Hard Frost: Structures of feeling in New Zealand literature, 1908–1945 by John Newton (Victoria University Press, 2017), 368 pp., $40
After Stuart Murray’s Never a Soul at Home (VUP 1998), Lawrence Jones’ Picking Up the Traces (VUP 2003) and numerous other texts of literary revisionism, it is hard to imagine that anything new can be said about New Zealand’s mid-century literary nationalism. Another book covering this territory must have at least a new angle of vision. Fortunately John Newton’s Hard Frost does have such an angle, although many of Newton’s observations inevitably overlap with those of previous literary historians.
Hard Frost is the first volume of a proposed trilogy, which will eventually take Newton up to the 1970s. Its ‘Afterword’ is like a preview of coming attractions as it fades out on Charles Brasch and Denis Glover setting up Landfall in 1947 and looks forward to a new sort of New Zealand literary production in the 1950s.
The book’s title comes from a statement by Brasch: New Zealand literature, he opined, needed to jettison the gentility, prettiness and flag-waving of the 1920s and earlier. It required a ‘hard frost’ to kill off the literary weeds. As for the book’s subtitle, it’s a more complicated matter. John Newton has borrowed the phrase ‘structures of feeling’ from the Marxist critic Raymond Williams. He spends much of his introduction explaining the term, but for me it remains somewhat nebulous. It appears to refer to the way people think and feel as cued by the historical and social situation in which they live – and such ‘structures of feeling’ inevitably change from generation to generation. These ‘structures of feeling’ are also related to the matter of sex and gender. Therefore, not only will there be comparisons of the number of men and the number of women writing at any given time, but the ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ of the writing itself will be considered.
Using these concepts, Newton aspires to get into the heads of the nationalist writers and to understand how and why they thought and wrote as they did, especially with regard to their sexual being. In other words, he wants to reconstruct how they saw reality, rather than rebuking them for failing to see reality as we do.
And this is Newton’s new angle. He is proposing a revision of recent revisionism. After decades in which the 1930s and 1940s were (inaccurately) said to represent the birth of a ‘real’ NZ literature, ‘in the 1980s and 1990s, theoretically informed scholarship ruthlessly exposed the [literary nationalist] movement’s limitations … its masculinism, its monoculturalism, its allegedly naïve representationalism’ (p.13). But, argues Newton, ‘it is entirely too easy to reduce nationalist writing to those attitudes and assumptions that we no longer find sympathetic, and then to sheet home those values to individual authors as if this somehow exempted us from reading these writers thoughtfully’ (pp.25–26).
Hence this book. It does not deny the revisionists’ charges, but it seeks to finesse them and approach the work of literary nationalists as texts that still reward a close reading.
Made at considerable length is the case that literary nationalism (localist, populist and representational) was a hard fit with modernism (urbane, mandarin and formalist). Says Newton: ‘Modernism priced itself out of the general market, concentrating its operations in the hands of a self-selecting elite’ (p.106). Yet hard, non-decorative modernism was what New Zealand literary nationalists emulated. For Allen Curnow in the 1930s, this took the form of his ‘anti-myth’, which belittled flag-waving versions of New Zealand’s colonisation by his ‘habitual deflation of the narrative of settlement’ (p.165).
Curnow presented the achievements of earlier colonists as petty and trivial when compared with the great events of the world. They were not worthy of uncritical celebration. Yet Curnow’s anti-myth created its own mythology. By largely ignoring Māori, Curnow could conceive of New Zealand as virgin islands still waiting for a meaningful human impact, perhaps from ‘some child, born in a marvellous year’. I note once again, when reading Curnow’s ‘The skeleton of the great moa in the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch’ (dissected by Newton at pp.180–83) that it contains its own historical untruth. The moa was not an ‘interesting failure to adapt on islands’. It adapted very well – until it was wiped out by people whose existence Curnow’s mythology does not acknowledge. (The cover of Hard Frost features a shot of moa bones being displayed in Pyramid Valley in the 1940s, pointing to the importance of this poem in Newton’s argument.)
In Newton’s analysis, Denis Glover and A.R.D. Fairburn were the New Zealand poets most torn by the tension between literary nationalism and literary modernism. Essentially Romantic in their inclinations, their lyricism was stifled by the spare and ‘hard’ style modernism required. Their poetic production fizzled out in booze (Glover) and whimsy (Fairburn). Further, says Newton, these two ‘act[ed] out most plainly the pathology of self-conscious masculinity’ (p.203).
