual combination of self-assurance and genuine modesty rendered him remarkably indifferent to what others thought about him. He was not devoid of ambition — far from it — but he avoided the limelight, resisted celebrity status, and just got on with the job.Munro had earlier commented that -
There is no question that Beaglehole’s scholarship was highly regarded during, and immediately after, his lifetime. He was, Gavan Daws told a group of Pacific historians at a seminar in Canberra in 1973, “the greatest of us all.” But reputation is unstable and has a chimerical quality: it comes and goes as fancy chooses, a victim of changing fads and fashions. Or as Stefan Collini has put it:There is an inescapable indeterminacy about all questions of reputation where literary and intellectual figures are concerned. Membership of the jury is heterogeneous and potentially infinite; the various parts of a writer’s oeuvre or achievement may merit different ratings from different categories of reader; it is almost impossible to maintain a clear distinction between questions of merit and neighbouring territories of celebrity and utility; and at any given moment judgement is almost inevitably contaminated by hearsay, selective recall, and cultural lag.Cultural lag is an appropriate term: it would be fair to say that Beaglehole, whose scholarship was so highly regarded in his lifetime, is out of favour in some quarters and that his reputation among Pacific historians is not quite what it once was. In the three and a half decades since his death, shifts in the way historians view the past have sometimes been unkind to Beaglehole. As Jane Samson has put it, “a new set of church fathers and scriptures has been proclaimed, and the usual search for heretics is on.” The other side of Beaglehole’s reputation is based on his civic engagement as a public intellectual, and this aspect of his life met with a mixed reception among contemporaries. Revered in some quarters, this introspective and somewhat retiring man was viewed askance in anti-intellectual circles and by New Zealand’s conservative National Party government. ...
That reputations come and go was graphically illustrated in a 2005 poll, conducted by Prime Television New Zealand, to identify and rank "New Zealand’s 100 History-Makers". Those polled placed the scientist Lord Ernest Rutherford, another New Zealander who has been admitted to the Order of Merit, at number one. Beaglehole missed out altogether, although two other historians were ranked sixty-third (Michael King) and eighty-seventh (Keith Sinclair). Neither, were they still alive, would have ranked himself ahead of Beaglehole. The omission of Beaglehole reflects the sheer capriciousness of such media circuses — for example, there was a comedian on the panel and two comedians were among the chosen one hundred. It also illustrates the extent to which reputation can be unrelated to actual achievement, how a posthumous reputation is apt to slide, and how people are unconsciously inclined to withhold recognition from those in walks of life different from their own. All the same, the aberration of Beaglehole’s omission may not have come about had the major biography by his historian-son been published a year earlier, in time to have brought Beaglehole to the panelists’ attention.
Biographies, of course, can be reputation-breakers as well as reputation-makers. For politicians, the so-called accolade of a biography can cut both ways — notable examples being the disintegrating effect that successive biographers have had on the once-high reputation of British prime minister Stanley Baldwin and the recent attempts to rehabilitate Baldwin’s successor, Neville Chamberlain. Biographies of historians are comparatively rare, typically expressions of avowal and affirmation, and distinctly elitist in the sense that only major historians enter the hall of biographical fame. Despite a roll-of-the-dice element in who gets chosen, the very fact of a biography is a measure of that historian’s significance. Sometimes they are rescue missions, attempts to restore to proper prominence historians who, in their biographer’s view, have been condemned to unjustifiable abeyance. Conversely, there are attempts to explain and celebrate the recrudescence of a reputation. Tim Beaglehole’s biography of his father, who was a major figure in New Zealand cultural and intellectual life as well as an outstanding historian, fits neither category. But it does invite reflection on the role of a biography in matters of reputation.