Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays
H. Winston Rhodes
This piece was first published in Landfall, December 1970.
Harold Winston Rhodes retires at the end of this year after thirty-seven years teaching in the English Department at the University of Canterbury, a career that brought to New Zealand something of a phase of Australian intellectual life and left a mark on New Zealand letters and the climate in which they are produced.
It would not surprise those who know him to learn that Winston Rhodes, after an outstanding record which took him to the Medical Faculty, switched to a course in arts. Graduating Master of Arts at the University of Melbourne he tutored in English, both privately and at Ormond and Newman, the Presbyterian and Catholic colleges of the university until 1933 when he was invited to join the staff of the English Department at Canterbury University College.
The professor who had succeeded Arnold Wall in the previous year was Frederick Sinclaire, a New Zealander who had returned from an appointment with Walter Murdoch, directing adult education in Perth. In the 1910's and 20's Sinclaire had been a leading figure in the intellectual life of Melbourne, as a Unitarian parson and then the leader of a breakaway group, the Free Religious Fellowship. He conducted classes of the old W.E.A. type, where literature was discussed along with the ideas of a number of social philosophers of the preceding half-century—Orage, the Fabians, Chesterton, Shaw and Marx. Sinclaire was then an energetic and inspiring figure; his part in the development of Australian writers' conception of their social role is only now being investigated; besides his following of trade unionists, Unitarians, students and pacifists, his classes were attended by Louis Esson, Frank Wilmot and Vance Palmer, who with his wife Nettie, was to lead the Australian writers' social scene throughout the thirties and forties.
When he came to New Zealand Sinclaire had the mellowness of an old-fashioned book-lover, content to draw spiritual sustenance from his page 164 Chaucer, his Spenser and Shakespeare—he made them 'his'—from Milton, Wordsworth, Hazlitt and Browning, especially Browning: he had his own 'great tradition'. The English Department at Canterbury College had a hundred odd students then, and one lecturer. When that lectureship fell vacant, Sinclaire asked the council to write to Winston Rhodes in Melbourne.
Rhodes was 28 when he came to Christchurch in 1933, the year after the worst period of the depression in New Zealand, the year in which Frank Sargeson first published, the year of the fuss about Oriflamme at Canterbury College. He made the acquaintance of members of the Caxton Club; and he and his wife in their Papanui Road flat had weekly discussion evenings for radical students. In a time when this year's novel is on next year's course it is perhaps not easy to imagine a time when (since the English course stopped at 1910) students were grateful to a lecturer who put on voluntary lectures on 'modern literature' and (when the Caxton Press began to publish) New Zealand verse. It was Winston Rhodes who introduced me to my first undergraduate literary passion, Virginia Woolf.
He readily made connexions with his new community. He lectured for the W.E.A.; with Sinclaire and Mrs Rowlatt he helped to initiate a travelling library service, a scheme later adopted by G. T. Alley as the Country Library Service. Denis Glover was taken on for a time as a junior lecturer, and with Sinclaire, Glover and Kennaway Henderson, Rhodes helped found Tomorrow the fortnightly that first gave repeated space to Frank Sargeson. When Sinclaire, disheartened by the renewal of war in 1939, turned rapidly and prematurely old, Rhodes quietly took on the administration of the department.
In Melbourne he had organized classes in English for Jewish refugees from Fascism; in New Zealand he joined, founded, chaired, addressed or sat on committees of a dozen or two left wing organizations, the League against Fascism and War, the Left Book Club, Friends of the Soviet Union, the Spanish Aid Committee, the Rewi Alley Aid Committee and during the war, the China Aid Committee. He met Alley in the thirties, and he soon met his Auckland counterpart Willis Airey, with whom he enjoyed a warm friendship until Airey's death.
