Local and special, Stuart Murray

Picking Up the Traces: The Making of a New Zealand Literary Culture 1932-1945
Lawrence Jones
Victoria University Press, $49.94,
ISBN 0864734557

Nationalism, and especially cultural nationalism, inhabits a position in contemporary culture that seems peculiarly complex. Easy to identify, yet notoriously hard to define, nationalist sentiments and ideas are both unnervingly popular and manifestly out of date. We have had enough of 20th century history to recognise the shortcomings of an argument that sought to pass itself off as an ideology, and yet the trappings of nationalism – its various pulls and demands – are still inextricably woven into much of our daily life.

Nationalist cultural criticism, a form of argument within the argument as it were, might be said to offer a particularly revealing case study of the wider phenomenon. The work of such criticism is to make the chaotic appear normal and natural, to smooth the edges of a messy culture into a narrative that provides structure. Often, as with much of Allen Curnow’s critical writings, it works towards a purpose. It has a desire to convince, a job to do. In many ways, Curnow’s career as a critic displays a case of a job well done, a position achieved, a nation won over. With his regular major critical interventions (roughly once a decade from 1945 to the 1970s) Curnow outlined and then confirmed a sense of New Zealand writing as one appropriately housed within the skin of its own nation.

By the time the systematic academic revisions of such canon building began in the 1980s, they were scarcely alternatives to the nationalist project itself. Rather they were suitably energised scavengers, making an attack on a victorious system that had become bloated through its very successes. If nationalism’s false consciousness is revealed only after it has, so to speak, entered the bloodstream of a community, then it dies a happy death. Having become normative, and thus achieved its very goal, it can wane away, content that what might be revealed may well do nothing to change the hearts of those who have already become believers.

Lawrence Jones’s Picking Up the Traces: The Making of a New Zealand Literary Culture 1932-1945 is a major publication within the terms of such a critical nationalism. In fact, it achieves this through a double act, both being about the production of a national literature in New Zealand (“the making of”), and in its own status as a text that takes the nation itself as its own foundational principle and organising category. Jones is bold enough to start with Curnow’s possibly most famous observation as his epigraph, that “reality must be local and special at the point where we pick up the traces”, and it is challenging to see the phrase (again) on the page, and to wonder whether it can (in the age of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth, or the films of Harry Sinclair) be taken at face value, or whether it is here set up to be unravelled, its essentialism to be picked at. For what is clear very early on from Picking Up the Traces is that Jones has gathered the evidence, the very material surrounding the writing of the 1932-1945 period, that can facilitate a genuinely innovative scholarly argument.

The book abounds with details of letters, pamphlets, editorials, unpublished writing and poems, satires and stories gathered from all the corners of the emerging culture of small magazines and short-lived associations that characterised the 1930s in New Zealand. No other study of the period has come close to rivalling this marshalling of material, and, as Jones works through the contents of Oriflamme in 1933 or the second issue of Verse Alive in 1937 or Denis Glover’s experience of war, a degree of wonder can only pass over the reader. Here are the nuts and bolts of the period, selected and presented from the database that Jones has constructed through his scrupulous research. Comprehensiveness becomes, in part, the point here. To chase every stray publication, to note the exact number of conscientious objectors to the war (and to give a breakdown within that overall figure), or the month in 1939 in which A R D Fairburn gave a talk to a literary society in Auckland, is to advance an argument through accretion. And the point of the layering is to display the times and events seemingly as they were, because the support this provides for the concluding argument appears insurmountable.

So, as Jones moves through his chapters on the early publishing infrastructure of the writing period, the various influences of English and American forerunners, the creation of a specific New Zealand “anti-myth”, and the impact of key historical events such as the Depression and war, he does so in order to gather all this material in such a way that it seems as if the conclusions are as much displayed as argued. And Jones’s conclusion, that the writers of the period “were at the centre of a coherent, conscious, revolutionary literary movement” gives the answer to the question posed of the Curnow epigraph. It is to be taken at face value. The literature of the nation is truly “local and special”. It is of the place.

There are a number of things to be said about this. Possibly the first is to note the tension that emerges from Jones’s juxtaposition of the detail he works through with the wider argument he makes. There is so much in Picking Up the Traces that is new, so many new connections born out of the accumulation of material, that it comes as something of a surprise to find that the key organising categories are very much familiar from Jones’s earlier work. So the idea of the “anti-myth”, the true nationalism that replaces the false, is again at work here, as is the notion of a provincial generation of writers, so that
figures such as D’Arcy Cresswell, Robin Hyde and John Mulgan are grouped together (and are, presumably, part of the “coherence” Jones’s conclusion points to).

