Middleton, O.E.

Middleton, O.E.

In Brief

O. E. Middleton is a fiction writer. His stories often focus on marginalised men or children, and express working-class empathy while commenting on wider cultural issues. His short story collections include Short Stories (1954), A Walk on the Beach (1964), The Loners (1972) and Selected Stories (1975). In 1979 he published a volume of two short novels, and he has worked on a wide range of unpublished works of fiction. He was the 2006 recipient of the Janet Frame Literary Trust Award.


Middleton, O.E. (Osman Edward) (1925– 2010), Christchurch-born fiction writer, worked at a variety of jobs, including farm worker, clerk, seaman, construction worker, adult education tutor, telephonist and landscape gardener, gaining the experience of New Zealand working life that is evident in his stories. He served in the New Zealand air force and army in 1944–45, and after the war journeyed to the United States in an unsuccessful attempt to get special medical treatment for his deteriorating eyesight. He has also travelled extensively in Europe. He began publishing stories in 1949, brought out a pamphlet, Six Poems, in 1951, and then published five overlapping collections of short stories in twenty years, each volume after the first containing a selection of earlier work combined with more recent previously uncollected stories: Short Stories (1954), The Stone and Other Stories (1959), A Walk on the Beach (1964), The Loners (1972) and Selected Stories (1975). In 1979 he published a volume of two short novels, ‘Confessions of an Ocelot’ and ‘Not for a Seagull’. He has also several unpublished novels and other stories, and a book for children, From the River to the Tide (1964).

Middleton’s work clearly belongs to the vernacular critical realist tradition of Frank Sargeson, but he has made his own place within that tradition. Typically his stories, like Sargeson’s, are from a first-person or limited third-person point of view, with a vernacular style in keeping with it, and with a structure working through indirection or accretion rather than through tight plotting. Again, like Sargeson’s, most of his narrators and central characters are working-class males or children, outside the centres of power in society, and his underlying attitude of egalitarian humanism is roughly similar to Sargeson’s. However, within this broad framework of similarity he has defined his own special qualities. His fictional world is richer in sensuous detail than Sargeson’s, especially in tactile and aural detail, as in the intense evocation of the hawk in ‘Killers’ or of the fishing experience in ‘Drift’. His range of setting and character is much wider, reflecting his diverse experience. Thus ‘The Collector’ takes place in a prison in the United States, from his experience as an illegal immigrant there, while ‘The Doss-House and the Duchess’ is set in an itinerant seaman’s world in England, and ‘The Crows’ and ‘For Once in Your Life’ are set in Europe. His character range extends from Māori in ‘Drift’ and ‘Not for a Seagull’, and Pacific nations immigrants in ‘The Loners’, to a German immigrant in ‘The Man Who Flew Models’, a Spanish artist in ‘Crows’ and a female German student in ‘For Once in Your Life’.

In his attitude to his characters, Middleton, like Sargeson, tends to sympathise with the outcasts, the loners, the victims, and to judge adversely the comfortable and the exploiters, the ‘arrogant rich’. He tends, too, to stand beside his working-class characters rather than reaching down to them with a sympathetic irony as Sargeson does. At his best he maintains an implicit double perspective in which the reader both shares the character’s experience yet sees more than the character can see. In ‘The Married Man’, for instance, the reader fully shares Tony’s grief over the death of his baby daughter and his deeply felt need to take care of her burial himself, but at the same time comes to see that Tony’s unquestioned New Zealand male working-class culture does not give him opportunity to express fully what he feels. At the end, when a workmate sincerely offers him the only consolation that he knows, drink and a bar-room pickup, the reader does not judge the characters but realises, as Tony cannot, that his finer feelings have no scope or cultural framework for expression. There is a similar handling of the Islander immigrant Luke in the often-anthologised ‘The Loners’, and of the naive and sensitive Peter in the novella, ‘Confessions of an Ocelot’, as he discovers what the reader has already sensed, that he is unconsciously homosexual and that he finds it difficult to face the extent of hidden human suffering and evil. In his weaker stories, Middleton fails to hold such a subtle tone, tending to identify too completely with his social outsiders and score points too easily off his bourgeois characters, as in his implicit excoriation of the American tourist girl in Spain in ‘The Crows’. In such stories he crosses over from social commitment to an oversimplified didacticism. At his best, however, he is a subtle artist who can extend the sympathetic imagination of his readers, increase their awareness of basic human worth and show the evils of racial and economic injustice, without didactic manipulation. Such work shows how a literary tradition can be used and modified to express an individual vision. LJ


O.E. Middleton was the 1970 Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago in Dunedin.

He received the New Zealand Book Award for Fiction for Selected Stories at the 1976 New Zealand Book Awards.

He was the 2006 recipient of the Janet Frame Literary Trust Award, worth $10,000. A member of Janet Frames literary generation, Frame once said 'O.E. Middleton is a fine writer ... He's the only New Zealand writer who has made me weep over a story.'

O.E. Middleton passed away on 17 August 2010.


Updated January 2017.