Story: Intellectuals

Page 5. Literature and the modern New Zealand intellectual

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Literature, culture and identity

Academic disciplines were not the only sources of intellectual traditions. Much 20th-century reflection on New Zealand identity took the form of literature or writing about literature. Allen Curnow’s forceful arguments about how readers might come to ‘recognise New Zealand by’ poems proved enormously influential.1 Curnow eventually became a university teacher, but his models as he formulated his critical and poetic manifestos in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s were poets and poet-critics such as T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats, not academic critics such as F. R. Leavis, William Empson or Cleanth Brooks.

Literary criticism sometimes functioned as cultural criticism for intellectuals whose formal expertise lay in other fields. Robert Chapman’s 1954 Landfall essay ‘Fiction and the social pattern’ charted the ways recent novels had revealed Pākehā social mores – a subject at some remove from Chapman’s research as a lecturer in political science. James K. Baxter also used his standing as a poet to emerge as a prophet of counter-cultural Aotearoa. The historians J. C. Beaglehole, Keith Sinclair and W. H. Oliver all played the role of the public intellectual, explaining aspects of New Zealand history and interpreting contemporary issues in historical perspective – but each was also a poet, and the general histories of New Zealand that they wrote sought to capture a poetic truth about the country’s past.

21st-century intellectuals

Since the mid-20th century New Zealand artists and experts have been able to function as intellectuals, addressing a broad public in a complex but not specialised way to a degree that was not possible earlier. The emergence of blogging has also provided a platform for many younger social critics.

Some have complained that New Zealand lacks the sort of intellectuals found in countries where philosophers are celebrities – a complement to the long-standing complaint that New Zealand society is philistine. Like criticisms of New Zealand anti-intellectualism, laments about the dearth of intellectuals are regularly made by people whom others might recognise as intellectuals themselves.

  1. Allen Curnow, ed., A book of New Zealand verse, 1932–45. Christchurch: Caxton, 1945, p. 22. Back
How to cite this page:

Chris Hilliard, 'Intellectuals - Literature and the modern New Zealand intellectual', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 June 2024)

Story by Chris Hilliard, published 22 Oct 2014