Page 1: Biography
Pearson, William Harrison
Novelist, essayist, critic, academic
This biography, written by Paul Millar, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2022.
Bill Pearson was an important mid-twentieth-century fiction writer, cultural commentator and academic, best known for his social realist novel Coal Flat (1963) and polemical essay on New Zealand identity, ‘Fretful sleepers’ (1952). These and other works made him one of the foremost commentators on New Zealand life, a defining voice in how his era would be remembered and interpreted. His social critiques, and his deep disenchantment with contemporary society, were underpinned by private anxiety over how his homosexuality would be judged by others were it to become widely known. This tension remained unresolved for much of his life and contributed to his retreat from creative writing after just one novel.
Early life, education and military service
William Harrison Pearson was born in Greymouth on 18 January 1922, the fourth of James Pearson and Agnes Ellen (Nell) McLean’s five children. His grandparents – Scottish tenant farmers on his mother’s side and northern Irish labourers and factory workers on his father’s – left home and family for distant New Zealand in the nineteenth century, presumably to escape Britain’s poverty and lack of opportunity. His maternal grandfather, John McLean, fled the Highland clearances to become a wealthy landowner near the Rakaia River, but bad business decisions cost the family the farm and deprived Bill’s mother of what would have been a substantial inheritance. The depression of the 1930s forced early retirement on his father, an assistant stationmaster in Greymouth. Financial struggles soured family relationships, exacerbated his mother’s ill health and probably hastened her death. These early experiences of deprivation and family conflict became themes in Pearson’s writing.
Pearson was afflicted by congenital muscular weakness and lifelong balance problems, possibly the results of a difficult birth, that set him back physically among his siblings and peers. Despite these challenges, his childhood was initially happy. A bright, articulate little boy, he felt secure in his parents’ affection. This gradually changed: a rival appeared in the form of a younger brother, his mother developed the first signs of multiple sclerosis, his father lost his job, and he experienced unjust corporal punishment as a new pupil at Greymouth Main School. These experiences, along with beatings from his usually gentle father, informed the excoriating, child’s-eye view of adult prejudice and hypocrisy in his short story ‘The sins of the fathers’ (1948).
On balance, though, school was a positive experience for Pearson, who excelled academically. In 1933 he won a Seddon Memorial Medal, two of which were cast annually from West Coast gold for the top boy and girl scholars from the primary schools in the Grey Education District. He discovered a love of writing, and in 1935, his second year at Greymouth Technical High School, became a prolific contributor to Aunt Hilda’s children’s page in the Christchurch Star newspaper. He received praise and prizes for stories with strong conservation themes, informed by his love of plants and his development of a native garden at home. His Star success also attracted unwelcome sexual advances from a Christchurch man, which 14-year-old Pearson successfully resisted. ‘Uncle 52’ (1947), his story based on this encounter, insightfully exposes the methods paedophiles use to identify and groom vulnerable, sensitive children hungry for attention.
In 1938, Pearson’s final year at Greymouth Technical High School, triumph was eclipsed by tragedy. In December he was awarded the dux medal for outstanding academic achievement, but his family’s attention was focused on his now terminally-ill mother. When he went to the hospital to show her the medal, she was in a coma; she died the next day. Alongside this, he was coming to understand that he was homosexual, and that in the judgement of society this made him an outcast and criminal. He became guarded and suspicious of people he feared might expose him. At the age of 16, in an effort to understand what his experiences of loss, guilt and struggle might mean for his future, he wrote a remarkably frank account of his early years, ‘School, home and heart’, which remained unpublished.
Pearson attended Canterbury University College in 1939 before being accepted to train as a teacher at Dunedin Training College and Otago University College (1940–41). From February to July 1942 he worked as a probationary assistant teacher at Blackball School, Grey Valley, an experience which provided him with material for his novel, Coal Flat.
In late 1942 Pearson was conscripted to serve in the armed forces. Initially identifying as a pacifist, he was appointed to a non-combatant role in the New Zealand Dental Corps, serving at various RNZAF stations in New Zealand and Fiji. He eventually abandoned his pacifist stance, concluding it was ‘less hypocritical to go off to war and be killed than fix other men’s teeth so they could be killed’.1 He enlisted for active service, but was rejected for overseas service, for unknown reasons, shortly before he was due to embark in 1945. With the connivance of his officers, he smuggled himself aboard the troopship anyway. Arriving in the Middle East just after VE Day, he volunteered to serve in the Pacific and, after the Japanese surrender, joined Jayforce, the New Zealand component of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan. He returned to New Zealand for demobilisation in mid-1946.
Short story writer, essayist and novelist
By now Pearson had begun writing fiction seriously, publishing stories about childhood and military experiences in periodicals between 1947 and 1951. He also commenced the longer work that would become Coal Flat, intending that the novel would have as its protagonist a teacher persecuted for being homosexual. He also wrote, but never submitted for publication, a number of stories with homosexual themes. While gradually accepting his sexuality, he had become secretive and sometimes bitter, withdrawing into himself and periodically exploring ways to have himself ‘cured’.
Pearson returned to Canterbury University College on his release from military service, graduating MA in English in 1948, the year in which he edited the student magazine Canta. He became close friends with, among others, the magazine’s literary editor, the poet James K. Baxter; Baxter’s future wife, the Māori poet J.C. Sturm; the artist Colin McCahon; and editor and academic Lawrence Baigent. He socialised with members of the group of writers and artists associated with Denis Glover’s Caxton Press, including poet Allen Curnow.
