Creating a National Spirit: Celebrating New Zealand's Centennial
15: Myth and Anti-myth in Literary Responses to the Centennial
15: Myth and Anti-myth in Literary Responses to the Centennial
In 'The Colonist' in 1890, Thomas Bracken celebrated the creation, 'Here, in the Wilderness, with plough and spade', of 'an empire's firm foundation'. In that same year in 'Jubilee Day' he not only celebrated what had been done in the fifty years since the Treaty of Waitangi but also looked forward to 1940 when 'the nation's superstructure strong and fair' should have been built upon that foundation.1 He had no doubt that the literary response to that anticipated centennial would be a triumphant celebration of progress. However, when 1940 duly arrived, the environment was not entirely propitious for such a celebration. Although some in the government were keen for a centennial celebration that would both 'celebrate 100 years of colonisation' and 'bring New Zealand before the eyes of the world',2 as E. H. McCormick later noted, he and the others planning the centennial 'were working under the shadow of the depression',3 and by the time the centennial year arrived the world war that had been threatening had eventuated. Further, while a new literary nationalism was being put forward in the 1930s by the Phoenix-Caxton writers, the first such stirrings since the premature hopes of the 1890s, the tone had changed from fifty years before. Bracken and his fellow jubilee celebrants had proclaimed their society's myths of itself as 'God's Own Country'—the conquering of the bush and the building of a just egalitarian and biracial society, its heroic pioneer near-past, its uniquely beautiful landscape, its proud British heritage, its glorious future. But these new literary nationalists were, as Allen Curnow later said, 'busy making' an 'anti-myth about New Zealand' rather than affirming the old myths.4 Something of their tone appears in Tomorrow's unsigned editorial comment on the government's announcement in 1938 of the Centennial Literary Competition. The editorialist predicted that the competition would inevitably result in 'a great deal of second-rate stuff incorporating 'badly-put local patriotism of over-zealous infringement on the demesne of the Tourist Department'. As the editorialist saw it, New Zealand literature seemed 'to be slowly feeling its way towards some sort of natural identification of the country with its people', but this process was a slow growth, like the kauri, whereas the competition was likely to bring forth the literary equivalents of 'the ubiquitous willow'.5 In the event, literary celebrations of the centennial—both official centennial publications and the winners of the competition on the one hand and the page 208 many unofficial publications at least implicitly related to the celebrations on the other—were decidedly mixed in tone, very different from what Bracken and his contemporaries would have anticipated.
Of course, updated versions of the myths that Bracken had proclaimed were still current, although to Curnow and his contemporaries they were associated with the journalistic-literary establishment, 'Mulgan, Marris, Schroder'; while the Phoenix-Caxton-Tomorrow group, as Curnow later said, shared an 'antipathy to almost everything that satisfied—or seemed to satisfy—an older generation'.6 These myths— of progress, of heroic pioneers, of a Pastoral Paradise and a Just City with harmonious race relations and social equality, of a beautiful and welcoming landscape, of a healthy and moral society, ca great place in which to bring up children', of 'the best British stock in the world' with a warm relationship with a benign Mother England—were certainly foregrounded in the official centennial publications: the biographical dictionary, the twelve book-length centennial surveys, and the thirty pamphlets in the series Making New Zealand: Pictorial Surveys of a Century. Curnow probably had these publications in mind in 1943 when in 'Landfall in Unknown Seas' he sardonically referred to 'the self-important celebration' of 'those speeches / Pinning on the Past like a decoration / For merit that congratulates itself'.7
The rhetoric of self-congratulation on progress appears at its simplest in some of the more sanguine passages in the Making New Zealand series:
We have seen how New Zealand's grasslands have been developed during the last hundred years from tussock, scrub, and forest to an excellence probably unrivalled in the world.8
The railway system as it exists to-day is an imposing monument to our railway builders—to the men with the initiative to launch the enterprise; to the surveyors and engineers who tackled and overcame the formidable problems; to the hundreds of men in construction gangs who, working in conditions of danger and isolation, carved a way through the hills and mountains of the two islands.9
