Reconsidering a juvenile critique, Jock Phillips

“I think I am becoming a New Zealander”: Letters of J C Beaglehole
Tim Beaglehole (ed)
Victoria University Press, $80.00,
ISBN 9780864739025

For someone such as myself, this is an engrossing book. I had met J C Beaglehole (his preferred self-nomenclature) when I was a child and remembered him as an aloof shy man. I then caused some notoriety as a long-haired historian when, on returning to New Zealand determined to make waves in New Zealand history about which I knew almost nothing, I criticised the judgement that he was “the great historian of New Zealand”. I suggested his work on James Cook did not tell us anything significant about New Zealand and its values. So I read this collection of letters with interest, and reflected on my disrespectful youthful suggestion as I did. We will return to that issue later.

But, first, this is a volume to be enjoyed by anyone who savours written English. In a world of text messages and innumerable sloppy emails, it is salutary to return to an age when letter-writing was a literary art. As his editor and son, Tim, notes in his excellent introduction, Beaglehole’s shyness in oral discourse was compensated for by his sparkling extroversion once he picked up a pen. A man who liked nothing better than to read the letters of English literary greats, he put enormous creativity and energy into his letters. They are long, they are always interesting, they are often very funny, and they race along, often with short phrases joined by ampersands, playing witty language games. Beaglehole loves to explore different poses and stretch the image as far as he can take it – sometimes a biting sarcasm, sometimes a self-mocking humility, sometimes a deliberately exaggerated pride (“slim, handsome, with regular bronzed features – or perhaps that trifle of irregularity that makes true manly beauty … What energy of memory, what tenacity of memory … Ah, what a man!”). He enjoys describing the physical details of his present situation – the pen that does not work, the fly in the ink bottle. I loved the description of writer’s block – “standing up, sitting down, dusting a few books, looking at one, feeling guilty, looking at another, feeling guiltier, opening the window, closing the window, opening it again, looking out of it ……” and so on, in marvellous self-aware outpouring – the very reverse of writer’s block!

What surprised me was that the letters exude an affection for people and a depth of emotion which my face-to-face encounters had never suggested. Two correspondents in particular bring this to the fore. One was Norman Richmond, who worked with Beaglehole in the early 1930s in the WEA and co-signed his famous letters defending intellectual freedom which cost him jobs in both Auckland and Victoria colleges. They both had young families and, in the 1930s, the regular letters are a mine of family and political gossip. Then, from 1945, there are wonderfully affectionate letters with Janet Paul. As Janet Wilkinson, she had been one of “Beaglehole’s babies”, the extraordinarily talented group of young women (including Ruth Ross, Nancy Taylor, Mary Boyd, Ruth Allen, all highly distinguished historians), who worked with Beaglehole during his years in charge of the Historical Branch. From about 1941, Beaglehole and Janet Wilkinson had an affair. The full story remains hidden, and Tim Beaglehole judiciously notes he is not the right person to uncover its details. The essence appears to be that each decided that their own primary relationships – Beaglehole with his wife, Elsie, and their three sons; Janet with her future husband, the publisher and bookseller Blackwood Paul – meant that a lifetime friendship should replace a romantic entanglement. The result is a warm and observant correspondence, laced with comments about books read, concerts attended and paintings enjoyed.

The life-story that the letters tell will be known to anyone who has read Tim Beaglehole’s magisterial A Life of J C Beaglehole: a period as a graduate student in London soaking up the cultural life of a buzzing metropolis; a return to depression New Zealand and his struggles to find a secure job, not made easier by his public commitments to intellectual freedom; his encountering of the under-secretary of Internal Affairs, Joe Heenan, who involves him in the centennial publications programme and sets him up at Victoria with a research position to work on James Cook; and then the 1950s and 1960s, when Beaglehole’s focus becomes the mammoth tasks of editing the journals of Cook and Banks and writing Cook’s life. The letters during these last two decades become narrower, increasingly focussed on Cook minutiae – as he says in a typically self-aware comment: “the pedantic mind waiting on esoteric information”.

