Page 1: Biography
Duggan, Maurice Noel
Short-story writer, copywriter, company director
This biography, written by Ian Richards, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Maurice Noel Duggan ranks with Katherine Mansfield and Frank Sargeson as one of New Zealand’s greatest short-story writers and literary stylists. He was born in Auckland on 25 November 1922 and grew up on the North Shore. His father, Robert Harbron Duggan, emigrated from Ireland to New Zealand after the death of his first wife, and became the manager of George Court and Sons Limited, a large Auckland department store. He soon married again. Maurice Duggan’s mother, Mary Ellen Condon, was New Zealand-born but of Irish extraction. Duggan had three sisters, and a half-brother from his father’s earlier marriage.
Mary Duggan died suddenly of heart failure in May 1930 and Duggan’s father married for a third time less than 18 months later. This led to tensions within the family, later explored in Duggan’s fiction. In 1935 Robert Duggan left George Court’s and moved his family to Paeroa to open his own business. Maurice returned to Auckland a year later to attend Sacred Heart College but, unhappy with the school environment and with the Catholic faith in which he had been raised, he stayed less than nine months before going back to Paeroa. He worked at a variety of odd jobs, and continued to do so after settling in Auckland once more in 1938.
Duggan displayed no interest in literature as a child, and his main interest while an adolescent was cycling. But in 1940 he contracted acute osteomyelitis (inflammation of the bone) in his left leg, was hospitalised, and had his leg amputated. The loss was devastating. During the lengthy period of recuperation that followed, and afterwards during the often lonely war years, Duggan became interested in reading, and then in writing, as a way of releasing his pent-up emotions. In February 1944 he made contact with Frank Sargeson at his Takapuna bach, and the older, established writer quickly became Duggan’s literary mentor.
Sargeson introduced Duggan to other aspiring writers on the North Shore, such as Greville Texidor and John Reece Cole. As the war ended, young literary figures, including Keith Sinclair and Kendrick Smithyman, returned to New Zealand. These Auckland writers were to become Duggan’s lifelong friends. It was at a literary gathering at Greville Texidor’s house that Duggan met Barbara Mary Platts, a physiotherapist then working at Auckland Hospital. They were married at St Peter’s Church, Takapuna, on 11 February 1946. A year later they bought a section and had a house built at Forrest Hill, then on the northern outskirts of Auckland. Duggan lived there on and off for the remainder of his life.
From the beginning Duggan rejected Sargeson’s New Zealand-colloquial early style and, with his mentor’s encouragement, displayed an elaborateness and an impatience with conventional form that were to become features of his work. His early stories were weakened by what Duggan himself later described as a ‘habit of rhetoric’. But soon his writing was showing a stylishness and sophistication that was in marked contrast to the social realist direction of New Zealand fiction, and he had developed an attention to language that more resembled poetry than prose. ‘Six place names and a girl’, a series of short, evocative paragraphs describing areas on the Hauraki Plains and the feelings of a runaway boy, proved a technical breakthrough. It was published in Landfall, as was most of Duggan’s later fiction.
In 1950 Maurice and Barbara Duggan travelled to England, and made trips to Italy and Spain. During his time in London, Maurice wrote many of the stories that were eventually published in his first volume of short fiction, Immanuel’s land. He contracted tuberculosis while in Spain in late 1952 and had to return hurriedly to New Zealand. He recovered from the disease, only to relapse in Auckland, and the remainder of the decade was spent mostly in recuperation. He continued writing, and the publication of Immanuel’s land in 1956 established his importance on the New Zealand literary scene; he won the Hubert Church Memorial Award for Prose in 1957 and shared the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Award in 1958. Duggan also wrote a children’s book, Falter Tom and the water boy, which was successfully published in Britain and the United States. The Duggans’ only child, a son, was born in 1954.
In 1960 Maurice became the second recipient of the Robert Burns Fellowship at the University of Otago. During his year in Dunedin he worked on a novel, which was never completed. He also wrote ‘Riley’s handbook’ and many of the stories in his next collection, Summer in the gravel pit. This was published to acclaim in Britain and New Zealand in 1965. However, on his return to Auckland in 1961, Duggan began a career as an advertising copywriter with Carlton-Carruthers du Chateau which absorbed most of his time and interest. He became chief copywriter at J. Inglis Wright in 1965, but then took a break from advertising in 1966 while a recipient of the Scholarship in Letters. During that year he completed the stories eventually published in 1970 in his final collection, O’Leary’s orchard. At the end of 1966 he returned to J. Inglis Wright and assumed the position of creative director.
During the remainder of the 1960s Duggan devoted all his energies to advertising. Over the same period he gradually succumbed to alcoholism and, outside work, became increasingly withdrawn. He was appointed to the board of directors of J. Inglis Wright in October 1971, but had to leave the company 14 months later as his drinking grew beyond his control. Much of 1973 he spent in recovery in often nightmarish conditions at Oakley Hospital, but by August he had given up alcohol and was back with his family. However, in late 1973 he learned that he had cancer. The final year of his life was devoted to further writing and battling his illness. Nevertheless, he completed a final story, ‘The Magsman miscellany’, which was published posthumously. Maurice Duggan died at Lister Hospital, Takapuna, on 11 December 1974; he was survived by his wife and son.