26 June 2009

Galt's Damaged Pastor Novelist

92 Glenmorris Street, Cambridge, Ontario, home of Robert E. Knowles

I spent much of this past Father's Day in Cambridge, that awkward, factitious product of forced amalgamation. It's a city without a centre, dominated by a strip of parasitic plazas, malls and big box retailers. Still, the older areas have retained much of their beauty. The gem remains the weakened downtown of what was once Galt.
Margaret Avison was born here and, as a girl, Mazo de la Roche called it home.

One hundred years ago, Galt's literary community was dominated by Robert E. Knowles, novelist and very popular pastor of Knox's Presbyterian Church. It's said that for a time Knowles' Canadian sales rivaled those of L. M. Montgomery and Ralph Connor. Between 1905 and 1911 the reverend published seven novels, including The Handicap (1910), which I have before me. I confess that I've never made it past the first page:
"An' how far might it be to Liddel's Corners now, boss?"
The man who asked the question seemed very much in earnest about it and his tone. which, by the way, was distinctly Irish, implied that considerable hung upon the answer.
As one sets down the commonplace inquiry after the long lapse of years it certainly sounds insignificant enough. But it was quite a different matter to the rosy-cheeked traveller that frosty winter morning as the heavily-laden stage made its creaking way along the primitive road that led from Hamilton to Glen Ridge.
Nor did the question seem a trifling one to the other occupants of the four-seated sleigh, if quick and eager glances in the direction of the driver may be considered evidences of interest. As a matter of fact, some of them stirred a little in their seats as...
Yes, yes, yes, but how far to Liddel's Corners?

(The answer – nine miles – comes at the end of the third page.)

Thumbing through The Handicap, I see that I may have been too ready to dismiss. 'The Canadian atmosphere gives it a touch of the unusual', says an anonymous 1911 New York Times review, but I see signs of even greater quirkiness.

In the novel's concluding chapters, 'The Right Hon., The Premier' and 'Sir John A.'s Handiwork', none other than John A. Macdonald shows up to save the day.

After The Handicap Knowles wrote only one more novel, The Singer of the Kootenay. Jean O'Grady, who penned Knowles' entry in The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, suggests that alcoholism brought an end to his careers as a novelist and as a minister of the cloth. Not at all fitting for a man who'd previously devoted much energy to the goals of the temperance movement. Knowles spent his later years working as a journalist for the Toronto Daily Star.

Cambridge has honoured Knowles with a spot in its 'Hall of Fame', making much of his work against that old demon alcohol, while carefully avoiding mention of his personal struggles with drink.

The city's large public library system doesn't have a single one of his books.

24 June 2009

A Song for la Fête de la St-Jean

A translation of 'Ô Canada! mon pays! mes amours!', composed by the great George-Étienne Cartier, ninth president of the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste. First sung at a society banquet on la Fête de la St-Jean in 1834 or 1835, this version comes from Songs of French Canada (Toronto: Musson, 1909), selected and arranged by Lawrence J. Burpee. Cartier's words were translated by E. W. Thomson.

Always amusing to consider that Cartier, by far the most accomplished president of the now sovereignist Société, was one of the leading Fathers of Confederation.

Related post: Encore!

23 June 2009

(Probably Not) The David Lewis Centenary

Youngsters David Lewis and A. M. Klein
Recognition today of David Lewis, né Losz, born sometime around one hundred years ago in Svisloch, Russia. The Canadian Encyclopedia has Lewis' date of birth as 23 June 1909, but family biographer Cameron Smith tells us that the happy event likely took place a little over three months later. In his Unfinished Journey: The Lewis Family, Smith writes that 23 June was 'the first date that popped into David's twelve-year-old head' when confronted by a Halifax immigration officer. The Parliament of Canada website provides the same date, without comment, and muddies the water by placing Svisloch in Poland. In fact, the town has been Russian since 1795.
While Lewis isn't thought of as literary figure, he did count a number of writers among his friends. A. M. Klein was a pal from his days at Montreal's Baron Byng High School. Lewis' first book, Make this Your Canada, was co-authored by F. R. Scott. There followed another couple of titles: A Socialist Takes Stock and Louder Voices – the latter introducing the term 'corporate welfare bums', for which he is, perhaps, best remembered. Lewis was working on his biography when he died. What he did manage was published posthumously as The Good Fight: Political Memoirs 1909-1958.

