*McArthur, Peter

Peter McArthur

Peter McArthur



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McArthur, Peter

Canadian, 1866–1924
A prolific and popular writer whose oeuvre includes works of biography, biocriticism, fiction, and poetry, Peter McArthur is remembered most commonly as a humorist and for what he called his “country stuff”: bucolic sketches closer to causeries than to formal essays. Although he published in such popular journals as the Atlantic Monthly, Forum, Punch, the New York Sun, and his own short-lived periodical, Ourselves: A Magazine for Cheerful Canadians (1910–12), his reputation was established primarily through his long association with two Canadian publications: the Toronto Globe, where his twiceweekly column appeared from 1909 to 1924, and the Farmer’s Advocate, to which he contributed less regularly from 1910 to 1922. Indeed, his most popular books—In Pastures Green (1915), The Red Cow and Her Friends (1919), The Affable Stranger (1920), and Around Home (1925)—are compilations of these Globe and Advocate columns, arranged with some minor revisions by McArthur himself. (Two later and less popular compilations, Familiar Fields [1925] and Friendly Acres [1927], were arranged with editorial input from McArthur’s son.)
Attracted to an idealistic and somewhat simplistic vision of Canada’s rural past, McArthur was a dedicated promoter of agrarianism and the national myth of the heroic pioneer. His essays are casual and contemplative, structured as the first-person reflections of a contented farmer-philosopher and organized according to patterns drawn from farm life and from the natural world: a day on the farm, observations of seasonal changes in landscape, or the escapades of a familiar coterie of farm animals. Here McArthur celebrates rural living, idealizing the farm as “a place of peace, a place of refuge and a home” far removed from a modern world ravaged by the excesses of urbanization and industrialization, a deepening sense of personal alienation, rampant materialism, and social cleavage.
Never drawn to what he called “the cosmical moods” of a poet like Whitman or the natural theology of Wordsworth, McArthur constructs his philosophy on a kind of Bergsonian vitalism, a stance which, he believed, allowed him “to keep [his] feet on the earth—in good Canadian mud—even when indulging the wildest flights of imagination.”
An early Canadian proponent of the “back to the land” movement, a philosophical stance that leads to comparisons with such writers as William Cobbett and McArthur’s own favorite, Henry David Thoreau, McArthur has a love of the land that is reinforced at every turn by pragmatism. Not only could a return to the farm ease the emotional and spiritual encumbrances of modern life, but it was also an efficacious means of guaranteeing all healthy workers a degree of annual selfsubsistence.
On the other hand, McArthur is not one to suggest that all was sweetness and light on his farm; indeed, he frequently sharpens the homespun wisdoms of his farmerphilosopher to a satiric edge. But where such contemporaries as Mark Twain and Stephen Leacock are polished and witty commentators on the spirit of the day (or lack thereof), McArthur is often only unpleasant, his attacks heavyhanded. Moreover, his tendency on such occasions is to abandon the broad base of humanist concerns that characterizes his more successful pieces in order to focus instead on an increasingly familiar set of targets: a centralized banking system and a Bank Act which he saw as a threat to the economic stability of rural communities; the obscurantism of politicians and popular media; the ubiquitous “Big Interests” of commerce and industry; the human and economic costs of war; and the depopulation of farms and threat of an urban imperialism that drew future generations of farmers to lives of quiet desperation in city factories.
Of these so-called social essays, those collected in The Affable Stranger provide the most mature and thorough summary of McArthur’s views. Organized around the trip of the titular “affable stranger,” a man “willing to engage in conversation with any one who is willing to talk,” they provide McArthur the opportunity to examine the various groups and ideologies struggling to gain or regain relevance following World War I, particularly those influencing CanadianAmerican relations. An ardent, yet tolerant and critical nationalist who some contemporary readers saw as excessively left-wing in his politics, McArthur remained wary of the “wild new politics” of communism, which he saw as impractical (“Prince Kropotkin’s Cow”), and socialism, which he called the politics of “the Lotos-Eaters” (“Back to the Primitive”). At the same time he is fearful that any “nation that has been roused to a sense of power by the war will act swiftly and intolerantly without discriminating sufficiently between those who would reform society and those who would wreck it” (“The Elusive Insult”). His overall message in these essays is clear, albeit wishful: by wakening the dormant pioneer spirit of home-building and cooperation, humankind could successfully skirt the multitudinous hazards in its path.
Whether McArthur is recounting the farm escapades of Socrates the ram or railing against what he perceived to be the jingoism of American filmmakers (“Registering Reform,” 1920), his style in almost all his essays is personal. Avoiding for the most part any hint of parochialism, his writing is marked by a genial, self-deprecating humor and reliance on what he purports to be firsthand knowledge and common sense. With an acknowledged “weakness for quotations” and allusion that assumes a literate and wellread audience, he also relies heavily and not so subtly on works of Poe, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Thoreau, various Romantic poets, and the Bible as “an easy way to get out of hammering out phrases and sentences to express ideas” (“Quotations,” 1920). His writing, in this sense, becomes an odd, and at times mismatched, palimpsest of vernacular, historical, biblical, and cultural references which in the aggregate suggest that simplicity, even when associated with the peace and idealism of rural life, is neither simple nor without literary or artistic merit.
To the modern reader, McArthur’s style, though never egregious, appears as his greatest weakness. Burdened by excessive and misplaced colloquialisms, faulty grammar, and meandering paragraphs, individual pieces often lapse into what Brandon Conron (1965) suggests is “sheer carelessness which cannot even be excused as ‘homely charmt.’” Despite these limitations as a stylist, McArthur remains an important contributor to the development of the essay in fin-de-siécle Canada. Part light humorist, part rural nostalgist, and part populist farm advocate, McArthur was, in retrospect, always a sympathetic and articulate interpreter of Canada and the Canadian spirit at the beginning of a new century.


