A Writer's Life: The Margaret Laurence Lectures

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  • Copyright: 2011-05-24
  • Publisher: McClelland & Stewart Ltd
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For anyone who loves great literature -- or aspires to write it -- this is an essential collection, full of insight, wisdom, humour, and candour from Canada's most important and beloved literary figures. For the past twenty-five years, the Writers' Trust of Canada's annual lecture series, the Margaret Laurence Memorial Lecture, has invited some of Canada's most prominent authors to discuss the theme of "A Writer's Life" in front of their peers. Hugh MacLennan, Mavis Gallant, Timothy Findley, W.O. Mitchell, Pierre Berton, P.K. Page, Dorothy Livesay, Alistair MacLeod, and Margaret Atwood, among others, have shared the personal challenges they faced in forging their own paths as writers, at a time when such a career was still unusual in this country. Intimate, frank, and revealing in tone, their lectures -- collected for the first time in celebration of the series' twenty-fifth anniversary -- provide a unique account of a period when a national writing community was just being formed, and give us unprecedented access to the heroes and heroines of Canadian literature as they share their insights into their work, the profession of writing, the growing canon of our literature, and the cultural history of our country.


Hugh MacLennan

It is a very great honour you have done me in asking me to give the first of the Margaret Laurence Lectures. Profoundly, I wish it were not so. It seems a grim jest of God that she should be gone and I should be here, for I was born some eighteen years before she came into the world. I came from the extreme eastern tip of Canada before Newfoundland joined us. Margaret was born in the dead centre some two thousand miles to the west. Both of us were of Scottish origin, though her surname, Wemyss, indicates that she was a scion of a prominent family from County Angus. Both of us were born in dying small towns. Both of us went abroad before we began to write. Both of us, in trying to discover ourselves, had first to discover some of the historical and psychological truths of the huge, undefined nation into which we were born.
Though I met Margaret very seldom during her lifetime, it was always like meeting someone whose professionalism I sensed so naturally that I took it for granted, as she, I believe, took me for granted. She had the inner generosity of a person whose life had been very difficult, and her work was at once a deliverance from herself and a triumph within herself. Toward the end, when apparently the whole nation held her in honour, she had to go to law to prevent a handful of self-righteous hypocrites from banning her books from the schools of Ontario. It upset her profoundly to have to take off the gloves and fight them in the courts, and though she won the battle, she must have suffered some psychological damage from it, and it is quite possible that if this outrage had not occurred, she would still be alive.
In the last months of Margaret’s life, when I knew she had terminal cancer, I telephoned her every second week and always found her calm, a little more husky of voice than when I first met her, but acceptant and even tranquil. She knew she had done her work and that it was good; she had rounded it off; she had gone out from the prairie small town into the great outer world, including the Horn of Africa and southern England. Then, as naturally and inevitably as a Pacific salmon swimming back to its original spawning bed, she returned and tackled the little Manitoba town where she had grown up. She re-created it under the name of Manawaka, and in so doing, like Ulysses when he returned to Ithaca, she slew quite a few demons.
The southeastern corner of Manitoba is one of the most historic regions in this entire country, and its history is much better known in Quebec than in Ontario. This is because of the early voyageurs who, over a century and a half, explored in canoes the whole nation from Montreal to the Pacific and the Mackenzie Delta, as well as the Mississippi Valley down to New Orleans. La Vérendrye, born in Trois-Rivières in 1685 – which happened to be also the birth year of Handel and Sebastian Bach – returning from service in the War of the Spanish Succession, set out for the West with a party of fifty men, including three of his own sons. He established Fort Rouge on the banks of the Red River and continued west, perhaps to a sight of the Rockies. Later, after the English Conquest of New France, the name was changed to Fort Garry, and now, of course, it is Winnipeg.
