Sunday, November 18, 2007

A book with no class

The 214th issue of Kiwi literary journal Landfall is about to hit the shelves, and it's stuffed full of Jack Ross' drinking cronies. It'll be interesting to see whether the man gets another gig as guest editor after exposing mainstream readers to some of the weirder exponents of Kiwi lit.

I'll post more about #214 when I've digested the whole issue, but in the meantime here's the book review I did for Jack. I've already had some grief for it from Brett Cross, who complained that 'Hamilton doesn't think any book which doesn't consider obscure socialist writers in detail is complete'...

Jane Stafford and Mark Williams, Maoriland: New Zealand Literature 1872-1914, Victoria University Press, 2007

Many histories of New Zealand literature begin the in the 1930s, the decade when a gang of young men on the make announced that they were the country's first serious scribblers, and convicted anybody who wasn't a drinking buddy of Dennis Glover of sentimental attitudes and sloppy writing. It's normal, of course, for young writers to try to proscribe the work of their elders. What is perhaps surprising is the longevity of the anathema cast in the 1930s. As Jane Stafford and Mark Williams note near the beginning of Maoriland, even sophisticated contemporary scholars of our literature like Patrick Evans have echoed the dismissive words of cheeky young men like Glover and Allen Curnow. The work of Kiwis who had the misfortune to write before Caxton Press and Phoenix has fallen into a sort of 'black hole', so that almost all of the texts Stafford and Williams study are out of print. Some are accessible only in the rare book collections of our largest libraries.

is a measured, thoughtful, but ultimately incomplete attempt to deliver a whole literary era from the enormous condescension of posterity. Surveying the period between the end of the New Zealand Wars in 1872 and the beginning of World War One in 1914, Stafford and Williams examine eight Pakeha writers, beginning with Alfred Dommett, the racist Prime Minister who wrote Ranolf and Amohia, a grotesquely long and sentimental poem about Maori, and ending with William Satchell, whose novels combine vivid descriptions of the New Zealand backblocks with the creaking machinery of the romantic melodrama. (An additional short chapter considers Apirana Ngata as a 'Maori writer of Maoriland'.)

Although they are eager to press the claims of Maoriland literature, Stafford and Williams avoid simply inverting the judgments of Glover and Curnow. Sloppy writing, sentimentality, and a too-deferential attitude towards the literary shibboleths of Victorian England all come in for criticism. The Maorilanders are worth reading, not because they produced masterpieces, but because they grappled, however inconclusively, with what are now hoary questions:

The efforts of Maoriland writers to explore their distance from both the world presented to them and the available conventions in which to write that world produced the beginnings of a literature in English distinctly marked by its New Zealand provenance...the boundaries between nineteenth century writing and modernism blur; self-consciousness and the awareness of fragmentation, loss of the sense of the world as an organic whole are not concentrated on the near side of that divide.

By beginning with Dommett and ending with Satchell, Stafford and Williams are able to show a certain evolution amongst Pakeha writers of the Maorland era. Dommett, a fanatical imperialist who wrote during the first wave of large-scale European settlement, treated the world he found in Aotearoa as mere putty to be shaped according to the requirements of historical schemas and literary conventions. The tragic distance between the romantic savages of Ranolf and Amohia and the real Maori fighting for their land at Rangiriri and Orakau did not bother this captain of ‘the stately ship of Western thought’.

It is in the gloomy person of William Satchell that the tradition Stafford and Williams describe perhaps becomes fully conscious of itself. Satchell's novels and his later poems are haunted by the flotsam and jetsam of the capitalist settler society Dommett did so much to consolidate. Poor Maori, luckless gumdiggers, and ne'er do wells live out their lives on the margins of God's Own Country, contradicting the sanguine rhetoric of its political leaders and its literary apologists.

Satchell is a tragic, thwarted writer, because he was not able to find the right language and forms to express his growing disillusionment with Maoriland, and because he could locate no positive alternative to the jejune imperialism and muscular Christianity that sustained him as a young man. It should not be thought, though, that such an alternative was lacking, during the first decade and a half of last century. Those years saw the greatest level of social conflict in New Zealand history, as a young and militant union movement clashed with employers and the state in a series of bitter and bloody strikes. These confrontations reached a peak with the 1913 General Strike, when gun battles were fought on the streets of Wellington and miners proclaimed a revolutionary government on the West Coast. In Forging Paradise, the first installment of his two volume history of New Zealand, James Belich compares the events of 1913 with the revolutions that swept through European countries in 1917 and 1918. Throughout their book, Stafford and Williams disdain the myth of racial harmony that was a stock in trade of bourgeois politicians and writers of the Maoriland era. They fail, though, to recognise that an equally profound division existed within Pakeha society. Airy generalisations about Pakeha consciousness and culture suggest that the revolutionaries of the Red Federation of Labour and genteel members of the bourgeoisie like Dommett shared a set of attitudes towards Maori, the Mother Country, and literature. With the exception of Henry Lawson, who lived here only a brief time, all the writers Stafford and Williams study belonged to the upper layers of Maoriland society. In their preoccupations, their values, and their very language, they were not representative of their mostly working class compatriots.

