Dead Letters: Censorship and Subversion in New Zealand 1914-1920

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 reveals the remarkable stories of people caught in the web of wartime surveillance.

Among them was 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 filed away, sealed and unread for over 100 years. Until now.

Intimate and engaging, this dramatic narrative weaves together the personal and political, bringing to light the reality of wartime censorship. In an age of growing state power, new forms of surveillance and control, and fragility of the right to privacy, Dead Letters is a startling reminder that we have been here before.

Published by Otago University Press, 4 March 2019. Paperback: 198 x 130mm, 306 pp. ISBN 978-1-98-853152-6. Price: $35 NZD. Includes colour maps, images, and a Foreword by Charlotte Macdonald.

Order your copy at Nationwide Books (free shipping within NZ)

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News and Reviews

The Word: Radio interview with Karyn Hay for RNZ Lately

Political and gender radicals trapped by NZ’s WWI mail censors in NZ Herald

Live radio interview with Peter Williams on Magic

Live radio interview with Newstalk ZB (from 5.32)

Afterglow: Dead Letters book launch on the Unity Books website

Books to Look Out for in 2019 in The Pantograph Punch

Author interview for Unity Books on the Unity Books website

Praise for Dead Letters

“A powerful, compelling and beautifully researched and written history of the impact of surveillance on everyday lives during the World War One years and beyond.” Cybèle Locke, historian

Dead Letters up-ends our comfortable ideas of a united society pulling together during wartime. Instead, thousands of New Zealanders were targets of what we would consider outrageous invasions of privacy by their own government because of their politics, lifestyles or simply birthplace. Davidson’s wonderful writing carries readers along through a world of activists, free-thinkers, conscription dodgers and those who simply would not conform to society’s norms. For all its colour and scandal, Davidson’s book is a sobering reminder of the power of governments during wartime to not only intercept private communications, but to affect relationships. As Davidson says, every letter in the censorship archive is a letter that never arrived, a connection broken.” Kate Hunter, 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

“Jared Davidson is to be congratulated on a terrific achievement, one that (almost miraculously, after years of centenary commemorations) tells us something different and enlarging about the war experience of New Zealanders. Most memorably, through nine chapters, all equally successful, the text shines a light on a dozen or so individuals whose lives will forever inhabit the awareness of those who meet them in the pages of this work.” Malcolm McKinnon, historian

“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 indignation 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

“The system of censorship put in place during the First World War in New Zealand has until now received very little attention. In this important book Jared Davidson makes great use of previously unused archival material to reveal a fascinating story of interesting characters, and offers thought-provoking insights into the New Zealand home front experience during a terrible global struggle.” John Crawford, NZDF historian

Dead Letters brings welcome light to a murky part of New Zealand’s past, revealing the history of wartime censorship and giving voice to accounts long left silent. It will prove an important book in study and discussion of state power, wartime society and non- conformity.” Steven Loveridge, historian

“In ‘national emergencies’ the state penetrates more deeply than ever into the privacy of individuals, especially those opposed to or disquieted by official policies. Davidson’s examination of letters confiscated by official censors in First World War era New Zealand provides a fascinating account of the complex relationship between such dissentients and their surveillers. Along the way, Davidson’s investigative skills reveal a great deal about people whose lives conflate the ordinary and the extraordinary.” Richard S. Hill, historian

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