In 1949 Pearson secured a teaching position at Canterbury’s Oxford District High School, but he left the next year for England on a returned serviceman’s scholarship to undertake doctoral studies at King’s College, University of London. He was awarded his PhD in 1952 for a thesis entitled ‘Three Catholic poets’, which focused on Coventry Patmore, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Francis Thompson.
London was a place of liberation after the years of army discipline and the social strictures of post-war New Zealand. Pearson spent four formative years there, increasingly comfortable with his sexuality and developing casual relationships amongst the secretive gay community that frequented Piccadilly Circus. He was also politically active, participating in protest movements in support of global peace and against the Cold War curtailment of civil liberties. He considered remaining in England, and found work as a supply teacher for London Council Schools in 1952–53, but his mind kept returning to New Zealand, where Charles Brasch, editor of the literary quarterly Landfall, was preparing to publish his landmark essay, ‘Fretful sleepers’. By 1953 Pearson had also completed a first full draft of Coal Flat.
‘Fretful sleepers: a sketch of New Zealand behaviour and its implications for the artist’ (1952) takes aim at New Zealand conformity, artistic failures, anti-intellectualism and provinciality, with scathing effect – ‘I doubt if a New Zealander has any other moral referee than public opinion’.2 On one level the essay is deeply personal; substitute ‘homosexual’ for ‘artist’ in the title and it could be a protest against the conformist society prepared to criminalise Pearson were he to live according to his own nature. Characteristically, the essay is also self-critical, with Pearson later describing it as an attempt ‘to look into myself and analyse what was different in my personal experience of New Zealanders and the English and in my own outlook and habits of thought from those of the English’.3 The essay would become one of the most widely cited and quoted analyses of mid-twentieth-century New Zealand life, and established its author as an important voice in national debates.
Pearson decided he needed to return to New Zealand and make a meaningful contribution to its social, artistic and intellectual life, and actively combat the complacency he attacked in ‘Fretful sleepers’. He established himself in a successful academic career in the English Department at Auckland University College (later the University of Auckland), from 1954 until his retirement as associate professor in 1986. During this time the English Department was a focus for literary and cultural activities, with creative writers Allen Curnow, C.K. Stead and M.K. Joseph as colleagues. Curnow, in particular, became a lifelong friend; Pearson was best man at his second marriage, and together the two offered one of the first courses in New Zealand literature.
Coal Flat was finally published in 1963, 17 years after Pearson first began planning the novel. Among the many reasons for the delay was a bitter feud with author Maurice Shadbolt, whose early work The New Zealanders he had scathingly reviewed, and who Pearson believed had caused the manuscript to be rejected by publishers. On publication, Coal Flat was hailed by reviewers as an important and era-defining novel about New Zealand life, developing and expanding his arguments in ‘Fretful sleepers’. Pearson was proud of the novel but felt the published version had been compromised by the necessity of closeting his main character, Paul Rogers, making him both heterosexual and less central, and giving the community of Coal Flat greater prominence. This helps explain why, for all his talent, Bill Pearson never produced another work of fiction.
Pearson’s time in Auckland was punctuated by a three-year period as Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Pacific History of the Australian National University in Canberra (1967–69). There he befriended the Australian writer Christina Stead and met the man who would become the most important person in his life, medical researcher Donald Stenhouse. Stenhouse followed Pearson back to Auckland, where he established himself as one of the city’s most eminent anaesthetists. Their relationship encountered difficulties, exacerbated by the need for secrecy, and in 1978 they parted. They remained close friends, however, and reunited in 1985; they remained together for the rest of Pearson’s life.
Academic career and later life
After Coal Flat, Pearson concentrated on producing literary criticism and scholarship. In 1964 he edited Frank Sargeson’s Collected stories, and in 1968 published the monograph Henry Lawson among Māoris, about the Australian writer’s experience in New Zealand and the fiction that emerged from it. His collected essays and reviews on New Zealand literature and society were published as Fretful sleepers and other essays (1974), while Rifled sanctuaries: some views of the Pacific Islands in Western literature (1982) focused on representations of the South Pacific and Pacific Islanders in works of the imagination. In 1991, Victoria University Press published a selection of his early fiction as Six stories.
Throughout his life Pearson was an active supporter of, and advocate for, Māori education, literature and self-determination. His essays ‘Attitudes to the Māori in some Pākehā fiction’ (1958) and ‘The Māori people’ (1962) were ahead of their time in advocating greater equality and self-determination for Māori. Pearson made practical efforts to support Māori students on campus as patron of the University of Auckland Māori Club, assisting and mentoring many young Māori, several of whom became important artists, educators, politicians or academics. Pita Sharples was among the most distinguished of these protégés.
Bill Pearson died at 80 on 27 September 2002, at his home in Herne Bay, Auckland, where he was cared for to the last by his partner Don Stenhouse. The decriminalisation of sex between men in the 1980s, and increasing public acceptance of gay relationships, had encouraged him to open up about his sexuality in his final years, making his relationship with Stenhouse public and allowing himself to be identified as a gay writer.
His body was welcomed back into his home by Māori writer Witi Ihimaera and Samoan writer Albert Wendt, before a memorable funeral at the University of Auckland’s Maclaurin Chapel. At his request some of his ashes were scattered on a hillside in the Scottish Highlands where the McLean family farm had once stood, and some at Greymouth Technical High School. At his sister’s request, Pearson’s remaining ashes were buried in Greymouth, in the same grave as his parents. Donald Stenhouse died in 2018.