After La Vérendrye, there appeared on the plains in increasing numbers the Métis, most of them children of French fathers and Indian mothers. Colbert, the great finance minister of Louis xiv, laid it down that French settlers in America should mate with the native peoples, and this surely explains the astonishing endurance of the original voyageurs. Later on, the Scottish Highlanders of the North West Company and the hbc followed to some extent the same practice, though most of them had legitimate wives at home in Montreal. This fundamental part of the Canadian story was glossed over until very recently, but only a few days ago, at Percé in the Gaspé, President Mitterrand of France alluded to it openly, saying that many French-Canadian expressions were derived from the Indian languages.
In modern times, when at last a true Canadian literature developed, Manitoba gave us in Gabrielle Roy the finest of French-Canadian novelists, and she was a Métis from Saint-Boniface. Later on, Margaret Laurence gave us that wonderful Métis character, Jules Tonnerre. The great achievement of these two women writers was to tell hundreds of thousands of Canadians who they were.
I shall never forget a reading Margaret gave in McGill during the period I used to call “our time of troubles,” when “Spock-marked” student politicians, many of them Americans, were raging against the American Empire which was committing suicide in Vietnam and involving much of the world in the general catastrophe. Margaret came into the campus like a wave of peace. She had an enormous audience of many ages, and though the acoustics were bad in the hall, she held them entirely with her. Waves of affection seemed to surge around her, and no wonder. For here was a woman of profound understanding of the human condition.
Academics have been trained for a long time to put their confidence in pure reason, and the American Republic was to a large extent founded on the theories of eighteenth-century philosophers, especially Locke, and to a lesser extent, Rousseau. Locke has a great deal to answer for. This childless philosopher asserted that the infant new to earth and sky is born with a mind which is a tabula rasa – a blank sheet of paper to be written on by the hand of experience. Every woman who has minded a baby understands that this is total nonsense, but sensible women were not listened to in that Age of Reason. Perhaps at last men are beginning to listen to them, the young ones at least. Writers like Margaret Laurence understood in their bones the truth of a sentence written by a great Frenchman long before the Age of Reason, which has triumphed in our time of the H-bomb and the Cold War. “Il est bon,” wrote Malherbe, “et plus souvent qu’on ne le pense, de savoir de n’avoir pas de l’esprit.”
The French-Canadians and the Métis knew this truth in their bones, and that is how they managed to survive and stay sane for two centuries after the American Revolution.
I shall now leave Margaret Laurence in peace, and speak a little of my own experience as a writer in this country.
Seven and a half years ago, I finished my last novel, Voices in Time, and knew it would be the last novel I would ever write. It occupied some ten years of my life and it exhausted me. Becoming a great variety of characters can be a soul-bending experience. I realized that I had reached the stage when I must try to deal with the most inexplicable character I had any knowledge of: myself. Two and a half months ago I became, to my dismay, eighty years old, which is fifteen beyond the legal age described by that appalling modern expression, “a senior citizen.” Two weeks ago a group of high school students from Moncton came to see me (in addition to other writers in central Canada), and a fifteen-year-old boy asked me as practical a question as I ever heard.
“You’re eighty years old,” he said, “and that’s an awful thing. What does it feel like to know that you’ll soon be dead?” Now, how could anyone answer a question like that?
However, the boy had a point, and a good one. For some time now, I have been trying to write a memoir, which is a very different thing from writing a novel. In recent years I have been reading and re-reading volumes about the history of my own time, and it is worth noting that since the last war, the writers of history are far more competent, more interesting and readable, than all but a few since Thucydides.
I was born in 1907, and it was only a few years ago that I discovered that this was the most fatal date in the entire twentieth century, because it was then that the First World War became inevitable.
Years had to pass before it dawned on me that this century into which I was born, and in which I have lived and worked, written books and taught, or tried to teach, several thousand young students, has been the most agonizing for humanity of any period since the century of Saint Augustine. It came upon me just before my eightieth birthday, when I was invited to Princeton University to give the James Madison Address and to receive the James Madison Medal. As I had been dismissed from Princeton some fifty-two years ago as an irritating socialist and an incompetent scholar, this was a moving experience.
Memories crowded me, and I shall share some of them with you now, if for no other reason than that the most perplexing problem in Canada’s existence has always been her relationship with the United States.
