An Absurd Ambition: Autobiographical Writings
E H McCormick
ed Dennis McEldowney
Auckland University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1 86940 156 5
There were giants on the earth in those days” and we follow their footsteps with awe. When writing a chapter on “Poetry to 1945” for the Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English I was all but overwhelmed by awareness of the excellent job done by my predecessors, anthologists Curnow and Chapman-and-Bennett and literary historian McCormick. Even where recent revisionist criticism had found them wanting — as in Curnow’s inability to see much merit in the verse of Eileen Duggan — they struck me as essentially right.
Ursula Bethell and Robin Hyde now seem even better and more central than they did to McCormick and his contemporaries. Curnow did not recognise Blanche Baughan’s extraordinary achievement in “A Bush Section” until publication of his Penguin anthology in 1960. Jessie McKay’s Swinburnian wordspinning sometimes unlocked the Pandora’s box of her unconscious. The tortured Arthur H Adams is a more complex and interesting figure than has yet been acknowledged. Alfred Domett’s Mills and Boon epic, Ranolf and Amohia, though leaden with Miltonic diction and groaning under a load of western metaphysics, may be worth revisiting in the light of studies such as Mary Louise Pratt’s Imperial Eyes, with its illuminating exploration of the function of transracial love stories in colonial settings. Stray poems might profitably be reclaimed for the canon and some verse that once appeared important (Darcy Cresswell’s, for example) has sunk unlamented from sight.
But McCormick and Curnow mapped the territory with remarkable sensitivity and flair. Each rejoiced in a secure sense of literary value, cared for poetry as poetry “and not some other thing” and had few ideological axes to grind, whatever their unconscious biases and preconceptions. And McCormick was generous in his judgements, recognising in Duggan’s More Poems (1951), for instance, “a remarkable achievement, the transformation in late maturity of long-established poetic habits in response to the pressure of inner experience”.
We were lucky that a scholar-critic with McCormick’s rare gifts was available to serve as the country’s first pakeha cultural historian and write Letters and Art in New Zealand (1940) and New Zealand Literature: A Survey (1959). The fact that the first of those two books was prepared to mark the centennial of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi and that the tricentenary of the first European sighting of New Zealand by Abel Tasman was to follow two years later encouraged a concern to trace the growth of unique national characteristics in the arts. In the opening paragraph of New Zealand Literature McCormick, stressing the brevity of the period surveyed, remarked that there had been “scarcely time for the migrant spirit to find a home, not long enough for an alien speech to shape itself to new surroundings”. As late as the publication of Ian Wedde’s and Harvey McQueen’s Penguin anthology of 1985 this theme is echoed in Wedde’s argument that “the development of poetry in English in New Zealand is coeval with the developing growth of the language into its location, to the point where English as an international language can be felt to be original where it is”.
McCormick’s books on Frances Hodgkins, which did so much to gain due recognition for that remarkable painter, are of lasting value. And his studies of Eric Lee-Johnson and of book collectors Turnbull and Hocken and his editions of works by Edward Markham and Augustus Earle are notable explorations of, and contributions to, our cultural heritage. Omai: Pacific Envoy (1977) extends McCormick’s range. As McCormick shows, Omai, the first Polynesian to visit Britain, “was a kind of catalyst, provoking discussion of many issues — moral, philosophical, religious — concerning eighteenth-century society. In his person, moreover, he dramatised dilemmas which still confront Europeans in their dealings with Pacific peoples.” McCormick leaves readers to draw their own conclusions about the lessons to be learned but makes clear his own sense of the contemporary relevance of his Omai narrative: “Indeed, I see his story re-enacted daily on the streets of Auckland — a spectacle that redeems the city from banality and makes it one of the most interesting in the world.”
A reverse voyage from one hemisphere to the other was traced in McCormick’s next and last book, The Friend of Keats: A Life of Charles Armitage Brown (1989), a biography of the critic, librettist, artist and essayist who was Keats’s closest friend during his supreme creative period and who immigrated to New Zealand to become one of the founding fathers of New Plymouth. Could any New Zealander who cares about literature fail to be stirred by the thought that on Marsland Hill, overlooking New Plymouth, is a grave marked “CHARLES ARMITAGE BROWN. The Friend of Keats”? McCormick, who had loved Keats’s poetry since his teenage years, forges through his chronicle of Brown’s career a link between colonial Taranaki and the great Romantics. It is as though the R A K Mason who in his boyhood visions burnt “Dian’s temple down at Otahuhu”, slew “Herostratus at Papatoe”, “here in Penrose brought Aeneas through / to calm Ausonian lands from bloody Troy”, and had “in Lichfield frequently … been / Chatterton’s accessory in suicide” suddenly had historical facts to feed the imagination. It is a gripping tale, beautifully told. As in all McCormick’s books, the results of painstaking research are presented with clarity, elegance and wit.
An Absurd Ambition sketches yet a third journey — McCormick’s own from awkward adolescent to eminent writer. Dennis McEldowney has collected various pieces that McCormick published in his lifetime, sorted through an abundance of manuscript material and edited these sources into a more or less coherent autobiography. A chapter headed “Wellington” is a particularly complex synthesis: although the words are all McCormick’s, “five sources have been interwoven paragraph by paragraph, sometimes sentence by sentence”. The sources are McCormick’s essay on his “Beginnings”, originally printed in the literary journal Islands (1978), his booklet The Inland Eye: A Sketch in Visual Autobiography (1959), the typescripts of two lectures (one delivered to the Wellington writers conference in 1959 and the other to the University of Auckland history department in the early 1970s) and tape-recorded conversations. Some of the volume’s connecting passages, including one whole chapter, have been composed by McEldowney himself, but without recourse to anything beyond McCormick’s own fragmentary writings and reminiscences. In his final years McCormick co-operated with McEldowney in the enterprise until he became too ill to take an interest.
