Book of the Week: The lost civilisation of New Zealand literature

All week this week the Spinoff Review of Books celebrates the rich, fascinating history of New Zealand literature. Today: Scott Hamilton Hamilton notices something missing in the long, feverish construction of New Zealand literature – the rest of the Pacific.

Near the end of his life, Jorge Luis Borges wrote a story about the reappearance of the gods of antiquity in a Buenos Aires auditorium. Thoth and Janus and other members of the pagan pantheon mounted a stage and received the acclaim of an astonished crowd.

Whenever I reread Borges’ story, I think of an evening in the late summer of 1995, when some of my gods appeared in a lecture theatre at the University of Auckland. I was a teenage devotee of literature, that most pantheistic and disputatious of religions, and I had come to the theatre to hear veteran New Zealand writers read poems by Kendrick Smithyman, who had recently died. Smithyman was a birdwatcher and crossword puzzler who had published, in his 73 years, 16 volumes of poetry; just as importantly, he had drank and agreed and feuded, in the middle decades of the century, with many of the members of the legendary generation of scribblers that had founded “modern” New Zealand literature. One by one, surviving members of that generation mounted the stage at the University of Auckland.

I heard the undergraduates sitting around me suck in their breath in reverence when it was Allen Curnow’s turn to read. Curnow’s Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse had helped establish the local canon, distinguishing muscular, up-to-date texts from fusty, effete, colonial stuff. I remember that the great man wore a tweed coat, and that he seemed to smell, even from a distance of 20 metres, like pipe smoke.

Curnow’s protégé CK Stead followed him to the podium. Stead read a very short Smithyman poem, then gave a long and apparently impromptu talk. He told stories about literary factions and battles; he talked of Wellington and Auckland schools, of progressives and reactionaries. We sat and listened, like raw recruits getting stories from a scarred old general.

In Borges’ story, the audience soon notices that the gods of antiquity are decrepit and wary. They have beetled brows, and yellow teeth; they look about mutely for enemies. In 1995 Allen Curnow and some of his colleagues seemed disconcertingly frail to me. I knew them from their books, from anthologies, from articles in the Listener. But the photographs on their dustjackets and in magazines had been taken decades earlier. Curnow’s voice shook, and his hands shook, too, as he clutched an out of print volume by Smithyman.

Like the deities in Borges’ story, the gods of our national literature had become, by the mid-90s, not only old but anachronistic. A generation of feminist scholars had criticised Curnow for neglecting female poets, and had complained about the aggressively masculine style of writing he had urged on New Zealand writers. Postmodernists had dismissed the notion of a distinctively New Zealand literature as a mere rhetorical conceit. Māori and Pasifika writers were claiming spaces in New Zealand letters, and by doing so were making the mono-ethnic character of Curnow’s canon obvious.

Allen Curnow with Denis Glover. (PAColl 7404-2-23-1, Gordon Ogilvie Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington)

John Newton begins Hard Frost, the first part of a projected three-volume history of New Zealand literature in the 20th century, by proclaiming the death of the project that Curnow and his colleagues began in the 1930s and 40s. Like me, Newton grew up wanting to be not just a writer, but a “New Zealand writer”, in the sense defined by Curnow. The phrase, Newton explains, “meant something: a discourse, a home, a context in which to explore”’.

Today, he says, all that has changed: “As best I can tell, millennial writers don’t think [like me] at all. ‘New Zealand literature’ is barely on their radar: they find little incentive to read it, let alone attach themselves to it, or aspire self-consciously to write it…They locate themselves on a different grid. Where my generation identified with our local predecessors…today’s smart young writers seem to think horizontally; they align themselves with admired international contemporaries, but just as importantly with their immediate peers. Their relationship to other writing…is mediated less by formal criticism than by social media, the blogosphere and the pedagogy of the creative writing schools. They are conscious, too, of different markets, institutions, and rewards…”

Like an archaeologist mapping a ruined city, Newton explores, in Hard Frost, the lost civilisation of New Zealand literature. Already, he discovers, tendrils of jungle are creeping over old monuments: many of the books he discusses are out of print, and once-famous authors of the Curnow era are almost forgotten.

