Fairburn begins with a hundred page biography of Cox, using his diary and what other sources are available. After relative success early on in Christchurch, Cox relocated in 1888 to the Wairarapa in southeastern North Island to seek work. A steady job in a flax mill was followed by nearly as year tramping as a vagrant, which left him traumatised. From 1893 to 1902 he had irregular and itinerant work "on call" for a firm based in Carterton and from 1902 he scraped by with more or less casual work; in 1918 he was admitted to the Carterton Home and began to receive the Age pension.
Setting Cox's life in its context, Fairburn begins with its material dimensions. He considers the usefulness of different definitions of poverty to Cox's life and to New Zealand during the period; a detailed analysis of Cox's finances reveals just how poor he was. An obvious question is why Cox failed to escape poverty despite "his powerful work ethic. He was industrious, conscientious, thrifty, sober, self-disciplined, reliable, and possessed a great capacity for perseverance". Fairburn sets out the structural factors, contingencies, and personal qualities behind Cox's steady descent into poverty: Cox made some poor decisions, but to a large extent he was simply the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Turning to an ethnohistorical approach, Fairburn considers how Cox viewed his own life. Cox's ideology was dominated by Victorian ideals of self-help, as popularised by Samuel Smiles and others.
"Cox believed in the power of the will. He believed in the capacity of individuals to shape their destiny through the strength of their own efforts, in the ability of ordinary men like himself to master fortune, and in their capacity to free themselves from the structures constraining their life chances."
The "puzzle" is why Cox persisted in "enacting" a self-help ideology that was increasingly inconsistent with reality, as he sank further into poverty over more than thirty years, finding security in his final years only through a charitable home and a state pension. Fairburn first considers and rejects the possibility that Cox was insane. He then evaluates the relevance of the traditional working class coping mechanisms of drink, religion, scapegoating of outside groups, peer relationships, and community festivities: none of these were significant parts of Cox's life, in some cases because his poverty and itinerancy prevented it.
Part of the explanation is sociological: Cox's social conditioning was too strong and he had too little contact with alternative ideas. He had a lower middle-class background and the friends he made were largely from that stratum, and also espoused a self-help ideology. And Cox had little involvement or even experience of any kind of labour activism, with what "industrial unrest" he experienced being localised and individualised — and also dominated by self-help ideas. Cox also had some coping mechanisms: his affection for animals, family ties to England sustained by regular letter-writing, friends, and some creature comforts.
The explanation Fairburn finds most powerful, however, is that Cox's self-help ideology became increasingly a moral imperative, an end in itself, rather than a means to economic success. For this the meticulously constructed and kept diary itself, rather than its contents, is strong evidence, and Fairburn argues that "Cox turned diary-making into a symbol of his concept of self-help as a moral imperative".
Fairburn overstresses the "puzzle" aspects of Cox's life to make for a more exciting thesis. And though the historiography he touches on is intriguing — his introduction considers other possible histories that he might have written using Cox's diary — he doesn't offer any theoretical novelties. But Nearly Out of Heart and Hope is engaging and thought-provoking. Fairburn's retelling of Cox's life is compelling in its own right, while his analysis of its material and social aspects offers a different perspective both on New Zealand history and on topics such as class consciousness and individual agency.