The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 1 (April 1, 1936.)
Famous — New Zealanders — No. 37 — James Cowan — The Doyen of New Zealand's Great Writers
I expect that whatever takes the place of profane language in Maori will be freely muttered by our beloved “Jimmy Cowan” when his eye lights on this article. He is the victim of field strategy for he is lying ill, unable to furnish the current number of the truly wonderful series of “Famous New Zealanders” that has been the adornment of this magazine for three years. Modesty is his “middle name” as the Americans would say, and no one could be more reticent about his work or more given to the praise of other men than the very great man pictured in the following pages. I have seized this opportunity of putting him, as he richly deserves, in the pantheon of great New Zealanders.
In James Cowan, the man met the time and the place. His birth here in New Zealand at the time it occurred was one of those happy circumstances that seem to have blessed this land of ours. His forebears were of the Celtic admixture which has so triumphantly vindicated the claim made for it (often advanced to me by that poet of dreams in prose and verse, David McKee Wright) that the magic vision and the power of beauty in words are its almost exclusive possessions.
His father was a “Far Downer,” a pioneer settler of Irish-Scottish extraction, and his mother was a Manx woman, given to the “white nights” that haunt that island of seers.
The human instrument, thus shapen, saw the light first, on the border of the King Country, his farm home being the actual battlefield site of famous Orakau. He grew in the company of the ghosts of old glories, the haunting memories that sprang from every field he could see from his cradle.
He rode daily when school days came a long journey, his companion being a Maori lad who eventually became an interpreter. They exchanged ideas, those two, in the superb friendship, frank and unrestrained, of boyhood. Even in those days, Jimmie had the mind of an adult in many directions. He was profoundly and scientifically curious, his memory was accurate and prodigious, and he loved and appreciated, in his first conscious thinking, the Maori people whose minds he continually explored. He learned to speak and think in Maori. In those days, the tribes were in close contact with the white settlers. The Ngati-Maniapoto and Ngatia-Raukawa people lived all about, and helped the elder Cowan with his potato crop at digging time. The hardy pioneer's young son was never far away at these times, and steadily his knowledge of his Maori friends widened and deepened. But, possibly the greatest formative influence of his life was Mount Pirongia, that mountain of mystery whose fires had died aeons ago; whose sides and summit were richly forested; whose misty heights were wreathed with Maori saga and ancient Polynesian legend. What that must have meant to dream-filled childish eyes must be remembered by those of us whose toddling years were filled with the clangour of passing trams, or who saw from homstead windows, neatly ordered fields and electric lights in the cowbails. According to the stories which little Jimmie heard instead of “The Snow Queen” and “Jack and the Beanstalk,” the summit of Pirongia was inhabited by fairy folk, the Kakepuku tribe. Here is something he has said himself. “The mountain of a dream, always changing its hues, always charged with some mysterious life and hidden energy, massed tremendously on the eye of boyhood when one rode a Maori pony along its spreading foot.”
In those days, the early ‘80's, there was material on every side for the future writer. The Puniu River, unbridged and unfordable in flood seasons, was the boundary. On one side, where the white man reigned, there were tidy farms, cosy houses, schools, shops, and churches with sounding bells. But, to the mystic South, there lay long faintly blue distant ranges; here and there a raupo thatched village; random patches of potatoes, maize or wheat; long stretches of fern and swamp, and again and again, the endless dim green aisles of the bush, its mossy floor lying in perpetual twilight. Its awesome silence was only broken by the melodies of bush birds, the weird noises of wild pigs and the sudden scurry of wild Maori horses. Maori tracks for man and horse were the only roads, and dignified Maori chiefs ruled with kingly power.
Those golden days of boyhood remain forever in James Cowan's imagination, and over and over again, in the noble torrent of his prose, those old days of the Waikato and the King Country come to vivid foam of shining memory. He, of course, went further afield. The Mokau River is the favourite of his heart. “Of all my loves among the rivers of New Zealand, the Mokau is the One; because of its aloofness and its atmosphere of adventure and exploration, for its almost unbroken forests and its many rapids that give the spice of excitement to the voyage and, above all, for its beauty, winding down from the King Country ranges through an enchanted region of high woods and fern-tree draped cliffs.”
