Tuesday, July 19, 2011
“MAORILAND – New Zealand Literature 1872-1914” Jane Stafford and Mark Williams (Victoria University Press 2006)
Reading and commenting on this week’s “Something New” took me back to a book I had the immense pleasure of reading and commenting upon exactly five years ago. Like Alex Calder’s fruitful essays, Jane Stafford’s and Mark Williams’ Maoriland, a study of pre-First World War New Zealand literature, is an excellent example of New Zealand literary revisionism.
Perspectives are always changing. The process of re-evaluating the literature of the past is never-ending. But in the last twenty years or so there has been such a major change in the way critics look at earlier New Zealand literature that we are unlikely to go back to what was once the critical orthodoxy.
This orthodoxy was the “nationalist” notion that New Zealand didn’t really have a literature to speak of until the 1930s and the Great Depression, when people like A.R.D.Fairburn, Denis Glover, Allen Curnow, Frank Sargeson, John Mulgan and “Robin Hyde” began to speak realistically of the country they were actually living in. Before that, said the “nationalist” orthodoxy, there were only prettified colonial imitations of British literature. The only writer worth speaking of, Katherine Mansfield, escaped from New Zealand and made her literary career elsewhere.
By a careful (but very accessible) sifting of the evidence, Stafford and Williams show that this simply is not the case. In examining the New Zealand-based writing that was done in the forty-odd years up to before the First World War, they show that there really was a literary community on these islands, trying hard to come to terms with their environment, not always doing so well, but at least as alert to New Zealand realities as the generations that have followed.
The joint authors consider the likes of Alfred Domett, who wrote awful poetry but intelligent prose; the Australian sojourner in New Zealand Henry Lawson; the greatly underrated Blanche Baughan; Katherine Mansfield before she upped stakes; Jessie Mackay; and especially that very complex man William Satchell (who is also considered in Alex Calder’s essays). In each case, the authors show somebody who knew that the assumptions of Mother Britain didn’t always fit a country where Pakeha had to somehow accommodate themselves to the very different culture of Maori.
Stafford and Williams do not whitewash the New Zealand literature of the age they are considering. They are aware of its sentimental excesses and its assumptions that we can’t help seeing as hopelessly dated. Their very title “Maoriland” refers to a defunct conception of this country. But they are an excellent antidote to anyone who thinks New Zealand literature sprang out of nowhere in the 1930s. And they implicitly remind us that any age’s worldview is provisional only. If we laugh at the assumptions of 1911, it is only because we do not have the wit to realize that one day somebody will laugh at the assumptions of 2011.
I emphasize, this scholarly book is very accessible. Stafford and Williams advance their thesis with lively and enjoyable quotations from the works they are discussing, and they are mercifully free of oppressive lit.crit jargon.
A book to enlarge your understanding of your country.
Helpful hint: Go to your search engine, type in the words “Nicholas Reid – Listener” and you will be taken to the file of my contributions to the New Zealand Listener. Scroll through it and you will find my more detailed consideration of Maoriland from the issue of 8 July 2006.