The Senate needs to be cautioned that when it considers a candidate for an honorary degree it does not set itself up for an embarrassment. This morning you have before you Wayne Johnston, admittedly our most famous novelist, but a novelist who has been attacked for misrepresenting a Newfoundland icon: Joseph R. Smallwood. In these days of nationalistic fervour that should not worry you but for the more discreet members of the university community, it should be a concern that the attack has come from two former honorary graduates: the late Dr. Sandra Gwyn, whom we hooded in 1991, and the lively Dr. Rex Murphy, who stood before you in 1997. Sandra said that Mr. Johnston did “not succeed [in turning] Joey Smallwood into a fictional character” and Rex said his novel “drain[ed] and diminishe[d] the Smallwood that so many Newfoundlanders remember.” The problem? Johnston gives his Smallwood a kind of humanity that many Newfoundlanders might well deny him you, Mr. Chancellor, would I suspect, be not least among these.
What these critics appear to be demanding is a fictional character who is true to the factual character. Now for those of you steeped in Shakespeare, is that a reasonable request to make of a writer? Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Lear and Macbeth bear but limited resemblance to the historical figures from whom they are drawn. History is but the skeleton on which the writer drapes the flesh of fiction and perhaps is what he in his first novel described as “the cadaver manoeuvre” or, to use one of his revised rhetorical terms, “inflatio”: making much out of little. And in The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, the book which put Johnston on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, he creates a character called Smallwood whom even a townie Tory might feel a twinge (very small twinge) of sympathy with. So this is not misrepresentation a failing which a biographer like Gwyn or a political commentator like Murphy might fear but rather it is representation and that fully-felt representation of character is the true task of the novelist. Now it should be noted, that, Smallwood aside, these critics did actually speak well of the book. Sandra Gwyn noted that Johnston had written a novel in which “Sharply etched characters bristle on the pages [and, in Sheilagh Fielding, produced] one of the most memorable characters in recent Canadian fiction.” Murphy paid Johnston the high compliment of making his review one of his finest pieces of criticism and of saying that Johnston had written as “feelingly and as well as anyone of Newfoundland’s dilatory and bitter jaunt to the 20th century.” Murphy claims that Colony is the sort of book Smallwood might have written had he been more reflective. Possibly, but what we do have to remember is that the premier did once have a chance to comment on Wayne Johnston’s work work done when Johnston was a 19-year-old reporter for the Daily News Joe’s judgment: that he had “never read such drivel in [his] life.” Which makes Johnston’s portrait all the more generous, in particular when one considers the fervently anti-confederate family out of which he came.
Colony stands at the crossroads of his writing. Before lie five novels loosely based around his Catholic boyhood which, if the fiction but slightly resemble the fact, was a many-membered life replete with small matters raised to lunatic heights, events caricatured to induce collapse after laughter and which bring to the mind of the literary scholar the early Dickens. Other critics have compared his work to that of Robertson Davies, Rohinton Mistry and Mordecai Richler a rather varied run of writers but indicative of his standing among the elevated of the nation. Each of these early novels has a choric figure who keeps up a ready run of cynical commentary warped around barbed words. This choric figure, with Sheilagh Fielding from Colony, moves from secondary role to become, in his most recent novel The Custodian of Paradise, though crippled in lip and leg and mind, the protagonist. And then there is Baltimore’s Mansion, a work of word wonder, his elegiac memoir of his grandfather, his father and his fatherland, his Ferryland and his Newfoundland a book which so deservedly won the first Charles Taylor Prize for Non-fiction and established the standard for which that prize is now known. Chancellor, take this our own undergraduate, the novelist who put our writing on the world stage, and make him doctor of letters, honoris causa, Wayne Johnston.