He loved, as in that rich old phrase, page 26 page 27 with the “love that passeth understanding,” the dim and silent places, the pungent sweetness of the innermost forest, whose soft pavement is the slow decaying substance of dead trees giving life to new in the wonderway of the timberland story, old as time itself. His mind is a storehouse of memories of long horseback rides, sixty-five miles a day over Rotorua pumice tracks and mountain roads crossing ice-fed rivers. It was fording the Haast that gave him the attack of rheumatic fever that was to leave its legacy of pain and trouble for the rest of his life.
As he was growing, as his days flew by, he found his way more surely into the deepest recesses of the Maori mind, so misunderstood, so underrated, and so utterly misinterpreted by hasty observers. So, too, all the time, his respect and affection for his Maori brethren grew till he became, above all men of New Zealand, the one best fitted to make the pakeha understand the logic and nobility of the native ideology.
In case I have emphasized too much the dreamer's side of his life, I would like to say here that he was, and is, a veritable Samuel Pepys in the matter of diaries. He has trunks packed with material, jottings, comprehensive diary entries, original documents and letters, and all manner of exact transcriptions of fact; for James Cowan worships facts. It is the custom to ask him questions about anything in New Zealand history. In spite of a memory that is an orderly treasurehouse of dates, events, and personalities, his answer on the telephone may be instantaneous, but he always verifies. In addition, he has the gift of true sympathy, that most rare repertorial faculty. This enables him to gently empty some ancient salt, or hoary old Maori chief, of the precious honeystore of memories.
He naturally became a journalist, and he joined the Auckland “Star” in the spacious days. Apparently his special quality was soon observed, for his assignments ranged from the trip to Barrier Island for the tragedy story of the Wairarapa to the long and perilous exploration journey in company with the survey party exploring the Te Kuiti to Stratford railway route. At that time the King Country contained no single pakeha farm. He was in Auckland, too, when Admiral Kimberley's naval lieutenant came into Auckland by the ‘Frisco mail steamer to cable the news of the Apia hurricane, and all hands on the “Star” worked furiously to get out what was to be, first of all the world, the published story of the Calliope and Westport coal. During 1899 he was sent as war correspondent to the MalietoaMataafa war. There he was on old ground, understanding the native point of view, speedily using their language, and in every sense, the right man in the right place.
His next move was to be sub-editor of the “Lyttelton Times,” and it is characteristic that while in that job, he made countless journeys to Lyttelton Harbour to visit Rapaki where he and his great friends, Taare Tikao and his wife, spent many Saturday afternoons in exchanging tales of olden times. It had now become natural to him to record the personalities that he met, of which we have had the benefit so richly given in his series of “Famous New Zealanders.” Who does not remember his story of “Richard John Seddon,” the best tabloid article ever written on that doughty giant of progressive democracy.
Again he went back to the State, for he was engaged to write the history of the New Zealand wars, and for four years he worked at this labour of love. His method was unique. He was able to go to the original records, both documents and men. He understood with perfect clarity and perfect sympathy the point of view of both pakeha and Maori. On many occasions he actually got the opponents together and re-created the conflict on its actual site. As the old antagonists relived their battles, he was often able to correct and amplify incomplete despatches. This great work is in two volumes—“The History of the New Zealand Wars.” It is more than a history; it is the living texture of those pioneering days when the two cultures clashed so fiercely; a texture lit warmly by the light of his twofold love for the warring sides in the struggle, and woven from the enduring staple of his exact knowledge.
