Obituary, I A Gordon

I A Gordon (1908-2004)

I A Gordon liked to be called “Prof”. It sounds quaint now, but, for him, the job was the man. The diverse roles of senior academic, scholar, literary leader and public intellectual defined him. With the rigorous energy of his Scottish character, he carved out new definitions of them, to the unquestionable benefit of New Zealand literary and academic life, from his arrival in 1937 to his reluctant death last September, still at close to full power mentally, at age 96.

It is too easy at a time of obituary to record only the high-level appointments and accolades (vice-chancellor of the federated University of New Zealand, chairman of the Literary Fund Advisory Committee, member of the Copyright Tribunal, CBE, three honorary degrees, named annually in “Today’s Birthdays” in The Times etc), or to think of him as an unbending pillar of the academic establishment. But, to his great credit, Ian Gordon always looked to a community well beyond scholars and students. In 1942, while a major in the Army Education Service, he helped to found the Progressive Publishing Society, and initiated and edited its New Zealand New Writing (1942-45). Publishing Ballantyne, Curnow, Fairburn, Kavan, Pearson, Smithyman, Texidor, and many more, its four issues contributed to the formative phase of modern New Zealand literature, partly because of Gordon’s non-political openness and astute judgment. His model was John Lehmann’s Penguin New Writing, but he always affirmed that New Zealand could do things as well as Britain. He ran the Victoria University English department on that belief.   

He included some of his own poetry in New Zealand New Writing, as well as his first essay on Katherine Mansfield, making him the first academic here to take her work seriously for publication. He continued to contribute to Mansfield studies, the first (again) to identify issues and themes that have become standard, including “exile with its elegiac undertones”, the “woman alone in the world” theme, her evocative use of New Zealand idiom, and, above all, his critic’s insistence on the assured precision of her craft, vigorously refuting her supposed naivety.

His monograph on Mansfield in the British Council “Writers and Their Work” series (1954) provided the best short critical biography and best bibliography to that date. (Antony Alpers’ first biography was 1953.) More unexpectedly, the writing in that pamphlet is as graceful, sensitive, and evocative as anything that has ever been published on Mansfield. He could write good prose – flexuous, versatile, vigorous and lucid – as well as analyse it, which he did notably well in his lectures and in his books English Prose Technique (1948) and The Movement of English Prose (1966). He could present a good story, too, as he ingeniously did in collecting Mansfield’s New Zealand stories (again, for the first time) and arranging them in approximate narrative sequence, as Undiscovered Country (1974), and in his compilation of unpublished parts of her early journals in The Urewera Notebook (1978). Other Mansfield work included his rehabilitation of Harold Beauchamp from criticism of his supposed parsimony to his daughter, a piece of fair-mindedness that perhaps appealed to Gordon’s own Scottish mix of financial prudence with generous personal judgement.

His other main service to New Zealand books was his long tenure as chairman of the Literary Fund Advisory Committee (1951-73). Those were relatively quiet times, though by 1962 Charles Brasch attacked the committee’s choices as “deadly safe”. The only major controversy arose when a divided vote withdrew support from the 1964 New Zealand Poetry Yearbook because of the supposed offensiveness of six poems, but Gordon remained unruffled in the post for another nine years. He probably stayed too long, but it should be remembered that such work is unpaid, time-consuming, and brings few thanks and no career benefits.             

As he approached and reached retirement in 1974, he had late flowerings as a scholar and a popular local columnist. He edited the novels and wrote the life of the socially observant Scottish novelist of the 1820s, John Galt, and won a large New Zealand following for his weekly language columns in the New Zealand Listener from 1975, collected as A Word in Your Ear (1980). He later sustained a similar column in the New Scientist (UK), publishing Take My Word for It: The Riddles of English Usage (1997) at age 89, as well as editing the Collins New Zealand Dictionary (1985).

It’s unlikely that heaven has much room set aside for New Zealand’s professors of English – past, present, and peccant. Half of them wouldn’t talk to each other if they did get there. But, as a group, their contribution to New Zealand letters, to use the old-fashioned word, has been greater than anyone notices, in many different ways. I A Gordon, so pragmatically versatile in accomplishment, contributed in many of those ways, and invented several of them.


Roger Robinson


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