But the less popular, more scholarly surveys often similarly, if less simply, proclaim the national myths, especially those by the older journalist-historians, such as S. H. Jenkinson's New Zealanders and Science. James Cowan's Settler and Pioneers (with the intended chapter on the Waikato Wars excised) was similarly one long celebration of New Zealand's 'heroic genius, the soul that a land wins only by grievous stress and strife and evocation of poignant human emotions', a genius that was formed partly by the heroic struggle of the New Zealand Wars, a conflict bringing honour to both sides, and partly by the struggle with the land—both struggles carried out by immigrants picked by a 'process of natural selection' that 'sent. . . the class best fitted to break in a raw, new country and make it a home of civilisation and comfort'.10page 209
Cowan's attitudes were paralleled in the only one of the 106 entries in the novel section of the Centennial Literary Competition to achieve publication, Beryl McCarthy's Castles in the Soil, which was judged third equal. This saga of a sheep station in Hawke's Bay takes the Cedarholm family from pioneering through the Hau Hau troubles, later land disputes and World War I to a final success that absorbs the local Maori into the pastoral dream through intermarriage. It celebrates the success of the pioneer dream of 'building castles in the soil' in a 'sheepy paradise' by a family 'process stamped with endurance and courage, virile blood, demanded by the veins of a new country. . . .'11
Nelle Scanlan. Her popular Kely Pencarrow novels celebrated pioneer myths. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ, Patrick Lawlor Collection, PAColl-6337, F-52300-1/2.
We salute you, sovereign soul,
Let our praise resound in choir,
Let ocean carry it whole
In its mighty undertows
To its south with a pelt of floes,
To its north with a fell of fire.13
McCormick made perhaps the best case that could be made for such poems when he described them as 'a refined and beautiful close to a long chapter in the history of New Zealand writing', the end of something rather than 'a possible point of departure for the future'.14 Compared with Duggan's dated but accomplished eloquence, the verse and prose of Centennial Miscellany: An Anthology of Short Stories and Verse, edited by N. F. Hoggard, is not only conventional but also inept, a group of late and undistinguished addenda to C. R. Allen's and Quentin Pope's anthologies, rehearsing the tired themes of Maori romance and idealised landscape.
While no doubts of the ruling myths appear in Duggan's or Scanlan's works or in Hoggard's anthology, hints of the anti-myth appear even in some of the official centennial publications. The Making New Zealand pamphlet on 'Dress', by Doris Mcintosh, for example, ends with a statement that would not sound amiss in a Curnow essay if there were more regret in the tone:
Not only in clothes, but also in culture, art, and ideas, we have always been strongly influenced by England, with the result that even yet we have made little attempt to develop our native talents and powers of the imagination. This, of course, must never be a conscious process, but so far there is little indication of a true national culture growing up in this country. Perhaps a hundred years is too short a time for the English stock to have assimilated the strangeness and impressive grandeur of New Zealand and to have made it their own.15
Eileen Duggan. Eric McCormick thought her New Zealand Peoms were 'a refined and beautiful close to a long chapter in the history of New Zealand writing'. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ, G-49917-1/4.
These surveys, then, carrying out McCormick's policy, tended at least to modify the ruling myths, and if they ended on a note of progress, it was mainly because they saw Labour policies after 1935 as promising to move New Zealand out of a stodgy dependence on British models. McCormick himself, in his own Letters and Art in New Zealand, saw a similar pattern: progress in creative adaptation, though not as the result of Labour policies but rather of the questioning of the status quo induced in young writers by the depression, leading to the 'signs, few but positive, of adult nationhood' in the post-1932 writing. To him one of the greatest 'signs of hope' was the work of Frank Sargeson, who had, he thought, 'come to terms with [his] social environment, with no apparent loss of integrity', much better than the demythologising poets, Fairburn and Curnow, who showed a less mature 'unyielding spirit of antagonism (sometimes of petulance)' in Dominion and Not in Narrow Seas,20
M.H. Holcroft. The quest for the New Zealand soul. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ, PAColl-6348-15, C-25014-1/2.