If some of the positions he took have been betrayed by their outcome, they are none of them positions he need repent. He has not regretted his choices and they were not made in idealisation: he did not expect that the Soviet Union would escape its passage of complacent mediocrity any more than England in the eighteenth, or France in the nineteenth century. It was the fulfilment of the common man he stood for, and he was prepared to suffer for his stand. His political involvements, briefly respectable during the war-time alliance with Russia, became suspect when the cold war struck. Academic enemies saw that his merits were not seriously considered when Sinclaire retired in 1948. There was, however, a student round robin expressing the fullest confidence in him. In 1950, on his first page 165 sabbatical, he visited Europe, including the Soviet Union for the first time; there were to be two later visits, and one to China.
With his new professor, John Garrett, and Lawrence Baigent who had been appointed lecturer after the war Rhodes helped to organize the Writers' Conference in 1951, an occasion in which for the first and only time all the generations of writers met, argued and pooled and rejected ideas—Pat Lawlor, Sargeson, Curnow and Glover, Baxter and Louis Johnson. Vance Palmer was fittingly the guest speaker. For New Zealand writing it was an event in self-discovery. In the late 1950s, with Wolfgang Rosenberg, Rhodes, disappointed at the demise of Here and Now, founded the New Zealand Monthly Review, with an aim of finding common ground of interest for trade unionists and left-wing intellectuals; a journal that has some likeness in its spirit and the unpaid dedication of its writers in the Sydney two-monthly Outlook edited by Helen Palmer, daughter of Vance.
Rhodes's way has been to work with others, with their names up front; his influence has been by his voice rather than by his pen. It is not surprising that North Islanders do not know him well or that his position has been misunderstood. His critical position has never been the Zhdanovism he has at times had the reputation for. His one critical pamphlet reflects something of the concerns of Arnold and Leavis: that literature can restore and correct and can protect one against the depersonalisation of modern life, and the artist is the natural enemy of the Philistine, the bureaucrat, the technocrat, the efficiency expert and the computer.
But fundamentally in his fairmindedness, in his belief in good sense, that literature should be comprehensible to the common educated reader, in his preference that novels and plays should be life-like, in his belief that art should make the world better, his position is that of Samuel Johnson, the critic he once confessed he would dispense with last. It is a moral position, not a moralistic one; he is out of sympathy only with the currently more fashionable elitist theories, and sceptical of theories that make too sharp a distinction between art and life. It was a shock as a simple first-year student with an ambition to be an 'author' to hear that living was more important than writing. One never left a lecture of Rhodes's with one's preconceptions intact. But far from preferring socialist realism, Rhodes was one of the first to write in praise of Janet Frame and to write seriously of Sargeson. In his Monthly Review editorials he has repeatedly prodded the narrowness, the puritanism and smug assumptions of the orthodox left, and he has opened its columns to the fresh light of Keith Buchanan's essays on non-European literature.
It is characteristic of him that he has been prodigal of his time and energies on committee work, on pamphlets, on W.E.A. lectures and courses. A modest man himself, he has put much of his effort into facilitating expression for others—his edition of Verse Alive (a selection from Tomorrow), of several volumes of verse and prose of Rewi Alley. But when page 166 a second chair in English was created in 1964, John Garrett recommended his appointment from a field of candidates that included scholars of more respectable and carefully groomed reputations. It was a wise and creditable choice.
He introduced the first full paper in New Zealand literature in a New Zealand university; an effort that will have its effect in an alert and critical audience emerging from secondary schools. His two booklets on New Zealand novels, intended as suggestive rather than sufficient, are aimed at the sixth former and the common reader. Probably Winston Rhodes has done as much as any one man in this country to prepare for its writers the milieu in which they must work: an alert critical native audience which understands their intentions. I don't know if other writers have then-mental critics whose voices are heard when they are revising. I think Winston Rhodes and Lawrence Baigent have been mine.
In latter years Professor Rhodes found time for his extended study of Frank Sargeson. In retirement he will be able to follow his interest in Australian literature and, a subject that has engaged him in recent years, the writing of African novelists. We can hope now to see more of his own work.