31 July 2014

Mark Twain on knowing nothing about New Zealand

Even before it came into existence Victoria University - or at least a university located in Wellington - featured in one of the most celebrated stories told about New Zealand by a visitor from the United States. In [his 1898 book] Following the Equator Mark Twain observed that few people in America knew where New Zealand was. While crossing the Tasman - and finding to his considerable surprise how great was the distance separating New Zealand and Australia - he fell into conversation with a professor from Yale who - again to his surprise - knew a great deal about New Zealand. This professor proceeded to describe how he had come to acquire this fund of knowledge about a country of which Americans generally were so ignorant. One day he was visited by a stranger - one of those 'mysterious strangers' who feature so prominently in Mark Twain's later stories. This man described himself as a Professor of Theological Engineering at Wellington University, New Zealand. Had Yale possessed the equivalent of the registrar who scrutinises applications for ad eundem admission, he could have informed the professor that his visitor was a fraud or con-man.

The first professors of the then Victoria College were not appointed until January 1899, two years after the publication of Following the Equator, and, needless to say, the university has never had a chair of theological engineering. Indeed, it cannot these days afford even to run a chair of religious studies. However, so ignorant of New Zealand was the Yale professor that he not only failed to appreciate the fraudulent character of his visitor's credentials, but also was thrown into a panic at the thought of how he could keep a conversation going with him. On asking amongst his colleagues, he found that none of them knew anything about New Zealand either. They decided to find out everything that they possibly could about it. One day, during a conversation with the stranger, they proceeded to pour out their newly acquired knowledge. He sat silent for a time, no doubt fearing that his cover had been blown, and then confessed that it was clear that he knew nothing about the country, in spite of having lived in New Zealand for eighteen years and been a professor there for five. He begged them not to change the subject. 'If you know all this about a remote little inconsequent patch like New Zealand, ah, what wouldn't you know about any other subject!'

- David Hamer, 'Newest America? Comments on the Perception of New Zealand by American Visitors', in Malcolm McKinnon (ed.), The American Connection: Essays from the Stout Centre Conference, Wellington, 1988, p.12-13.
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