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Defrosting the Cultural Nationalists.

Review of Hard Frost: Structures of Feeling in New Zealand Literature 1908-1945 by John Newton (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2017)

It is challenging to review John Newton's Hard Frost. It is especially challenging for someone who firmly believes, in line with revisionist critics like Jane Stafford and Mark Williams, that "New Zealand literature" (between perennial inverted commas?) existed well before the twentieth century. There is something fundamentally wrong with the author's definition of what constitutes New Zealand literature. In his preface Newton asks, "What was New Zealand literature?" and claims to feel "the sting of that past tense" (9). If he does, it is self-inflicted. Can he genuinely expect readers to accept his premise that New Zealand literature is "dead," "a finite chapter" (9, 11)? By inference, there is no such thing as contemporary New Zealand literature. Worse, precisely the transnational or global outlook of much of local writing seems to preclude the epithet "New Zealand literature." Newton announces, "[T]hat as New Zealand literature slips over the horizon it's time to try to tell its history from beginning to end" (14), and delimits its boundaries from the 1930s to the 1990s. That the author fails to acknowledge the different contexts, or rather "structures of feeling" (more on that below), of New Zealand literature outside this narrow demarcation is paradoxical. After all. Hard Frost is also a manifesto to read the cultural nationalists of the mid-century sympathetically, in terms appropriate to their time and place.

Major and minor disagreements aside, I found Hard Frost highly readable and well researched. Above all, it is successful in what it aims to achieve: to read the cultural nationalists of the first half of the twentieth century contextually, dissecting "the wider emotional climate" (20). As Newton underlines,
   It is entirely too easy to reduce nationalist writing to those
   attitudes and assumptions that we no longer find
   sympathetic, and then to sheet home those values to
   individual authors as if this somehow exempted us from
   reading these writers thoughtfully. This misconstrual of
   agency is not so much unfair as short-sighted. It closes
   down texts in which a more tolerant form of reading
   might seek to discern the larger cultural patterns that these
   writers are articulating. (25-26)


Instead of dismissing Curnow & Co for their crude misogyny and monocultural chauvinism, Newton points out what they did well. In our age of feminist and post-colonial awareness, which necessarily informs our aesthetic tastes, it is difficult to like this particular group of waiters. Over the course of 300 pages, Newton goes to great lengths to "defrost" the cultural nationalists of the 1930s and 1940s, infusing their hard, hyper-masculine rhetoric with some feeling. As the book's subtitle indicates, Newton approaches selected writers by applying the concept of "structures ot feeling," which he borrows from Raymond Williams. He admits that the term is "slippery" (21), yet tries to pin it down in some detail in his introduction. While the concept remains elusive, it fulfils its purpose in providing not so much a method as an overarching structure to tackle a variety of questions and to read key texts as conditioned by their historical, geographical, and socio-cultural context.

The two central questions that Newton broaches throughout Hard Frost concern the relationship of international modernism with New Zealand literary nationalism and the various, complex reasons for the "masculine turn" (15) in New Zealand literature. He handles die gamut of factors well and integrates his close readings smoothly into the overall discussion of New Zealand literary history. Rather than summarising the individual chapters, I will point out a few of the highlights. Chapter 1 seeks to account for the cultural nationalists' lack of meaningful engagement with Katherine Mansfield. In an insightful analysis, Newton highlights why the mid-century writers were unable to connect with Mansfield's work. He argues that this time it was not primarily a question of gender, but that her oeuvre felt distant to the cultural nationalist generation because of its inwardness, psychologism, and symbolism. Beyond that, writers like Sargeson were also suspicious of her expatriatism. Chapter 2 on Blanche Baughan, Ursula Bethell, and R.A.K. Mason surprises with its enthusiasm for Baughan's "A Bush Section." Given the conspicuous absence of colonial New Zealand literature in Hard Frost, die positive inclusion of Baughan stands out. However, the discussion of the photograph "Climbing an Ice Face" in chapter 3--with Baughan appearing "somewhat parodically Edwardian" (121)--is not convincing. From the perspective of a woman, I cannot see why the picture should draw an ambivalent response. Climbing an ice face in Edwardian clothing is simply impressive. In that sense, Newton's brief discussion of the photograph as a transition to an otherwise interesting chapter on writing, gender, and mountaineering seems an unlucky choice. The chapter ends with another unlucky formulation: "And so we arrive at the threshold of'New Zealand Literature' (146).

