Monday, September 26, 2016

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“WHO WROTE ‘THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS’?” by MacDonald P. Jackson (McFarland & Company Publishers, North Carolina);

“THROUGH THE EYES OF A MINER” (second edition), assembled and edited by Simon Nathan, distributed by Potton and Burton at http://www.pottonandburton.co.nz/store/books/photographic/through-the-eyes-of-a-miner, $40;

“THE BLACK WIDOW” by Lee-Anne Cartier (Penguin $38:00)

            This week I am for a change forgoing my usual lengthy analysis of one book, and am giving you in this “Something New” section shorter accounts of three new books. It is not that they are of less merit than the ones I witter on about at greater length. It is simply that I find I can say what has to be said more concisely. In genre and intent the three books have nothing in common. In fact the only thing they have in common is that I am dealing with them together here. One is a painstaking work of literary scholarship. One is the oddly beautiful second edition of a photographic survey of vanished New Zealand working class life. And one is the reconstruction of a recent murder case.

Here goes:

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            There are some fiercely-contested literary matters about which the general public has heard, and there are some which are known only to specialists.

I must admit I had never heard of any controversy surrounding the authorship of The Night Before Christmas (also known as A Visit from St. Nicholas) until I bumped into Professor Emeritus MacDonald P. Jackson at a book launch some months ago. I remember Mac as one of my lecturers in English at the University of Auckland forty-odd years ago. He was the man who trained us in Bibliography and got us to fold bits of paper so that we would know the difference between a folio and a quarto and a duodecimo. He now has an international reputation as a leading scholar in providing correct attributions for the authorship of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays and in working out how and by whom such plays were printed. It’s a matter of extremely close textual analysis, including statistical tabulations of the linguistic preferences of authors and of the typographical habits of printers. (Look up on this blog my fleeting reference to Mac in the review of James Shapiro’s ContestedWill.)

Now, Mac informed me, he had written a book on the Night Before Christmas problem.

I admitted my ignorance. Like most people I can quote the first two lines of this popular American poem (“ ‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, / Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”) and I know the names of at least some of the reindeer drawing Santa’s sleigh (Dasher, Dancer, Comet, Vixen etc.) although apparently Donner and Blitzen were originally called something else. I also had a vague idea that this was the poem that set the template for popular depictions of Santa Claus  - the jolly chap in the sleigh coming down the chimney to distribute presents. But there my knowledge ended. Maybe it’s because recitations and readings of the poem at Christmastime tend to be more an American tradition than a New Zealand one.

So Mac sent me a copy of his book and this is how it goes.

Apparently the 56 lines of anapaestic rhyming couplets first appeared in an obscure New York newspaper the Troy Sentinel in 1823. (Thinking of it as poem from the Victorian era, I was surprised at how early it appeared). It was printed anonymously under the title Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas. No pre-publication manuscript of the poem survives. Only 14 years later, in 1837, was the poem attributed to the New York Professor (of Greek and Oriental Literature) Clement Clarke Moore, who allowed it to appear in his collected poems a few years later. Some circumstances did seem to attach it to Moore and the poem has continued to be attributed to him. There is even a popular legend about how he wrote it. But the descendants of another minor poet, Henry Livingston, have always claimed that the poem was really Livingston’s. Be it noted that Livingston died in 1828, before the poem was attributed to Moore (who died in 1863) and before Livingston could contest its appearance in Moore’s collected poems.

Other books have been written arguing the case for Livingston rather than Moore. But as Mac Jackson notes early in the piece (p.8), Who Wrote ‘The Night Before Christmas’? is the first book to deploy “both traditional approaches to the determination of authorship  and the newly developed attribution methods of computational analysis.”

            Jackson’s opening chapters are on general impressions that point to Livingston’s authorship of the poem. Livingston’s verse is more cheerful and celebratory, as The Night Before Christmas is, whereas Moore’s poems show him to be a stern moralist. Livingston (who had a Dutch mother) was more likely to name two reindeer “Dunder” and “Blixem” as they are named in the poem’s first appearance. Livingston also wrote much anapaestic verse, which Moore never did.