That there were limits to the critical demythologising the government would accept in official centennial publications was evident in the history of W. B. Sutch's The Quest for Security in New Zealand recounted in Rachel Barrowman's essay. While there were many objections to Sutch's book, the primary one was perhaps that it took a possibly Marxist line, the other flaws coming mostly from that source. In Sutch's interpretation of New Zealand history, written avowedly from 'the viewpoint of the poor rather than the rich, the pensioner rather than the annuitant, the unemployed rather than the leisured', 'inequalities of income, insecurity, unemployment, and poverty' are all the 'invevitable concomitants' of the capitalism brought over by the New Zealand Company; 'private ownership of the means of production' was the force 'which created most of the ills' of society, and those ills were partially ameliorated only because of the popular pressures built up by two depressions.23 Such a deconstruction of the popular myth of national progress, more from the Marxist or at least left Labour than from a cultural nationalist perspective, was simply unacceptable as part of the official centennial celebrations.
In contrast to Sutch's book, New Zealand Now by Oliver Duff, the original editor of the surveys, incorporates some of the points that Curnow, Sargeson and the other literary cultural nationalists were making about New Zealand society. The tone is not critical but rather descriptive and accepting. Thus Duff quickly acknowledges that 'New Zealand has always been Puritan', and that it holds to 'one of the deepest-rooted traditions of people with white skins . . . the shamefulness of the flesh'; he points to a 'mistrust of intellectuals' as an abiding fact of New Zealand history; he describes New Zealanders as 'aesthetically inarticulate'; he points out that 'land in New Zealand is a commodity that we buy and sell as often as we see a chance of gain', and that there is the danger that 'we are aliens still in the land that gave us birth'; he proclaims that 'We have reached the end of the easy living that virgin soil and unlimited elbow room made possible'.24 But in his confessedly 'cheaply page 214 provocative and deliberately rash' personal survey there is the love of his country of one who says 'I should have been ashamed if I had felt it possible to write of New Zealand impersonally'.25
Other official accounts show that even more fundamental doubts about some aspects of the national mythology were permissible if the tone was right. In fact when the Minister of Internal Affairs, W. E. Parry, first urged in 1936 that there be centennial celebrations, while he stated that they would be marking 'no mean achievement', he could also point to the need to 'remedy some of our greatest mistakes', foremost being the treatment of the natural environment:
In the name of settlement we have denuded hillside and valley—in some cases devastated the country-side—replacing beauty by ugliness, virgin forest by rank weed growth. Mountain sides, deprived of their forest clothing are scarred by wounds of great landslides. ... In our efforts to be another Britain in the Southern Hemisphere we have recklessly imported plants and animals which, amenable to control in their natural environment, have run away as cancerous growths out here.26
It is almost as if the Minister had been reading D'Arcy Cresswell, whose most powerful account of the destruction of the New Zealand environment first appeared in the Press in 1932 but did not receive widespread publication until it became the opening sections of Present Without Leave in 1939. Parry's concern was strongly echoed in Herbert Guthrie-Smith's pictorial survey 'The Changing Land'. Most of Guthrie-Smith's text traces the way 'Of the Paradise offered to European man in New Zealand he has ... too often made an ashpit'.27 Only in his final section does he confirm the myth of the making of the Pastoral Paradise, describing an ideal homestead, 'inscribed with successive stories of the past' marking the development of the initial wilderness into productive farmland .28
With its photograph of severely eroded land on the cover, The Changing Land remains primarily critical in its tone. It was published after Guthrie-Smith's death, edited by McCormick, who filled out the text, especially the sections on settlement and gold mining, with material from the early chapters of Guthrie-Smith's Sorrows and Joys of a New Zealand Naturalist of 1936—a text the writer introduced by ruefully apologising 'to New Zealand herself, to that fair maid whom he himself and his compeers have assisted to disrobe and strip', a process he can excuse only by observing that they followed the 'stream of tendency'.29 That 'stream of tendency' also appeared in the preface to the third edition of Tutira which Guthrie-Smith wrote in 1940 just before his death, as the only answer to his 'melancholy musings' concerning the effect on the environment of his lifetime of effort: 'Have I then for sixty years desecrated God's earth and dubbed it improvement?'- this from the writer who in the first edition in 1921 had written a paean to 'the glories, the delights, the ecstasies of improvements, for there is no fascination in life like that of the page 215 amelioration of the surface of the earth'.30 As in The Changing Land, the myth is both affirmed and questioned.
