Robertson Davies’ accomplishments as a dramatist and novelist tend to overshadow his achievements with the essay, but he wrote a great many essays and was a master of the form. Davies’ essays profit from their author’s rare but happy combination of, on the one hand, extensive learning coupled with formidable intelligence and, on the other, a fine sense of humor. Opinionated, sometimes defiantly nonconformist, Davies was never dull, and, in addition to the intrinsic interest of their subjects, his essays hold the added attraction of revealing one of the most fascinating and memorable literary personalities of our time.
Although he never abandoned the form completely, Davies wrote most of his essays between 1940 and the mid-1960s, when he turned from journalism to academic life as Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto and began devoting his creative energy increasingly to writing novels. The 19408 and 1950s were extremely busy years for Davies. He was extensively involved in Canadian theater and was widely acknowledged as his country’s leading dramatist, and he also turned out three very entertaining novels. His main work, however, was in journalism. In addition to freelancing vigorously, Davies edited and later managed the Peterborough Examiner and wrote columns for his own paper, Saturday Night, and, from 1959 to 1963, the Toronto Star. Most of the material in Davies’ columns belongs in one of two general classes: essays on the arts, often reviews or essays growing out of reviews of books or theatrical performances, and the discursive, more oblique cultural criticism he delivered through the humorous persona of Samuel Marchbanks.
The Marchbanks columns appeared between 1943 and 1953, first in Davies’ Peterborough Examiner, and gradually, as the character caught on with the reading public, in other Canadian newspapers. Somewhat revised, the Marchbanks writings reached a wider audience in The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks (1947), The Table Talk of Samuel Marchbanks (1949), and Samuel Marchbanks’ Almanack (1967). The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks (1985) brought together material from the earlier books with previously uncollected writings. While Marchbanks was initially conceived of as a vehicle for humor, he shared Davies’ love of reading, his delight in arcane subjects, and his impatience with cultural narrowness; in time he came to express many of Davies’ personal views. The Marchbanks persona also provided Davies with a means of perfecting a writing style that would have seemed more at home in an 18th-century periodical than in a contemporary newspaper. Although the Marchbanks columns consist more of material related to the essay—short humorous sketches, diary entries, observations about human nature and society—than of essays proper, Table Talk at least can be thought of as a collection of genuine essays. While its individual pieces are rarely more than 300 words long, and many are written primarily for humorous effect, more than a few develop ideas that Davies himself takes very seriously. For example, “The man who writes only for the eye generally writes badly; the man who writes to be heard will write with some eloquence, some regard for the music of words, and will reach nearer to his reader’s heart and mind” (“The Inner Voice”). In passages like this, we see the rhetorical balance, the emphatic, carefully placed repetition, and the sensitivity to the cadence of speech characteristic of Davies’ own mature style.
Davies’ essays on theater and books, particularly those that appeared in Saturday Night during his two terms as literary editor (first for a year and a half beginning in November 1940 and later from 1953 to 1959), played an important part in promoting discerning taste and cosmopolitan thinking in Canadian readers. Few were collected, however, until the success of his novels in the 1970s generated widespread interest in his ideas.
Containing essays on characters, books, and other subjects he finds stimulating, The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies (1979) demonstrates Davies’ extensive, eclectic erudition. The Well-Tempered Critic: One Man’s View of Theatre and Letters in Canada (1981) is aptly described by its title. Both collections were edited by Davies’ biographer, Judith Skelton Grant. Davies himself gathered the pieces One Half of Robertson Davies:
Provocative Pronouncements on a Wide Range of Topics (1977), a collection of speeches that were for the most part essays written to be read aloud. But the best and most personally revealing of Davies’ essay collections came earlier. A Voice from the Attic (1960; published in Britain a year later as The Personal Art: Reading to Good Purpose) is directed to an audience of serious but nonspecialist readers which Davies terms “the clerisy.” To Davies, “Curiosity, the free mind, belief in good taste, and belief in the human race are the marks of the clerisy, allied with a genuine love of literature, not as a manifestation of fashion, not as a substitute for life, but as one of the greatest of the arts, existing for the delight of mankind” (“The Shame of Brains”). It is in the “informed, rational, and intellectually adventurous individuality” (“Epilogue”) of the clerisy that Davies sees the best hope for Western civilization.
