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Respected Novelist Dies - Professor Bill Pearson



Respected Novelist Dies

William Harrison (Bill) Pearson, influential academic, essayist, political activist and author of Coal Flat, New Zealand’s first major realist novel, died at his home in Herne Bay, Auckland on Friday (27th Sept) aged 80.

While Pearson’s literary and academic output was modest, most of his major works anticipated future trends and were unrivalled for their careful scholarship and attention to detail.

His 1951 essay ‘Fretful Sleepers: A Sketch of New Zealand Behaviour and Its Implications for the Artist’, expressing the sense of neglect felt by many of the country’s artists and intellectuals in a society that seemed overwhelmingly conformist and provincial, inspired an ongoing debate.

His one novel, Coal Flat (1963), which was seventeen years in production, was welcomed as one of the most influential New Zealand works of its era.

Pearson’s essays on representations of Maori in creative writing were ahead of their time, and were complemented by practical efforts to support Maori students on campus.

Pearson also published a significant study, Rifled Sanctuaries (1984), which focused on representations of the South Pacific and Pacific Islanders in works of the imagination.

He edited Frank Sargeson’s Collected Stories (1964), and produced a careful analysis of the years Australian writer Henry Lawson spent in New Zealand.

Bill Pearson was born on 18 January 1922 in Greymouth, where his father worked as a railwayman. He attended Greymouth Main School and Greymouth Technical High School. He studied at Canterbury University College (1939) and Dunedin Training College and the University of Otago (1940–1941). February to July 1942 was a particularly crucial six-month period during which he was a Probationary Assistant teacher at Blackball School, Grey Valley. This experience later provided the setting and many of the characters for Coal Flat.

During the Second World War he served in the New Zealand Dental Corps at various RNZAF stations here and in Fiji; the Infantry’s 15th Reinforcements; and, finally, the British Commonwealth Occupation ‘J Force’ in Japan.

Demobilised in July 1946, he returned to Canterbury University College, graduating MA in English in 1948. A close friend, and fellow editor of the student magazine, was the young poet James K Baxter. In 1949 under a scholarship scheme for returned servicemen, Pearson enrolled as a doctoral candidate at Kings College, University of London, receiving his PhD in 1952.

Bill Pearson began lecturing in the University of Auckland’s English Department in 1954, retiring in 1986 as an Associate Professor. He had a three-year period as Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Pacific History of the Australian National University in Canberra (1967–69).

During his time in Auckland the English Department was a focus for literary and cultural activities, and Pearson’s colleagues included authors Allen Curnow, C K Stead and M K Joseph. Curnow in particular became a lifelong friend, and together the two offered one of the first courses in New Zealand literature.

Throughout his life Bill Pearson was an active supporter of left-wing political activities, civil liberties groups and the Tangata Whenua.

Bill Pearson’s funeral service will be held at 11 am on Wednesday 2 October 2002 at the Maclaurin Chapel, University of Auckland, 18 Princes Street.

[Paul Millar]

– ENDS –


More information can be obtained from:

A. Don Stenhouse, tel (09) 378-7666; or

B. Bill Pearson’s biographer, Dr Paul Millar, Senior Lecturer, School of English, Film and Theatre, Victoria University of Wellington, email

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