Obituary: Professor Frank Pierce

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
FRANK PIERCE was a first-class Hispanic scholar and an outstanding university teacher. A mere curriculum vitae would fail completely to convey the flavour of the man. He had an electrifying impact on all who came into contact with him by virtue of his warmth, his enthusiasm, his zest for life and his insatiable curiosity about people and things. His presence couldn't be ignored nor easily brushed aside.

In 1953 he became the first occupant of the newly created Hughes Chair of Spanish at Sheffield University, which he graced with distinction until his retirement in 1979. During his tenure he became a leading member of the group of British Hispanists which in the post-war era provided the base on which international Hispanism was grounded.

His original and abiding research interests concerned Spanish Golden Age literature which he saw as "reflecting the doctrinal preoccupations of a society and an age unusually theological and philosophical in its conscious statements". It is not strange, therefore, that the religious epic occupied a significant place in Pierce's early studies and that his approach should have led him to a saner view of the treatment of allegory and mythology than those advanced by C.M. Bowra, H. Cidade or A.J. Saraira.

His painstaking reappraisal of the literary epic, whose popularity as a genre he saw as closely linked with the rising authority of Spain as a world power, progressed from a series of detailed articles to an anthology, eventually expanded to a book-length study in 1961, La poesa epica del siglo de oro. This in its turn expanded into individual editions of texts, of which the most significant was The Lusiads of Camoens (1973). His other chief enthusiasm was for Cervantes, who led him to Ludovico Ariosto and the Amads. But the particular aspect of Cervantes that attracted his pen was not the writer of a burlesque-epic but the commentator on social, moral and philosophical issues in the Novelas ejemplares.

Castilian literature of the 18th and 19th centuries, with the notable exception of the works of B. Perez Galds, did not excite his interest; possibly, mature reflection modified his earlier verdict on it as "a thin and feeble Spanish Romanticism" which could be injected with the necessary robustness by a study of the Portuguese prose writers and the Catalan Renaixenca. But his enthusiasm for Castilian literature was kindled by the writers of the present century, especially Lorca: and he was very insistent in impressing on his students the significance of the Hispano- American contribution.

Frank Pierce was born in 1915 in Belfast, a city whose factions have not prevented the teaching of Spanish at all manner of institutions. It was first taught at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, where Pierce later learnt the language from an emigre carbonaro from Rome called James Forneri. In 1918 Queen's University established a Chair of Spanish and appointed Ignacio Llubera to be its first holder.

He turned out to be a remarkable mixture of innovation and tradition and left a deep impression on the undergraduate Pierce, which was reflected in his inherited conviction that the culture of the Iberian peninsula was multi-lingual and that all students should be fully aware of the interweave of traditions between Portuguese, Castilian and Catalan. Llubera also instilled in Pierce a veneration for the Classics in general and Virgil in particular and pointed hin in the direction of the literary epic which embraced the fields of his scholarly interests.

After graduating in 1938 with first class honours, he enrolled at Columbia University, having been awarded a postgraduate studentship. He sailed back across the Atlantic just before the beginning of the Second World War for the briefest of stays at Liverpool University as an Assistant Lecturer (1939-40) before returning to a city which he loved - Dublin. There he served as "Deputy" to an Irishman of a very different character, Professor Walter Starkie, the Professor of Spanish at Trinity College.

At the end of the war Pierce moved permanently to Sheffield University, initially as the Hughes Lecturer in Spanish, and then as Hughes Professor of Spanish.

As with many Irishmen, his favourite milieu was the local pub, which provided the ideal setting for him to indulge his curiosity in people from all walks of life and his enthusiasm for real ale. He was a true demo- crat who had no time for class distinctions; for Pierce at all times Jack was as good as his master. He had a remarkable ability to strike up conversations with total strangers on almost any topic - and many of them immediately became his friends.

Pierce was devoid of malice towards anybody, with the certain exception of General Franco and the possible one of the Rev Ian Paisley. He was intensely loyal, not only to his family and friends but also to the institution which gave him his livelihood, Sheffield University, and the wider community of Iberian scholars. He was Dean of the Faculty of Arts at Sheffield from 1964 to 1967, during a period of rapid expansion, President of the Anglo- Catalan Society, founder committee member, and President of, the Association of Hispanists of Great Britain and Ireland, president of the founding committee of the Asociacin Internacional de Hispanistas and co- editor with Cyril Jones of the first volume of its proceedings.

But the first call on his devotion and loyalty was his family - his much- loved wife Una, his two surviving sons, his daughters-in-law and his five grandchildren, all of whom were to him a matter of intense pride.

George Clayton

Francis William Pierce, Hispanic scholar: born Belfast 21 September 1915; Assistant Lecturer in Spanish, Liverpool University 1939-40; Deputy to the Professor of Spanish, Trinity College Dublin 1940-46; Hughes Lecturer in Spanish, Sheffield University 1946-53, Hughes Professor of Spanish 1953-80 (Emeritus), Dean of the Faculty of Arts 1964-67; married 1944 Una Black (two sons, and one son deceased); died Sheffield 19 July 1999.