I arrived in Princeton in September, 1932. In June of 1935 I left it, I thought, forever, and without prospects. In retrospect, this seems of no importance. But what surely is of immense importance – also in retrospect – is that these three years, 1932 to 1935, were the most fateful, and possibly the most fatal, in the history of Western civilization.
When I first went to the United States in the fall of 1932, the world was in the bottom black hole of the Great Depression which began with the Wall Street crash in 1929. In that year, I was in Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, working twelve hours a day to prepare for my examinations in Honour Moderations, very tough exams which searched every nook and corner of a student’s ignorance. I did not know at the time that the market had crashed, but two years later I certainly discovered what this meant for anyone my age. In 1932, only 3 per cent of Rhodes Scholars leaving Oxford were able to step into jobs, and I was not one of the 3 per cent. This was the year when the Princeton graduating class decorated the backs of their beer suits with a young man’s face surrounded by a garland of barking female dogs. The message of this was “Bitched All Around,” and the signature song of the Glee Club’s show was “We’ve Got Love – And a Dime.” However wounded and confused North America was, it was not in total despair, not in any respect so desperate as were parts of Europe.
The Depression struck Europe, and Germany especially, with the combined force of a typhoon and earthquake. The savings of the German middle class had been wiped out in the early 1920s by a total inflation, but enormous financial aid from America soon revived German industry, and outwardly Germany seemed to be prospering. Now, suddenly, within a period of a few months, industry came to a virtual standstill. Millions were without jobs of any kind, and very few had any savings.
It has sometimes been said that the First Great War of our century was caused by rivalries among Queen Victoria’s many grandchildren. The rivalries were certainly there, and so was the irresponsibility and so was the arrogance. But now, in retrospect, we can see that the underlying causes of that catastrophe went far deeper than the political ones; that there was a mysterious drive to self-destruction in Western civilization itself, a drive that was to culminate half a century later in the Vietnam War, the worldwide inflation produced by it among the so-called democratic states, and the self-assertions of older and previously poorer cultures.
Because I lived in Halifax as a child, and missed by two feet being killed in the great explosion of 1917, the greatest single man-made explosion before Hiroshima, this old war is still very vivid to me. The generals, with the exception of Allenby and Pershing, were so incompetent that one marvels that such bone-headed fools could ever have been put in command of any military body above the company level. But the soldiers who served them were so brave and dedicated that they seemed ready to endure anything.
Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping . . .
So sang Rupert Brooke, who died of an infection during the Gallipoli campaign in 1915. “Laughing and singing,” went the legend, “they marched to the Great Adventure” – the youth of Europe and the British Empire, ultimately to be joined by the youth of the United States. The propaganda was atrocious in its sadism and falsehood. One of the worst examples was the cartoon of “The Crucified Canadian” hanging almost naked on a cross while villainous men in German uniforms diced for his garments at the foot of the cross. This was a poison we were all fed in those years.
As you know here, but as few Americans ever knew, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, and all the minor British colonies were automatically at war on August 4, 1914, because in those days their foreign policies were entirely controlled in London. In 1914, Canada had a total population of only seven and a half million souls. She suffered action deaths of sixty-six thousand and casualties of close to two hundred thousand. If the United States had suffered proportionally, the figure would have run as high as seven hundred and fifty thousand dead. But of course this never could have happened, for if the United States had been at war in 1914, the whole war would have ended a year and a half later.
Slogans, of course, abounded. Lloyd George called it “The War to End Wars.” When America entered in 1917, Woodrow Wilson’s slogan was “[A War] To Make the World Safe for Democracy.” We soon learned that this holocaust had made the world safe for nothing. The vengeful fools who broke Wilson’s heart at Versailles guaranteed that the appalling slaughter in the trenches and at sea were only an overture to the total world war that broke out twentyone years later. It was an uncanny instinct that caused the people to call November 11 “Armistice Day.” With remarkable realism, Marshal Foch declared, “This is not peace. This is an armistice of twenty years.” His prophecy was only a few months short of dead accuracy.
