Stuart Pierson. Hard-Headed and Big-Hearted: Writing Newfoundland

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Stuart Pierson. Hard-Headed and Big-Hearted: Writing Newfoundland. Edited by Stand Dragland. St. John's: Pennywell Books, 2006, ISBN 1-8944-6391-9

STUART PIERSON WAS NOT, at first glance, a charismatic teacher. He spoke quietly, avoided theatrical gestures, and rarely made eye contact. He wore the same outfit to every class--dark jeans, a turtle neck of some bland colour, black shoes--and he almost always brought a cup of the abysmal coffee that the Arts cafeteria brewed. He did not encourage conversation outside of class: though his door was often open, he did not welcome students to drop by for chit-chat. He insisted on calling us only by our surnames. He was not an excellent lecturer: he was neither a fluid nor an animated speaker; he was apt to become bogged down in minutiae; and his lectures could be far from edifying. I remember one lecture on Gibbon that, as I discovered when I got home, he had cribbed almost entirely from the introduction to the Penguin edition of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. When asked a question or pausing to consider a point, he often touched his glasses in a manner that suggested shyness. He taught two generations of undergraduate students, but only a handful knew of his large life outside the classroom. Most of his students (myself included) were part of the first post-Smallwood generation, caught between outport culture and suburban St. John's. We were only dimly aware that there was an arts community, let alone that Stuart was a major figure in it.

But Stuart Pierson was the best teacher I ever had. He inspired me to become a historian, and not a week goes by that I don't think of him. For those of us fortunate enough to take one of his seminars, Stuart opened up not only a new world of intellectual history, but also new ways of thinking. He was, as Stan Dragland explains in Hard-Headed and Big-Hearted, a tremendous intellectual who had mastered the Western canon. But, unlike many of his colleagues, he was not a pedagogue. He may have towered over us intellectually, but he never tried to intimidate or belittle his students. In a Department known for its nastiness, Stuart's intellectual generosity stood out. He offered a type of meta-knowledge (a knowledge about knowledge, if you will), rather than a demonstration of how much he himself knew. For Stuart, history was about questions rather than answers. He is the only professor I have met who was willing to admit publicly that he did not know something important. Not only did he ask students open-ended questions, but he actually listened to their answers. He may have been friends with Gerald Squires, the Pratts, and numerous other cultural luminaries but, in the classroom, he was our Pierson.

Hard-Headed and Big-Hearted is a fitting tribute to Stuart Pierson. Stan Dragland provides just the right balance of editorial comment and contextual exegesis, while James Hiller's thoughtful forward echoes Pierson's own tribute to David Alexander [Eric Sager, Lewis Fischer, and Stuart Pierson, eds., Atlantic Canada and Confederation." Essays in Canadian Political Economy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1983)]. Both Dragland and Hiller suggest that Pierson was in some respects an intellectual conservative, and, while contrarian may have been a more apt description, their sensitive analyses avoid slipping into mere homage. Dragland and Hiller remind us that there were many Stuart Piersons, both inside and outside academia. Though the collection omits Pierson's work on the Scientific Revolution, it captures the diversity of his interests and the intensity of his judgements. Despite this diversity, the Western canon forms a type of unifying backbone to the collection. Pierson used writers such as Collingwood or Eliot as touchstones, quoting liberally in an unfashionable style that demanded the reader's attention. Although these touchstones could weigh down his prose, they serve as a stimulating subtext. …