Eric Hall McCormick was born in Taihape, the second child and only son of William James Hall McCormick, a boot merchant, and his wife, Ellen Powrie, who had been a dressmaker before her marriage. His Irish-born father had moved to Taihape from Christchurch in the vanguard of a planned co-operative settlement.
He became aware of his homosexuality at an early age: he was a solitary child, often bullied during his primary schooling at Taihape District High School for his effeminacy, once having his arm broken, and one of the names that did hurt him was "Girlie".
He also had a year's secondary education there, before winning a Junior National Scholarship. His parents sent him to board at Wellington College. He then went to the Teachers' Training College, Wellington, and studied part time at Victoria University College. While working as a sole-charge teacher between 1926 and 1929 at two schools in rural Nelson, he continued his studies extramurally from Victoria, gaining an MA in English and Latin in 1928.
There he had one of his longest-standing "crushes", on another student his own age, "R.G." This love, unexpressed and probably unrequited, lasted for over a year.
He writes of awkward encounters, such as the man in Sydney who found his kissing unsatisfactory, but if he had consummated relationships, he did not write about them. In some cases he would remember a man he had no more than exchanged glances with, long after the event.
He returned to Wellington in 1929 and taught in a private school, Wellesley College, while writing a thesis on New Zealand literature -; a subject seldom recognised and never taught by the University of New Zealand. With his thesis he converted his MA to an honours degree and in 1931 was awarded a postgraduate scholarship in arts, enabling him to study overseas.
McCormick neglected to make any arrangements for pursuing his studies before arriving in England and was fortunate to be accepted by Clare College, University of Cambridge. With an Indian fellow student, McCormick planned a literary journal which, after they abandoned the idea as too costly, was taken up by Leavis to become his famous mouthpiece, Scrutiny .
Returning to New Zealand in 1933 in the depths of the depression, McCormick settled in Dunedin. Unemployed, or in temporary or part-time jobs, he finished his Cambridge thesis, for which he was awarded an MLitt in 1935. The following year he was invited by the under-secretary for internal affairs, Joseph Heenan, to become secretary of the National Centennial Historical Committee. Until that job became full time, he was to be assistant to the dominion archivist, G. H. Scholefield.
From an early age McCormick had determined to be a writer ("the absurd ambition", he called it), but he published virtually nothing until the age of 34, and never became the writer of fiction he earlier assumed he would be. Early in 1941, with his centennial work almost completed, McCormick joined the army, and sailed with the 5th Reinforcements to the Middle East as an orderly in a medical unit, work he enjoyed and found fulfilling.
Soon after his arrival in Egypt, however, he was appointed assistant to the army archivist, E. H. Halstead, and remained in that job, in Egypt, Italy and back in New Zealand, until the end of the war. During those years he rose in rank from warrant officer to captain. In 1945 he was appointed chief war archivist in the Department of Internal Affairs.
In the later 1940s McCormick began the work on the artist Frances Hodgkins for which he was to become noted. A planned short monograph was transformed into a lifetime commitment by his discovery of a large number of letters to her family, which were thought to have been destroyed. These formed the basis of The expatriate (1954); there was a companion volume, Works of Frances Hodgkins in New Zealand (1954), and in the same year he wrote the catalogue for an exhibition of the artist and her circle at the Auckland City Art Gallery.
In the meantime, in 1947, he had been appointed senior lecturer in English at Auckland University College. He was too hesitant in delivery, and possibly over-conscientious in preparation, to be happy as a lecturer for long, and resigned in 1951 to take up a two-year University of New Zealand senior research fellowship.
While he was away his sister Myra, who had retired from nursing, built a house in Green Bay, Auckland, and from the time of his return he lived in a bach adjacent to the house, where he remained for the rest of his life. He never married (he was homosexual, though without a settled partner), and Myra was housekeeper, chauffeur, and occasional research assistant.
He laid the foundations of what was to become the Auckland University Press, but resigned when its demands threatened his own research and writing. He remained an honorary research fellow until 1985. He received a LittD from Victoria University of Wellington in 1962 and an honorary LittD from the University of Auckland in 1983.
Eric McCormick died in Auckland. His last book was the posthumously published An absurd ambition , compiled from autobiographical essays and fragments written over many years.