So, back to the Germany of the early ’30s.
Six months before I came to Princeton, I spent my final Oxford vacation in Berlin. I had several times been in south Germany, but this was my first visit to the capital. It was appalling. In that year, the German unemployment was so universal that more than ten thousand men with doctor’s degrees were begging bread from door to door. Every night, Nazis and Communists did battle in the streets of the great northern cities. The so-called Republic of Weimar was helpless and old President Hindenburg was known to have become gaga.
The first night I spent in Berlin in 1932, I was with another Oxford student, a German, and after supper we went out for one of the most informative walks I ever took. On one sidewalk of the Friedrichstrasse, there was a female prostitute at every fifteen yards and the price was two marks. On the opposite side, the prostitutes were all males. We went into a small cabaret (it was made famous many years later by Liza Minnelli in the movie called Cabaret) and found it another rendezvous for prostitutes. After a quick beer, we fled, but not before noting that most of the men in the joint were wearing swastikas on their sleeves. Passing a lighted bookstore, we saw that the book of the year was Hans Fallada’s Kleiner Mann, was nun? The next year it swept the world under the title, in literal translation, Little Man, What Now?
My German companion muttered, “Hitler can’t miss. He can’t possibly miss now.” I didn’t take in the terrible significance of that remark, for like most non-Germans at the time I could not imagine that a man who looked like Hitler, talked like Hitler, and screamed like Hitler could possibly turn into what he became.
Anyway, I finished at Oxford, went home to my parents in Halifax, tried to get a job and failed, so my doctor-father proposed that I apply for entrance to the Princeton Graduate College. On the train from Penn Station to Princeton Junction, I noticed that little smoke came out of the factory chimneys in New Jersey. I got a cab to the Graduate College and the town seemed beautiful and peaceful.
I was shown to my room in the Graduate College and found I was to share the bathroom with another old Oxford man whom I had met briefly before. His name was Geoffrey Bing, and thinking back on him, with some affection, I now realize that he was a portent of his time. He was marvelously witty. He looked almost Oriental, and with good reason, for he later told me that his grandfather had been a Rhenish baron who had married a lady of the famous Hungarian family of Esterházy, was later expelled from Germany, had emigrated to Indo-China where he made a small fortune furnishing white slaves to the troops of the French garrison.
Geoffrey himself had been born in Ireland. He must have been born méchant, for he saw the absurd side of everything and got fun out of it. After a year in Princeton he became a communist, fought in the desert battles of the Hitler War, returned to England, and befriended an African student called N’Kruma who became President, and immediately afterwards dictator, of the old Gold Coast, the name of which he changed to Ghana. He made Geoffrey his attorney general, then he went mad with megalomania, slept in a bed of solid gold, and soon afterwards was murdered by an enraged population. Geoffrey escaped, surfaced later in London, and was elected to Parliament, where his lethal wit infuriated the Conservatives. He even became respectable toward the end and was made a Queen’s Counsellor before he died a few years ago.
However, a gentleman far more celebrated than Geoffrey Bing arrived in Princeton during my first year, and he was Albert Einstein. The previous year, he had lectured in Oxford, and physicists and mathematicians had assembled from all over the world to examine his latest equations. At that time they were still arguing about Einstein’s theories. Some scientists thought the universe was cylindrical; some thought it was finite; more cautious ones were willing to admit that they didn’t know. A headline in a London paper displayed Einstein’s picture and beneath it was the caption: “will he tell us where we are?”
Einstein loved solitary walks, and sometimes he lost his way because his thoughts were elsewhere. One chilly afternoon I went out for a run around the Christ Church Meadows, came around a sharp bend in the tow-path, and crashed headlong into Einstein. I was aghast. But Einstein’s marvellous eyes showed nothing but gentle curiosity. “Young man,” he said, “can you tell me please vair am I?” Later on, in Princeton, he was to ask me the same question on two more occasions.
