Critical writing by New Zealanders relating to their own literature has been inhibited by two considerations – one, that public interest obliges newspapers to review a large number of books published in England; two, that criticism of local books tends to be more cautious than that of overseas work. Many newspapers have for many years regularly printed a page of reviews, but these vary considerably in authority and, unfortunately, standards seem to be declining rather than rising, though some journals, such as the Press (Christchurch), can be relied on to commission good reviews, by persons with a suitable background of knowledge where this is needed. Even pedestrian reviewing can be sound and successful where the same critics (in, for instance, the Otago Daily Times) are regularly employed to handle the same type of book. The New Zealand Listener maintains much higher standards than do the broadcast review sessions, whose preoccupation with making new books an entertainment shows little understanding of the critic's integrity. Landfall's practice is for once disappointing, for although it can afford the space for a long review and does in fact notice nearly all books of any stature with a New Zealand interest, it too often entrusts them to inexperienced people who are thus induced to enter its pages. Extended critical essays have been rare, and the symposia which it printed on Ursula Bethell and D'Arcy Cresswell, written with a partly lapidary intention, were chiefly of biographical interest.
Hocken's famous bibliography (1909) contains, with gnarled biographical sketches, occasionally equally summary critical judgments. It is impossible to withhold affection from Hocken's commonsensical approach to literature, even when it leads him to self-exposure in his treatment of imaginative writing. He deals with two early novels of G. B. Lancaster in identical terms: “A coarsely told story – locality, New Zealand.”
The first extended critical study of our literature was E. H. McCormick's excellent Letters and Art in New Zealand (1940), one of the centennial programme of publications, which in its field set standards of scholarship unlikely to be surpassed if indeed they are ever equalled. McCormick did ample justice to the history of our literature. Moreover, his sensitive, critical judgments are generally accepted and have tended to colour the thinking of most later writers or to oblige them to rationalise their disagreement. McCormick has carefully revised this book in New Zealand Literature (1959) which extends his scrutiny down nearly to the present. (It omits the material on art.) His criticism of art has found a parallel development in his studies of the work of Frances Hodgkins and in other essays.
Just as aware as McCormick of the interaction of life and literature, M. H. Holcroft in his Centennial Prize essay Encircling Seas (1940), the first of a series of complementary studies with somewhat similar overtones, examined the influence of the physical environment on, inter alia, our writers, with originality and deep feeling, valiantly entering a region of intangibles to achieve a valuable synthesis. This passage in The Waiting Hills (1943) will serve to indicate the trend of his mind: “The hills, the rivers, the plains and the forest: all the moulded contours, the granite foundations and the vegetable growths of our moist soil are new things, new combinations of form and colour in the world which poetry builds anew from the flow of appearances. They are not to be reproduced by a conscious artistry, but must come gradually and through an infinite patience of suggestion into the texture of New Zealand poetry”.
In Creative Writing in New Zealand (1946) J. C. Reid covers a good deal of ground competently in short compass. He reacts against Holcroft's mystique and is himself inclined to rely instead on a background of conventional religion, which makes for balanced judgments unimpaired by surprise.
The poets of the nineteen thirties found a superb spokesman and a skilful exponent in Allen Curnow, whose preface to his anthology A Book of New Zealand Verse 1923–45 was a virile manifesto of his generation. Curnow's preface to his recent Penguin selection is interesting, if a little crochet-ridden, but lacks the fire of his earlier essay and seems to indicate a narrowing of his sympathies in spite of a somewhat fumbling attempt to examine Maori poetry.
The poets of a younger generation found an even more eloquent protagonist in James K. Baxter, first in his 1951 address at the first New Zealand Writers Conference Recent Trends in New Zealand Poetry, which seemed to offer some of the apocalyptic satisfactions of a revivalist. In this lecture he sought the rejection of a “purely aesthetic role” for the writer: it was “reasonable and necessary that poetry should contain moral truth”. The 1954 Macmillan Brown lectures (published as The Fire and the Anvil) show a rather more mature Baxter who comes to grips with the technical problems of poetry as well as recognising the need for poets to “feel part of a complex spiritual identity” with their own country.
In Spring Fires (1956), another lecture set out in print, the Rev. Ormond Burton vigorously stresses the voluntary nature of literature, which “must rise freely and spontaneously from deep feeling” and reassesses New Zealand writing from this point of view.
Several studies of Katherine Mansfield have appeared, from the short luminous essay by Arthur Sewell (1936), some work by Ruth Manz and Pat Lawlor, down to the thorough and exact but unexhilerating critical study by the American scholar, Sylvia Berkman (1952), Anthony Alpers' excellent life (1954), and Ian A. Gordon's lucid and well-proportioned British Council pamphlet (1954). The last three, together with the fuller text of the letters to John Middleton Murry, equip us better than ever before to assess the work of New Zealand's greatest writer.
In The Puritan and the Waif (1954), edited by Helen Shaw, eight writers as various as D'Arcy Cresswell, Baxter, and Dan Davin contributed studies of the work of Frank Sargeson, but this symposium remains more an act of well deserved homage than an exercise in criticism. Moreover, it was published ahead of some of Sargeson's best work.
Now that New Zealand has produced critics with the scholarship and self-awareness of McCormick, the imaginative insight of Holcroft, and the spirit and “engagement” of Baxter, the quality of future work would seem to be assured. But maturity is still rare enough to need cherishing.
by David Oswald William Hall, M.A., Director, Adult Education, University of Otago (retired).