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Hilltop: A Literary Paper. Volume 1 Number 1

Early America—Early New Zealand

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Early America—Early New Zealand

In a recent radio discussion with Roy Parsons about New Zealand writing, James Bertram suggested that writers in this country should turn their attention to writing for the American market. I think he added that we could all of us gain by keeping in closer touch with American literature. This is not a new idea, indeed most New Zealand writers seem to have considered the influence of American thought and writing valuable to their work and they have often advocated a turning away from our English alliance.

James Cowan, in the preface of his history of the Maori Wars, was preoccupied with the historical parallels: "There certainly is a remarkable similarity, in all but landscape, between the old frontier life in British North America and the United States and the broad features of the violent contact between European and Maori in our country.... It is to the pages of Francis Parkman, Theodore Roosevelte, and Harry Cabot Lodge that the New Zealander must turn for historic parallels in the story of the nations rather than to those of Macaulay, Green or Freeman." A. R. D. Fairburn in "Art in New Zealand" 1934, suggested that "American literature may have a better influence on us than English." He goes on: "I believe that, from the point of view of the New Zealand writer, 'Huckleberry Finn' is the most important novel ever written. The easy-going, casual, gum-chewing attitude towards life of the true colonial is something that concerns us very directly... . We understand Huck, the true colonial, where we can only pretend to understand Tom Brown, the English public school-boy."

In 1820 the United States had about as great a population as we have now; they were primarily agricultural people and lived along a scattered seaboard; the six main cities had populations of between eight and ten thousand. It is not surprising that their early writing, before the establishment of a sound native tradition, bears some resemblance in temper and theme to New Zealand writing now. I have no doubt that in time a native New Zealand art will be created and I wonder how much the present self-conscious demand for this art and literature will help the resulting culture.

We have been given a National Orchestra, which, it is to be presumed, will eventually play real New Zealand music. There is also a State Literary Fund and a National Library Service; perhaps it has been decided that the time is ripe for the products of the one to fill the shelves of the other.

The demand for really New Zealand writing may spring from the current cult of self-sufficiency of this country in all things, but it is also a natural need and of long-standing. It is interesting to recall that one hundred years ago the cry for a pure American literature was gradually dying away as that literature became established. But this establishment was a very difficult business and some of its problems were very like our own. In the United States of about 1800 there was no national copyright law. Noah Webster had to obtain from each State Legislature the necessary legal protection for his books. And until 1891 there was no international copyright law. American publishers became a byword for piracy—at the expense of people like Scott, Byron, Gilbert, and Tupper.

Consequently very few American authors were published by their countrymen until the success of Irving's "The Sketch Book" in 1819-20.

Alan Mulgan in the P.E.N. book "Literature and Authorship in New Zealand," has noted a similar piratical tendency among New Zealand newspapers; "But the worst enemy of New Zealand contributors has probably been the regular conveyance of articles and stories from overseas papers and journals to New Zealand publications... . In earlier days New Zealand newspapers were compelled to draw largely on the overseas press for their reading matter, and the habit has persisted... . They all from time to time—some more than others —lift articles and stories. They would not take an item marked 'Copyright—all rights reserved,' but it is possible that it does not often occur to editors and sub-editors that by reprinting articles from other papers without permission or payment they are infringing the law of copyright... . The practice ... does press hard on local writers."

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In the latest "Parson's Packet" Mr. Mulgan mentioned another problem that has to be faced in writing in this country. He was replying to John Cole about the "rewards of literture," and he said that literature was not a profession here, but a gamble. John Quincy Adams found the same state of affairs in America; on Christmas Day, 1820, he wrote in his diary: "I have been a lawyer for bread, and a statesman at the call of my country... . The summit of my ambition would have been by some great work of literature to have done honour to my age and country... . This consummation of happiness has been denied me." In 1825 Thomas Jefferson put the position more impersonally: "Literature is not yet a distinct profession with us. Now and then a strong mind arises, and at its intervals of leisure from business, emits a flash of light. But the first object of young societies is bread and covering."

These economic difficulties are being faced by New Zealand writers, and, for years past, they have been grappling also with the technical problems of finding artistic means to describe their people and country—much more energetically than the early American writers seem to have done. In spite of this effort it has sometimes been overseas observers who have pointed out our foibles, and facets of our life that we cannot see. The same thing happened to early nineteenth century America. In "The English Traveller in America, 1780-1835" Jane Mesick quotes some American characteristics which struck British travellers: "Acute sensitiveness to opinion," "self-confidence and independence in all ages and classes of people," "conservatism in American ideas, a kind of holding back from that which was new and strange," "The undeniable fondness for titles of all kinds," and also "the greatest kindliness," "patience and good humour," and "reserve towards strangers." John Bristed. an Englishman, wrote in "The Resources of The United States" (1818): "The national van it y of the United States surpasses that of any other country, not even excepting France. It blazes out everywhere, and on all occasions—in their conversations, newspapers, pamphlets, speeches, and books. They assume it as a self-evident fact that Americans surpass all other nations in virtue, wisdom, valour, liberty, government, and every other excellence. All Europeans they profess to despise, as ignorant paupers and dastardly slaves. Even during President Washington's administration, Congress debated three days upon the important position that 'America was the most enlightened nation on earth'; and finally decided the affirmative by a small majority." Jay Hubbell in his (her?) "American Life in Literature," says that "the general impression made upon foreign observers was that a large percentage of Americans could read, but few of them read anything but newspapers."

