Looking beyond New Zealand
The earliest settlers imagined the prosperous farms and the bustling towns that would one day replace their tin shacks and trading posts, but those who were eventually born into that bright colonial future often loathed it. The commonest storyline in New Zealand life-writing involved a gifted young person growing up in a small-minded province where art and intellect were likely to wither. One option was exile: Katherine Mansfield left as soon as she could for bohemian London; her letters and journals are among the masterpieces of New Zealand non-fiction.
A few strutted like peacocks in what they saw as a dull literary garden. D’Arcy Cresswell’s dandyish autobiographies The poet’s progress (1930) and Present without leave (1939) displayed the nerve of a writer whose aspiration would always exceed his achievement.
Living in New Zealand
Major autobiographical trilogies by Frank Sargeson in the 1970s (Once is enough, More than enough and Never enough!) and Janet Frame in the 1980s (To the is-land, An angel at my table and The envoy from mirror city) were stories of artists making a life here. Sargeson lived, poor as a monk, in his hut behind a hedge in the suburbs. Frame found ‘the true desirable dwelling place’ in what she called ‘mirror city’, the ordinary world transformed by acts of imagination.1 C. K. Stead’s evocation of mid-century Auckland, South-west of Eden (2010), contributed a third intersecting strand to the recollections of Frame and Sargeson.
Outside of literary autobiography’s populous field, there were superb coming-of-age memoirs – Sage tea (1980) by the painter Toss Woollaston and Ghost dance (2004) by the dancer Douglas Wright.
Distinctions between literary and social criticism tended to blur in the nationalist 1930s to 1950s. The centennial of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi provided the occasion for a series of government-funded surveys, of which E. H. McCormick’s Letters and art in New Zealand (1940) was a landmark. Allen Curnow’s anthology introductions and essays were key assertions of a critical, stock-taking nationalism, while important essays in the quarterly Landfall by Bill Pearson (‘Fretful sleepers’, 1952) and Bob Chapman (‘Fiction and the social pattern,’ 1953), explored the death-grip of puritanism and its decay into conformism and gentility.
The major historical work of this generation was Keith Sinclair’s A history of New Zealand (1959). Its epilogue, ‘The search for identity,’ dovetailed with Curnow’s myth-busting search for a reality that is ‘local and special at the point where we pick up the traces’.2
Lament for the land
In Tutira, Herbert Guthrie-Smith lamented Pākehā disrespect for the environment: ‘When a block of land passes … through the hands of ten holders in half a century, how can long views be taken of its rights? Who under these conditions can give his acres their due? Aue, taukari e, ano te kuware o te pakeha kahore nei i whakaaro ki te mauri o te whenua. Alas! Alas! That the pakeha should so neglect the rights of the land, so forget the traditions of the Maori race, a people who recognised in it something more than the ability to grow meat and wool’.3
Studying the local
Perhaps no New Zealand work is more assiduously local than Herbert Guthrie-Smith’s Tutira (first published in 1921, with several later editions). It is a study of the interaction of humans, animals and plants, on one patch of ground, as observed by the author for over half a century. Both Māori and Pākehā have a place in the story of this sheep station, but it is shared with sparrows, rabbits, weeds and Merino sheep (‘the most miserably home-sick beast on earth’)4as agents of subtle, interlocking, and unpredictable change. Guthrie-Smith writes both as a farmer in love with development (contemplating a new fence, he pictures the ‘shining wire, its mighty strainers … the glory of the grass that was to be’)5 and as a conservationist ‘in concern for his soul’.6
Yet behind the usual binaries of progress and environmental degradation, he sees deeper patterns formed by ‘the cumulative result of trivialities’7.Guthrie-Smith could be said to have invented the discipline of environmental history and Tutira is an epic masterpiece of non-fiction writing.