This is a curious book. It is obviously about wartime censorship, and provides an insight into the sometimes very strange actions of officialdom, and ordinary people, who feared an enemy within society. But somehow the book’s title does not convey exactly what the author is trying to achieve. The ‘dead’ letters, which were never seen by their intended recipients, are not actually dead. They were in fact preserved, and sent to the national archives, where an archivist (Jared Davidson) brings them to life.
In fact, Davidson brings a handful to life by repeating them in their entirety at the beginning of each chapter. This follows a longish opening chapter in which he provides a good overview of the system of censorship, and the key personnel involved. The chief censor was a British soldier, Colonel Charles Gibbon, who was sent over for the job, as part of his role as chief of general staff in New Zealand. The actual censorship was under the supervision of a William Tanner, based in the Wellington postal centre, and operating under the Solicitor-General’s regulations.
All of the officials were deeply involved in the war effort, as an imperial venture, but their practices went beyond this remit. Mail censorship included all letters written to people in neutral countries, and individuals were targeted for what would normally be legitimate dissent. The atmosphere created within a small society led to suspicions being cast on anyone considered a foreigner, and therefore denunciations followed. This accounts for some individuals whose lives were disrupted, if not destroyed, by the heavy hand of the State after letters were censored, even if not actually subversive.
Davidson has collected a small sample of these cases, basically one per chapter. Some of these people were just misfits, and would otherwise have been seen as eccentric, especially those from European cultures, such as Marie Weitzel, Hjelmar Dannevill, and Laura Anderson. Others had obvious opposition to imperial Britain, either as Irish catholics like Tim Brosnan, or Frank Burns, who decided to evade conscription in the West Coast bush. The author obviously has an interest in the fringes of the labour movement, and the so-called Wobblies, where there was organised dissent and forms of opposition, including the actions against the conscription of married men in 1917.
But mostly these are very individual stories of outsiders, and some troubled souls, who made the mistake of writing candidly to friends and family, or were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Davidson is able to follow up these stories, and find some relatives who were not aware of the letters, and the stories within them. There is a sense of justice finally being provided for some individual cases of harsh treatment.
There are also a few problems with the book. The narrative can be somewhat jumbled as it goes from the particulars of a contemporary letter, and then including a lot of contextual information, before trying to complete the story of an individual life story. Davidson has a habit of referring to published authors as ‘historian’, when he is actually referring to academics. Obviously these outsiders and dissenters are of great interest in history departments, but a lot of the detail is very obscure.
Reviewed by Simon Boyce
Dead Letters: Censorship and Subversion in New Zealand, 1914-20
By Jared Davidson
Published by Otago University Press