Whose history? Simon Hay

wThe Expatriate Myth: New Zealand Writers and the Colonial World 
Helen Bones
Otago University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9781988531175

The Expatriates 
Martin Edmond
Bridget Williams Books, $50.00,
ISBN 9781988533179

Helen Bones aims to dismantle the “myth” that New Zealand writers, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, had to leave New Zealand to pursue careers as writers. She argues that this myth is wrong in at least two directions: first, that many New Zealand writers stayed and wrote and published, in New Zealand – that New Zealand was at this time not the cultural wasteland that it was made out to be by the generation of scholars she calls the “cultural nationalists”; and, second, that writers who did leave had neither an easier nor a harder time of it than those who stayed. Her book is a quantitative study, insofar as it can be: not interested in the “content” of books, but in “comprehensive data collection”, “literary empirical techniques”, and “a dataset of publications”. Her goal is to “quantify the significance of literary expatriatism”.

Her arguments are compelling, and the historical detail she offers in support of them is excellent. The cultural nat-ionalists – writers and editors like Allen Curnow, A R D Fairburn, Denis Glover, Frank Sargeson and John Mulgan – are very much the villains of her book, and Bones’s critiques of them are very much in line with what has become, since the 1990s, the dominant narrative of New Zealand literary scholarship and criticism. Her arguments against the cultural nationalists may lack originality, but the persistence of the myths she wants to dispel suggests that we still mis- or at least under-recognise the transnational character of bourgeois, white-settler New Zealand culture in the period she analyses, 1890–1945. And so those arguments warrant repetition.

The book insists, helpfully, that we understand the British Empire by way of metaphors of flow, connection and network: the imperial world was a “mobile, modern” one, in which writers were “assisted by colonial world networks”; writers were located within “the multi-faceted British Empire”, “traversing” “diverse countries”; writers existed and functioned in an “interconnected world of … vitality and mobility and creativity”. This has become a popular way to view Empire, and rightly pushes back against a picture of New Zealand as isolated, static, the receiver of outside cultural influence, rather than engaged in a back-and-forth exchange.

But this model for understanding Empire has serious limitations. It has no way to talk about power and dominance: every exchange was good because each side was both giving and receiving. It has no way to situate these exchanges, these networks, within power structures of dominance, exploitation, dispossession, and genocide (cultural and literal). Which leads Bones to describe “patterns of global migration and movement” as “natural”, and to write sentences like this: “All the dominance of British-origin literature means, then, is that New Zealanders had access to affordable editions of up-to-date literature, and were further able to participate in the colonial writing world.” Not the extirpation of te reo Māori in and by the school system, but the celebration of New Zealand’s high literacy rates; not the expropriation of Māori land where bookshops and libraries were built, but the availability of more consumer choices.

Bones very rightly points repeatedly to the ways that New Zealand writers were embedded in a “colonial writing network”, but the book doesn’t seem to have any interest in the social structures that produced and framed that network. Capitalism, say, or imperialism, were changing hugely over this time. Capitalism in 1890 was not the same as in 1920, or 1930, or 1945, in important ways, important even to the book trade. Bones’s book doesn’t have mechanisms for distinguishing what might have been different for different sorts of writers at these moments. Her conclusions are thus helpful deconstructions of the myths: New Zealand writers didn’t have to leave New Zealand to be successful, because we can see that some who left were successful and some who stayed were also; New Zealand writers weren’t disadvantaged in London because some based there were successful and some weren’t. But the book misses the chance to examine the ways that the different class, different gender, different sexual orientation, and different historical moment of each writer might offer something more than the conclusion that there doesn’t seem to be any overarching pattern.

This failure to pay attention to difference is at the core of the book’s biggest failing, which is surely a failing that needs to be owned by the university system out of which the book emerges (it began as a PhD dissertation at the University of Canterbury). The book repeatedly and fundamentally misrepresents bourgeois, white-settler culture as New Zealand culture: “it is both difficult and anachronistic to draw a clear dividing line between ‘New Zealand culture’ and ‘British culture’ at this time,” she says. If Bones were to swap “New Zealand culture” for “bourgeois, white-settler New Zealand culture” in a sentence like that, I think I would more or less agree with her. Chapter six of her book is, in this regard, by far the best chapter, in which we do at least find the words “Pākehā” and “middle-class New Zealanders”, and some attention to what it means to limit her argument to those groups. But, for the most part, the book is content to say things like “early-twentieth-century New Zealanders commonly had a network of colonial connections to call upon”, without pausing to consider or identify which New Zealanders that might be true of.

In their chapters in Mark Williams’s A History of New Zealand Literature (2016), Alice Te Punga Somerville and Arini Loader have given excellent examples of where and how, in the periods before and after those Bones discusses, we can find a rich body of Māori writing, if we know where and how to look. And in the most recent issue of The Journal of New Zealand Studies, Tina Makereti sketches the breadth and depth of Māori literature that exists throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Bones’s treatment of white-settler culture as “New Zealand” both fails to account for the ways that a dominant culture erases indigenous culture and, in addition, reproduces such erasures in her own work.