18 June 2009

Maria Monk's Immortal Book

Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk;
or, The Hidden Secrets of a Nun's Life Exposed!
Manchester: Milner & Co., n.d.
192 pages

This review now appears, revised and rewritten, in my new book:
The Dusty Bookcase:
A Journey Through Canada's
Forgotten, Neglected, and Suppressed Writing
Available at the very best bookstores and through

Related posts:

15 June 2009

A Garneau Bicentenary

Not many of our writers have been honoured with a statue, and the finest by far is that of François-Xavier Garneau, born 200 years ago today in Quebec City. Poet, journalist, translator, notary, civil servant and bank clerk, he is best-remembered for the multi-volume Histoire du Canada depuis sa découverte jusqu'à nos jours (1845-48). The work established Garneau as French Canada's historien national and continues to influence. Not so his verse, written under the influence of French classicism. In this case, too, reading rewards the reader.

And so, with summer approaching, some sentiments on a season long past.


Voila l'été qui fuit et la feuille qui tombe
Pâle et morte sur les gazons.
Le vent du nord mugit, la fleur des champs succombe,
L'écho se tait dans les vallons.
Déjà les bois ont perdu leur feuillage;
Vers la chaumière accourent les troupeaux,
Car ils ont vu l'hiver sur les nuages,
Et le grésil bondir sur les côteaux.

Adieu, charmants oiseaux, habitants des bocages,
Allez vers de plus doux climats.
Puissé-je comme vous fuir le temps des orages,
Et de l'été suivre les pas!...
Mais ils sont loin, — leur suave murmure
A déserté les hameaux de nos bords;
Seul l'autan mêle au deuil de la nature
Dans nos vallons de sauvages accords.

Là-bas, à l'horizon, connue un fantôme immense
L'hiver semble couvrir les cieux;
Le vent devant son front roule avec violence
Les flots épars de ses cheveux;
De longs glaçons pendent à ses paupières;
Dans les airs bat sa robe de frimas;
Le jour pâlit sous ses regards sévères,
Et la tempête enveloppe ses pas.

Sonne, lyre fidèle, à mon âme isolée,
Chante le deuil de nos climats.
Vois de l'orme orgueilleux la tête mutilée
Qui se penche sous les verglas.
Dans l'air glacé, d'un vol lent et sinistre,
Le hibou blanc erre de toits en toits,
Et, de l'hiver officieux ministre.
Il remplit l'air de sa funèbre voix.

Les flots ont disparu; partout la terre blanche
Entoure les sombres forêts;
Du sapin, vers le sol, bas s'incline la branche
Que chargent des frimas épais.
Là, la fumée en rapides nuages
S'élève et fuit au-dessus des hameaux.
Tandis qu'ici de pesants attelages
A petits pas font gémir les côteaux.

Dans le fourneau de fonte, au sein de la chaumière,
Bourdonne l'érable des monts;
Les airs sont obscurcis par la neige légère
Qui glisse et monte en tourbillons;
Et le toit crie, et puis dans la fenêtre
Le grésil vient sans cesse pétiller...
Mais le vent tombe, et sur le toit champêtre
L'astre des nuits se lève et va briller.

En quel autre climat la reine du silence
Montre-t-elle plus de splendeur ?
Que j'aime, ô Canada, la nuit, ta plaine immense
Resplendissante de blancheur!
L'étoile aussi semble embi-aser les ondes;
Comme un géant, l'arbre est seul dans les champs;
Non... pas un bruit dans les forêts profondes;
Le calme est vaste et les cieux rayonnants.