Stafford and Williams appear to have entirely ignored two literary traditions which might have broadened the scope of Maoriland. They have nothing to say about the utopian socialist fiction that was produced in surprising quantities in Maoriland, and they have nothing to say about the literature written by working class autodidacts.

The writers of utopian novels and short stories tended to be university-educated, and thus usually a part of the upper layers of Maoriland society, but they nevertheless identified with a burgeoning workers' movement. The work they produced was sometimes narrowly didactic, contrasting a future paradise with a near-dystopian present, but at other times it suggested the influence of the lyrical thought experiments of William Morris, and of William Blake's revolutionary fantasies. In HM Fitzgerald's marvelously irreverent 1908 story A Trip to Hades, a socialist dies and goes to heaven, only to be barred from entry by St Peter, who is struggling to quench a workers' uprising. The bewildered soul tries hell, and discovers that it is a socialist utopia. With their combination of fantasy, humour, and political polemic, the utopian fictions produced during the Maoriland era break ground which Dommett and Stachell never trod.

If they wanted an entry point into the vast quantity of politically committed writing produced by working class autodidacts during the last part of the Maoriland era, Stafford and Williams might have usefully studied the career of Edward Hunter, or 'Billy Banjo' as he was known to the readers of the Maoriland Worker, the socialist newspaper that thrived at the beginning of last century. Hunter's satires and odes reached a massive public, and have sociological as well as literary value. Through them, we can glimpse radically different answers to the questions about race relations and national identity that interest Stafford and Williams. Hunter and many of his comrades rejected the alternately patronising and hostile attitudes toward Maori found in Dommett and most other bourgeois Maoriland writers. They saw Maori not as a threat or a nuisance, but as natural allies. Where Dommett and co. saw Maori society as either childlike or barbaric, Hunter and other socialists saw its collectivism and relative egalitarianism as harbingers of the new order they wanted to build. Socialist writers also had an iconoclastic view of the relationship between Maoriland and Britain. The bourgeois writers Stafford and Williams study alternated between an almost unreconstructed Anglophilia and shallow, sentimental celebrations of 'God's Own Country'; they were never able to find a way of talking honestly about their situation in a settler society that was neither part of nor independent from the mother country. Because they saw themselves as part of an international movement of workers, Hunter and his peers were able to link their writing about Maoriland to the Old World in a much more relaxed, natural manner, noting both continuities and contrasts between the two scenes. Hunter's poetry celebrates the bush and open spaces of the new country, but always remains acutely aware that the transplantation of an economic order bred in the old country is transforming what he lauds.

Jane Stafford and Mark Williams have done a good job of rescuing a select band of Maoriland writers from near-total neglect. It is a shame, though, that their account of this fascinating period in our literature and history is so one-sided.


Blogger Richard said...

BY coincidence -about 20 minutes ago - I saw this book in Borders and was considering it as a possible acquisition - I settled for cheaper book by Balzac.

Some of the new titles in there are obscenely's o.k. for eccentric dealer /collectors to charge enormous prices; as people expect to pay that for old obscure tomes - but new books should all be very cheap.

BTW I read Sarrazine and his (great) story about the soldier who "fell in love with a leopard".

Comrade Maps - can I ask via you while I'm here online if you can ask Augustus Jackus Rossus if he has read all 100 or so of Balzac's books and why not - and why not in the French and English versions also? - sorry to be commenting off subject...but I feel this issue is of vast importance to the human situation ..indeed to the "comedie humaine" itself.

4:17 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I have now read your review - it seems a good review.

Perhaps another book is called for to put a "spin" socialism and or the working classes in NZ and on such as Hunter etc?

10:36 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Hi Richard,

I always meant to read that story about the leopard. I ripped off the stuff on Hunter et al from some of the essays in this book, which is well worth checking out as a complement to Maoriland:

I didn't touch on this in the review, but I should say to prospective buyers that Maoriland isn't the easiest read in the world. I don't know why it is that so many academics find it so hard to spot the juicy quote, amusing anecdote, illustrative example...

I'm pleased you enjoyed my chapter on the making of EP Thompson, because I was trying to avoid going down with academicus abstractitis when I wrote it...

11:35 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

The E P Thompson is great. It will make a great book - could even be good seller.

I like the way you connect up the NZ scene - including Maoritanga and the and the world scene - poetry, literature, war, adventure, biography, philosophy and politics etc

Re the leopard I think of it when watching the tigers and lions -my favourite cats (particularly the Siberian -the biggest of the cat family - buy coincidence I just started watching "The Lion Man" on TV...

Maoriland sounds turgid. BTW I found Patrick Evans obscure (he was critiquing Manhire somewhere and it was frustrating as he was 'onto it' I felt)- in lot of cases I find I have no idea what he is talking about. But he is interesting -

There is a need for "difficulty" but difficulty in the wrong place can kill writing.

I'll look at that link.

7:11 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cronies is right! How very sad it is that Landfall has been allowed to decline into a third-rate publication. Let us hope these recent hiccups do not signal fatal illness.

10:15 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So which are the third-rate pieces, Owen?

11:25 pm  
Blogger Alison said...

You might like to know that the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre has just made 34 of the novels of 'Maoriland' freely available online. We plan to digitise another 40 next year. The collection, along with an introduction by Jane Stafford and Mark Williams, is here or just go to

9:20 pm  

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