Bill Pearson was a fiction writer, essayist and critic. His influential essay, ‘Fretful Sleepers: A Sketch of New Zealand Behaviour and Its Implications for the Artist’, appeared in Landfall in 1952 and outlined many themes Pearson explored in his first novel, Coal Flat. This book was received as the most important New Zealand novel of its time, yet Pearson published no more fiction, concentrating instead on literary criticism and scholarship. Pearson helped define the themes of New Zealand critical realism and as a university lecturer was among the first to teach a course in New Zealand literature.
FROM THE oxford companion TO new zealand literature
Pearson, Bill or W.H. (William Harrison) (1922-2002), fiction writer, essayist and critic, was born and grew up in Greymouth, attended Canterbury University College in 1939 and Dunedin Training College and Otago University College 1940–41. He taught briefly at Blackball School in 1942 and then, after intense inner questioning about conscientious objection and military service, served in the Dental Corps in Fiji in 1942–43, in the infantry in Egypt and Italy and in the occupation force in Japan in 1943–46. After completing an MA at Canterbury in 1947–48, he taught at Oxford District High School in 1949 and then went to King’s College, University of London (PhD 1952). He remained in England, writing and working as a supply teacher for London Council Schools 1952–53. He returned to lecture at Auckland University College (later University of Auckland) from 1959 until his retirement as associate professor in 1986, apart from periods overseas, such as a term as research fellow at the Australian National University 1967–69.
Throughout this distinguished academic career Pearson wrote fiction, social criticism and literary criticism. His first published writings were short stories about his childhood and military experience, published in periodicals 1947–51 and much later collected in Six Stories (1991). These were in many ways apprentice work for his major novel, Coal Flat. Though this did not appear until 1963, he had begun planning it as early as 1946 and wrote it in the 1950s. His influential essay of social analysis, ‘Fretful Sleepers: A Sketch of New Zealand Behaviour and Its Implications for the Artist’, appeared in Landfall in 1952 and outlined many of the themes that were to be imaginatively explored in Coal Flat. Although Coal Flat was received as the most important New Zealand novel of its time, Pearson published no more fiction, but rather concentrated on literary criticism and scholarship. He edited Frank Sargeson’s Collected Stories in 1964, while his Henry Lawson Among the Maoris, a study of Lawson’s experience in New Zealand and the fiction that emerged from it, appeared in 1968. His essays and reviews on New Zealand literature and society were collected in Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays in 1974. Some of his most important work had been on the depiction of Maori in New Zealand writing, and he followed this line of interest with a study of imaginative writing about Pacific Islanders, Rifled Sanctuaries, in 1984.
In both his fiction and his critical writing, Pearson helped to define the themes and modes of New Zealand critical realism; he was innovative in giving scholarly attention to representations of Maori and Pacific Islanders; and as university lecturer he was among the first to teach a course in New Zealand literature, first offering a series of lectures, with Allen Curnow, in 1956.
Author entry from The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature,
edited by Roger Robinson and Nelson Wattie (1998).
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