Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Terminal Creeds and Native Authors

Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Terminal Creeds and Native Authors

Article excerpt

The British Empire was a literary as well as a political network, one which provided its participants, both coloniser and colonised, with a common literary language. This language-that of the post-Romantic, high Victorian literary canon-was inculcated by agencies as diverse as the colonial education system with its newly valorised study of English, colonial newspapers with their ferocious middlebrow commitment to literature, and the cultural arm of such global proselytising structures as the London Missionary Society. It was tempered by local demands and agendas, from the settler nationalisms of New Zealand and Canada, to the intellectual and political stringencies of the Bengali Renaissance. And it existed within and was inflected by local indigenous ethnologies and mythologies. From the nascent Canterbury College in Christchurch, New Zealand, where Maori writer and politician Apirana Ngata was taught, to the library at her home at the Six Nations' Reserve where the Mohawk poet E. Pauline Johnson read Scott's Ivanhoe novels, Longfellow's Hiawatha and Richardson's Wacousta, to the Methodist mission to the Ojibwa which introduced George Copway to 'a high-toned literature', the world these colonial subjects inhabited was not just the local-the kainga at Waiomatatini, provincial society in Ontario.1 It was also the literary, the textual and thereby the global.

Colonised or 'native' subjects such as Ngata, Johnson and Copway existed in this system-obviously-as representational models and stereotypes of, variously, the savage and the primitive, the colonised subject, the Christian convert and the educable indigene. But they were also readers of such material, and-my particular focus here-writers, participating as consumers and producers within the discourses of empire. While various contemporary book history projects have been interested in the colonised reader, the colonised writer has been paid less attention. My purpose here is to examine what happens when the native subject learns to write in the literary language of empire. If the romanticised subject of imperial ethnographical literature becomes, at the same time, the author of that text, is a new kind of writing produced, or does the native author conform to the models of the coloniser? Is their work, as Ngata suggests, 'clothed in artifice'?2 And to what extent does the globalising effect of the literary empire collapse the differences between them?

The particular focus I have chosen for this discussion seems an unlikely one: I want to trace the use each of these writers make of the literary form Patrick Brantlinger has described as the 'proleptic elegy', that is, the myth of the dying race.3 Cultural historians agree that there is a disjunct between the first and second half of the nineteenth century in terms of racial theorya gulf characterised as between the sentimental and the scientific, between the humanitarian operations of organisations such as the Aborigines Protection Society, and the emergent hard science of the increasingly professionalised disciplines of anthropology and ethnology.4 The dying race myth could be seen as a bridge between the two periods, accommodating extinction as a scientific fact, yet allowing it to be structured by regretful nostalgia, tempering with the comforts of poetry the rigid 'truths' of science. As James Clifford describes it, this is '"salvage" ethnology': 'the other is lost, in disintegrating time and space, but saved in the text'.5 As Victorian science argued that access to experience of the primitive voice must necessarily recede as those voices disappeared, so Victorian poetry stepped up to provide a re-enactment of that voice, bolstered on the one hand by the authority of ethnographical scholarship, and on the other hand by the persuasive force of its poetic. Isobel Armstrong characterises this mode as 'monumental legend ... a "modern", artificially constructed ballad that... imitate[s] the primitive ... [it is] sincerely fraudulent . …

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