Martin Edmond’s The Expatriates is written from notes compiled by the late James McNeish, one of the cultural nationalist villains of Bones’s book. In the introduction, Edmond recounts how McNeish compiled the notes as part of the research for his book Breaking Ranks, but when that book focused on a different group of New Zealanders, McNeish invited Edmond to look through his notes to see if there was anything of interest. McNeish’s project, speculates Edmond, was a study of “the national character”, whereas Edmond is “fascinated by characters”. His book, then, is four quite distinct biographies of New Zealanders who built lives and careers outside of New Zealand. But, in order to tell the stories of these characters, Edmond realised he needed a chronological structure, “almost as if I were writing a (partial) history of the twentieth century”.

The four characters are, in chronological order: Harold Williams, polyglot linguist and journalist, who commentated on the 1905 and 1917 revolutions in Russia; Ronald Syme, classicist and, during WWII, British propagandist and misinformation campaigner; John Platt-Mills, lawyer, politician, and human rights activist; and Joe Trapp, Renaissance scholar and archivist.

Sometimes, Edmond’s book offers compelling examples of Bones’s points. For example, writing about Williams, working as a young ministerial assistant in rural Taranaki: “Williams was surprisingly well informed for someone living at the edge of the Empire, presumably because of his connection with the Smiths in Christchurch and the wonders of the Victorian postal service”. Bones, of course, would (rightly) have us be not at all surprised by this, but the picture of New Zealand entangled in and co-constructing a “colonial writing network” is exactly as she describes. 

In these expatriates, Edmond discovers four disparate New Zealanders who built their lives around the idea of, as he puts it in the very last sentence of the book, “a just society for all”. If this merely reproduces what has been for a long time one of the sustaining myths of New Zealand – that we are, if not a classless society, egalitarians all, we are at least committed to the idea of egalitarianism – then it is complicated in that these New Zealanders all left to pursue that goal in other societies, other cultures (sometimes global, but mostly European and primarily England-based). Where, of course, they met further resistances of other kinds. 

Edmond manages to appealingly capture something of the philosophy of each of his men in the narrative style and focus of his retelling of their lives. In the story of Williams, for instance, who was committed to the philosophy of Tolstoyism, a kind of Christian socialism or anarchism, Edmond narrates the sweeping social drama of Williams’s Russia in very much Tolstoy’s terms, with class and political conflicts played out through individual dramas.

In the story of Syme, called by Trapp “The Great Concealer”, very little character emerges, though a fascinating life. Edmond keeps many details until very late in the piece, so we have narrative rather than character development. And the occasional gestures towards character (he was “clandestine” or he “love[d] gossip”) tend to arrive as a surprise, indicating new features of Syme’s character rather than confirming those already delineated. But, in some sense, that’s Edmond’s point. Engaged in misinformation and propaganda campaigns for the British during WWII, a writer who loathed “the odious pronoun”, preferring to write of himself, when forced to, as “this person”, he is an extraordinarily difficult character to pin down, to decipher. As a historian, Syme rejected the “great man” theory in favour of “the study of people and affairs in their own environment”, and he prioritised narration over analysis. In some reasonably straightforward sense, the oddness of Edmond’s writing in this chapter – narrative rather than analysis, the events and the relationships rather than the character of the “great man” Sir Ronald Syme, Order of Merit – is Edmond’s deference to, and respect for, the style and tone and life of Syme himself. 

And, in the final narrative, Trapp’s commitment to the archive as a mechanism for social memory is reflected in how much space is given, in Trapp’s narrative, to the library and to other scholars and historians (Warburg, Kermode, Bloom), while Trapp himself recedes somewhat into the background. For Trapp, for the Warburgian archive, the book you need is never the book you know you want, but is rather adjacent to it; hence the need for good cataloguing. And Trapp’s narrative becomes a “web of connections” like an archive, a mechanism for learning not the things we think we want, but rather the things we should know.

These are, indeed, fascinating mini-biographies. And the picture that emerges of New Zealand’s intricate interconnections with some of the great struggles of the 20th century – socialism, Jewish persecution, human rights and decolonisation – is a memorable instance of the kind of transnational national history Bones advocates in her book. But the question of why these four New Zealanders, rather than others, remains. A few other New Zealand expats get a mention: Hugh Walpole, author of ghost stories and other fiction, who worked (with Williams) in Russia as a diplomat for the British during the 1917 revolution, would have been just as interesting, perhaps. Or Norman Davies, a scholar, who was working in Eastern Europe at the same time, and in a related capacity, as Ronald Syme. And, of course, there are a slew of others.

Once that question gets asked, it can’t help but be noted that, for all that Edmond doesn’t claim that these biographies are representative in any way, he chose four cis-, hetero-, and white men around whom to build his narrative history of New Zealand in the global 20th century. I can’t help but think how much richer a history Edmond’s would have been had it put, as well, women, Māori, queer and trans New Zealanders at its centre. 

Simon Hay, by training a literary scholar, has himself been an expatriate, living roughly one-third of his life overseas, mostly in America but also in Wales, England, and Argentina, though now back again in New Zealand. 

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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