'No middle ground': James K. Baxter's writing of the self

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Abstract

This essay will examine some of Baxter’s autobiographical prose to consider how he constructed images of himself by exploring his subjectivity through memory, symbol, dream and language. It will refer to early sketches and prose poems, such as ‘Before Sunrise’ (1942-43), to examine the moulding of his personality, social values and artistic orientation. Drawing on current theories of autobiography as a form of imaginative art, constructed through memory’s selectedness and the artful manipulation of facts, it will examine Baxter’s multiple, contradictory self images, including the monolithic ‘exemplary’ self that underpins his pronouncements on the role of the writer (e.g. as prophet, as ‘a cell of good living in a corrupt society’ (Weir, 4, p. 40). The article’s main focus will be on the autobiographical pieces, ’Beginnings’ and ‘Notes on the Education of a New Zealand Poet’ (from Man on a Horse, 1967), and the semi-autobiographical, Horse: a novel (written in 1958-9, resumed in 1962 and published posthumously in 1985), with its overlapping discourses of life-writing, verse and fiction. The autobiographical component covers Baxter’s life after he dropped out of university in January 1945 (Weir, 4, p. 23), and his painful struggle with sexual betrayal and alcoholism then, as documented in his letters to Noel Ginn, which is melodramatically rendered (literary echoes come from Dylan Thomas’s Adventures in the Skin Trade (Weir, 4, p. 291)). His use of an anarchic alter ego in Horse, ‘incorrigible, uneducable, unemployable’, to represent this inner turbulence and social rebellion, will be examined with reference to his interest in Jungian psychotherapy. I will also identify in these autobiographical writings, symbols and images suggestive of unity and reconciliation for these also contributed to interpretations of his vocation in broadly social terms (e.g. his view of the artist as a ‘natural delinquent’ (Weir, 4, p. 41) as he registered the impact of his creative forces. This section of the article will develop the arguments of my earlier study, ‘Archie, Millicent and James: The Baxter Autobiographies’, published in the Journal of New Zealand Literature, 13 (1995). It has been claimed that all of Baxter’s poetry springs from the autobiographical urge to mythologise himself. With reference to his use of symbolism, mythology, narrative voice and other literary techniques the essay will assess the contribution that his autobiographical writing makes to the creation of his personal and poetic personae as he charted the psychological and emotional territory of the poems, his perceptions of society, the well-springs of creativity and the role of the poet.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationQuarrels with Himself: Essays on James K. Baxter as Prose Writer
EditorsPeter Whiteford, Geoff Miles
Place of PublicationWellington, New Zealand
PublisherVictoria University Press
Pages31-52
Number of pages22
ISBN (Print)9781776561711
Publication statusPublished - 12 Oct 2017

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Keywords

  • James K. Baxter
  • Dylan Thomas
  • Jung
  • Man on a Horse
  • Horse
  • mythology
  • autobiography
  • artist

Cite this

Wilson, J. M. (2017). 'No middle ground': James K. Baxter's writing of the self. In P. Whiteford, & G. Miles (Eds.), Quarrels with Himself: Essays on James K. Baxter as Prose Writer (pp. 31-52). Victoria University Press. https://vup.victoria.ac.nz/quarrels-with-himself-essays-on-james-k-baxter-as-prose-writer/