The hero of chapter 4, unsurprisingly, is the author's much-admired Allen Curnow. Despite Newton's very explicit admiration of Curnow, the chapter offers a balanced discussion of what the author calls, in reference to Alex Calder, Curnow's "critical nationalism" (including the admission that "Curnow is not an easy writer to love"; 183). This chapter also shines with witty headings and subheadings, such as "All the history that did not happen" and "Nation impossible" (149). In the next chapter on "Manliness in Fairburn and Glover," Newton continues to share his enthusiasm for the cultural nationalist poets, while explaining the period's masculinism and its "structural underpinnings" (212). Chapter 6 then discusses exactly why the structural underpinnings of nationalist writing posed such difficulties to talented female writers, exemplified by the singular career of Robin Hyde. The final chapter, "Calling a spade a shovel," revolves around Frank Sargeson as a "closet homosexual" writing "under the pressure of intense homophobic anxiety" (265). In dre afterword, Newton acknowledges a surprising omission, John Mulgan, who is not in the book, "though he plainly belongs here" (308). Charles Brasch receives more attention in these final pages, as the author looks forward towards the post-war period, probably in order to give readers a first taste of the second instalment of his proposed trilogy on what he considers "New Zealand literature."

If we are to say that this is a necessary book, then it is equally necessary to critique it. Since the writers of the 1930s and 1940s are seen as foundational for New Zealand cultural nationalism to the extent that we routinely refer to them as "the cultural nationalists," I agree with Newton that we need to engage with this kind of nationalist writing with "equivalent sophistication" as we have censured it (14). The author does this admirably. His arguments would be even more convincing, though, if he approached New Zealand literature outside his self-imposed boundaries of 1930s-1990s in a similar vein. Never does he challenge the cultural nationalists' disdain of colonial New Zealand literature and their dismissal of preceding writers as sentimental and effeminate. Rather, he implicitly condones their censure by subscribing to the idea that the Caxton Press writers "invented" New Zealand literature. The title of the book Hard Frost--taken from Charles Brasch in reference to an anthology edited by Curnow: "lake a hard frost, it killed off weeds, and promoted sound growth" (19)--further perpetuates the assumption that early New Zealand writers just produced literary weeds. Under different circumstances, I would take the title as a tongue-in-cheek comment on the cultural nationalist writers, but the book does not offer substantial indications to support such a reading. As it stands, Hard Frost denies the cultural nationalists' predecessors and does not recognise foundational textualisations of the physical, cultural, and social space of New Zealand by writers such as Lady Barker, George Charnier, Clara Cheeseman, Edith Searle Grossmann, and many others. For an intelligently written book, Hard Frost regretfully fails to contribute to a more productive discussion on the question of a New Zealand literary canon.

I said it was a challenge to review Hard Frost, because, while certain issues need to be addressed critically, they should not obscure the fact that the book is very elegantly written. Its style is lucid and engaging; its author is knowledgeable and able to convey his enthusiasm. Newton demonstrates a wide contextual knowledge, ranging from moa archaeology to the history of mountaineering. Readers will not start to approve of the period's misogyny, but the author succeeds in unravelling its intricate causes and in making his readers understand the underlying structures of feelings that inform the cultural nationalists' idiosyncratic rhetoric. Newton's familiarity with the writers has a positive, but also a potentially negative side. Hard Frost reads almost like a conversation with and about the author's friends. Newton includes personal anecdotes and subjective judgments, which make for easy reading without diminishing the book's scholarly outlook. However, the author's intimacy with the writers and their works, his "buddies" in a way, can make some readers feel excluded. In that sense, he reproduces the same structures of feeling of elitism and exclusiveness that the cultural nationalists cultivated. I also asked myself about the book's target audience. For students or a general interested readership, Hard Frost assumes a certain degree of prior knowledge they may not have. There are no introductory paragraphs at the beginning of each chapter with details about the writer's life or major works. In reference to Curnow's "The Skeleton of the Great Moa in the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch," for example, Newton speaks of the version "the one we all know" (181). So who exactly is "we"? His statement in the preface that "New Zealand literary criticism has always been a boutique industry" (16) suggests that Newton is writing for fellow academics, presumably those who already appreciate the mid-century writers. If that was not the case, some of his formulations may jar with critical readers: "Our accustomed sense of a national literature emerges, as we know, in the 1930s" (12). Personally, I did not know that and find such wording unnecessarily manipulative. More important than what the book lacks, however, is what it offers: a smart and insightful account of a key period of New Zealand literature presented with wit and humour.
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Title Annotation:Hard Frost: Structures of Feeling in New Zealand Literature 1908-1945
Author:Rudig, Stefanie
Publication:JNZL: Journal of New Zealand Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2018
Words:1684
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