Eric Hall McCormick was born in Taihape on 17 June 1906, the second child and only son of William James Hall McCormick, a boot merchant, and his wife, Ellen Powrie, who had been a dressmaker before her marriage. His Irish-born father had moved to Taihape from Christchurch in the vanguard of a planned co-operative settlement. The Utopian dream soon collapsed, but he stayed on in the town, which prospered with the advance of the main trunk railway line. He remained a social idealist, as his son was after him. Eric’s childhood often recurs in his later work and he ascribed his acute sense of social nuances to his observation of Taihape’s ‘social pyramid’.
He was a solitary child, often bullied during his primary schooling at Taihape District High School. He also had a year’s secondary education there, before winning a Junior National Scholarship. ‘With financial self-sacrifice little short of suicidal’ his parents sent him to board at Wellington College. He then went to the Teachers’ Training College, Wellington, and studied part time at Victoria University College. While working as a sole-charge teacher between 1926 and 1929 at two schools in rural Nelson, he continued his studies extramurally from Victoria, gaining an MA in English and Latin in 1928. He returned to Wellington in 1929 and taught in a private school, Wellesley College, while writing a thesis on New Zealand literature – a subject seldom recognised and never taught by the University of New Zealand. With his thesis he converted his MA to an honours degree and in 1931 was awarded a postgraduate scholarship in arts, enabling him to study overseas.
McCormick neglected to make any arrangements for pursuing his studies before arriving in England and was fortunate to be accepted by Clare College, University of Cambridge. From this base he attended lectures by the young academics I. A. Richards, Mansfield Forbes, and F. R. and Q. D. Leavis, whose rigorous approach to literary criticism combated what they saw as the dilettantism of their elders. Forbes and the Leavises took a friendly interest in the young New Zealander, and it was F. R. Leavis who suggested he replace the Elizabethan manuscript he had intended to study by an extension of his work on New Zealand literature, ‘with greater emphasis placed on cultural and historical forces’. With an Indian fellow student, McCormick planned a literary journal which, after they abandoned the idea as too costly, was taken up by Leavis to become his famous mouthpiece, Scrutiny.
Returning to New Zealand in 1933 in the depths of the depression, McCormick settled in Dunedin, where his mother and sister Myra, a nurse, were living. Unemployed, or in temporary or part-time jobs (the last at the Hocken Library), he finished his Cambridge thesis, for which he was awarded an MLitt in 1935. The following year he was invited by the under-secretary for internal affairs, Joseph Heenan, to become secretary of the National Centennial Historical Committee. Until that job became full time, he was to be assistant to the dominion archivist, G. H. Scholefield. At the centre of the centennial plans was a landmark publishing programme, including a series of pictorial surveys and another of longer essays on aspects of New Zealand history. McCormick strongly influenced the shape of the enterprise and in 1939 succeeded the first editor, Oliver Duff. He himself contributed a volume, Letters and art in New Zealand.
From an early age McCormick had determined to be a writer (‘the absurd ambition’, he called it), but he published virtually nothing until the age of 34, and never became the writer of fiction he earlier assumed he would be. Yet all his career to this point was a preparation for his subsequent work. His Cambridge studies and his two theses could not have been a better apprenticeship for Letters and art in New Zealand. In so short a book, only partly devoted to literature, selection was necessary. In the spirit of Leavis he gave his attention to those he thought deserved it rather than producing lists of names, to the chagrin of some of those left out. Although he had virtually no predecessor, his judgements were so sure that they were largely unchallenged for decades. Yet it is doubtful whether his intention was to present a canon, as some later assumed. He was more diffident about his sections on painting, but they too were both pioneering and largely enduring.
Early in 1941, with his centennial work almost completed, McCormick joined the army, and sailed with the 5th Reinforcements to the Middle East as an orderly in a medical unit, work he enjoyed and found fulfilling. Soon after his arrival in Egypt, however, he was appointed assistant to the army archivist, E. H. Halstead, and remained in that job, in Egypt, Italy and back in New Zealand, until the end of the war. During those years he rose in rank from warrant officer to captain. In 1945 he was appointed chief war archivist in the Department of Internal Affairs, underpinning the vast war history project edited by Howard Kippenberger.
In the later 1940s McCormick began the work on the artist Frances Hodgkins for which he was to become noted. A planned short monograph was transformed into a lifetime commitment by his discovery of a large number of letters to her family, which were thought to have been destroyed. These formed the basis of The expatriate (1954); there was a companion volume, Works of Frances Hodgkins in New Zealand (1954), and in the same year he wrote the catalogue for an exhibition of the artist and her circle at the Auckland City Art Gallery. In the meantime, in 1947, he had been appointed senior lecturer in English at Auckland University College. He was too hesitant in delivery, and possibly over-conscientious in preparation, to be happy as a lecturer for long, and resigned in 1951 to take up a two-year University of New Zealand senior research fellowship.
By that time, living frugally, he had saved enough to continue working on his own. He wrote a monograph on the painter Eric Lee-Johnson (published in 1956), and spent nearly two years abroad between 1955 and 1957, collecting material and interviewing friends of Frances Hodgkins for a full biography; he never achieved this aim although other writers and editors drew on this invaluable resource. He also pursued an interest in European navigators in the Pacific and especially in James Burney, one of James Cook’s commanders, who was the son of the musicologist Charles Burney and brother of the novelist Fanny Burney. McCormick’s interest in the interaction of this cultivated English society and the South Seas led him to Omai, the young chief from Raiatea whom Burney took to England: this was the beginning of another of McCormick’s biographies.
While he was away his sister Myra, who had retired from nursing, built a house in Green Bay, Auckland, and from the time of his return he lived in a bach adjacent to the house, where he remained for the rest of his life. He never married (he was homosexual, though without a settled partner), and Myra was housekeeper, chauffeur, and occasional research assistant.
Over nearly four productive decades McCormick wrote historical and biographical works distinguished by exhaustive research, a would-be novelist’s skill in effective narrative, and a stylist’s sense of language. The first was an updating of the literature section of his centennial history, New Zealand literature: a survey (1959). Later major books were on Alexander Turnbull (1974), Omai (1977), Frances Hodgkins (1981), and Charles Armitage Brown (1989). In addition he edited Edward Markham’s New Zealand or recollections of it (1963), a previously unpublished manuscript, and Augustus Earle’s Narrative of a residence in New Zealand [and] Journal of a residence in Tristan da Cunha (1966), and wrote many pamphlets, catalogues, and essays. His subjects seemed diverse, but all added depth and resonance to New Zealand’s cultural history. Most were about the experience of emigration, exile and cultural displacement of people who lived ‘between two hemispheres’, moving from Europe to the Pacific or in the reverse direction.
McCormick as he aged was a man with a strikingly sculptured face. He could be formidable, impatient of mediocrity and pretence, but he enjoyed lively conversation, as much in a public bar as in a university common room. His only periods of work outside Green Bay were in 1962, when he was a visiting fellow in Commonwealth literature at the University of Leeds, and in 1963–64 when he held the dual position of senior research fellow and editor of publications at the University of Auckland. He laid the foundations of what was to become the Auckland University Press, but resigned when its demands threatened his own research and writing. He remained an honorary research fellow until 1985. He received a LittD from Victoria University of Wellington in 1962 and an honorary LittD from the University of Auckland in 1983.
Eric McCormick died in Auckland on 23 March 1995; his sister Myra had died in 1993. His last book was the posthumously published An absurd ambition, compiled from autobiographical essays and fragments written over many years.