Conviction or reflection, Hugh Roberts

The Settler’s Plot: How Stories Take Place in New Zealand 
Alex Calder
Auckland University Press, $45.99,
ISBN 9781869404882


Cosma Shalizi has proposed a useful division of non-fiction works into two categories, “works of reflection” and “works of conviction”:

A good work of reflection appeals to the imagination: it seizes and holds its reader’s attention, its style pleases, it provokes contemplation …. Works of conviction, on the other hand, aim at just that, securing the belief of their readers, and the virtues proper to them are sound facts, strong arguments, valid reasoning, shrewd inferences, inescapable conclusions, measured doubts. If it is well-written, so much the better.

How one responds to Alex Calder’s new (and beautifully written) book, The Settler’s Plot: How Stories Take Place in New Zealand, depends to a large extent on which of these categories one thinks it is trying to belong.

Calder’s preface sets the work up very much as a “work of conviction”:

This book is a study of the relationship between literature, place and the history of Pakeha settlement in New Zealand. By and large, each chapter explores one or more of the most frequently chosen settings in classic New Zealand literature – the beach, the farm, the bush or the suburb – and reflects on the plots or storylines that go with them. I believe the literary concept of setting gives us a new way of approaching Pakeha questions of place and identity.

Later in the preface he declares that a “primary purpose of this book is cartographic”, and any reader in the literary critical game will instantly think of the recent work of the critic Franco Moretti and his ambitious projects in literary geography. Sure enough, Moretti gets cited directly somewhat later in the book: a rare reminder of Calder’s past incarnation as one of the principal evangelists of the Good Word (or, at least, Playful Signifiers) of high literary theory to New Zealand’s shores back in the 1980s.

There is no doubt that Moretti’s goal is “conviction” (he has often said that he wants to move literary criticism towards a more “scientific” model, one in which arguments would be “falsifiable” in the Popperian sense): his maps, graphs and genealogical trees of literary taxonomy are meant to give us a new understanding of the place, function and life-cycle of works of literature in the larger culture. And one could certainly imagine a study of the kind that Calder limns in his preface that would attempt to excavate, tabulate and draw generalisations about the ways New Zealand’s beaches, farms, forests and suburbs have been represented in our (and other’s) literature. But nothing so systematic, comparatist or, indeed, “cartographic” is going on in this book.

In fact, the terms that Calder lays out in the preface (beach, farm etc) mostly get forgotten as we proceed into the meat of the book. Instead, we have four terms that organise the four major sections of the work: “Belonging”, “Landing”, “Settling” and “Looming”. When “the beach” as a term of art suddenly pops back up on p112, it comes as something of a surprise, particularly when we realise that what we’ve been reading about all this time in the “Landing” section was, apparently, “the beach”. But this “beach” is a purely metaphoric one. It is the “beach” as limen, the contested threshold between Maori natives and  Pakeha newcomers, that interests Calder. He writes about Augustus Earle on Maori cannibalism, about F E Maning on tapu, about William Satchell’s The Greenstone Door: there are beach scenes aplenty in Earle and Maning and a few in Satchell, but none feature in Calder’s account.

Even when actual locations do appear (Tutira’s arguable “farm”, Katherine Mansfield’s inarguable “suburb”), Calder hews so closely to the individual texts under examination that no larger vision of how “New Zealanders” in general have conceptualised these locations emerges. We get Herbert Guthrie-Smith’s highly individual vision of one particular sheep station, but no general account of a “Settler’s Plot”, no attempt to trace the cultural genealogy of the “New Zealand Farm” from, say, Lady Barker through Blanche Baughan, Douglas Stewart, Denis Glover’s “Magpies”, Curnow’s “House and Land”, up through Country Calendar and Fred Dagg to the Toyota “Bugger” commercials.

But if The Settler’s Plot must be deemed a failure as work of conviction, it is a resounding success as a work of reflection. Calder is an unfailingly thoughtful and thought-provoking guide and companion through a series of major works of New Zealand literature. Indeed, the book’s very weaknesses as “cartography” are a product of its extraordinary strengths in close critical engagement with the texts that he takes up. A cartographer must, to make sense of a landscape, simplify and abstract a few salient features. What Calder does here is far more closely related to landscape painting than cartography; he’s interested in the richly specific details of particular instances of New Zealand literature, and only offers us occasional gestures towards their place in a larger topography.

It’s hard to convey in a review what makes this book such a pleasure to read. So much of it comes simply from the relaxed, undogmatic and consistently empathetic nature of the author’s approach to his material. How wonderful, for example, to read a chapter on F E Maning which wants to do more than scold him for not viewing Maori-Pakeha relations in the same way an early 21st-century New Zealander would. Calder tries – successfully, I think – to “recover the transactional, mutually transformative, space between cultures that Maning’s text nonetheless also records.” No “cartography” of New Zealand literature would be likely to pay this kind of careful – and hugely rewarding – attention to the creative possibilities that open up in the space of cross-cultural confusions and discoveries. Calder reads the extraordinarily complex history of Maning’s deep and conflicted relationship with the Maori in a way that brushes past reductive narratives of victimisation and exploitation, and recognises the opportunities for self-reinvention that both cultures seized upon in the early days of pre- and post-Treaty contact.

One of the high points of the book is the chapter on that much-praised and little-read masterpiece of New Zealand literature, Guthrie-Smith’s Tutira, whose extraordinarily rich and playful prose Calder persuasively suggests we see not as “the verbose residue … of his Latinate education at Rugby College” but as a self-consciously “modernist” experiment. The comparison of the effect of the whole work to Proust’s À la Recherche that Calder offers seems to me entirely apt. And once again Calder’s subtly empathetic understanding of the complex and contradictory impulses that shape a writer’s oeuvre comes to the fore as he teases out the shifting, and never entirely resolved, attitudes Guthrie-Smith takes toward his lifetime’s work transforming the landscape of Tutira. Calder’s refusal to fall into the easy judgments of what he calls “puritanical nativism” when discussing environmental change in New Zealand is as welcome, and as remarkable, as his avoidance of simplistic moralisation in the chapters on early settlement.

There are, of course, some debatable claims. The attempt to read Man Alone as a Western seems unconvincing to me, not least because it seems badly to misunderstand the nature of the Western. Calder insists upon reading the Western as a genre concerned with man against the wilderness, but he fails to see that the Western’s praise of the wilderness is always in the mode of elegy: the train tracks are coming, the new schoolteacher is stepping down from the coach, the townsfolk are about to elect a tenderfoot as sheriff. The Western hero belongs in the wilderness, to be sure, but this is because he represents that violence essential to the establishment of civilisation, but which must be banished from civilisation once established. In short, see The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

But what fun would a work of reflection be if we couldn’t occasionally argue with it? The Settler’s Plot is a book that anyone interested in New Zealand literature or New Zealand history should read and re-read. If it establishes no sweeping new thesis about our literary and cultural history, it will inspire countless new insights into both the specific works that it surveys and into the broader cultural field from which they emerge. Above all, it provides a shining example of the virtues of what philosophers and rhetoricians call “charity”: the assumption that your interlocutor is neither a fool nor a knave and that true understanding requires the ability to see the world as others see it. The Settler’s Plot shows that Calder has that ability in spades.


Hugh Roberts teaches at the University of California, Irvine.


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Posted in History, Literature, Non-fiction, Review
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