Yet the actual material of Jones’s chapters displays, time and time again, that the disparate complexities of the literary culture were always there all along. The contributors to the first issue of The Phoenix, it is clear, drew their inspiration from events and models both local and international, yet Jones – even as he records this – has no problem re-asserting the magazine’s place at the “birth” of the movement, a point that has become something of a literary cliché. This is not an observation about whether The Phoenix was an important publication or not – it clearly was. Rather it is that the infrastructure of Picking Up the Traces displays a clear “fidelity” (to borrow from Curnow) to what we might call a national critical experience that enshrines the workings of such criticism even as its own specifics point to connections that make the national narrative seem somewhat threadbare.

As a result, there is a curious sense in reading Picking Up the Traces that, for all its attention to detail, there is no great sense that the arguments concerning the period have been advanced. To some degree this is due to Jones rehearsing analyses he has made elsewhere and (understandably) now finding the evidence to support his case. But there is another dimension to this, and here I should declare a self-interest. I am one of the other people who has written on this period of New Zealand literary culture, my book never a soul at home appearing in 1998 (the other key text is Rachel Barrowman’s excellent A Popular Vision: The Arts and the Left in New Zealand 1930-1950, published in 1991). As is always the way in such circumstances, my initial perusal of Picking Up the Traces was to skim the contents page, and then immediately look for myself in the index (all academics do this with a “rival” book in their subject area, and those who deny it are liars). My own book is cited twice, with the title wrong in the first of the two examples. Barrowman has one mention in the index, though interestingly not for a citation of A Popular Vision (though the book is in the bibliography).

So far, so nothing, because, as Jones makes clear in his introduction, he does “not try to argue with critics and historians presenting other positions, nor do I try to acknowledge all of the insights from other critics and historians that have gone into the argument”. His focus is on the primary material. This would not be an issue were it not for the fact that Jones’s observations about the 1932-1945 period do obviously engage with previous discussions of the time. So, for example, Picking Up the Traces reinforces the importance of Glover and Robert Lowry in establishing a productive print culture in the early 1930s and notes the seemingly necessary demonisation of Alan Mulgan, Charles Marris and J H E Schroder by an emerging group of modernists reacting against an idea of genteel Georgian verse. Jones charts the difficulties Robin Hyde encountered due to the misogyny of figures such as Fairburn and Frank Sargeson, sees the Depression as a vital catalyst for the period’s writing, and concludes that it was Curnow who emerged as the most important and sensitive spokesperson for the developing literary culture. One way or another, and in a number of places, this has been said before. Personally, I found most curious Jones’s discussion of Creswell and R A K Mason as “elder brothers” to the generation of 1930s poets in particular, not least because my own book contains a chapter discussing the two exactly in this light (and Jones’s discussion does not produce one of the two index citations).

It is important to be clear here about the nature of these observations. Noting Jones’s method in this regard is to make a point about the kind of criticism he is practising in Picking Up the Traces. The insularity has nothing to do with academic competitiveness or anything so trivial, but is rather an observation on the workings of the nationalist method. It is precisely because nationalist criticism seeks to chart the “local and special” that it is deeply reluctant to look beyond its own boundaries. In seeking the normative, it distrusts engagement with anything other than that which is “picked up”. With all the benefits of the attention to detail come the problems of the narrow nature of focus. The consequence for Jones’s study is that it has a time-locked aspect to it, feeling as if it might have been produced in the early 1980s rather than 2003.

And this is a shame, because there have been all sorts of recent developments within New Zealand in the articulation of critical models that can explore and (crucially) contain nationalism. It would have been wonderful, for example, if the detail of Picking Up the Traces could have something to say about ideas of settlement as they are currently being discussed with regard to New Zealand writing, because this would have given a context for the national. Equally, though Jones discusses gender and race, he does so with little genuine insight, and there is no real feel that recent innovative work on the sexuality of writers such as Cresswell and Sargeson can make an impression on the overriding superstructure of nationalist assumptions. Picking Up the Traces in fact cries out for a revisionist agenda, though paradoxically it emerges to become the academic critical bible of the nationalist period after a number of the revisionist studies have appeared.

In the final paragraph of his conclusion, Jones lists a number of the key texts, by Curnow, Sargeson, Hyde, Fairburn and others, that have constituted “the movement’s most lasting legacy”. It is most appropriate that he does so, for in ending with the creation of monuments, he has engaged in the nationalist’s favourite pastime – statue building. Curnow himself knew that statues, skeletons and tombs were deeply deceptive and wrote about this in a number of poems. Hone Tuwhare’s “To a Maori Figure Cast in Bronze outside the Chief Post Office, Auckland” ran rings round the whole concept of such constructions. That was a while ago.


Stuart Murray works in the English Department at the University of Leeds.


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Posted in History, Literature, Non-fiction, Review
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