(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Anahulu: The Anthropology of History in the Kingdom of Hawaii is a monument of interdisciplinary scholarship. The work is divided into two volumes: Volume 1, Historical Ethnography, was written by Marshall Sahlins with the assistance of Dorothy Barrère; volume 2, The Archaeology of History, was written by Patrick Kirch with the assistance of Sahlins, Marshall Weisler, and Matthew Spriggs. Introducing their respective volumes, however, Sahlins and Kirch both emphasize the thoroughly collaborative nature of their enterprise.

Sahlins is an anthropologist who has been influential both as a specialist in Polynesian culture and as an anthropological theorist; among his many books are Culture and Practical Reason(1976), The Use and Abuse of Biology: An Anthropological Critique of Sociobiology (1976), andIslands of History (1985). Kirch is an archaeologist who has published widely on the archaeology of the Pacific; his previous books include The Evolution of the Polynesian Chiefdoms (1984) andFeathered Gods and Fishhooks: An Introduction to Hawaiian Archaeology and Prehistory (1985). Both Sahlins and Kirch are members of the National Academy of Sciences.

In some respects, Anahulu resembles the five-volume, French-based project, A History of Private Life, published in English translation by Harvard University Press (see Magill’s Literary Annual, 1988-1992). Like that series, Anahulu has two principal claims on our attention: the interest of its specific subject, clearly, but also its claim to exemplify an innovative interdisciplinary method.

In another respect, however, Anahulu differs markedly from A History of Private Life. While the scholars who contributed to the latter project sometimes drew on their own archival research, their essays were largely works of synthesis. In contrast, Anahulu is primary scholarship. From facsimiles of mid-nineteenth century land documents to the intricacies of carbon dating, these two volumes demonstrate the nearly surreal mastery of detail of which late-twentieth century scholarship is capable. Kirch’s volume in particular will be studied primarily by specialists.

Precisely because Sahlins and Kirch’s investigation ramifies into such fine detail, it is important to keep in mind the contexts that give their work meaning: both the explicit context which they provide and the larger, implicit contexts. Sahlins and Kirch summarize their intention with admirable clarity. As Sahlins explains in the introduction to volume 1, they want to trace the impact of the capitalist “World System” on Hawaii following the “discovery” of the islands by Captain James Cook in 1778:

From London and Boston, Canton and Kamchatka, the political and economic forces of the World System converged on the Islands, principally the ports of Honolulu and Lahaina, whence the effects were carried to remote places such as Anahulu. The modest aim of the present volume, then, is to bring the history of the world into the Anahulu River valley. What we would show is how Hawaii’s entrance into this world history, through a series of local mediations, was realized in the cultural forms of Anahulu history.

Anahulu thus reflects several of the dominant trends in...

(The entire section is 1365 words.)