Hugh MacLennan discovered his talent as an essayist relatively late in his writing career, and initially his motives for developing this talent were more financial than artistic. When the success of the novel Two Solitudes (1945) encouraged him to give up teaching and live by writing alone, it also made him a recognized authority on Canadian culture and where Canada stood in relation to Europe and the United States. Magazine editors were interested in having him express more directly the ideas behind his novels, and, needing money to supplement his income from fiction, MacLennan obliged. It was only gradually, however, that he came to see himself as an essayist, and even after he had won two Governor-General’s Awards for nonfiction and developed a deep attachment to the essay form, he continued to think of himself as a novelist first.
MacLennan’s idea of essay writing as a pleasant but relatively insignificant sideline, however reasonable in view of contemporary tastes, went against his natural abilities.
Writing novels was always a struggle involving extensive drafting, rewriting, and editing; in contrast, writing essays came naturally to him so that, after a little practice, he was able to complete a good essay in only a couple of days. Also, the instructional bent which sometimes made MacLennan’s novels seem too plainly dedicated to illustrating ideas for modern tastes proved an asset in his essays, where he excelled at explaining complex subjects lucidly and memorably. While his novels are of central importance in the development of modern Canadian literature, none is without significant flaws; more than a few of his essays, on the other hand, are excellent by any standard.
Although the three essay collections that MacLennan played a part in editing contain less than a quarter of the 400 or so essays he wrote, they serve well to represent both his development as a familiar essayist and his growing affection for the form. Cross Country (1949) shows MacLennan experimenting with a variety of approaches. Several of the ten essays are analytical, fairly formal interpretations of Canadian and American society. MacLennan referred to them as “think pieces” in his introduction to the 1972 reissue of the book and attributed “their solemn, outdated style” to editorial expectations early in the Cold War. Although he exaggerates their stylistic faults, pieces like “The Canadian Character” and “On Discovering Who We Are” are long and, having originally been written as interpretive journalism rather than essays as such, designed to appeal mainly to the intellect. On the other hand, they are also timely, original, perceptive, and on the whole very readable. MacLennan’s vocabulary, while extensive, is never obscure or any less accessible than his subjects require; his allusions and references are typically made understandable in context to the average educated reader. A few of the essays in Cross Country point to MacLennan’s handling of the familiar essay later on. “An Orange from Portugal” and “Portrait of a City,” which draw on memories of his youth in Halifax, are more subjective, emotional, and evocative than the analytical pieces, and “The Tyranny of the Sunday Suit” foreshadows the perceptive humor and more relaxed style of his later essays.
MacLennan’s second collection, Thirty and Three (1954), shows him becoming much more comfortable with the familiar essay. His introduction explains that, in middle age, he has come to see the short essay as a form particularly suited to his temperament and has begun to value essays as a way of dealing with “all manner of things that fascinate and delight” which he could not fit into his novels. His subjects—favorite places, sports, small-town manners, public figures, essential qualities of humor—reflect the wide range of his enthusiasms and, taken together, the essays also afford as much insight into postwar Canadian experience as any of his novels. Most of the essays in Thirty and Three were published originally as regular monthly contributions to the Montrealer magazine, and they benefit from MacLennan’s surer sense of audience. Writing for a local audience also required less background and interpretation and allowed him to get to the ideas he really wanted to express more directly than had been the case earlier. The tone is typically conversational, and writing in the first person has become MacLennan’s usual practice. The narrative and descriptive skills he had developed through writing fiction are used to good advantage throughout the collection. Even when dealing with topics of public concern, like Prime Minister MacKenzie King—“neurotic son of a neurotic mother, full of quirks and strangeness, cautious as a turtle yet quick with intuition as any second-sighted Celt…saved only from caricature by the fact that he happened to be a political genius” (“The Ghost That Haunts Us”)—his views are more subjective and his style more lively than in Cross Country.
Most of the essays in Scotchman’s Return (1960) were written during the mid- to late 1950s, a difficult but productive period in MacLennan’s life during which his first wife’s long illness finally ended in death. How deeply the loss affected him can be seen in his novel The Watch That Ends the Night (1959), but the emotional toll is much less apparent in his essays. Many are about education and literature, suggesting how important a part of his life his work with students at McGill University had become. By this time, writing essays had progressed from being primarily a way of making money to becoming a labor of love. His introduction refers to the essay as “the friendliest form of writing” and explains that “a desire for friendship” has made him “an addict of the form.” Scotchman’s Return includes some essays on lighter subjects—“let nobody pity them [the Scots] or wonder why they eat as they do. They prefer this diet because it gives them the pleasure of being miserable” (“By Their Foods…”)—and MacLennan’s quiet sense of humor is at work throughout, but the collection, on the whole, is more serious in tone than the one that preceded it. Significantly, the necessity of accepting things as they are is a recurring idea. We cannot “escape ourselves forever,” he remarks in the opening essay (“Scotchman’s Return”); “I am a prisoner of my own life,” he concludes in the last (“Fifty Grand”). This mood of resignation contrasts with the characteristic impatience in MacLennan’s earlier essays, but pervasive though it is, it is essentially positive—a mature acceptance of his own limitations and the inevitable faults of any human society rather than a sense of defeat. The best of these essays, the title piece and a series on Oxford University, are reflective, evocative, and nostalgic.