Born 10 March 1866 in Ekfrid Township, near Glencoe, Ontario. Studied at Strathroy Model School, teacher’s certificate, 1887; taught for six months, then studied at the University of Toronto, 1888–89. Reporter, Toronto Mail, 1889–90; freelance journalist, New York, 1890–95, where he met Bliss Carman and the writer and critic Charles G.D.Roberts; editor, Truth, 1895–97. Married Mabel Waters, 1895: four sons and one daughter. Lived in England, 1902–04, writing for Punch and other journals and newspapers. Moved back to New York and briefly opened an advertising agency, 1904.
Returned to Ekfrid family farm, 1909. Wrote for the Toronto Globe, 1909–24, and the Farmer’s Advocate, 1910–22; editor, Ourselves farm magazine, 1910–12. Died in London, Ontario, 28 October 1924.

Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
To Be Taken with Salt: Being an Essay on Teaching One’s Grandmother to Suck Eggs, 1903
In Pastures Green, 1915
The Red Cow and Her Friends, 1919
The Affable Stranger, 1920
Around Home, 1925
Familiar Fields, 1925
Friendly Acres, 1927
The Best of Peter McArthur, edited by Alec Lucas, 1967

Other writings: poetry, fiction, a study of Stephen Leacock (1923), and a biography of Sir Wilfrid Laurier (1919).

Further Reading
Conron, Brandon, “Essays 1880–1920,” in Literary History of Canada: Canadian Literature in English, edited by Carl F.Klinck and others, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976:354–60 (original edition, 1965)
Deacon, William Arthur, Peter McArthur, Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1923
Lucas, Alec, Introduction to The Best of Peter McArthur, Toronto: Clarke Irwin, 1967 Lucas, Alec, Peter McArthur, Boston: Twayne, 1975
McNally, David, “Peter McArthur and Canadian Nationalism,” Ontario History 64, no. 1 (1972):1–10
Watt, F.W., “Peter McArthur and the Agrarian Myth,” Queen’s Quarterly 67, no. 2 (1960):245–57
Wells, Kenneth, Introduction to In Pastures Green by McArthur, Toronto: Dent, 1948

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