'The River', which shared the short story prize with 'The Making of a New Zealander', is altogether more traditional, a well-made-plot story in which the hatred of the Pakeha by Te Waimana, the bitter and ageing former chief, is overcome by his grandson, who understands that the future of the Maori lies in taking part in Pakeha material progress, symbolised by the bridge that will 'conquer' the river, image of untamed nature, and allow the Maori to attend Pakeha school.32 While 'The River' implicitly affirms the myths of progress and of New Zealand as a racially harmonious society, the third-prize story, Roderick Finlayson's 'The Totara Tree', sardonically casts doubts on those myths. Although in the story the Maori gain a temporary victory over the Pakeha Power Board that would cut down a birth tree for the sake of power lines, the subtext of the story is that Maori culture, superior to Pakeha culture in its ties to the land and in its communal values, faces inevitable 'annihilation ... by our scientific barbarism', with its 'high standard of luxury of a portion of the population' and its 'poverty of culture everywhere' (as Finlayson put it in the foreword to Brown Man's Burden, in which the story appeared in 1938).33
If some of the official publications of the centennial sounded notes of the anti-myth, these were stronger in the unofficial publications. Some of these were not overtly aimed at the centennial but simply coincided with it, such as Cresswell's Present Without Leave and John Mulgan's Man Alone, both of which appeared in 1939. Cresswell's opening description of New Zealand landscape and history is a devastating attack on the myths of progress and the welcoming land, and Mulgan's use of Johnson as a 'gauge of morale' for New Zealand systematically deconstructs his father's accepted myths of the land, the egalitarian rural democracy, and Home. Likewise, Charles Brasch's The Land and the People appeared in 1939, although Brasch had had the copy with Glover a year earlier. Its title poems, with their concern page 217 for the failures of Pakeha New Zealanders to have 'learned of the place' anything 'except its obvious look', could have been taken as centennial stocktaking accounts, as could the more famous later poems, 'The Silent Land' (1940), with its cry that 'The plains are nameless and the cities cry for meaning', and 'In These Islands' (1939), with its acknowledgement that 'Distance looks our way'.34 Similarly, the Caxton publication of Sargeson's A Man and His Wife in 1940 might not have been explicitly aimed at the centennial, but certainly could be taken as if it were, as Bruce Mason attested:
To be eighteen in Wellington in 1940 was to know that, inevitably, one would soon be in a war, to see from an upstairs window the cardboard and pinex spires of the Centennial Exhibition at Rongotai, and to hold in one's hand A Man and his Wife by Frank Sargeson. Against the shrill trumpets of Centennial, one could hear these bravely bleak and minatory chimes; against 'a century of growth and progress', Sargeson was bold enough to say, 'Look! Listen! Mark! This is all it has amounted to. Against your growth, your progress, I place these bleak and stunted lives; against the blare of self-congratulation, the tiny music of the numb and spiritless. I offer you a people sealed off by shock from all that is brave, creative and joyful.' It was quite a shock in itself.35
If Glover at the Caxton Press used Sargeson's volume for a direct hit on the centennial, he used two by Curnow to bracket it, Not in Narrow Seas in 1939 and Island and Time in 1941. The first was Curnow's most direct attempt at stating an anti-myth, deconstructing Canterbury's myth of itself as Godley's godly experiment, the successful colony well on the way to achieving the Pastoral Paradise and the Just City of the Better Britain of the Southern Seas. He showed it instead as a class-ridden society, a shallow and imitative culture, based on a dependent export economy that was built on an exploitative yet fearful relation with a land to which it was not atoned—not the New Jerusalem but rather a second-rate imitation of Victorian English society with all of its flaws: 'no renewal of the world's youth, / But age-soured infancy, a darkened dawn'.36 With its origins in poems in Tomorrow going back as far as 1937, the sequence was not explicitly aimed at the centennial but it was taken as such. Frank Gadd in reviewing it in Tomorrow, related it directly:
Our centenary is falling, naturally enough, at a time when a few of our countrymen are feeling the need, and deploring the lack, of a national culture. . . . Born in an isolated country at the nether end of the world, they are beginning to resent the ties that bind them still to the lands from which their fathers came. . .. Strangely enough, in a country so prosy as New Zealand, it is the poets who are showing the first signs of independent life.