Jackson then moves into the core of his own arguments – the chapters which show, by close statistical analysis, how rhymes are used in the two poets’ works, and connectives, and three-word links and phonemes; and what specific words appear with high frequency. All this evidence (duly tabulated) points to Livingston as the author of The Night Before Christmas.

In Chapter 19, Jackson desconstructs methodically the myth of how Moore is supposed to have written the poem, after seeing a jolly Dutchman while out shopping for a Christmas turkey. In Chapter 20 he gives us the Livingston family’s version of the poem’s origin, which is possibly more plausible. Moreover, one poem, which Moore definitely did write about Christmas, “Old Santeclaus” shows a punitive, moralistic attitude to children and Christmas quite at odds with The Night Before Christmas.

So why did Moore let The Night Before Christmas be published in his collected poems, if he knew it wasn’t his? Because, speculates Jackson, he was by then too embarrassed to deny his authorship as it has been so widely reported.

Jackson concludes “Every attribution test…. classified ‘The Night before Christmas’ as belonging to Livingston’s poems, not Moore’s. The chief discriminators had not been cherry picked so as to bring about such a result. They were selected according to predetermined mathematical rules. It is hard to see why ‘The Night Before Christmas’ should consistently be linked to Livingston in these one-on-one contests if it was really written by Moore.” (p.131)

For good measure, he has a lengthy appendix giving other poems by Livingston.

I admit that some parts of this argument involve close analysis of texts, which makes for hard reading – but as often as possible, Jackson writes in a clear and accessible style and even allows this obscure contention to be fun.

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Born in Bohemia in 1887 and dying in Greymouth in 1967, Joseph Divis  returned to his old Czech and German stamping grounds for four years in the 1920s. Much later, during the Second World War, he was briefly detained as an enemy alien. But he was essentially a New Zealand working class man. He spent most of his time between 1909 and 1933 as a miner in some of New Zealand’s most famous (or notorious) mines: Waihi in the North Island, but mainly the mines of the South Island’s West Coast – Reefton, Denniston, Blackball, Waiuta. The small settlement of Waiuta became his final home.

But Divis had a second career. He was a photographer.

Edited and introduced by Simon Nathan, and published by the Friends of Waiuta, Through the Eyes of a Miner is a collection of the photography of Joseph Divis, beginning with his earliest days on the West Coast and ending in the 1930s. Simon Nathan is an eminent science historian (see the review of his JamesHector Explorer Scientist Leader elsewhere on this blog). For this revised edition of Through the Eyes of a Miner, Nathan tells me that “printing in grey duotones has worked well, and does justice to the high quality of Divis’s photography”.

Nathan’s notes and captions inform us of when and where Divis’s photographs were taken, and comment shrewdly upon what changes they record. It is notable that in the images taken underground in the mines, miners in the early twentieth century are seen wearing soft hats, as in the frontispiece, taken with a time release mechanism, of Divis himself holding a hammer drill. There are no such things as hard hats. Miners are also seen holding lighted candles, even next to boxes of gelignite. Safety standards were very different back then, in ways that seem alarming to us. There’s also the minor detail that miners in the 1900s tended to wear moustaches. By the 1930s they are all clean-shaven.

In a book of this sort, it is the photographs that do most of the talking.

It’s interesting that while he was a muscular miner, Davis was a dapper fellow when he was above ground and away from work. The many shots he took of himself in township streets, or above mining settlements, show a neat, respectably-dressed chap wearing a boater until the late 1920s when he switched to a homburg. Simon Nathan says we know little of his political affiliations, although it is clear that Divis was a socialist at heart  - there’s a shot of Divis in his twenties, among comrades and holding up a placard announcing Socialism, and another taken years later of him joining the men for a union meeting in the Waiuta Miners’ Hall. Even so, he seems to have been able to earn trust across class divides and mingle with middle-class homeowners and couples. The photographs are evidence of this. He took society photos, of weddings and couples in their happy homes, including the homes of mine managers, who were socially segregated up Nob Hill and away from the workers.

Divis proudly contributed panoramic photographs of mining towns to the old Auckland Weekly News. To our early 21st century eyes, the towns look raw and bleak – denuded of trees, roads rough earth or gravel, small and humble workers’ houses all with corrugated iron roofs and sometimes with corrugated iron chimneys, only one step away from the pioneers. But Divis sometimes made postcards out of these views and we easily forget how much pride there must have been in such new communities, no matter how harsh they look to us.

