John Caselberg & Lawrence Jones (2005)

‘Asclepius’. Poet Triumphant: The Life and Writings of R. A. K. Mason (1905-1971). Wellington: Steele Roberts, 2004. ISBN 1-877228-79-6 / Lawrence Jones. Picking up the Traces: The Making of a New Zealand Literary Culture 1932-1945. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-864-73-455-7.

Asclepius: Poet Triumphant (2004)

‘This is no time to be studying the tonal values of the minor works of T. E. Brown [sic]’

So R. A. K. Mason, in the editorial notes to Phoenix 3 (March 1933). In true thirties style, he continued, “It is the greatest hour in history.” Obviously the ‘sic’ was not included in Mason’s original editorial. I’ve supplied it from p.30 of Lawrence Jones’s recent history of the growth of New Zealand literary nationalism, Picking up the Traces.

Interestingly (unsurprisingly), ‘Asclepius’ quotes from the same classic passage on p.136 of his biography of Mason, Poet Triumphant. Only, after the mention of T. E. Brown, he supplies the footnote: “T. E. Brown (1830-97), author of Fo’c’sle Yarns, etc.”

It’s not a matter of great moment in itself, but that ‘sic’ nags at me. Why is it there? A quick check of the index to Lawrence Jones’ book gives us the following: “Browne, T. E.: 30.” Did he confuse the Victorian poetaster with the more celebrated Sir Thomas Browne? Does that explain the inconsistency? Did he assume that Mason couldn’t spell? I’m none the wiser, I’m afraid. (The spelling T. E. Brown is, by the way, correct).

Jones and ‘Asclepius’ (a pseudonym which does little to mask the real author of this new Mason biography, the poet John Caselberg – clearly identified in the copyright notes on p.324) are, after all, traversing much of the same territory. Perhaps, then, this trivial-seeming disparity is not so trivial after all. Perhaps it may help us to understand the two books better – or, at any rate, their author’s intentions.

Professor Lawrence Jones’ book comes from darkest Academia. From the moment we pick it up, sampling the battery of name-dropping, literary side-references, and local literary allusions on the very first page, we know who it is meant for: readers with a considerable knowledge of New Zealand writing of the 30s and 40s, readers (what is more) well acquainted with the arguments of such predecessors as Stuart Murray (Never a Soul at Home: New Zealand Literary Nationalism in the 1930s), Rachel Barrowman (A Popular Vision: Arts and the Left in New Zealand 1930-1950), Kai Jensen (Whole Men: The Masculine Tradition in New Zealand Literature), Bill Pearson’s ‘Fretful Sleepers’, not to mention the critical writings of Allen Curnow himself.

I could expand the list, but I think you get the idea. This is an attempt at a comprehensive synthesis of a lot of earlier critical work, mainly (in recent years) of a revisionist turn. Insofar as I can detect a consistent point of view in Jones, it is a conservative one. Curnow’s canon-building may have displaced a few emphases, which have been largely corrected by subsequent interventions from Feminist and Marxist critics, but what we are left with is a rich tradition to savour and celebrate:
This study has tried to demonstrate that the Phoenix-Caxton writers were at the centre of a coherent, conscious, revolutionary literary movement … While the movement was scarcely the beginning of New Zealand literature, as its makers were fond of proclaiming, it did bring a profound change … a change that, whatever the movement’s blind spots, was clearly a change for the better. [426]

“Whatever the movement’s blind spots” (clannishness? misogyny? politics? lack of politics? one has to go back to Jensen, Murray and their predecessors to get a clear sense of them), “… the literary results were not just therapeutic, not just a necessary adolescent revolt”. Jones concludes by listing some classic works by Curnow, Fairburn, Glover and Sargeson, along with John Mulgan’s Man Alone and Robin Hyde’s Nor the Years Condemn. “The creation of them is the movement’s most lasting legacy.” [429].

It’s not that I disagree with this conclusion. It seems a very sensible one, in fact. It’s just that it’s taken so long to get there, through such a hedge of references and side-references, that one can’t help but expect more. For instance, I wouldn’t mind more convincing evidence to support this idea of a “coherent, conscious, revolutionary literary movement.” Simply using the words “the movement” a lot, and pointing out that all the writers knew each other, published in the same magazines, and used Lowry and Glover as printers doesn’t get us anywhere new. We knew that going in (or if we didn’t, we’re not likely to find out from this rather confusingly presented mass of data).

Jones’s book is clearly a useful one for students of the period (though the ‘T. E. Brown” mistake, which he attempts to father on Mason, reminds us not to trust him too unquestioningly on particulars). It conspicuously fails to put a full stop to the ongoing spirit of revisionism in New Zealand literary studies. Perhaps I’m wrong to attribute such an intention to him, but this book does read to me like an attempt to drown us in detail and thus get the last word in an ongoing debate. I fear a lot more remains to be said about the thirties before that can be achieved.

John Caselberg’s book, by contrast, comes from a much stranger and (to my mind) much more interesting place. It would be hard to justify calling it a good book, let alone a good biography, but it has considerable virtues all the same. Even the publisher’s blurb calls it a text “which … may be read as a companion volume” to Rachel Barrowman’s Montana award-winning biography Mason (2003), so it’s clearly not intended to rival her more comprehensive, dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s, Michael King-like performance.

Why read it at all, then? Well, for one thing, it’s interesting to see how much of Barrowman’s background research (in particular) came from her erstwhile collaborator, who laboured on the task for nearly thirty years. More to the point, though, Caselberg comes to praise Mason, not to bury him. The tone is unashamedly partisan throughout. What’s more, he means to prove his point – partly by eliding over or simply leaving out awkward biographical details of Mason’s mental illnesses, bouts of depression, and fits of pique, but also by a poet’s attention to precision, through close readings of his major texts.

At times this becomes tedious, it must be acknowledged. Caselberg goes through poem after poem explaining difficulties and spelling out references like the editor of a High School crib. He hits far more than he misses, though, and certainly succeeds in explaining some very familiar poems to me in a way I hadn’t anticipated.

I suppose the best thing about this book for me is the fact that it’s been written according to a theory of biography. Caselberg has studied the history of the genre, from Plutarch and Doctor Johnson to Leon Edel and Richard Ellmann, and it’s clear that his sympathy is with the earlier approach – a book composed to rules, selectively choosing data to justify its points. What he has written, in fact, is closer to a biographical essay than the more common contemporary thick-as-a-brick biographical tombstone.

It’s a beautifully-presented book (it’s nice to hear that Caselberg was able to see an advance copy on his deathbed, after all those years of travail and disappointment). The fact that he chose as his pseudonym the Greek god of medicine and healing gives us another clue to his intentions: Mason, to him, is not “the damaged, courageous man who lost his gift” (Bill Manhire’s blurb for Rachel Barrowman’s book), but rather a hero to be admired: a man of vision and social conscience as well as poetic talent. His point is, I think – and who can dispute it? – that we too have more important things to think about right now than the minor works of T. E. Brown (or T. E. Lawrence or T. S. Eliot, for that matter). Our complacent, self-satisfied world of liberal values is crumbling around us, and, as in the thirties, it’s time to take a stand.

One can’t but agree with Asclepius / Caselberg that the choices and dilemmas of a man such as R. A. K. Mason have become, once again, of more than simply Academic interest.

Lawrence Jones: Picking Up The Traces (2003)


WLWE: World Literature in English (UK) 40 (2) (2004): 144-47.

[1389 wds]

WLWE: World Literature Written in English 40 (2) (2004)

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