In addition to these three collections, MacLennan produced several nonfiction books with sections resembling essays. Of these, Seven Rivers of Canada (1961), which, much revised, formed the basis of The Rivers of Canada (1974), is by far the best. What began as travel writing—a magazine assignment to explore and write about major Canadian rivers—became much more to MacLennan. The geographical explorations provide starting points for reflections on the history and culture of the regions through which the rivers flow, as well as on their significance to the nation as a whole. In addition to being informative in a factual sense, the essays in Rivers are also deeply personal and bring together MacLennan’s mature ideas about Canada. Particularly successful in its integration of narrative and descriptive illustration and abstract thinking, Rivers is arguably MacLennan’s best nonfiction book.
MacLennan was dedicated to living fully, to seeing, experiencing, and understanding as much as he could, and, in his writing, to passing on what he had learned. An athlete, a perceptive critic of literature and other arts, a classical historian, and an astute observer of cultural, political, and economic changes in his times, he was able to write about an impressive variety of subjects with authority and original insight. Though he showed more compassion for the masses than confidence in their collective judgment, he wrote with a keen sense of social responsibility and reached out to inform as wide an audience as he could. His recurring concern with identity—individual, regional, and national— grew out of his conviction that a writer had to come to terms with his cultural roots, but his personal exploration of the subject had wider implications in that it played a central role in shaping national selfperception. MacLennan’s essays will continue to be read, partly because many are excellent examples of the genre and partly also for the valuable insight they provide into Canadian consciousness as it evolved in the middle years of this century.
John Hugh MacLennan. Born in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, 20 March 1907. Studied at Dalhousie University, Halifax, B.A., 1928; Rhodes scholar at Oriel College, Oxford, B.A., M.A., 1932; Princeton University, New Jersey, Ph.D., 1935. Taught Latin and history at Lower Canada College, Montreal, 1935–45. Married Dorothy Duncan, 1936 (died, 1957). Journalist and broadcaster, from 1945. Associate professor, 1951–67, professor of English, 1967–79, then professor emeritus, McGill University, Montreal.
Elected to the Royal Society of Canada, 1953. Married Frances Walker, 1959.
Awards: many, including the Governor-General’s Award, for fiction, 1945, 1948, 1959, and for nonfiction, 1949, 1954; Royal Society of Canada Gold Medal, 1951; Lorne Pierce Medal, 1952; Molson Prize, 1966; Royal Bank of Canada Award, 1967, 1984; honorary degrees from 17 Canadian universities. Companion, Order of Canada, 1967. Died in Montreal, 7
Essays and Related Prose
Cross Country, 1949
Thirty and Three, 1954
Scotchman’s Return and Other Essays, 1960; as Scotsman’s Return and Other Essays, 1961
Seven Rivers of Canada, 1961; revised edition, as The Rivers of Canada, 1974
The Other Side of Hugh MacLennan: Selected Essays Old and New, edited by Elspeth Cameron, 1978
Other writings: seven novels (Barometer Rising, 1941; Two Solitudes, 1945; The Precipice, 1948; Each Man’s Son, 1951; The Watch That Ends the Night, 1959; Return of the Sphinx, 1967; Voices in Time, 1980).
Cameron, Elspeth, in The Annotated Bibliography of Canada’s Major Authors, vol. 1,
edited by Robert Lecker and Jack David, Downsview, Ontario: ECW Press, 1981
Buitenhuis, Peter, Hugh MacLennan, Toronto: Forum House, 1969
Cameron, Elspeth, Editor’s Introduction to The Other Side of Hugh MacLennan: Selected Essays Old and New, Toronto: Macmillan, 1978
Cameron, Elspeth, Hugh MacLennan: A Writer’s Life, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981
Keith, W.J., “Novelist or Essayist? Hugh MacLennan and The Watch That Ends the Night,” in Hugh MacLennan: 1982, edited by Elspeth Cameron, Toronto: University College Canadian Studies Programme, 1981
Lucas, Alec, Hugh MacLennan, Toronto: MacClelland and Stewart, 1970
MacLulich, T.D., Hugh MacLennan, Boston: Twayne, 1983
Morley, Patricia A., The Immoral Moralists: Hugh MacLennan and Leonard Cohen, Toronto: Clarke Irwin, 1972
Ryerson, Stanley B., “Hugh MacLennan’s View of Social Class and Nationhood,” in Hugh MacLennan: 1982, edited by Elspeth Cameron, Toronto: University College
Canadian Studies Programme, 1982
Woodcock, George, Hugh MacLennan, Toronto: Copp Clark, 1969
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