In his own day, Archibald MacMechan’s place in Canadian letters rested largely on his various forms of essay writing; combined with his works of criticism, his essays constitute his main legacy to Canadian literary history. Lorne Pierce (Unexplored Fields of Canadian Literature, 1932), for instance, cites MacMechan as notable among Canadian essayists: “W. H.Blake, Sir Andrew Macphail and MacMechan…come nearest to the real essays…the easy inconsequence, grace, charm, sophistication and personal intimacy of the letter are all found in the essay, which may be defined as an epistle to the world of kindred spirits at large… The successful essay is a touchstone of urbanity, and only comes after long standing in the oak. Good talk sparkles and has a rich bouquet; the essay is that.” Charles G.D.Roberts wrote in a letter (6 April 1929) to MacMechan: “I consider you our best essayist,—perhaps the best Canadian master of English prose.”
MacMechan’s essays are collected in three volumes: The Porter of Bagdad and Other Fantasies (1901), The Life of a Little College (1914), and The Book of Ultima Thule (1927). His essays have more in common with those of Montaigne or Lamb than with Bacon or Arnold: he wrote of Arnold’s essays that “their length, their bellicosity, and their didacticism are against them. They are separate campaigns, battles, skirmishes, single combats, episodes in his life-long warfare against Philistines” (Montreal Standard, 28 June 1908). His own are characterized by a sense of leisure, nostalgia, and attention to homely details; often he adopts a gentle, humble persona: “the dreamer,” “the summer boarder,” “Grizzlebeard” are examples. The essay form was congenial in enabling him to combine scholarly accuracy with a personal, often dreamy style, the overall effect of which is an easy familiarity. The Porter of Bagdad essays are imitative of the later 19thcentury English neo-Romanticism and Pre-Raphaelite style in their idealization of subject matter and their archaic diction. In this collection his characteristically undefmed, nonspecific references to a favorite bit of landscape are the germ of what later becomes his very specific and articulate celebration of the province of Nova Scotia, his “Ultima Thule.”
MacMechan’s next collection, The Life of a Little College, and Other Papers, is concerned mainly with matters pertinent to academia—for example, “Tennyson as Artist,” “Virgil,” and MacMechan’s best-known scholarly and critical essay, “The Best Sea-Story Ever Written,” on Moby-Dick, originally published in 1899 and antedating general critical recognition by over two decades. This essay is notable for its attempt to identify the novel’s “Americanization” (a lifelong preoccupation with MacMechan) and as a catalyst for his own Headwaters of Canadian Literature (1924). Here too is the germ of his affinity with matters pertaining to seafaring. (He privately noted that his collection of Maritime tales, There Go the Ships , would be the work for which he would be longest remembered.)
The Book of Ultima Thule brings together essays written and published over the previous 27 years. As the title suggests, the collection is thematically centered: Nova Scotia is the basis for the literary landscape “Ultima Thule.” Each essay explores a facet of an often idealized provincial scene. Possibly MacMechan is indebted to Joseph Howe for the idea of a remote, ideal place: Howe referred to Nova Scotia as “Little Paradise.”
“Dolcefar,” MacMechan’s coined name for Halifax in this collection, implies both sweetness and distance. The essays fall into two main categories: one focuses on Halifax and its landmarks, combining descriptive writing and historical fact; the other, characteristic of The Porter of Bagdad, has a fanciful quality and a speaker who is ostensibly a passive spectator writing reflectively of his surroundings. For the general reader, The Book of Ultima Thule provides an introduction to Nova Scotia’s culture as perceived by a sensitive, articulate writer during the first quarter of the 20th century.
Throughout there is a freshness of perception; possessing an outsider’s eye (he reiterates the fact that he is a native of Ontario), MacMechan was keenly responsive to a way of life he saw vanishing in the province and was perhaps more apt to evaluate his surroundings than were its natives. His classical training, urbanity, and felicity of expression lift these essays out of mere regionalism.
Archibald McKellar MacMechan. Born 21 June 1862 in Berlin (now Kitchener), Ontario.
Studied at Hamilton College Institute; University of Toronto, B.A., 1884; Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Ph.D., 1889. Married Edith May Cowan, 1889: three daughters.
George Munro Professor of English Language and Literature, Dalhousie University, Halifax, 1889–1933. Book critic, Montreal Standard, 1907–33; coeditor, University Magazine, 1907–19. Elected to the Royal Society of Canada, 1926.
Awards: Lorne Pierce Medal, 1931; honorary degree from the University of Toronto.
Died in Halifax, 7 August 1933.
Essays and Related Prose
The Porter of Bagdad and Other Fantasies, 1901
The Life of a Little College, and Other Papers, 1914
The Book of Ultima Thule, 1927
Other writings: the Canadian literary history Headwaters of Canadian Literature (1924), four books of provincial history (Sagas of the Sea, 1923; Old Province Tales, 1924; There Go the Ships, 1928; Red Snow on Grand Pré, 1931), and a posthumous book of poetry. Also edited editions of works by Thomas Carlyle, Tennyson, and others.
Conron, Brandon, “Essays 1880–1920,” in Literary History of Canada: Canadian Literature in English, vol. 1, edited by Carl F. Klinck and others, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2nd edition, 1976 (original edition, 1965):354–60
McBrine, R.W., “Archibald MacMechan, Canadian Essayist,” Dalhousie Review 50 (1950):23–33
Shortt, S.E.D., “Archibald MacMechan: Romantic Idealist,” in his The Search for an Ideal: Six Canadian Intellectuals and Their Convictions in an Age of Transition, 1890– 1930, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976
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