Davies’ own essays exemplify splendidly the qualities he values in his projected readers. His wisdom, clarity of thought, and wide learning are always much in evidence, but perhaps the most memorable characteristic of Davies’ serious writing is its enthusiasm—the intense intellectual excitement with which he explores the diverse subjects that capture his imagination.
William Robertson Davies. Born 28 August 1913 in Thamesville, Ontario. Studied at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario; Balliol College, Oxford, 1936–38, B.Litt., 1938.
Teacher and actor, Old Vic Theatre School and Repertory Company, London, 1938–40.
Married Brenda Mathews, 1940: three daughters. Literary editor, Saturday Night, Toronto, 1940–42 and 1953–59; editor, and columnist under the pseudonym Samuel Marchbanks, Peterborough Examiner, Ontario, 1942–63. Governor, Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Ontario, 1953–71. Professor, 1960–81, and Master of Massey College, 1963–81, University of Toronto. Elected to the Royal Society of Canada, 1967.
Awards: many, including the Leacock Medal, 1955; Lorne Pierce Medal, 1961;
GovernorGeneral’s Award, for fiction, 1973; World Fantasy Convention Award, for fiction, 1984; City of Toronto Book Award, 1986; Canadian Authors’ Association
Award, for fiction, 1986; Toronto Arts Lifetime Achievement Award, 1986; U.S. National Arts Club Medal of Honor, 1987 (first Canadian recipient); Molson Prize, 1988;
Foundation for the Advancement of Canadian Letters Award, 1990; honorary degrees from 23 colleges and universities. Fellow, Balliol College, Oxford, 1986, and Trinity College, Toronto, 1987. Companion, Order of Canada, 1972; Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1984; Honorary Member, American Academy, 1981 (first Canadian elected).
Died in Orangeville, Ontario, 4 December 1995.
Essays and Related Prose
The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks, 1947
The Table Talk of Samuel Marchbanks, 1949
A Voice from the Attic: Essays on the Art of Reading, 1960; as The Personal Art: Reading to Good Purpose, 1961; revised edition, 1990
Samuel Marchbanks’ Almanack, 1967
One Half of Robertson Davies: Provocative Pronouncements on a Wide Range of Topics, 1977
The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies, edited by Judith Skelton Grant, 1979
The Well-Tempered Critic: One Man’s View of Theatre and Letters in Canada, edited by Judith Skelton Grant, 1981
The Mirror of Nature (lectures), 1983
The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks (selections from earlier Marchbanks collections), 1985
Reading and Writing (lectures), 1993
The Merry Heart: Reflections on Reading, Writing, and the World of Books, 1997
Other writings: II novels (The Salterton Trilogy, 1951–58; The Deptford Trilogy, 1970–75; The Cornish Trilogy, 1981–88; Murther and Walking Spirits, 1991; The Cunning Man, 1994), a collection of ghost stories, 16 plays, a critical study of Stephen Leacock, and several books on the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
Ryrie, John, The Annotated Bibliography of Canada’s Major Authors, vol. 3, edited by Robert Lecker and Jack David, Downsview, Ontario: ECW Press, 1981:57–280
Buitenhuis, Elspeth, Robertson Davies, Toronto: Forum House, 1972
Cluett, Robert, “Robertson Davies: The Tory Mode,” Journal of Canadian Studies 12, no. 1 (February 1977):41–46
Cockburn, Robert H., Introduction to A Voice from the Attic by Davies, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972:viii–xii
Grant, Judith Skelton, Robertson Davies, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1978
Grant, Judith Skelton, Robertson Davies: Man of Myth, Toronto and New York: Viking, 1994
Peterman, Michael, Robertson Davies, Boston: Twayne, 1986
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