Later he had pleasant years as subeditor of the “N.Z. Free Lance.” Indeed, it is fact to say that there is no side of letters in the Dominion that has not been at sometime or other his field of activity. I doubt whether there is a periodical of any rating that has not carried some story or article by James Cowan. A pantechnicon would be needed to hold the cuttings of all his work. And all of it has been consistent; for I want to talk a little on that much discussed subject “literary style.” James Cowan's prose is supple but simple. The purple patch only comes to him when his thought is flushed with the poetry of Maori imagery. The sex problem, the slow poisoning of the springs of action and thought, the hectic surges of the modern story, delving into psychological oddities, none of these are for him. His interests are with the rich, clean life of the open air. He knew the feelings of the pioneer struggling with a hostile and ruthless Nature. He loves the beauty of lake and tree and stream, of mountain and swamp and plain, all for their own sweet sake.
He penetrated to the heart of the splendid chivalry of the Maori and the Maoris love of fighting for its qualities of struggle, courage, skill and endurance. You will find this best in both the big volumes of his official war history and in his countless short stories, the last of which is the impressive “Hero Stories of New Zealand.” These qualities give him that unquestionable air of impartiality in these recitals, for biassed bitterness is impossible to his sunny nature.page 28
The secret of his prose, therefore, as is true of so many other great writers, is that he sees clearly, thinks clearly, and therefore writes clearly. The special quality that infuses his work with a personal colouring is his warmly human habit of being unable to think poorly of anyone. I believe that his work has been mauled about, filched from, broken into for nuggets, and pilfered more freely than that of any other writer in the Dominion. He simply smiles faintly and totally fails to register the proper indignation.
Until he fell into his last year or two of illness, he was brisk and hearty. From a bright eye still shines the love of a good horse, the bush and a yarn, preferably about old times. If he could arrange his own Paradise, it would be a “peach orchard in a clearing and summer always.” He would want as well, I think, in this private Valhalla, to have his Maori friends dropping in and the ghosts of Gilbert Mair and Colonel Porter would be welcome. However, it would not matter as long as the caller was congenial. Then the golden flow of anecdote, epic narrative and storied wisdom would run, and hours would pass like hasty rosary beads. In a letter only written from his bed a day or so ago he wonders if he will ever be able to “sleep under the stars again on a bed of soft leaves.”
The power of James Cowan's pen is not fully understood, nor is the wide range of his influence appreciated. He has fought the good fight for many a good cause and succeeded. To him, largely, we in Wellington owe the grove of pohutukawas in Courtenay Place. All over our land his onslaughts have saved the tall trees from their destroyers. More than once he has brought into the light of public knowledge and the realisation by officialdom, great men whose modesty, like his own, forbade them advancing their just claims. Among those, I can justly mention his sterling work to make the men of this country know the worth of that grand old man of Canterbury, Dudley Dobson.
James Cowan himself is almost irritatingly retiring about his own achievement. All the facts that appear in this article have been dredged, mined, and extracted by wile and subterfuge, by plot and stratagem without his knowledge. This doyen of New Zealand writers deserves his place in our gallery of historic figures as much as any of our other great ones. In the years to come, his monumental accomplishment will be seen in its proper perspective, and the ages to come will bless him. His work will be the museum of all that was good and great in the epic of our early days. When the Maori, as may happen, has been absorbed into the crowding millions of the pakeha, future historians will be seeking the sources of the 2,500 A.D. New Zealander's love of poetic imagery and the golden tinge of his skin. In the works of James Cowan they will find their answers. In the following works he has left us a legacy of recorded truth, wholly undefiled and nobly told: “The History of the New Zealand Wars” (two vols.), “Hero Stories of New Zealand,” “The Old Frontier,” “Travel in New Zealand,” “Samoa and Its Story,” “Adventures of Kimble Bent,” “Fairy Folk Tales of the Maori,” “The Maori, Yesterday and To-day,” “Legends of the Maori” (in collaboration with Sir Maui Pomare), “Tongariro National Park,” “Trader in Cannibal Land,” “Tales of the Maori Bush,” “Tales of the Maori Coast,” “The Romance of the Rail,” “South Sea Stories,” numerous Government publications, and a score of booklets.
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