Et peut-être, pourtant, dans cette nuit si belle,
Un voyageur las et glacé.
Égaré sur sa route, et s'arrête et chancelle:
À ses yeux tout semble effacé.
Un doux sommeil, trahissant sa faiblesse,
Vient s'emparer lentement de ses sens,
Sommeil fatal dont la perfide ivresse
Dans le plaisir rompt le fil de ses ans.

12 June 2009

Bizarre Love Triangle

The Story of Louis Riel, the Rebel Chief
[J. E. Collins]
Toronto: Rose, 1885

Instant books, those slapdash things designed to capitalize on death and doom, nearly always raise a sneer. Still, I can't help but admire the industry involved. To go from standing start to published volume in nineteen days, as did the team behind 9/11 8:48 AM: Documenting America's Greatest Tragedy, demonstrates such energy and determination. Of course, the 9/11 8:48 AM folks, whose book was spewed forth by POD publisher BookSurge, had the advantage of 21st-century technology. Not so this relic from the days of stereotypes, electrotypes and composing rooms.

Transplanted Newfoundlander J. E. Collins wrote The Story of Louis Riel, the Rebel Chief in the spring of 1885, while the North-West Rebellion was being fought. In fact, he laid down his pen sometime in those few days between the Battle of Batoche and Riel's surrender on 15 May. The finished product, 176 pages in total, was available for purchase well before the start of the Métis leader's trial in late July.

How did they do it?

Collins does his part through overwrought prose, evident the the first sentence: 'Along the banks of the Red River, over those fruitful plains brightened with wild flowers in summer, and swept with fierce storms in winter-time, is written the life story of Louis Riel.'

Yes, look to the banks of the Red River because you'll find little of the Métis leader's life in this book. Collins fabricates events, characters and dialogue, creating a world that will seem to students of Canadian history like something from an alternate universe. Key is the relationship between Riel and Thomas Scott, the Orangeman executed during the Red River Rebellion. Collins portrays this unstable, violent eristic as a likable fellow, a whistler, with 'a very merry twinkle in his eye'. In this account, the true nature of the conflict between the two men has less to do with the future Red River Colony than it does with a beautiful Métis maiden named Marie. Her preference for the goodnatured adventurer over the uncouth Riel seals Scott's fate.

While historians refer to The Story of Louis Riel, the Rebel Chief as fiction, it wasn't always accepted as such. Blame falls squarely on the author, who pads the book with footnotes, including Riel's 'Proclamation to the People of the North-West' and Bill of Rights, lengthy excerpts from Alexander Begg's The Creation of Manitoba (identified incorrectly as 'History of the North-West Rebellion') and a comprehensive list of the non-Métis who had lost their lives or had been wounded in the conflict.

The Rose Publishing Company provided further padding with a dozen or so etchings. Only a handful have any relevance to the text – in fact, Riel appears in only one. Though captioned 'REBELS [sic] ATTACKING MAJOR BOULTON'S SCOUTS', a reference to the shared fate of men under the command of Charles A. Boulton, the final image has nothing at all to do with the Rebellion and everything to do with trouble in the republic to the south.

Collins later wrote that The Story of Louis Riel, the Rebel Chief held 'no historic truth', and that he chose to leave his name off the book because he was 'unwilling to take responsibility for the literary slovenliness.' Yet, the author demonstrated no hesitation in appending his monicker to his next book, Annette, the Metis Spy: A Heroine of the N. W. Rebellion (1886) Here Collins not only repeats the plot device that has Riel and Scott as romantic rivals, but lifts whole sections from his previous work. Of this second kick at the can, Collins writes, 'I present some fiction in my story, and a large array of fact. I do not feel bound, however, to state which is the fact, and which is the fiction.'

Trivia: It is said that after Collins' death from drink at age 36, he maintained contact with his mentor Sir Charles G. D. Roberts through the aid of mediums.

Object (and a curious link): Issued in dark green cloth, sans dustjacket, the first edition was published by the Rose Publishing Company, a wing of Toronto printers and bookbinders Hunter-Rose and Company. After Riel's 16 November execution, Collins' work was reissued to include 'The Trial and Execution of Louis Riel', a 16-page Appendix. Though this second edition was also printed by Hunter-Rose, the book bears the imprint of J. S. Robertson. The new publisher not only knew Riel, but as a journalist had been imprisoned by the Métis leader during the Red River Rebellion. Labeled a 'dangerous character', Robertson was later forced to leave the settlement; not that this prevented him from reporting on the rebellion for Toronto's Daily Telegraph.

