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The Woman Problem & other prose

Conversation with my Uncle

page 128

Conversation with my Uncle

Frank Sargeson will need no introduction to regular readers of Tomorrow, for most of these sketches have appeared in this journal. Now that the author has done us the service of collecting some of his work and putting it together in handy shape, one or two comments may not be out of place.

There has been a controversy recently in Auckland about the English language. Some have hotly defended its virginity. Others, Professor Sewell chief among them, have contended that it never had any worth speaking about; and that its latest ravisher, modern American, should be given the same welcome as that enjoyed by the various foreign tongues that have from time to time fertilised (or 'defiled', if you prefer it that way) the original Anglo-Saxon (or whatever you may regard as the original).

As might have been expected, Professor Sewell's suggestion that a language is either 'dead' or alive, petrified or growing, was stoutly resisted by several knights in shining armour, apparently constituting themselves a sort of linguistic Purity League, who set about defending the honour of the innocent virgin; unaware, it would seem, that she had already lain with half the world.

My analogy may be distasteful. To clear up possible misunderstandings, let me say that although the 'English' language may long since have jeopardised her reputation in the parlours of Suburbia, there is no need to assume hastily that she has lost her essential purity, still less her vigour. Those who, like myself, welcome the American influence, look upon it as a young man, rough perhaps but handsome page 129and hot-blooded, who may possibly rescue the maiden from the cold embraces of a corpse. The corpse is represented by the sort of fossilised 'English' that is used by certain leader-writers and contributors to the supplements of the newspapers, and by a horde of minor novelists and critics.

Frank Sargeson's small booklet, coming at this moment, happens to provide an excellent comment on the argument referred to above. For the American influence, in so far as it is valuable, will be noticed not so much in the wider use of such expressions as 'Sez you!' and 'Oh, yeah?' as in changes that may be looked for in the actual texture and rhythm of our speaking and writing. Behind it there will be, not the memory of nights spent at the talkies, but a certain attitude of mind, an adjustment to the circumstances of our life.

I have long been of the opinion that the natural attitude of mind of the New Zealander ('natural' according to tradition and environment) should approximate much more closely to the American than to the English. We are both colonial. America, as Mr D'Arcy Cresswell has suggested, may be 'damned'. But that is hardly relevant. About eighty per cent of the manifestation of the Life Force in America are of a very low order. It is the other twenty per cent we are concerned with. Nobody but a Rotarian would hold up the America of today as a model for future civilisations, to be taken cold. But a certain small section of American letters (small by contrast with the totality of American writing) is beginning to show signs of life; and it is difficult to perceive any such movement in England.

It will be noticed that the revival in American letters that has taken place during the past twenty years derives almost entirely from the 'colonial' tradition in America. For one Willa Cather, America has produced a score of Sherwood Andersons. Huckleberry Finn becomes more and more a central point in the living tradition of American literature, The Scarlet Letter less and less. And American writers are more alive today than English writers. Compare, for instance Anderson with A. E. Coppard. Or Hemingway with Huxley. (The English are jealous about it, too: pick up any English journal—say the Listener—and look through the reviews.)

page 130

It is for such reasons as these that the small booklet under review has, I think, a significance out of all proportion to its bulk, and even to the intentions of the author. In a word, it is the work of a young New Zealand writer who has been influenced by, but has not succumbed to, modern American writing. The sketches are all done in the first person, and the teller is a dramatised personality not unlike Huckleberry Finn. There is the same combination of simplicity and shrewdness, of humility and horse sense. And just as Huckle-berry seems to me to be the norm of the 'good American' (good in more than Senator Borah's sense), the raw material of the more complex culture that is beginning to develop in that country, so Frank Sargeson has, I think, given us something of the 'normal' New Zealander in the dramatised personality who forms the mouthpiece for these sketches.

There is, of course, no need to think of Sargeson's sketches in that way. The ordinary reader, who is not concerned about literary 'influences' and 'fingerposts', will find them amusing, fresh, and generally enjoyable.