02 February 2011

Robert McAlmon's Service to Canada

Recognition of Robert Menzies McAlmon, who died fifty-five years ago today. Though not a Canadian, his contributions to this country's literature were not insignificant. He was an early champion of Morley Callaghan, and more importantly, a great supporter of John Glassco. It was McAlmon who placed Glassco's "Extract from an Autobiography" in the Spring 1929 number of This Quarter, and it was through his encouragement that the Montreal writer returned to print, after a fourteen-year silence, in the pages of The Canadian Forum.

McAlmon had other links to this country. His Irish-born father immigrated to Canada as a youth and eventually married a girl from Chatham, Ontario. They were living in Clifton, Kansas when the future expat was born.

In Memoirs of Montparnasse, Glassco tells us that on the evening he first met McAlmon the writer revealed that he'd deserted the Canadian Army during the Great War. William Carlos Williams reports the same story in his accurately titled The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams. For decades McAlmon scholars took this to be a fanciful fabrication. I did, too... until I found his records while researching A Gentleman of Pleasure.

Should I have been surprised? Perhaps not. After all, McAlmon's fiction relied so very heavily on his life. This, Glassco felt, was the writer's greatest weakness. He once dismissed McAlmon's novels and short stories as "literal transcriptions of things set down simply because they had happened and were vividly recollected. There was neither invention nor subterfuge; when the recollection stopped, so did the story."

McAlmon did have his own champions – Ezra Pound and Kay Boyle come first to mind – but he was never a man who was much read. While his work may be unfamiliar, his influence is evident – not only with Callaghan and Glassco, but in the careers of James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and others who benefitted from his generous spirit.

Unrecognized, neglected and weakened by illness, McAlmon lived his final years in near-poverty. He remains much as he was at death: a forgotten man.

Even a deserter deserves better.

Robert McAlmon
Mariette Mills
c. 1923

Crossposted at A Gentleman of Pleasure.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for giving us the Canadian background of McAlmon whom I was looking for online after reading Pound's reference to him as having inferior American imitators [which I shall be posting on my blog under 'self-publishing' at davuspublishing.com]. I remembered him from Glassco's uncomplimentary description, and, lo and behold you have done a book on Glassco whose seedy side fascinated me when I read Patricia Whitney's "Rapture and Roses of Vice" in Essays on Canadian Writing in 1997. Glassco should attract many readers.