Access: Our larger public libraries have copies of one edition or another, invariably housed in their history sections. The Rose first is scarce; even Fair copies sell for over C$300. The Robertson edition, with Appendix, can often be found for much less than half the price. In 1970, it was reproduced – in cloth and paper – as part of the Coles Canadiana Collection. Both can be had for under C$30. Coles reissued the work again in 1979 – this time in paper only – with a historically inaccurate cover that offends the eye.

09 June 2009

Queen Remembers Forgotten Book

Much ado this morning over Suzanna, a yellow Labrador retriever the Queen has given the RCMP. According to the Globe and Mail, Elizabeth II was inspired to name the dog after Muriel Denison's children's book Susannah of the Mounties. No explanation for the spelling discrepancy. I'm willing to wager a small sum that no one at Buckingham Palace thought to check.

That our monarch was familiar with the novel is not surprising, Muriel Denison (1885-1954) was hugely popular in her youth. Susannah of the Mounties first published in 1936, the year of Elizabeth's tenth birthday – went through numerous editions, and was translated into French, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish. In 1939, Shirley Temple and Randolph Scott starred in a screen adaptation. As might be expected, the book spawned several sequels: Susannah of the Yukon (1937), Susannah at Boarding School (1938) and Susannah Rides Again (1940). Not one is currently in print. The most recent edition of any Denison title – predictably, Susannah of the Mounties – was published in 1976 by Collins.

The Queen is not alone in remembering Denison's writing fondly. Timothy Findley wrote that as a boy he 'feasted' on Denison, Ernest Thompson Seton and Charles G.D. Roberts. Can't say I shared the same taste, though I do recall watching Susannah of the Mounties on television one snowy Saturday afternoon. I leave you with this small appetizer:

05 June 2009

News Stand Library Cover Cavalcade

As patrons flock to SoHo's Openhouse Gallery to take in cutting edge art commissioned by Harlequin Enterprises, thoughts turn to News Stand Library. The publisher's early rival, New Stand was much more willing to use sex and scandal to sell its wares. In nearly every way, their books were cheaper, nastier and inferior. It makes perfect sense that Harlequin published Brian Moore's first book, while Hugh Garner's second, the pseudonymous Waste No Tears, came from News Stand. And yet, the two competitors did share a few writers, including prolific pulpist Thomas P. Kelley.

The most valuable of all New Stand titles, Kelley's The Gorilla's Daughter – ' OFFSPRING of MAID and MONSTER' – cannot be had in any condition for under C$400. Its cover is more polished than most; a typical example of the publisher's look would be that found on the author's Jesse James: His Life and Death.

The type is ugly and in places difficult to read. Note that the author's name is misspelt, an error found time and again on News Stand covers. Here we have Bentz Plagemann , author of Each Night a Black Desire, identified as Bentz Plageman.

By my count, a dozen covers suffer similar mistakes. Niel H. Perrin is Neil H. Perrin, Murry Leinster is Murray Leinster and Ursula Parrot is good time gal Ursula Parrott. The cover of Alan Marston's Strange Desire reads 'Strange Desires by Alan Malston'.

Other blunders are more curious, and may reveal the true names behind pseudonyms. Just who wrote Private Performance the Glen Watkins on the cover or the Eliot Brewster credited on the title page? Perhaps the most amusing error is found on the cover of Terry Lindsay's Queen of Tarts, which has the title as 'Quean of Tarts'.

In keeping with the previous post, here are my three all-time favourite News Stand covers. A couple appear to use work produced in a high school art class, but what I find most appealing are the pitch lines above each title. 'Never Will HELL Admit a Gayer Sinner than Laura Warren' reads the first – printed on the cover of a book written by... Laura Warren. An unforgiving editor, perhaps?