'More than America': some New Zealand responses to American culture in the mid-twentieth century.
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
This thesis focuses on a transformational but disregarded period in New Zealand’s twentieth century history, the era from the arrival of the Marines in 1942 to the arrival of Rock Around the Clock in 1956. It examines one of the chief agents in this metamorphosis: the impact of American culture. During this era the crucial conduits of that culture were movies, music and comics. The aims of my thesis are threefold: to explore how New Zealanders responded to this cultural trinity, determine the key features of their reactions and assess their significance. The perceived modernity and alterity of Hollywood movies, musical genres such as swing, and the content and presentation of American comics and ‘pulps’, became the sources of heated debate during the midcentury. Many New Zealanders admired what they perceived as the exuberance, variety and style of such American media. They also applauded the willingness of the cultural triptych to appropriate visual, textual and musical forms and styles without respect for the traditional classifications of cultural merit. Such perceived standards were based on the privileged judgements of cultural arbiters drawn from members of New Zealand’s educational and civic elites. Key figures within these elites insisted that American culture was ‘low’, inferior and commodified, threatening the dominance of a sacrosanct, traditional ‘high’culture. Many of them also maintained that these American cultural imports endangered both the traditionally British nature of our cultural heritage, and New Zealand’s distinctively ‘British’ identity. Many of these complaints enfolded deeper objections to American movies, music and literary forms exemplified by comics and pulps. Significant intellectual and civic figures portrayed these cultural modes as pernicious and malignant, because they were allegedly the product of malignant African-American, Jewish and capitalist sources, which threatened to poison the cultural and social values of New Zealanders, especially the young. In order to justify such attitudes, these influential cultural guardians portrayed the general public as an essentially immature, susceptible, unthinking and puritanical mass. Accordingly, this public, supposedly ignorant of the dangers posed by American culture, required the intervention and protection of members of this elite. Responses to these potent expressions of American culture provide focal points which both illuminate and reflect wider social, political and ideological controversies within midcentury New Zealand. Not only were these reactions part of a process of comprehension and negotiation of new aesthetic styles and media modes. They also represent an arena of public and intellectual contention whose significance has been neglected or under-valued. New Zealanders’ attitudes towards the new cinematic, literary and musical elements of American culture occurred within a rich and revealing socio-political and ideological context. When we comment on that culture we reveal significant features of our own national and cultural selves.
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