Frank Sargeson, who wrote only two plays, both in the early 1960’s, is much better known as a writer of short stories and novels, some of which—notably When the Wind Blows (1945) and I Saw in My Dream (1949)—are strongly autobiographical. His first book of short stories, Conversation with My Uncle and Other Sketches (1936), also concerns events that occurred early in his life. In his later novels he retained New Zealand life as a background but extended his themes, focusing on the individual’s efforts to find freedom in a repressive, puritanical society. That effort was similar to Sargeson’s own as he struggled first against his strict parents and later against a homophobic New Zealand culture. Sargeson also wrote three autobiographical volumes: Once Is Enough (1972), More than Enough (1975), and Never Enough! (1977). His journalistic career, which began with his writing for Tomorrow, includes essays and reviews of dramatic and literary works. He also appeared extensively on radio and occasionally on television.
Frank Sargeson’s achievements fall into two categories, his awards and his influence on many New Zealand writers. His short story “An Affair of the Heart” won second prize in the 1936 Christmas competition, and in 1940 he won first prize for his short story “The Making of a New Zealander” from New Zealand’s Centennial Literary Competition. In 1965 he won the prestigious Katherine Mansfield Short Story Award for his “Just Trespassing, Thanks,” and he won the Hubert Church Award three times, the last time for his novel Man of England Now (1972). Friends and colleagues were instrumental in his receiving an honorary degree in literature from the University of Auckland in 1974.
In addition to his many awards, Sargeson influenced many other New Zealand writers, who have enthusiastically acknowledged their debt to him. Among his protégés were David Ballantyne, John Reece Cole, Dan Davin, Maurice Dugan, Dennis McEldowney, C. K. Stead, and, most notably, Janet Frame. After meeting Sargeson, Frame, who had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals much of her life, moved into his army hut and lived there during 1955-1956 while she wrote her first novel, Owls Do Cry (1957). In her An Angel at My Table (1984), one of her autobiographical works, she wrote of Sargeson: “I did not realise until much later when I was writing many books, how extreme but how willing his inevitable sacrifice of part of his writing life had been.” For New Zealanders, Sargeson was Katherine Mansfield’s successor and occupied much the same place in New Zealand literature as Patrick White did in Australia.
Copland, R. A. Frank Sargeson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. A literary biography covering all of Sargeson’s body of work. Part of the New Zealand Writers and Their Works series.
Jensen, Kai. Whole Men: The Masculine Tradition in New Zealand Literature. Auckland, N.Z.: University of Auckland Press, 1996. Considers Sargeson within the larger framework of the construction of masculinity as a trope of New Zealand identity. Argues that Sargeson’s closeted homosexuality posed a complex problem for the masculine tradition and its historians.
King, Michael. Frank Sargeson: A Life. New York: Viking, 1995. King’s biography is divided into two parts: The first describes the life of Sargeson as Norris Davy, and the second one concerns Sargeson’s life after he changed his name. King’s book, which must be regarded as the definitive biography of Sargeson, also contains an extensive bibliography of Sargeson’s writings and a bibliography of critical works.
McNaughton, Howard. “Drama.” In The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English, edited by Terry Sturm. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. McNaughton discusses Sargeson’s plays in their intellectual context, finds the plays consistent with the dramatic theories Sargeson had stressed as a theater critic for Tomorrow and Press, and mentions the radio production of The Cradle and the Egg in 1968.
McNaughton, Howard. New Zealand Drama. Boston: Twayne, 1981. McNaughton discusses both of Sargeson’s plays, describing A Time for Sowing as a naturalistic drama that fails to explore visually Kendall’s self-doubt and The Cradle and the Egg as a Shavian drama ambitious in its attempts to visualize the play’s symbolic meaning.
New, W. H. Dreams of Speech and Violence: The Art of the Short Story in Canada and New Zealand. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987. Sargeson is included in a study of the ways in which Canadian and New Zealand short-story writers have rejected many of the literary conventions of English, American, and Australian fiction.
Rhodes, H. Winston. Frank Sargeson. Boston: Twayne, 1969. A full-length study of Sargeson’s life and work, which also contains a selected bibliography.