(June 13, 2002, Gazette)
May 29, 2002, 3 p.m.
half a century ago, in 1956-57, I graduated from Curtis Academy here in
St. John's just before coming to Memorial. Imagine forty young men and
women, the men in dark suits, the women in long white dresses; the wife
of the lieutenant governor, also in a flowing long dress and gloves, bestowing
prizes. Like today's graduates, we were happy and proud, looking forward
to the future. The premier of Newfoundland gave the address. He spoke
eloquently about the grand achievement of the existing Liberal government
which had installed fifteen indoor toilets - flush toilets - in outport
schools. In retrospect, I've come to appreciate this talk. We all know
what Joey meant: he was talking about progress - tangible, material progress.
Today, I will also talk a little about progress and give you a personal
account of some connections in my own life between Newfoundland and Canadian
writing. My generation, the generation of the fifties and sixties, was
born into a rising tide of post-war Canadian economic prosperity. This
was a wave that swept many of us off the island and onto the mainland,
in my case across the country to British Columbia. In 1961 at UBC we were
taught English and American literature, but very little Canadian literature:
many of my professors thought it didn't exist. To be sure, E.J. Pratt
was acknowledged, but only just. These were the dark ages of the early
sixties: pre-Literary History of Canada, pre-feminism. It was also pre-Margaret
Laurence and Margaret Atwood, pre-Harold Horwood. If the idea of a national
Canadian literature was suspect, the notion of a Newfoundland literature
was even less plausible.
But at UBC in the sixties, as a student of Roy Daniells, a founder of
The Literary History, I became part of a group working on the critical
study of a Canadian literature. It began with an honours essay on Pratt
at UBC. After all, I knew Pratt: I had been taught to read his poems by
D.W.S. Ryan at Curtis and again here at Memorial in first year English
where Mrs. Jean Pratt taught composition, Alistair MacDonald taught poetry
and George Story the novel. All were fine teachers who convinced their
students, including me, of the value and importance of literature.
At UBC, as I began to read about Pratt, I came across an article by Story
called The Newfoundlander who is Canada's Best Poet. His remarks
sparked my interest in Pratt and Canadian poetry and led directly to a
Ph.D. thesis. In 1973, I wrote an introductory book called E.J. Pratt:
The Evolutionary Vision. Pratt's widow, Viola, liked the book and
encouraged me to bring together an editorial team to publish Pratt's Complete
Works. Four books of poetry and prose have been published in this series
and the process is now continuing with Memorial's D.G. Pitt, Pratt's biographer,
an important member of the editorial team who edited The Letters of
E.J. Pratt, now in preparation for the press.
By the mid-seventies I was planning a history of English Canadian poetry
which would also show Pratt's importance as a Newfoundland and national
poet, explaining his shaping influence on younger poets like James Reaney
and Margaret Atwood. I began my history, where else? With the early seventeenth-century
writings about Newfoundland and Labrador, with Robert Hayman's Quodlibets,
and Cartwright's Labrador Journal, and with the historian, D.W.
Prowse. In 1975, after writing three chapters, I wrote a summary article,
Early Explorations, for George Woodcock of Canadian Literature
who turned it down flat: "Too scholarly," he said. A version
of the article did not come out until 1979, in a session of our newly
established Association for Canadian and Québec Literatures.
I may have been lucky that I did not continue on this critical path because
Peter Neary and Patrick O'Flaherty had published their anthology, By
Great Waters in 1976, and O'Flaherty his critical study, The Rock
Observed in 1979. Of equal importance, historians at Memorial, especially
Keith Matthews, were beginning to challenge some of Prowse's assumptions
about how settlement had actually taken place on the island. These books
were exceptionally important because they provided essential texts and
set out a framework for reading Newfoundland literature; this, in turn,
helped encourage the present wave of creative and critical work.
The early verse was being read here in Newfoundland by the late seventies,
but our national team project organized to write a history of Canadian
poetry was rejected by the Canada Council about 1979. In those days, assessors
didn't believe that histories could be written by more than one scholar.
About the same time, I had an offer I couldn't refuse from F.R. Scott,
the poet, legal specialist and political catalyst whom I was interviewing
regarding his poetry of the forties. I'll be dead soon, he
told me cheerfully. Why not write my biography first and do your
history afterwards? You'll have lots of time. It was an irresistible
offer. And so, my path diverged. I became a biographer but - reflecting
my Newfoundland background - with a historical and cultural bent. F.R.
Scott: The Politics of the Imagination (1987) is literary, legal and
political cultural history just as my current biography, Professing
English: Ac Life of Roy Daniells (2002) is literary, institutional
and religious history.
To go back to some of the implications of my earlier remarks about progress:
Statistics Canada tells us that from 1995 to 1997 almost 17 per cent of
Newfoundland university graduates left the island. That is a very large
proportion of this province's most gifted young people. I hope these statistics
will change for the better, reflecting a rising tide of Newfoundland economic
prosperity. Of equal importance you inherit a firmly established cultural
legacy. It is now possible to talk about a Newfoundland literature of
significance and consequence.
In the last few months I have been re-reading the literature of Newfoundland,
going over some old ground, catching up with the new from Hayman and Lacy,
to Duncan, Duley, Horwood, the plays of Codco, and the novels of Wayne
Johnston, Bernice Morgan and Donna Morrisey. I have watched videos such
as Rain, Drizzle and Fog and Tommy, (where I also appreciated
the music of Ron Hynes), and, of course, I have enjoyed the antics of
This Hour Has 22 Minutes. I have not yet read Lisa Moore nor Michael
Crummey, but judging from recent Globe & Mail reviews, I need to do
Again and again, I have been struck by the wit, the invention, and the
articulateness of Newfoundlanders. And I was thoroughly moved by Wayne
Johnston's thoughtful exploration of Newfoundland's uneasy passage from
independence to Confederation, from Ferryland to Toronto - and back again
- in Baltimore's Mansion. Through a series of flashbacks, the narrator
of this novel makes us understand that although he has left the island
for Toronto, his life is inseparable from his ancestors and the place
where he was born.
As a biographer, I have come to realize the truth of this connection as
well as the fact that our lives are set in directions that we hardly anticipate
when we leave university. I knew in high school that I wanted to write
and teach, but I had no idea that my road led from Newfoundland to Vancouver
and that eventually I would become a practicing biographer. Nor did I
recognize, as Johnston so eloquently reminds us, that you never really
leave Newfoundland because your background and heritage come along with
you and express themselves in your life and work.
I would like to wish the Memorial graduating class of 2002 much happiness,
success and good health - no matter where your road may lead.