This brings us to the matter of sex and the ‘boys only’ aspect of New Zealand literary nationalism. Especially in his opening chapters, Newton argues that, worldwide, the ‘sexual modernism’ and new sexology of the 1920s paradoxically did not liberate women writers, because it sexualised marriage and made it harder for women writers to occupy the homosocial space in which they had flourished. In New Zealand, this meant the creativity that had been displayed by (single) women like Blanche Baughan, Mary Ursula Bethell and Eileen Duggan was sidelined or belittled by the men. Male literary nationalists had already rejected Katherine Mansfield as a model, and in the process lost ‘modernist interiority’ (besides, Mansfield was guilty of the sin of being an expatriate). But the woman most often scorned by the male nationalists was Robin Hyde, with Frank Sargeson crassly dismissing her poetry as ‘obviously masturbatory orgasms’ (p.244). As Newton demonstrates, not only was Hyde a woman, but her poetry was defiantly anti-modernist. There is the side issue, of itself a rebuke to the modernists, that both Mansfield and Hyde were taken up by the old guard of ‘bookmen’, the literary conservatives (Alan Mulgan, Pat Lawlor, O.N. Gillespie, Charles Marris et al) who co-opted these women as representatives of a cosier, unreflective version of New Zealand.
The chapter on Sargeson himself is the most self-contradictory in the book. Newton speaks of Sargeson’s ‘masculinity forged under the pressure of intense homophobic anxiety’( p.265). He easily differentiates Sargeson from the more overtly camp D’Arcy Cresswell (whom Newton swats away as a ‘poetaster’). In close readings of the novella That Summer and the short story ‘The Hole that Jack Dug’, Newton argues that Sargeson discovered that the rhetoric of literary nationalism ‘can be simulated. It makes itself available as a language of subterfuge, a language of concealment: a stylistic closet’ (p.276). In a kind of extended camp joke, says Newton, Sargeson knowingly peppered his earlier texts with words which insiders could understand as signalling homosexual desire, but which outsiders would read only as blokey mateship. Yet having made this case at length, Newton then proceeds to knock it over, ruling that Sargeson did not consciously play such word-games, and that the words, which might be interpreted as gay, must have bubbled up from his unconscious.
I am not quite sure what point Newton has ultimately made here, and I am a little alarmed when he says that Sargeson’s early viewpoint is ‘bracingly misogynistic’ (p.300). Bracingly? Personally, one of the things I find most repellent in Sargeson’s early fiction is his frequent depiction of women as controlling bitches or puritanical killjoys. It matters little that in writing thus, Sargeson was mimicking the common expressions of many (straight) Kiwi jokers.
There are some things in New Zealand’s 1930s literary nationalism that Newton appears to have wilfully left out of Hard Frost. In his closing pages, he himself notes the absence of John Mulgan ‘though plainly he belongs here’ (p.308). This is offset by his attention to relevant mores, which are strictly outside the sphere of literature, such as his half-chapter on the way New Zealand mountaineering came to exclude women in the 1930s, much as modernist nationalism did.
After the detailed reasoning, however, what is most to like about this book is the author’s unabashed candour and willingness to express a personal, unguarded opinion. This can lead him to make perishable, topical comments, such as his remarks about the goonish populism of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage (p.149). Certainly his unbuttoned comments can be dismissive, as when he tackles Robin Hyde’s poetry: ‘When I read her poems alongside the best of Curnow or Glover, of Mason or Fairburn, of Bethell or Baughan, they feel, with relatively few late exceptions, like museum pieces; they are dead to the touch’ (p.232). Yet when he is positive, he is fully and enthusiastically engaged in the work. Blanche Baughan’s ‘A bush section’ is ‘the best [New Zealand poem] before Mason by a country mile’ (p.74). After a careful reading of Mary Ursula Bethell’s ‘Spring 1940’, essentially an elegy for a close female friend, Newton writes: ‘This is not the Bethell who gives so little away, but a poet driven in her desperation to an utterance of such devastating candour that, even 75 years later, the reader stands uncomfortably within the blast radius of pain’ (p.95).
At such moments, Newton is affirming the continuing emotional power and literary worth of what he contextualises and analyses. The texts are not historical ‘cases’. They still speak to us.
Dr NICHOLAS REID is an Auckland poet and historian. He writes the book blog Reid’s Reader.