Not in Narrow Seas he thought was such a sign, a 'new song' demonstrating that 'our poets have found voice'.37page 218
As 'A Job for Poetry: Notes on an Impulse' makes clear, Curnow had more 'universal' ambitions in Island and Time, an Arnoldian desire to use poetry as a means of criticising 'the mechanist confidence in progress' and helping the intellect to be 'humbled by its vast communal failures', doing its part in bringing on the 'mutation of the intellect' that is necessary for human survival.38 However, a description of Island and Time in the 'In Preparation' announcements at the back of Recent Poems (1941) indicates the New Zealandness of the book:
These poems are an attempt to place New Zealand imaginatively in the widest context of time and the current of history; but the poems have each their separate occasions springing from the natural scene, the history, and the life of New Zealanders.39
New Zealand is, in the terms of W. B. Yeats that Curnow was to use as one of the epigraphs for The Penguin Book of New Zealand Poetry', the 'glove' with which Curnow could 'reach out to the universe', and the centennial was a striking local example of the misplaced 'mechanist confidence' that he was attacking.40 Most relevant to the centennial are 'Dialogue of Island and Time', 'The Unhistoric Story' (which first appeared a few months earlier in Recent Poems), and 'House and Land',page 219
with their warnings of the dangers of naive nationalism, their deconstruction of New Zealand history as progress, claiming it as instead 'Something different, something / Nobody counted on', and their depiction of the New Zealand as 'a land of settlers / With never a soul at home'.41
More explicitly focused on the centennial was Finlayson's Our Life in This Land, published in 1940 as a kind of anti-centennial manifesto. For Finlayson, 'after one hundred years of settlement we are strangers in a strange land, having no identity with the soil or even knowledge of it', lacking 'a native art (that infallible index of civilisation)', basing a dependent export economy on exploitation of the land and a 'scientific industrialism in which all is opposed to Nature', in which the farmer is ca somewhat more privileged if more heavily burdened kind of industrial worker bound hand and foot to the wheels of the milk or cream collector and the cheese or butter factory'. He described a country with a history that can be read as a fall from its pioneer beginnings, culminating in participation in a disastrous war that will sweep away the 'recklessly erring industrial plutocracy' of which that war is the inevitable expression.42 Finlayson's Cresswellian indictment is the most extreme statement of the anti-myth, and the one making most explicit its Wordsworthian romantic underpinnings (shared by Sargeson, Brasch, and Fairburn, if not Curnow).
Most explicit in its confrontation with the centennial was Glover's retrospective poem, not published until five years later:
In the year of centennial splendours There were fireworks and decorated cars And pungas drooping from the verandas
— But no one remembered our failures.
The politicians like bubbles from a marsh Rose to the platform, hanging in every place Their comfortable platitudes like plush
— Without one word of our failures.43
The poem is vintage Glover, with its assonance, consonance and alliteration, and its image of gaseous politicians. However, it is not entirely accurate as history, for there were actually many words dedicated to 'our failures', if not by politicians then by Glover's fellow writers. Both directly and indirectly, the centennial, while it undoubtedly encouraged many affirmations of New Zealand's ruling cultural myths, also helped bring into being very vigorous statements of an anti-myth.
1 Thomas Bracken, 'The Colonist' and 'Jubilee Day', in Musings in Maoriland (Dunedin: Arthur T. Keirle, 1890), pp.27, 29-30.
2 Undated, unsigned memo from the office of J. W. A. Heenan, Heenan Papers, Alexander Turnbull Library (ATL), folder 228; quoted by Stuart Murray, Never a Soul at Home: New Zealand Literary Nationalism and the 1930s (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1998), p.41.