The title I offered in Princeton for the Madison Medal address was “A Tale of Two Countries,” and I think it fits just as well at home as it did there. Never in history have two countries been more closely entwined than the United States and Canada. Never, so far as I know, has there been such a weird blending of chance and irony in the relations that grew up between these two countries.
As every Canadian knows, the first European navigator to strike North America above Florida was Jacques Cartier, and one may wonder what would have been the future on this continent if he had made his landfalls in Massachusetts or Virginia instead of Labrador, Percé, and the St. Lawrence estuary. As all Canadians know, he was stopped three times by the Lachine Rapids, but he did climb Mount Royal and saw the vast forests and the river itself curving westward on the far side. The last of his three voyages was made in 1536, and though on his return to France he wrote a description of them, nearly a century elapsed before another expedition was made to Canada from France.
Then came Champlain, first to Nova Scotia in 1605, three years later to the St. Lawrence, where he followed Cartier’s route up the river, and in the year of Milton’s birth he founded the City of Quebec. Immediately the ironies began to form.
Champlain’s king and patron was the great Henri iv, originally a Protestant who converted to Catholicism in order to terminate the religious wars that were tearing France apart. “Paris,” he said in a famous sentence, “vaut bien une messe.” The Protestant Champlain followed suit because he knew he could never establish a colony in the midst of a religious war. Although a number of Champlain’s team of explorers remained Protestants, there was at least no religious war in the colony.
The region now known as Quebec he called “New France,” just as, a generation later, the first English colonists to the continent called their region “New England.” But there was a vast difference of motive between the early French and the early English settlers. The English came for religious freedom; the French were lured on by the dream of the Northwest Passage to China.
Champlain was the first European to discover that if men were to travel in the densely forested northern country, they would have to forget about horses and even about European methods of navigation. Cartier had been stopped at the Lachine Rapids and so was he: “The water here is so swift,” he wrote, “that it could not be more so . . . it is impossible to imagine one’s being able to go by boat through these falls. But any one desiring to pass them, should provide himself with the canoe of the savages, which a man can easily carry.”
So began, in Champlain’s first tentative journey above Montreal in a birchbark canoe, the first chapter in a long era of voyaging. For many years, the barrier of the Appalachians was to hold up the later English settlers of the original thirteen colonies, but the situation was very different for the Canadians. It was not long after the settlement that the French voyageurs in their canoes penetrated to the heart of North America. For two centuries, followed by Scottish Highlanders after the Conquest, the canoe parties threaded their way through the hinterland of North America, moving east to west and north to south. La Salle, setting out to discover the Northwest Passage, followed previous voyages of Hennepin and Cadillac and went all the way down to Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. Soon afterwards, Le Moyne de Bienville, who owned a seigneury across the river from Montreal, founded the city of New Orleans. Some of his descendants are living in Montreal today.
The supreme irony in the bizarre relationship between Canada and the United States came to pass in the mid-eighteenth century, when William Pitt the Elder set out to demolish French rule in North America. Louisbourg fell, then Quebec in the famous battle on the Plains of Abraham in which Montcalm and Wolfe were both killed. All French possessions in North America except the tiny islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon were ceded to Great Britain by the most ruinous king in French history, Louis XV.
Then entered a new historical factor in the person of the young George III, who was even more disastrous to Britain than Louis xv had been to France. Every American knows what he tried to do to their ancestors and knows also what his ancestors did to him. But it was not the famous Boston Tea Party that ignited the Revolution, though it certainly prepared the way for it. It was the Quebec Act of 1775, designed to keep the conquered French quiet, also to give them some rights in the land their ancestors had discovered and explored.
The ironies continue. At the beginning of the American Revolution, a small American force occupied Montreal, and Benjamin Franklin came along with the first printing press ever seen in Canada. A British counterattack sent him home in such a hurry that he left the printing press behind. It was used to print the newspaper which grew into the Montreal Gazette, second-oldest news paper in the world still extant, and for two centuries one of the most conservative. Now, I’m sorry to say, it has become an oversized tabloid.

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