Letters of a Literary Legend

Hamilton born Frank Sargeson was considered one of New Zealand’s most distinguished short story writers. He was also an avid letter writer, writing over 600 letters over his lifetime.

A single pencil-written letter by Sargeson to the American short story writer Sherwood Anderson was the only prompt Dr Sarah Shieff from the English programme needed to start compiling a whole book of Sargeson’s letter, called Letter of Frank Sargeson. "It was one simple fan letter from one writer to another, so touching and personal, and from that, I wanted to read more."

Dr Shieff tracked down about 6000 Sargeson letters, the majority in Wellington’s Alexander Turnbull Library, and set about selecting 500 of them for the book. "That was a publishable size and I selected on the basis of biographical and literary interest, historical interest and general liveliness."

Frank Sargeson grew up in Hamilton as Norris Frank Davey. Although he is best known for his short stories, he was also a playwright and an acclaimed novelist and memoirist. The letters show his literary output in an entirely new light.

He wrote letters to friends and lovers, and to prominent and aspiring writers in New Zealand and overseas. They reveal him to be an environmentalist – he made his own compost, and as early as the 1940s objected to the use of chemical fertilisers in farming. In the `50s he was deeply opposed to atmospheric nuclear testing. He also appealed to government to award state pensions to poorer writers.

"Frank loved looking after people," says Dr Shieff. "He made his home available to other writers, and gave away most of what he earned to the shabby older men he was so fond of. But he could also be malicious, gossipy and interfering. He really was a character in his own life story."

Dr Shieff is also the editor of the internationally-recognised Journal of New Zealand Literature (JNZL), which is New Zealand's only peer-reviewed journal devoted to New Zealand literary studies. It is published annually, hosts an annual prize for New Zealand literary studies, and carries scholarly essays on all aspects of New Zealand literature and cultural studies.

Text & Translation Research Unit