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Letters and Art in New Zealand



The sources for the study of New Zealand literature are contained in the special New Zealand collections to be found in the libraries of the four chief cities and of a few smaller centres. Wellington and Dunedin are especially fortunate in possessing notable collections. The Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, contains the most complete and the most accessible range of New Zealand sources, while the General Assembly Library, the library of deposit, under the New Zealand Copyright Act, is particularly rich in the more fugitive material. Many rare items are to be found in the Hocken Library, Dunedin, but this is less easily consulted than the Robert McNab Collection in the Dunedin Public Library. The Grey Collection in the Auckland Public Library contains interesting manuscripts, many of them official in character. Growing collections in other urban and provincial centres and in the libraries of university colleges show an increasing interest in New Zealand's past, while some are evidence that the public-spirited example set by Turnbull, Grey, Hocken, and McNab has been followed by later collectors. The pressing need now page 198is for a union catalogue that would make these resources more easily available to students.

In the absence of such a catalogue, the chief bibliographical aid is T. M. Hocken's invaluable Bibliography of the Literature relating to New Zealand (Wellington, 1909), which lists publications in chronological order and also contains much historical, biographical, and critical information. Hocken's oracular judgments are a delight to read. For example, C. C. Bowen's Poems are summed up in the phrase 'of considerable aspiration', while two of G. B. Lancaster's early novels are dismissed in identical terms: 'A coarsely told story—locality, New Zealand.' One is left wondering whether he was the simplest or the most penetrating of critics. Hocken confesses his failure to list completely the 'yearly heavy burden' of verse, and in this respect he is supplemented by Percival Serle's Bibliography of Australasian Poetry and Verse (Melbourne, 1925), a work of enormous diligence but lacking the personal charm of Hocken's classic. A useful bibliography of fiction is appended to E. M. Smith's History of New Zealand Fiction (Dunedin, 1939). Since 1934 the General Assembly Library, Wellington, has issued annually a Select List of publications copyright in New Zealand. Katherine Mansfield's work has received the rare distinction of a separate bibliography—The Critical Bibliography of Katherine Mansfield (London, 1931) by Ruth Elvish Mantz. This work of patient scholarship also reprints examples of Katherine Mansfield's earlier sketches.

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Anthologies incidentally serve a bibliographical purpose and are convenient indices to the taste prevailing at different periods and among different circles. The best verse anthology is New Zealand Verse (London, 1906) edited by W. F. Alexander and A. E. Currie. The collection is well chosen, well arranged, and is preceded by a modest and interesting introduction. A revised edition, lacking the introduction, was published as A Treasury of New Zealand Verse (Christchurch, 1926). Kowhai Gold (London, 1930) represents the work of the post-war years but scarcely substantiates the claims made by its editor, Quentin Pope. An annual publication, New Zealand Best Poems (Wellington, 1932-), chosen by C. A. Marris, is drawn from too restricted a range of verse fully to justify its title. As much for their sociological interest as for the intrinsic worth of their contents, readers are referred to two anthologies of university verse, The Old Clay Patch (1st ed., Wellington, 1910; 2nd ed., Wellington, 1920), edited by F. A. de la Mare and S. Eichelbaum, and College Rhymes (Christchurch, 1923), edited by O. T. J. Alpers and others. Two collections of imaginative prose have been published in the past decade—New Zealand Short Stories (London, 1930), edited by O. N. Gillespie, and the more restricted Tales by New Zealanders (London, 1938) edited by C. R. Allen.

Critical writing on New Zealand literature is small in bulk and almost invariably poor in quality. For example, in the half-page or so assigned to New Zealand in the Cambridge History of English Literature the only writers page 200mentioned are Domett and Bracken, and the limitations of space do not prevent the writer perpetrating several gross errors of fact. A gesture towards art and literature is made by most authors of the more comprehensive histories and descriptive books, but the results are deficient either in first-hand knowledge or in critical discernment. The chief exception is Appendix I to W. P. Reeves's The Long White Cloud (3rd ed., London, 1924), the best short outline of New Zealand literature, though heavily weighted on the side of politics and economics. Reeves was apparently not in sympathy with eighteenth-century modes of expression, and he rarely committed himself about poets and novelists. With the publication of E. M. Smith's History of New Zealand Fiction (Dunedin, 1939) a beginning has been made with the literary-sociological criticism of New Zealand literature, an approach for which there appears to be great scope. All future students of New Zealand literature will be indebted, as is the present writer, to G. H. Scholefield's Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (2 vols., Wellington, 1940), where may be found short biographies of writers not living at the time of publication, together with a list of their principal works.

The reviewing of New Zealand books has always been unsatisfactory, partly through the absence of any accepted standards, partly through the related lack of journals in which such standards could be defined and maintained. In the periodicals brought out in the early years of the colony, notably in the Southern Monthly Magazine (Auckland, page 2011863-6), New Zealand writing was stringently criticised, but these and all later enterprises of the same kind have been too short-lived to have any appreciable influence. The work of reviewing has fallen chiefly on the newspapers, where New Zealand books have to compete for space with other interests and with the work of overseas writers. Critical articles of some merit appear sporadically in the literary columns of the metropolitan newspapers, and reviews of a consistently high standard are to be found in three South Island newspapers—the Christchurch Press, which has continuously maintained a tradition of serious reviewing, the Otago Daily Times, and the Southland Times.