Searching for a spy

By Professor Greg Barnhisel


I came to Australia to track down a spy. More accurately, I came to Australia partly to try and find out whether someone was a spy. For the past few years, I’ve been writing a biography of Norman Holmes Pearson. You probably haven’t heard of Pearson; almost nobody has. One of the things I’m trying to do is show that Pearson was an enormously consequential figure in 20th century American culture.

Pearson looked quite a bit like what he was—a nattily dressed Yale professor of American literature. But this minimizes his real achievements. He helped build the Yale Collection of American Literature and the Beinecke Library, doing much to establish the reputations of dozens of 20th century writers, especially American modernist women like Gertrude Stein, Marianne Moore, and above all H.D. (Hilda Doolittle).

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Figure 1 – Norman Holmes Pearson, c. 1960. (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

Pearson also founded Yale’s American Studies department and was a key figure in the early development of American Studies itself. (Back in 1931, he even took the very first American Studies class ever offered.) Beyond Yale, he promoted American Studies around the world—including in Australia, where he was the featured speaker at ANZASA’s third conference, in 1968.

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Figure 2 – Pearson’s keynote to the 1968 ANZASA conference, La Trobe U., Melbourne L-R: Pearson, US Ambassador to Australia William Crook, Bruce Williams, Norman Harper, Alex Mitchell (Norman Harper Papers, U. Melbourne Archives)

And he was, for at least part of his life, a spy, and apparently a very good one. In World War II, Pearson, as part of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), worked with MI-6 to create “X-2,” a counterintelligence agency that identified and “flipped” into double agents the entire Nazi spy network in British territory. After the war, Pearson consulted and recruited for the CIA, at least for a time. But many colleagues and students speculated that he was not just a recruiter but also an operative for the spy agency well into the 1960s and beyond, as part of CIA’s efforts to influence foreign students, intellectuals, and opinion-makers.

So I came to Australia in part to look for clues as to whether he might have been doing spy work while on either of his trips to the country, in 1968 and 1970. This wasn’t the only reason I needed to come. Even if he wasn’t actually spying, Pearson’s work abroad was an important, personally rewarding, but physically exhausting part of his life. His family members, in fact, blame this travel for his relatively early death. (Others think he was poisoned by the North Koreans. Like I said—exciting spy stuff!) As his biographer, I wanted to see where he did this, talk to the people he met and who remember him. I wanted to examine and document any traces he left.

But Melbourne, where a number of the Australian academics who fondly remember Pearson still live, is a long way from my home in Pittsburgh; and Canberra, where the national archives and national library hold some relevant materials, isn’t all that much closer. So I’d need a little help.

One of the best parts of an academic career is the people you meet and the friendships that you make over the years. Most people going into academia are pretty similar: bright, intensely curious about the world, eager to collaborate and help. And so I was enormously fortunate that ANZASA’s own Amanda Laugesen (whom I’d known since she contributed a piece to an anthology I co-edited ten years ago) helped me obtain some research funding offered by the Australian National University.

A funded trip to Australia is the kind of thing an American scholar dreams about, even if it was largely for work. In my first interview, William Breen (who taught history at La Trobe for many years) offered much perspective on Australian academia in the mid-1960s, the state of American Studies at the time, and the political context of Pearson’s visits—the second of which came just before the royal visit of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip and not long before the massive Vietnam Moratorium demonstrations in Sept. 1970. And while these Australian events likely had little effect on Pearson’s own life, they ultimately colored how people responded to and remembered him.

I had an extensive conversation with Monash’s Brenda Niall about her memories of hosting Pearson for just one day at her family’s beach house at Mount Martha. This one social afternoon exemplifies how Pearson actively sought to befriend promising young scholars like Niall (whom he brought over to New Haven in 1975 to work on her Edith Wharton book), how his wife mildly resented the time and energy he devoted to these kinds of networking or mentoring events, and how he thrived in social situations—no introvert, him.

But even more valuable than her memories of Pearson were the piercing questions Brenda asked about the biography itself. An eminent, prize-winning biographer herself, Brenda Niall suggested to me a number of ways of approaching this project that I’d not thought of.

I rounded out my Melbourne time with a conversation with the poet Chris Wallace-Crabbe, archival work and a talk at the University of Melbourne, and a talk at Monash University, where I was frank with the audiences about how I’m trying, not always successfully, to write in a new register. I flew north that evening and spent the next day at the National Library of Australia and the Australian National Archives in Canberra (where I learned that the Australian security services kept a close eye on Melbourne’s American Studies pioneer Norman Harper), and concluded the “work” portion of the trip with an outstanding day-long symposium on Cold War Cultures at ANU, organized by Amanda and Nicole Moore of UNSW-Canberra.

Ultimately, the two or three weeks that Pearson spent in Australia aren’t pivotal to his life story. But as I’m trying to write a cultural biography, a discussion of larger developments in culture and society as embodied in his life, the research that I did will be crucial in understanding his impact, both as an individual and as a representative of the larger institutions—Yale, the State Department, the Fulbright program, the American Studies Association, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the informal international network of scholars at the time—that Pearson represented. He was, I like to say, the consummate Organization Man in an era of organization men; and my trip to Australia, and the archival work and interviews it made possible, will permit me to depict these intersection organizations in more detail and with more nuance than would have been possible otherwise.

And as to whether Pearson was doing piecework for the “Company” while traveling in Australia? It’s likely I’ll never know for certain, but the evidence I gathered about his activities and interactions in Australia, in combination with his own correspondence and his wife’s travel diary, suggest that he wasn’t. I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing for the book. You’ll have to read my final manuscript to find out.


Dr Greg Barnhisel is Professor in English at Duquesne University and is the author of Cold War Modernists: Art, Literature and American Cultural Diplomacy (Columbia University Press, 2015).