Queen carnivals, weddings, reunions, and, oops, that play about a Dutch Christmas, with all the kids dressed as Black Pete. (It wouldn’t be allowed now). As social commentary it is fascinating. Ditto as documentary, especially in the series of photos in which Divis recorded the whole process of recovering and refining ore.

But the best are the faces – especially those of the miners underground. A time capsule.

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            About eighty years ago, George Orwell wrote an essay about the pleasure people derive from reading, in newspapers, all the details of real-life murders. There is something, in many us, that is comforted by reading grisly accounts of what has afflicted other people. It’s like being safe indoors in front of a warm fire when a storm is raging outside.

            Written by Lee-Anne Cartier, the sister of the murder victim, The Black Widow doesn’t comfort me in the least. It’s the straightforward account of a sordid domestic murder – and maybe the word “sordid” is simply redundant here. Aren’t all domestic murders sordid? I closed the book feeling nothing other than sad.

            Helen Milner was married to Philip Nisbet. Both had been married before. They lived in Christchurch. In May 2009, Philip (aged 47) was found dead. Helen claimed that he had been severely depressed and that he had committed suicide. She produced a suicide note, which she claimed Phil had written. Phil’s sister Lee-Anne Cartier wasn’t impressed. The note looked to her like a forgery and neither she nor other members of her family had ever heard of Phil suffering from severe depression. Lee-Anne Cartier was further troubled by how quickly after Phil’s death Helen got back together with the man who had been her life-mate before she married Phil.

            The police could find no hard evidence to proceed with an enquiry so, according to her own account, Cartier had to do her own investigation. She soon found that Helen Milner had a backstory of fraud and misrepresentation. Piece by piece, Cartier and other members of her family were able to gather evidence suggesting that Helen Milner had poisoned Phil Nesbit. Finally a coronial enquiry was authorised. The coroner concluded that there was no hard evidence that Phil Nisbet had committed suicide. In other words, Nisbet’s death could have been murder.

The police at last began a proper investigation.

In 2014, five years after Nisbet’s death, Helen Milner stood trial. Among other things, it emerged that early in 2008, Milner had taken out a life insurance policy on Phil, which carried a large payout. The policy stipulated that there would be no payout if the insured committed suicide within 13 months of the policy’s being taken out. Phil was murdered three months after the suicide clause ceased to apply. The evidence against Milner (there is plenty of it) was overwhelming. She was duly convicted and is currently serving a long stretch in Arohata prison.

Nowhere (not even in the fine print) does this book credit a ghost-writer or even an editor, so one has to assume that The Black Widow is as much Lee-Anne Cartier’s story as it can be.

She does not hold back on her opinions, either positive or negative. She is scathing about the police who at first refused to investigate her brother’s death properly, and who she holds guilty of allowing Helen Milner to almost get away with murder. She is effusive about all the people who helped her in her enquiries. Of the coroner who finally allowed a real investigation to take place, she writes:  “I think it’s women like Sue Johnson who our teenagers should be looking at as role model and striving to be like. If I could start all over again, education and career-wise, I would study law, work as a Crown solicitor, then work towards being a coroner….” (p.135). It is a little disconcerting that she once (p.74) talks about consulting a psychic medium, and some fastidious readers may be concerned that she is a very strong supporter of the Sensible Sentencing Trust, some of whose representatives gave her assistance when Helen Milner was tried and then when Milner lodged (unsuccessful) appeals. I must admit I also sometimes found it confusing keeping track of all the members of the author’s extended family. It would appear that nearly all the adults mentioned have been married twice, so there are plenty to family names to get around.

Lee-Anne Cartier is very loyal to her late brother, but she does have to mention sometimes that he may have been too trusting – even to the point of being gullible. Phil seems to have (almost?) fallen for cons by Helen Milner, which claimed, falsely, that Phil’s former partner was working as a prostitute and that Phil’s son by a previous partner was not really his.

Much of this book (including the last forty pages) is simply an assemblage of documents and transcripts, which point to Helen Milner’s guilt.

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