4 Allen Curnow, author's note to Collected Poems 1933-1973, in Look Back Harder: Critical Writings 1935-1984 , Peter Simpson ed, (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1987),p.244.
5 Unsigned, 'News and Views', Tomorrow, 4 (21 August 1938), p.674.
6 Allen Curnow, author's note, in Look Back Harder, p.244.
7 Allen Curnow, 'Landfall in Unknown Seas', in Early Days Yet: New and Collected Poems 1941-1997 (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1997), pp.228-9.
8 Q. W. Woodcock and I. H. Forde], 'Pasture Land', Making New Zealand: Pictorial Surveys of a Century, vol.1, no.12 (Wellington: Department of Internal Affairs, 1940), p.30.
10 James Cowan, Settlers and Pioneers (Wellington: Department of Internal Affairs, 1940), pp.vi, 30.
11 Beryl McCarthy, Castles in the Soil (Wellington: Reed, 1939), pp.37, 187, 333.
12 Nelle Scanlan, Kelly Pencarrow (London: Robert Hale, 1939), p. 19.
13 Eileen Duggan, 'Centenary Ode', in New Zealand Poems (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1941 rpt.), p.7.
15 [Doris Mcintosh], 'Dress', Making New Zealand, vol.2, no.23, p.30.
16 McCormick to Heenan, 11 October 1937, IA 62/8/1 Pt.l, National Archives; quoted in McEldowney, 'Publishing , Patronage, Literary Magazines', in The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English, 2nd edition, Terry Sturm ed, (Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.654
20 McCormick, Letters and Art, pp.170, 182, 189.
24 Oliver Duff, New Zealand Now (London: George Allen and Unwin and Hamilton: Paul's Book Arcade, 1956 rpt), pp.6, 32, 385 80-1, 119.
25 Duff, New Zealand Now, p.x.
28 The Changing Land', p.30.
30 Herbert Guthrie-Smith, Tutira: The Story of a New Zealand Sheep Station (1921,1926, 1951, 1969; rpt. Auckland: Godwit, 1999), pp. xxiii, 135.
31 Frank Sargeson, 'The Making of a New Zealander', The Stories of Frank Sargeson (Auckland: Penguin, 1986 rpt), pp.99-105.
32 Eleanor Scott (E. A. Midgley), The River', in Hyacinths and Biscuits: The Diamond Jubilee Book of the Penwomen's Club (New Zealand) Incorporated, 1925 to 1985, Peggy Dunstan et al. ed, (Auckland: Ken Pounder, 1985), pp.8-14.
33 Roderick Finlayson, 'Foreword', Brown Man's Burden (Auckland: Griffin Press, 1938), p.ii.
34 Charles Brasch, 'The Land and the People (II)', 'The Silent Land', and 'The Islands (2)', in Collected Poems, Alan Roddick ed, (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1984), pp.2,17,218; 'The Islands (2)' was first published as 'In These Islands' in Tomorrow, 5 (13 September 1939); 'The Silent Land' was first published in Folios of New Writing in Autumn, 1940.
35 Bruce Mason, 'A Local Habitation and a Name', Islands 21 (March 1978), 242-43.
36 Allen Curnow, 'Not in Narrow Seas, Poem VI', in Collected Poems 1933-1973 (Wellington: Reed, 1974), p.63.
37 F[rank] G[add},review of Not in Narrow Seas, Tomorrow, 21 June 1939, pp.539, 540.
38 Allen Curnow, 'A Job for Poetry: Notes on an Impulse', in Look Back Harder, pp.24-5; first published in Book 1, March 1941.
39 Allen Curnow et al., Recent Poems (Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1941), p.51.
41 Allen Curnow, ' The Unhistoric Story' and 'House and Land', in Collected Poems, pp.79-80, 92.
42 Roderick Finlayson, Our Life in This Land (Auckland: Griffin Press, 1940), pp.16,14, 11-12, i.
43 Denis Glover, 'Centennial', in Selected Poems (Auckland: Penguin, 1981), p.39.