Newton has used the Anglo-Welsh Marxist Raymond Williams’ concept of “structure of feeling” to help explain the changes in New Zealand writing in the 30s and 40s. We tend to think of feelings as interior, and ahistorical; Williams insisted that they came from outside, not inside, and that they could change markedly from one era to the next. Newton argues that, for writers of the 1910s and 20s like Ursula Bethell and Blanche Baughan, the New Zealand countryside often inspired a mystical wonder: a feeling of communion with god, and with eternity. This intense response to the landscape was more important than any awareness of distance from the imperial homeland, and made New Zealand and British literatures seem continuous, complementary.

In the 30s and 40s, though, writers like Curnow and Frank Sargeson began to talk of the bleakness and supposed isolation of New Zealand, and of the alienation of Kiwis from both the countryside around them and faraway Britain. The new writers favoured a simple style, shorn of emotional effusion, and preferred modern vernacular to fin de siècle poeticisms. The new orthodoxy, which Curnow advertised in his anthology, combined modernism with nationalism: it was necessary, the anthologist insisted, to describe a new country in new ways.

Newton is fascinated by the way the Curnow generation mixed nationalism with modernism. He notes that, in early 20th century Europe, modernists tended to be internationalists, and nationalists tended to favour romantic, pre-modern writing. James Joyce, the most famous modernist writer of all, was the quintessential cosmopolitan: an Irishman who left his homeland, lived in Trieste and Paris and Zurich, and spoke Italian at the dinner table. Other crucial modernists, like Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein and Basil Bunting, also abandoned their homelands. Even stay-at-home modernists, like David Jones and Osip Mandelstam, were preoccupied with foreign cultures, and advocated a kind of world literature rather than any sort of nationalism.

Newton says that he has looked around the world, and has been able to find only two distant parallels to Curnow’s fusion of modernism and nationalism – the African-American Harlem Renaissance and the “localism” of small-town white American writers like William Faulkner and William Carlos Williams. But perhaps a closer parallel can be found much closer to home. Curnow and his colleagues were not only aware of but very interested in the work of early 20th century Māori nationalists like Āpirana Ngata and Te Rangi Hīroa/Sir Peter Buck.

Āpirana Ngata and Peter Buck alongside a tukutuku panel at Ngata’s home at Waiomatatini, during a Dominion Museum expedition by Elsdon Best, James Ingram McDonald and Johannes Andersen. Photograph taken by James Ingram McDonald in 1923. http://tapuhi.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/spydus/NAV/GLOBAL/OPHDR/1/511195

Ngata is remembered today as a politician, but his decades in parliament were only one part of his campaign to both defend and modernise Māori society. Like Curnow, Ngata anthologised his people’s poetry. He also established a wananga for Māori carvers, and taught and led dance groups.

Like Curnow, Ngata wanted to separate what he considered the authentic parts of his people’s culture from what he felt was artificial and false, because borrowed from abroad. Like Curnow, Ngata established his own orthodoxies, and excluded poets and artists who displeased him from his canon. The artists who worked at his school had to eschew the bright colours and figurative, naturalistic, Pākehā-influenced style that had flourished in the meeting houses raised by the Te Kooti and his Ringatū movement in the late nineteenth century. Ngata kept the words of troublesome prophet-poets like Te Kooti and Rua Kenana out of his collections of waiata.

Sir Peter Buck had an even greater influence on Curnow and his peers than Āpirana Ngata. The anthropologist published constantly on Māori and Polynesian culture in the interwar years, and in 1949 brought much of his research together in The Coming of the Maori, a massive book issued by the government and introduced by Prime Minister Peter Fraser. Buck showed the historic links between Māori and tropical Eastern Polynesian culture, but also insisted on the uniqueness of te ao Māori, and the relative isolation of Aotearoa.