What does this tell us about the issue I raised as an angry young historian in 1973? Do these letters show a great New Zealand historian at work? There can be no doubt, and the letters confirm this, that Beaglehole’s editing of the Cook and Banks journals was a hugely impressive work of scholarship. He realised the task would not be done again and had to be done properly; and to do so he had to master a huge body of knowledge about natural history, ethnology, geography and 18th-century science. Beaglehole’s commitment to finding the truth shines through these letters and is obvious on every page of the journals. The scale and care involved in this work has rarely been equalled anywhere. Yet, for a distinguished historian, there are few large speculative ideas in these letters, particularly in the later years. There is no debating of historical theory or tackling really big ideas – although he does contemplate a work on the role of science in the 18th century, but dies before it is accomplished. Apart from empirical details, the question he wrestles with, more than any other, is the “character” of James Cook. He even writes to Tim about his doctoral work on Thomas Munro and instructs him to explore the man’s “character”. To a 21st-century historian, who tends to see people as reflections of wider social forces, “character” – good king, bad king – seems like a very traditional question.

So was he a great New Zealand historian? There is no question that anyone seeking to understand New Zealand in all its richness must begin with the accounts of Cook and natural scientists. If you seek to understand the botany or ecology of this country, you must use Cook’s journals; if you want to understand Maori history and European attitudes to Maori, you must start there, too, as Anne Salmond among others has shown. So a good edition of his journals was an essential contribution to New Zealand history. But was Beaglehole really interested in the history of New Zealand? The title of the book, “I think I am becoming a New Zealander”, suggests a major theme is his growing acceptance of his own persona as a New Zealand intellectual. Certainly, in the early letters his enthusiasm for “Home” and its cultural traditions shines through. Even then, there were strong ties to New Zealand through his extensive family, and he always had an affection for the New Zealand landscape and bush which continued on. In 1959, he writes to R A Skelton, the Hon Secretary of the Hakluyt Society, and encourages him to bring his wife and go walking in the great New Zealand outdoors – “Bring your boots. Wife & daughters if you like, but boots essential.” There is also no doubt, as Beaglehole recorded in The New Zealand Scholar, that his work with Heenan awoke an increasing commitment to New Zealand history. When offered jobs overseas, he turned them down – the phrase which gives the book its title came in a letter in 1946, when he had been sounded out about a job at the Australian National University. But he continues to have a strong affection for England and its culture. Even in 1958, when he discovers two copies of The Observer used as parcel wrapping, he expostulates, “the civilization!” and wonders how he can ever advise his son to return home. Along with a continuing affection for European high culture, there remains a despair about the small-minded repressions of New Zealand society. When given a choice between the Evening Post and Horace Walpole’s letters, he leaves the paper in a heap on the floor. His work on Cook allows him to explore 18th-century high culture, but in a local Pacific setting. He was not really interested in exploring New Zealand society because he liked to keep it at a distance, and his sense of New Zealand’s emerging culture was far more about establishing European high culture in a province – a good orchestra, chamber music concerts, fine printing. In these respects, his attitudes were characteristic of the “thirties generation”. He shared much with Allen Curnow and Charles Brasch – an interest in beginnings, in landfalls, a focus on poetry and fine writing, an interest in typography, a love of the New Zealand landscape, and an alienation from the crude philistinism of New Zealand popular culture. This lack of interest in, or sympathy with, Kiwi society is the element of truth which remains of my juvenile critique.

After reading so much about the great editor at work, so concerned with exactitude and appropriate editorial decisions, one inevitably applies these tests to this book. In most ways it is like father like son. The choice of letters provides a fascinating range of perspectives; the biographical notes at the start of the volume introduce the correspondents excellently, and the brief footnotes explaining individuals mentioned in the letters are apposite and at times delightfully frank (although there are some odd absences, such as Jock McEwen and Frank Stimson). The biggest editorial problem from my perspective is the assumption that this is “a companion volume” to the Life. As a result, there is not even a brief biographical outline of Beaglehole himself – I could not find out the year of his birth, although the dates of every correspondent are mentioned, and too often for background to an incident in the letters, a footnote refers you to the Life. This is fine if the Life is always at hand; but, in my case, I read the letters several thousand kilometres from home, and it was frustrating. A minor annoyance in an otherwise wonderful read, which firmly establishes John Beaglehole as New Zealand’s finest letter-writer, if not perhaps the greatest historian of New Zealand.


Jock Phillips is Senior Editor of Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand.


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Posted in Letters, Non-fiction, Review
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