Eric was born (in 1906) and spent his childhood in Taihape where his father ran a business that he called, “with a touch of the poetic hyperbole which appealed to him”, McCormick’s Boot Emporium. At the age of 13 he went to Wellington College and then to Wellington’s Teachers’ Training College and Victoria University, completing an MA in English and Latin as an extramural student while teaching in sole-charge schools in Nelson. A postgraduate scholarship took him to Cambridge (1931-33) where a supportive F R Leavis advised him to drop A Mirror for Magistrates as his thesis topic and tackle New Zealand literature. He finished writing his thesis in Dunedin and was awarded an MLitt. Jobs at the Dunedin public and Hocken libraries were followed by a return to Wellington as secretary to the National Historical Committee and assistant to the Dominion Archivist. He was appointed editor of Centennial Publications, which included those book-length surveys of which his own Letters and Art in New Zealand is such a notable example. From his school days he had cherished “the absurd ambition” of becoming a writer. He imagined that he would write poems (“carrying on the work that Keats commenced”) or fiction and there are some good short stories among his papers but he had now found his true metier as historian and biographer.
He served in the war — in the infantry, the medical corps and army archives, mainly in Egypt — and was afterwards offered the post of Chief War Archivist in the Department of Internal Affairs in Wellington. From 1947, when he did a four-year stint as senior lecturer in English at Auckland University College, his base was Auckland, where he lived with his sister Myra, first in Grafton terrace and then for his last 40 years in Green Bay: Myra had built a house overlooking the Manukau Harbour and Eric’s study and sleeping quarters was a two-room bach on the site. He worked away at his books and at other scholarly activities, held various fellowships, took overseas trips to further his research, served as the University of Auckland’s editor of publications, was awarded Wellington and Auckland doctorates and died in 1995.
The last of the autobiographical writings printed in this volume is dated 1955 and the vast bulk of the material deals with McCormick’s earlier years, up till the end of the war. Most of it is fascinating. The shrewd observations of social behaviour, the precise and vivid formulations, the dry ironic wit, the beguiling modesty and self-mockery — all these make for delightful reading. McCormick has the insights, and the language of a first-rate novelist. Dan Davin is reported to have claimed that had McCormick chosen to write novels he might have been “head and shoulders above us all” but the truth is that his proficiency with words, his story-telling skills and his understanding of human nature and historical process operated best when disciplined by adherence to facts.
He has a sharp eye for the telling detail. On the hierarchical structures of Taihape society or his Wellington encounters with the Rev Mr Fagan, or his wartime experiences he is marvellous. Personal history becomes cultural and political history of the most instructive kind. And his evocation of the Cambridge of I A Richards, Mansfield Forbes and Leavis is no less absorbing. At the Leavises’ weekend tea-parties he met such later luminaries as L C Knights, Denys Thompson and M C (Muriel) Bradbrook and through Leavis formed a close and enduring friendship with psychologist D W Harding, a key contributor to Scrutiny.
It is impossible not to regret, however, that McCormick never got round to shaping a full autobiography of his very own. McEldowney has selected, arranged and processed the bits and pieces with characteristic skill. But the McCormick who became a writer, as distinct from the boy with his “absurd” aspirations, would hardly have been content with the raw transcriptions from his adolescent journal that we are offered in the fourth chapter, “A Sentimental Education”. The urbane older man recalling his youth would have given us something altogether more valuable than the direct, self-absorbed, angst-ridden ramblings of the callow, if talented, teenager, with his obsessive “male crushes”. One longs for that self-protective vein of irony and amusement that is so engaging a feature of the mature McCormick’s style, with its hard-won poise — and the style is the man: he constructs himself through his elegantly turned sentences and well ordered narrative. No doubt the teenage self-communings of the gauche and worried lad who agonises over his sexual nature have their interest but mainly for eavesdroppers and peeping-toms.
In general, those sections of the book that use raw material strike me as satisfactory in proportion to how much McEldowney has done to them: the more art he supplies of the older McCormick’s own kind, the more enjoyable they become. The extended quotations from McCormick’s pocket diary and letters in the second part of chapter 11, “The Jumpers”, are less interesting than the artfully wrought prose of the first part and the ampersands and abbreviations are mildly irritating. The last chapter, “Via Suez” — also transcribed from McCormick’s private journal and recording the progress of a nebulous homosexual “affair” with “J” — works better because of the detailed semi-satirical descriptions of people and their preoccupations and the evocation of the hothouse atmosphere of shipboard life. The 48-year-old is a more complicated observer and self-analyst than the youngster. The final entry reproduced here records the ending of the relationship with “J”, and is: “Merely … to say that it’s over, and I’m not desolate — or won’t admit that I am. I’ve taken the way out of converting it all into a short story, `The Marriage of Mary Longmore’ … Oh, how lucky I am to be a writer (even such a writer as I).” That typically self-depreciatory “even” is as unnecessary as it is endearing and the luck was all ours.
Mac Jackson is professor of English at Auckland University