Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 8, No. 8 June 27, 1945
Victoria College was recently privileged to hear an authority on American literature. Dr. Canby has taken a large part in explaining America's art in his own country. In particular his work on Thoreau is monumental. He had come to New Zealand to lecture on National Culture, principally as regards American development, hoping that we would learn both by their success and by their mistakes.
He confessed he had read very little American literature himself until appointed as a liaison officer in the last war. Realising then the distinctive advances which had been made in the nineteenth century, he became intensely interested, and this interest had been responsible for fostering many American Institutions, amongst which is the Book of the Month Club. Dr. Canby is an evident realist.
Dr. Canby did not talk about New Zealand literature in particular—one could hardly expect detail from a man who had only been here three days—but he restricted himself to finding resemblances between the lives of the two countries, and laying down certain postulates. These were:—
(1) No civilised country can understand itself until made articulate by its literature.
As an example, we may cite Australia. Until about 20 years ago, the painters there were still, in reality, English, and it was not until the influence of Cezanne and other post-impressionists that they began to produce an art which was truly Australia's in colour.
The Puritanism of America likewise caused perplexities which were not understood until the advent of Emerson, "a Modified optimist," full of the sense of the coming prosperity, who explained America to itself as never before.
Again, in the days of the novel in England, American novelists had no show, and were driven to magazine writing. Hence came the American short story, containing the staccato period of American life. Similarly, the sophistication which became rife there after the last war was not understood until the advent of the columnists.
(2) No civilised country can be understood by others until its literature is distinctive.
A very good example of this can be found in Dickens' "American Notes," in which the author gives a very poor picture of Cincinnati. The explanation is simple—he was in a frontier society which had no means of expression.
Literature, therefore, develops from necessity. American literature is admittedly hard to understand, and we must keep several points in mind. Most of the people in the States came from Europe because they had to, and they brought with them a Renaissance feeling. New Zealand was, to a certain extent, similarly placed. The New England settlers contained a high percentage of university men, but they were preoccupied with theology and ethics. When at last literature was able to break away from their influence, a curious sense of strain was left in American minds. "The old Indian devil" as D. H. Lawrence called it, is responsible for that neurotic sense evident in Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, and Hemingway.
Finally, we must remember that the USA is a race of races. This is not at all well understood in this country. Actually, the admixture took place years ago, and all the separate literatures have been assimilated, uniformed by one tradition with Anglo-Saxon literature as the most prominent. It is not to be desired that we open our doors to everyone, but a sprinkling of assimilated European cultures is all to the good.
We are now in a position to draw resemblances between the two countries. The first is that they are both in newly opened regions of the world. And just as early American writers talked about English scenes until Thoreau realised the distinctive American atmosphere, so we expect the similar phenomenon in New Zealand work of today. Editorials in the States were for a long time written in English style, and woollen underwear was worn in imitation of England in many places where it was not at all necessary. But the distinctive rhythms of a national culture will most certainly develop, and with that will come a new literature.
Secondly, books are democratically in theme with social developments, and it is strange that in a country whose social legislation is twenty years ahead of the world, its literature has not received greater impetus. But perhaps it is too early to say.
There is, of course, the resemblance so often cited—that we both have the same great English tradition as background. Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, are as much English as American, while Pope and Addison belong as much to England as New Zealand.
Finally, Dr. Canby said he had found the same sense of expectancy for the future, the same species of idealism in the two countries, which meant that the two countries were going to be sympathetic (in all senses) to each other. He had come here because he wants us to help the USA read our books and understand us. It should be very easy, he said, to write in a small country such as this, and good New Zealand literature would find a ready sale in the States.