Harold Winston Rhodes was born on 21 July 1905 at Malvern, Melbourne, Australia, the son of Winifred Mary Short and her husband, Thomas Rhodes, a doctor. Winston attended Melbourne High School and then the University of Melbourne, where he soon abandoned his medical studies for English literature, and graduated MA with honours. At the university he was also introduced to the political ideas that were inseparable from his appreciation and study of literature. He became secretary of the Melbourne University Labor Club, and a lifelong socialist.
After graduating, Rhodes tutored at the University of Melbourne’s Ormond and Newman colleges, and at the Victorian Labor College. He was involved in the Melbourne Workers’ Art Club and joined the local branch of the Friends of the Soviet Union. On 11 November 1931, at Melbourne, he married Sophie Ethel Slater. They were to have two sons, and a close, happy marriage. In February 1933 they moved to Christchurch where Winston had been appointed lecturer in English at Canterbury College under the new professor, Frederick Sinclaire, whom he had known as a prominent radical in Melbourne's intellectual circles in the 1920s.
Within weeks of his arrival in Christchurch Rhodes was drawn into discussion with Sinclaire and Kennaway Henderson about a new independent weekly Henderson was planning. Tomorrow was launched in 1934. While Sinclaire would drift away within two years, alienated by the paper’s increasingly left-wing stance, Rhodes remained closely involved until its demise, at the hands of a nervous Labour government, in 1940. Although primarily a political journal, Tomorrow was also an important medium for the publication of new New Zealand writing, and supported the growing indigenous literary movement of the 1930s. It was here that Frank Sargeson's short stories first appeared. Rhodes contributed a regular column of cultural criticism, in which, whether writing on the Victorians, the modern novel, Milton or Chesterton, Soviet cinema or the cultural climate in New Zealand, he elaborated a consistent philosophy of humanist Marxism, and a belief that – in the words of one of his students – ‘literature can restore and correct and can protect one against the depersonalization of modern life, and the artist is the natural enemy of the Philistine, the bureaucrat, the technocrat’.
Winston and Sophie Rhodes found their friends in Christchurch’s left-wing and trade union circles rather than among Winston’s academic colleagues. He played a leading role in the formation of a number of Popular Front political organisations in the 1930s. He joined the local branch of the Friends of the Soviet Union and, in 1941, its successor, the Society for Closer Relations with Russia. Throughout his life he retained a deep interest in the people, literature and society of the Soviet Union. He travelled there three times, the first in 1950 during his first sabbatical leave, and also visited China. He lectured on literature and politics for the WEA and was a frequent speaker at public meetings. In the late 1930s he was instrumental in the establishment of the Left Book Club movement in New Zealand, becoming president of a short-lived New Zealand Left Book Club Association in 1939–40, and was a founder, and chairman until the mid 1950s, of the Christchurch Co-operative Book Society which opened a bookshop in the city in 1938. He was the president of the Christchurch branch of the New Zealand Spanish Medical Aid Committee, of the China Aid Society during the war, and of the Rewi Alley Aid Group. He edited several volumes of Alley's verse for publication, co-edited (with Denis Glover) two anthologies of verse from Tomorrow, and wrote a number of political pamphlets. In the 1950s he was vice president of the New Zealand Peace Council.
Many intellectuals who were attracted to the left before and during the Second World War fell away by the 1950s. Rhodes retained his socialist convictions, although, with the exception of a brief post-war dalliance with the university Labour Club and local Labour Representation Committee, he never joined a political party. In 1959–60 he helped Wolfgang Rosenberg found the New Zealand Monthly Review, styled, in the tradition of Tomorrow, as an independent, socialist journal; he was editor until 1968, and remained involved as a reader for the Review until 1986.
Rhodes’s political activities did not endear him to conservative elements in the university community. From the late 1930s, as Sinclaire’s health deteriorated, he quietly took over the running of the English department. But when Sinclaire retired in 1948 Rhodes was not made professor, and his promotion instead to an associate professorship the following year came against the opposition of a minority on the professorial board. He did not become a full professor until a second chair was created in the department in 1964. These events did not embitter Rhodes. He was not personally ambitious; he was modest, and generous with his time and talents.
Rhodes was an outstanding lecturer, fluid, passionate, and popular with students in whom he encouraged a critical, questioning mind: ‘One never left a lecture…with one's preconceptions intact’. In the 1930s he and Sinclaire struggled to enliven a syllabus that stopped at the 1860s, and a department that had been for over 30 years in the charge of Sinclaire’s predecessor, the dry, abrasive Arnold Wall. Rhodes gave voluntary lectures on modern literature, introducing grateful undergraduates to Eliot and Lawrence, Woolf and Yeats. The more radically minded of them crowded the Rhodeses’ Papanui Road flat for political discussion.
His most significant contribution in the literary field, however, was his encouragement of young writers and of the academic study of New Zealand literature. In 1951, with the professor of English, John Garrett, and lecturer Lawrence Baigent, he helped organise the Writers’ Conference held at Canterbury University College, and he introduced the first full university course on New Zealand literature. He was an early champion not only of Frank Sargeson but also of Janet Frame. In his essay ‘The moral climate of Sargeson's stories’, written for the 1950 symposium ‘The puritan and the waif’, Rhodes reiterated a central theme of his Tomorrow articles in arguing that Sargeson’s private vision expressed less a peculiarly local condition than the ‘personal response of a creative writer to the social morality of an age of disintegration’. In addition to regular reviews in the periodical literature, Rhodes’s major critical works were his volume on Sargeson for the Twayne’s World Authors Series, published in 1969, and, the same year, his ‘short but thoughtful’ survey New Zealand novels: a thematic approach.
After his retirement from the university in 1970 Winston Rhodes continued to read, to write, and to develop his garden at Governors Bay, where he and Sophie had moved in the 1940s. He pursued his interest in Australian literature and in reading Russian literature in the original language, and found a new interest in African writing. He published a history of the NZ–USSR Society, of which he was a life member, in 1979, and wrote memoirs of Frederick Sinclaire and of Kennaway Henderson (published posthumously in 1988). His last piece of writing was entitled ‘Remembering Sophie’, who died in December 1986. Winston Rhodes died seven months later at Governors Bay on 30 July 1987.