Book Review: Hard Frost: Structures of Feeling in New Zealand Literature, 1908-1945, by John Newton

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_hard_frostThis is the first instalment of a projected three-part series on New Zealand literature. It’s a rather curious project, if John Newton’s preface is to be accepted. He claims that New Zealand literature, as he knew it, is complete and increasingly remote, or a “finite chapter.” Really? New Zealand literature no longer exists, apparently. What an odd premise. His justification for this is similar to that which is given for the apparent demise of the music industry: the young people don’t accept the old format.

In fact, this book is caught within a crisis in the academy. The heyday of New Zealand literature courses is over, and the demand is not there. Newton seems to feel this acutely, having written about the key ‘nationalist’ authors for some time, but without being able to interest his students. Giving up a teaching role, it is a rather odd enterprise to write three long books all about the crumbling edifice. And why should it be the academics who define what New Zealand literature is anyway? This is a bit like the American academic who decided the fall of communism signalled the ‘end of history’, except that was a piece of triumphalism rather than an acknowledgement of defeat.

This first book is not so much about the historical context becoming irrelevant. That is still to come, presumably. Hard Frost is actually based on the premise that New Zealand literature did not begin until Allen Curnow and the Caxton Press created it in the 1930s. The ‘hard frost’ comes from a Charles Brasch quote, in reference to a Curnow edited anthology, claiming that the chosen writers had “killed off weeds, and promoted sound growth,” at least in the South Island. This mythology is analogous to making the inhospitable mountainous country possible to inhabit: some sturdy blokes conquer the mountains and then see the promised land. The mountaineering was both figurative and literal, and it was also largely a masculine activity, as the later literary critics have pointed out.

A lot of the book is about this gender issue. Some great female writers were marginalised along the way; and a number of the blokes are limited by their own masculinity, and implicit homophobia. It has to be said that the issues of gender and sexual identity may be topical, but are not necessarily of great moment. Newton notes that the new interpretations involve a re-reading of Frank Sargeson, and the intervention of theoretical positions adopted from the international literature. Of course, Newton does this too, but also reverts to his own student background in choosing to resurrect an obscure part of Raymond Williams’ canon, the Welsh doyen of cultural studies. This is where he gets the phrase ‘structure of feeling’ from, but it’s more of an organising concept than academic theory.

The theme of the book, if one can abstract from all the derivative quoting from the literature, can be observed in the front cover. This involves a rather curious photo of three men trying to hold up some fossilised bones in a paddock, in North Canterbury, circa 1949. The caption on the back cover indicates that the men are archaeologists, including Jim Eyles and Roger Duff, who wrote a 1952 book on the discovery of Moa bones in Pyramid Valley. Newton does not mention the photo in the text, but does quote from Curnow’s famous poem ‘The Skeleton of the Great Moa in the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch’. The poem refers to the moa egg that was reconstructed, and the much repeated phrase about a child, born in a ‘marvellous year’, that “will learn the trick of standing upright here.” Newton has spent much of his academic career trying to explain to his students how this phrase launched the new, nuanced, form of nationalist writing by Curnow. But he now makes the point that Jim Eyles had made a more important discovery as a 13 year old at the Wairau Bar.

Newton now admits that the ‘nationalist position’ of Curnow was not really teachable anyway; and that he had already read it from a ‘post-colonial’ frame, in effect. That is fine as an admission of a literary critic, but Newton has an enhanced idea of his project as literary history. This goes beyond the role of writing a history of the key texts, to that of the inverse, i.e. writing history by way of the local literature and related texts. This is quite perplexing, apart from the contextual evidence he introduced about the archaeologists, and some of the photographic research. The key ones are in the chapter about gender and mountaineering, including the photo of Blanche Baughan trying to climb an ice face in 1916. She appears to be wearing completely impractical clothing, but the reproduction is poor, it has to be said, as are the other photos in the chapter, which seem too small.

The only other contextual material of historical significance involves the two key blokish poets in the nationalist frame, A.R.D. Fairburn and Denis Glover, as representative of settler manliness. Thus, Fairburn and Glover are both subjected to literary criticism and as blokes, being too partial to boozing and bravado, and not accepting their role as literary poets. However, there is a very interesting discussion of Glover, on a very personal reading, in which Newton makes a comparison between him and his own father. Despite this personal insight it just makes Glover more of a romantically tinged nationalist. But still a nationalist, just not on the same level as Allen Curnow.

As I write this review the 375th anniversary of the ‘discovery’ of New Zealand by Abel Tasman is being celebrated in Golden Bay. Gifts are being exchanged between Maori and Dutch dignitaries, rather than there being a clash of boats in the bay, as in 1642. Allen Curnow commemorated this in his ‘Landfall in Unknown Seas’, in true modernist style, which remains relevant. A combined and inter-weaved post-colonial history goes on, but is there now really no one to tell our islands’ story?

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Structures of Feeling in New Zealand Literature, 1908-1945
by John Newton
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561629

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