A Re-balancing Act: Cultural Pioneering in New Zealand Literature, 1905 to 1969

  • Susan Kinnear

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis sets out a new approach to the development of New Zealand’s literary history. It argues that literary identity evolved in a series of interlocking phases stretching from the 1900s to the 1970s, reflecting the colony’s progression from dominion to independent nation. Drawing from Raymond Williams on cultural materialism, I argue that just as the nation experienced dominant, residual and emergent sociopolitical cultures, so it developed concomitant literary cultures. I examine the relationship between these interwoven literary formations that depict what James Belich terms both a core and a crew culture. The third, emergent culture identified features counter-discursive writers who subvert the tropes of earlier formations to challenge developing conceptions of national identity. This new approach calls for the reassessment of New Zealand’s literary canon, arguing that a number of writers need to be re-examined for the contribution they make to our understanding of New Zealand’s response to modernisation and colonisation. Katherine Mansfield’s work depicting a core culture in New Zealand is central to this reassessment, while Robin Hyde’s writing is reconsidered in terms of mapping New Zealand’s urban spaces. Contrary to traditional constructions of the 1930s literary nationalists, I argue that the two key authors of crew literary culture are the ‘warrior writers’ John Mulgan and Denis Glover. They depict New Zealand experience for both a national and international audience, writing into popular consciousness a masculinist representation of Pakeha identity. The third phase focuses on authors who ‘wrote against’ such representations of New Zealand identity. Frank Sargeson is re-examined, not as a literary nationalist, but as a central figure of literary subversion. His work undermines the tropes utilised by crew culture writers to instead project New Zealand masculinity as atrophied and confused. Janet Frame is examined as a related part of this counterdiscourse for her early work depicting the inhumanity and corruption brought about by moral evangelism and consumerism in New Zealand’s core, domestic sphere. Collectively with later formations, these writers and the interlocking literary cultures they demonstrate provide a complex depiction of class, gender and race in the history of New Zealand’s development as an emerging, modern nation.
Date of Award31 Dec 2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorHoward Booth (Supervisor) & Robert Spencer (Supervisor)


  • Postcolonial Analysis
  • New Zealand Literature
  • Cultural Materialism
  • Literary Nationalists

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