Sometimes the criticism went further than this, probably because of the mutual antipathy that led to the 1812 War. Thomas Moore seems to have taken it upon himself to castigate the rude Americans after his visit to the States in 1804: "... every step I take not only reconciles but endears to me, not only the excellencies but even the errors of Old England... . I defy the barbarous natives to forge one chain of attachment for my heart that has ever felt the sweets of delicacy and refinement, I believe I must except the women from this denunciation." Moore summed up the state of America in his poem, "To The Honourable W. R. Spencer":

Rank without ripeness, quicken'd without sun,
Crude at the surface, rotten at the core,
Her fruits would fall, before her spring were o'er.

To Moore who visited and detested America must be opposed the appreciative romantic writers who were more engrossed with her political sentiments. Coleridge, Wordsworth, Campbell, Byron, Shelley, and Keats all looked on America as the hope of the new world. Goethe addressed to the States his sonnet: "Amerika, du hast es besser," the sestet of which has been translated by Boyesen:

Grasp but the present that is thine,
And when thy children take to writing,
May kindly Fate preserve their tales
From robbers, knights, and ghosts affrighting.

Hazlitt wrote one of the most acute comments on the problems of American literature in the essay "On Reading New Books" (1827): "And in America—that Van Diemen's Land of letters—this sterling satire ("The Beggar's Opera") is hooted off the stage, because, fortunately, they have no such state of manners as it describes before their eyes; and because, unfortunately, they have no conception page 22 of any thing but what they see. America is singularly and awkwardly situated in this respect. It is a new country with an old language; and while everything about them is of a day's growth, they are constantly applying to us to know what to think of it, and taking their opinions from our books and newspapers with a strange mixture of servility and the spirit of contradiction. They are an independent State in politics; in literature they are still a colony from us. We have naturalised some of their writers, who had formed themselves upon us. This is at once a compliment to them and to ourselves."

These criticisms, were they applied to New Zealand, would probably be echoed and excelled by some of our writers. They irritated the newly-republican Americans, especially when Sidney Smith asked in the Edinburgh Review: "Who reads an American book ?" Smith was quite friendly to the Americans but his article in the Review for January, 1820, provoked an outburst of national spleen. Smith was evaluating the achievements of America: "Thus far, we are the friends and admirers of Jonathan; but he must not grow vain and ambitious; or allow himself to be dazzled by that galaxy of epithets by which his orators and newspaper scribblers endeavour to persuade their supporters that they are the greatest, the most refined, the most enlightened, and most moral people upon earth. The effect of this is unspeakably ludicrous on this side of the Atlantic —and, even on the other, we should imagine, must be rather humiliating to the reasonable part of the population. The Americans are a brave, industrious, and acute people; but they have hitherto given no indications of genius, and made no approaches to the heroic, either in their morality or character. They are but a recent offset indeed from England; and should make it their chief boast, for many generations to come, that they are sprung from the same race with Bacon and Shakespeare and Newton... . In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book ? Or goes to an American play? Or looks at an American picture or statue? ... "

James Russell Lowell was thinking of Smith's question when he wrote in "Leaves From My Journal": "It had been resolved unanimously that we must and would have a national literature. England, France, Spain, Italy each already had one, Germany was getting one as fast as possible, and Ireland vowed that she once had one far surpassing them all. To be respectable, we must have one also, and that speedily.... Sidney Smith's scornful question ... tingled in our ears. Surely never was a young nation setting forth jauntily to seek its fortune so dumbfounded as Brother Jonathan when John Bull cried gruffly from the roadside, "Stand, and deliver a national literature." After fumbling in his pockets, he was obliged to confess that he hadn't one about him at the moment, but vowed he had left a first-rate one home which he would have fetched along—only it was so ever-lasting heavy." This demand for a national literature died down after 1840 though Emerson and Whitman in later years continued this cry. By the later nineteenth century the force of the English Romantic movement was being felt in America and was producing the New England renaissance. American literature seems to have lagged behind European fashions by about 50 years, though of course, the gap is rapidly closing, as it is in this country, and, indeed, the whole relationship is changing. Hazlitt noted that Irving seemed to be a belated eighteenth century writer. Bernard Shaw in "Man and Superman" satirized in Hector Malone what he called "the dumbfoundering staleness of American culture"; "the truth being," adds Shaw, "that Hector's culture is nothing but a state of saturation with our literary exports of thirty years ago."

This, of course, is a problem that has worried all New Zealand writers who have battled with our "Home" complex. No doubt we shall eventually create our own artistic mediums and ideas and our dependency on English literary fashions will be resolved.