Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Dead Letters

 Dead Letters: Censorship and subversion in New Zealand 1914–1920

By Jared Davidson

RRP $35, Release Date 1 March 2019, Otago University Press

If we are tempted to think of threats to privacy as solely problems of the digital age, we should think again. Dead Letters: Censorship and subversion in New Zealand 1914–1920 is a startling reminder that we have been here before.

Featuring never-before-published personal correspondence, Dead Letters reveals the extraordinary stories of everyday people whose personal correspondence was intercepted by the state.

In 1918, from deep within the West Coast bush, a miner on the run from the military wrote a letter to his sweetheart. Two months later he was in jail. Like millions of others, his letter had been steamed open by a team of censors shrouded in secrecy. Using their confiscated mail as a starting point, Dead Letters looks at the lives of people caught in the web of wartime surveillance.

Among them were a feisty German-born socialist, a Norwegian watersider, an affectionate Irish nationalist, a love-struck miner, an aspiring Maxim Gorky, a cross-dressing doctor, a nameless rural labourer, an avid letter writer with a hatred of war, and two mystical dairy farmers with a poetic bent. Military censorship within New Zealand meant that their letters were stopped, confiscated and then filed away, sealed and unread for over 100 years. Until now.

The letters under discussion are anything but dead. Revelling in the texture, the handwriting, the smell, the very tangible form of the surviving correspondence, Dead Letters conveys the thrill of discovery as well as the indignity of injustice.

In telling the history of the letters’ authors and addressees, alongside the context in which correspondence was conducted, the chapters unfold an extraordinary, sometimes tragic, sometimes farcical, often funny insight into who and what it was that challenged police and defence authorities.

— Charlotte Macdonald, historian

These intercepted letters reveal dark and wonderful corners of New Zealand history. Davidson has done a superb job of rescuing long-suppressed voices from official oblivion.

— Mark Derby, historian

An archivist by day and labour historian by night, Jared Davidson is an award-winning writer based in Wellington. He is the author of Remains to Be Seen and Sewing Freedom, a curator of the exhibition He Tohu, and an active committee member of the Labour History Project. Through social biography and history from below, Jared explores the lives of people often overlooked by traditional histories – from working-class radicals of the early twentieth century to prison convicts of the nineteenth.

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