Buck’s descriptions of Polynesian journeys of discovery resonated with Pākehā poets’ memories of their own forebears’ passages to the South Pacific; his melancholy accounts of modernity’s attacks on old gods and traditions appealed to Pākehā intellectuals steeped in Arthur Schopenhauer and TS Eliot.

Kendrick Smithyman’s long early poem “Journey Towards Easter” takes its most important lines from Buck, and makes a parallel between the declining faith of a Pākehā theologian and the demoralisation of a Māori tohunga. Curnow’s verse play The Axe, which premiered in 1948, was based almost entirely on Buck’s book Mangaia and the Mission, which described the coming of Christianity to that island and the defeat of recalcitrant pagan chiefs. (Curnow’s play was performed by the Canterbury University Drama Society, whose Pākehā members wore blackface for the occasion.)

In their desire to distinguish authentic from inauthentic culture, their emphasis on the isolation and singularity of New Zealand, and their pessimism about the state of their culture, the writers of the Curnow generation arguably show the influence of the great Māori intellectuals of the early twentieth century. The irony, of course, is that Curnow and co tended to leave Māori out of their vision of modern New Zealand. The indigenous people of these islands are pushed, in their poems and stories, to the margins of a bleak, almost-empty land. The independent Māori states and the Pākehā wars of conquest and the whole nineteenth century struggle for control of Aotearoa are forgotten; the Pākehā modernist writer is challenged not by indigenous claims to the land, but by the harshness of the land itself.

‘Climbing an Ice Face’. Blanche Baughan, Studies in New Zealand Scenery (Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1916).

In my favourite chapter of Hard Frost, Newton considers the parallels between mountaineering and literature in 20th century New Zealand. He shows how, at the beginning of the century, it was the elite of Pākehā society, including well-to-do women, who had the time and resources and inclination to ascend the peaks of the Southern Alps. Newton reproduces a photograph from 1916 called “Climbing an Ice Face”, which shows Blanche Baughan, dressed in a bonnet, a jacket, and a long skirt, as he she clings to a rope beside a wall of white. Baughan looks, Newton says, “almost parodically Edwardian”.

In the 1930s New Zealand mountaineering was revolutionised. Trains brought climbers quickly and cheaply into the Southern Alps, and less cumbersome gear allowed faster ascents. Groups of young men from Christchurch, especially, began to “ambush” the mountains on their weekends. They’d take a train into the Alps on Friday afternoon, camp near the snowline, then tackle a previously unclimbed peak or two on Saturday and Sunday.

The mountaineering and bohemian sets overlapped, and the climbers of the 30s often brought books in their packs, and recited Tennyson and Shelley aloud around their campfires, in between shots of hard liquor. Newton mentions John Pascoe in passing, but doesn’t cite his marvellous 1939 book Unclimbed New Zealand, which describes, in a series of short, euphoric chapters, the secret society that young climbers made together in the Alps for a few years before World War II.

Newton makes a parallel between the masculinisation of New Zealand literature by the Curnow generation and the changes in mountaineering in the 30s. He shows that women were pushed off peaks, as well as out of anthologies: “[W]hile in class terms the sport had become more inclusive, when it came to the role of women the outcome could hardly have been more prohibitive…women disappeared. The Canterbury Mountaineering Club, formed in 1925, excluded women from membership in 1927, a ban that would not be reversed until 1977.”

Poet and journalist D’Arcy Cresswell (seated) and friends at the Toc H bach, Milford, 1930s. (Frank Simon Hofmanm collection: Helen Shaw’s papers relating to D’Arcy Cresswell. MS-88-252-3. Alexander Turnbull Library)

Newton does a thorough and sensitive job of describing the “structure of feeling” that emerged in New Zealand literature in the 30s and 40s, but he often leaves readers unsure about how that structure might relate to other, bigger changes in our society that were occurring at the same time. Newton’s reticence might not have pleased Raymond Williams. As a Marxist, Williams was committed to understanding the social context in which literary texts existed. Society and history, he reckoned, were the ultimate authors of every poem and story.

