James Munro Bertram was born on 11 August 1910 at Auckland, the son of Ivo Edgar Bertram, a Presbyterian minister, and his wife, Evelyn Susan Bruce. At the start of the First World War the family moved to Melbourne and then to Sydney. For 10 years Jim attended church schools, absorbed his mother's reading of stories, poetry and the Bible, and listened critically but attentively to his father's sermons. He received his secondary schooling in New Zealand, at Waitaki Boys' High School under Frank Milner. Despite ideological differences, Jim Bertram admired Milner's teaching and leadership. Most significant, though, was his friendship with Milner's son, Ian, and with Charles Brasch.
He met the third of his closest friends, J. A. W. Bennett, at Auckland University College, where he was enrolled from 1929 to 1931. They co-edited the New Zealand Student Christian Movement magazine, Open Windows, and Bertram also edited the first two issues of the literary magazine Phoenix. His religious and aesthetic development was tempered by the politics of the Queen Street riot of 1932: he enlisted briefly as a special constable, to find his sympathies for those from less-privileged backgrounds rapidly enlarged.
In 1932 Bertram was awarded a diploma in journalism and in the same year a Rhodes Scholarship took him to New College, at Oxford University. There he took a first in English followed by a good second in modern languages. He was active in left-wing clubs, and continued to enjoy rugby, finding to his taste the English belief that it was a recreation rather than a vocation.
His intended career was that of international correspondent. Oxford influence gained him a position with the Times, but he quickly realised advancement would be slow. Late in 1935 he eagerly accepted a travelling fellowship from the Rhodes Trust to visit China, and spent 1936 in Peking (Beijing) learning Mandarin. The fellowship was renewed for 1937 and he made his way to Sian (Xi'an), where General Chiang Kai-shek had been seized by officers sympathetic to the communists, a crisis that led to the formation of the United Front against the Japanese invaders. After interviewing Mao Tse-tung in Yan'an (the first British journalist to do so), he travelled for five months with the Eighth Route Army in north China. These experiences resulted in Crisis in China (1937) and North China front (1939). Although he was practising where possible as a free-lance journalist, his temperament was better suited to the more essayistic personal reflections that books allowed.
During these two years Bertram became acquainted with a number of the men and women who would later take high posts in communist China. There followed three years of more active support for a China reeling under Japanese aggression. Falling under the spell of Soong Ch'ing-ling, widow of Sun Yat-sen, the acknowledged founder of modern China, he worked for the China Defence League (CDL), soliciting and distributing western refugee and medical aid. This work included a fund-raising lecture tour in the United States, and leading a convoy of trucks laden with petrol and medical supplies from Haiphong in Indochina to Yan'an. Before Bertram completed this last journey, England declared war on Germany, and he immediately returned home. His attempts to warn of the threat of Japanese aggression were actively discouraged in Australia and New Zealand. Finding he was too late to volunteer, he sought and obtained permission to return to his work for the CDL.
Apart from a few months as relief press attaché to the British ambassador in Chungking (Chongqing), which involved bringing a small convoy over the Burma Road from Rangoon, Bertram worked for the league in Hong Kong until the Japanese seized the colony in December 1941. Because he was a volunteer gunner, he became a prisoner of war in Hong Kong and Tokyo for nearly four years. Many of his companions did not survive the malnutrition, disease, hard labour and malicious violence of guards. In later years, rather than talk of it, Bertram would direct people to books by Laurens van der Post, saying 'they are true, in a way few other books about the Japanese are'. He thought it unlikely that many of the thousands still held by the Japanese in 1945 would have survived had the war not been brought to a sudden end by the atomic bomb.
Arriving home, Bertram was asked to be adviser to the New Zealand delegation to the Far Eastern Commission. This return to Japan inevitably sharpened his thoughts about war guilt and appropriate justice. He was not sure if he would have acted to save the life of the worst of his prison guards, but otherwise believed that forgiveness was the only firm foundation for a better future.
During 1946 Bertram wrote The shadow of a war (1947). He also travelled throughout New Zealand as a CORSO representative and was thus able to direct help once again to Soong Ch'ing-ling and to Rewi Alley. However, he knew that finding support for the communists in China's civil war would be difficult. Past his mid 30s and wondering what to do with the rest of his life, at the last minute he applied, successfully, for a senior lectureship in English at Victoria University College, Wellington.
He had also met up with Jean Ellen Stevenson, a successful journalist whom he had known earlier as a friend of Ian Milner. The couple were married in Auckland on 14 March 1947 and moved soon after to Wellington. In 1949 they settled in the Hutt Valley. They both enjoyed horse-riding and laboured together to turn a large hill section into an intriguing garden of native bush, fruit trees and roses. It was a deep grief to them that there were no children of the marriage.
The remainder of Bertram's life was spent as an academic. Victoria after the war still had the feel of a part-time night school, and English lecturers were expected to be conversant with all literary periods from Chaucer onwards. Bertram later specialised in the lives and work of A. H. Clough, and Matthew and Thomas Arnold. His book on Clough failed to find a publisher, but he edited two volumes of the letters of Thomas Arnold. He was no charismatic lecturer, but his range in several European languages, his retentive memory and his deep commitment to literature nevertheless made him an inspiring exemplar of the scholarly reader. He was given a personal chair in 1971, and retired four years later in 1975. In retirement he was general editor of the New Zealand Writers and their Work series, wrote on Charles Brasch and Dan Davin, and edited Brasch's memoir, Indirections. In 1981 he received an honorary LittD.
Outside the university, Jim Bertram unobtrusively supported New Zealand writing. He helped to found Landfall and became the most valued adviser of the editor, Charles Brasch. He provided much appreciated encouragement and constructive comment to many writers, and contributed – especially to the New Zealand Listener, and with the general public in mind – informative and positive reviews. In 1985 he published a selection of his reflections on New Zealand writers.
Although his Far Eastern interests had increasingly little practical application, he was active for a while in groups such as the Society for Closer Relations with Russia and the New Zealand China Society, and he always kept himself informed. He returned to China with an official cultural group in 1956, and again in 1986 as an honorary guest of the Chinese government for the anniversary of Chiang Kai-shek's capture. But efforts to persuade Victoria to develop Eastern – especially Chinese and Japanese – studies had too little community and student support to be immediately acceptable.
Tall, and of heavier build than he at first appeared, Bertram had a gentle manner, slightly effeminate gesture and personal reticence that masked a firmness of moral judgement, especially on literary and Asian matters. After his student days, occasional church attendance was not supported by belief, but in retirement he and Jean returned to communicant membership of the Presbyterian church. James Bertram died in Lower Hutt on 24 August 1993, survived by his wife.