Other scholars of New Zealand literature have not been as reluctant to venture into sociology and history as Newton. A number of them have linked the rise of nationalist-modernist writing to the election of Michael Joseph Savage’s Labour government in 1935.

Labour wanted to make New Zealand more independent from Britain, and was intent on modernising the state and economy. Savage and his comrades were also friendlier towards the arts than their Tory predecessors. It is notable that two of the monuments of the new style of literature, Curnow’s poem “Landfall in Unknown Seas” and Frank Sargeson’s story “The Making of a New Zealander”, were associated with the celebrations Labour organised for the centennial of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1940. Curnow’s poem was commissioned for the celebrations; Sargeson’s story was a winning entry in a literary competition organised for the centennial.

Frank Sargeson in the garden of his Takapuna home with his close friend Christine Cole, c. 1950. (Photograph taken by John Reece Cole. PAColl-7280-01. Alexander Turnbull Library)

It seems to me that changes in New Zealand’s relationship with the rest of the Pacific in the early 20th century might have encouraged the Curnow generation’s obsession with this country’s supposed isolation. In the 19th century New Zealand was intricately and constantly connected with the islands of the tropical Pacific, as well as with the Americas and, of course, Australia. Our newspapers ran long lists of the ships that had arrived at or left our ports; exotic tropical goods like banana and coconuts and swordfish were unloaded ceaselessly; young men and women sailed north to make their fortunes as smugglers or planters or missionaries in Melanesia or Polynesia; Pākehā politicians plotted a Pacific empire, and succeeded in grabbing a handful of islands.

In 1915 New Zealand invaded and conquered German Samoa, and dreams of a tropical empire intensified. After World War I, though, the Samoans rebelled against attempts to turn them into brown-skinned Pākehā. By the 30s the dream of assimilating Samoa was dead, and before long the peoples of the Cooks and Niue were also rejecting their colonisers.

The end of the dream of a Pacific empire coincided with a decline in the importance of New Zealand’s trans-Pacific trade, and the increasing dependence of the country on the export of beef and wool to faraway Britain. In the 30s and 40s the fragility as well as the importance of the link with Britain became obvious. The Great Depression briefly caused a severe decline in British demand for Kiwi products, and during World War II the fleet of ships that connected New Zealand and the old country was imperilled by German raiders and mines. It is not surprising that many New Zealanders, writers included, felt a sense of isolation in the 30s and 40s, when their economy depended so completely on a tenuous link with a distant ally.

Pākehā writers of the early 20th century, like James Cowan and Edward Tregear, were fascinated by the tropical Pacific: they travelled through the region, and wrote excitedly about what they saw. But the Curnow generation turned away from the tropics. Curnow was interested in the history of the region, but not in its present. He and his peers made pilgrimages to Britain, but never followed Cowan’s example by exploring New Zealand’s Pacific neighbourhood.

Only a very few modernist-nationalist writers, like Denis Glover, who celebrated these islands’ maritime links with the rest of the Pacific, and Roderick Finlayson, who lived for a time in the Cooks and wrote The Schooner to Atia, a ferocious and unjustly neglected novel about the idiocies of New Zealand’s Pacific imperialism, were able to run the blockade that Curnow set up. Today, when Auckland is home to hundreds of thousands of migrants from tropical north, and Pasifika writers like Albert Wendt and Karlo Mila have big audiences, we can see that the isolation Curnow made so much of was a matter of ideology, not geography.

Hard Frost: Structures of Feeling in New Zealand Literature, 1908-1945 by John Newton (Victoria University Press, $40) is available at Unity Books.


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