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.


  1. I'm a public library librarian. I weed. I can offer a couple of suggestions explaining the absence of a local author's books from the local public library. The first and most obvious is that books wear out, get old and die, just like a lot of other things do. This happens especially fast with modern books, and once out-of-print they are not replaceable. There is also the Plague of public libraries to consider. Books go missing: lost (by patrons), lost (by staff), lost (by miss-shelving); they run away from home, they dematerialize, they commit suicide. Once again, if the title is out-of-print, it is not replaceable.

    1. Nonsense. And it is so very odd that you would write that "modern" books, that are often print-on-demand, are irreplaceable.

      My local library has culled almost all its reference and nonfiction section, even as they remained vital as source materials. The patron-blame game just doesn't cut it.

      Anonymous Jane.

    2. I side with you, Anon Jane. Books do go missing, but the suggestion that out-of-print titles are not replaceable is simply incorrect; the worst that can be said is that some are more difficult to replace than others. Very good, solid copies of Reverend Knowles' books are easily found for sale at modest prices, as the laziest of google searches will confirm. I come across his titles nearly every month when visiting local used bookstores - (and having acquired a complete set, I'm not even looking). In fact, I've seen them sold - cheap - at more than one stall in Cambridge's Southworks Antiques mall. Further to your observation about print-on-demand, Jane, all but one Knowles title is in the public domain.

      I agree, putting this on the patron doesn't cut it. What's more, I suspect purging is more to blame. Is it not unusual that not one of Knowles' eight books has survived?

  2. I'm also a librarian, albeit at a university. Libraries have a purchasing budget to work with. Ours is limited, and we also have to balance that with subscription costs for databases. We buy books that are in demand, and if/when we replace books it's because they get high circulation. If you are so adamant that this book be in your local public library, why don't you donate a copy in good condition with a letter explaining why you think it makes a good addition to the collection?

    1. Having served on a library board, I'm all too familiar with limitations imposed by budgets and space. The latter is the reason our small town library discarded its Graham Greene collection some ten years ago. That said, I would think that novels written by one of Cambridge's most famous residents - one who achieved great sales and notice internationally and was a significant leader within the community - would have been seen as essential to the collection, regardless of circulation. I'm not adamant that this book be in my local library, which is eighty kilometres outside Cambridge, but I do think that the Cambridge Public Library should have it and his other novels. Your suggestion of donating a good one. I did just just that with William Arthur Deacon's The Four Jameses, which holds relevance to our own town.

  3. It's also a matter of use. We recently added a huge donation of books because one of our librarians wanted them added. But, aside from maybe fulfilling a few worn books and maybe going out through interlibrary loan, the majority will sit on the shelf for years with no use. As an academic library, we do hold more and retain more than a public library, but as years go by, our space gets smaller, and the needs of the students and professors change. Graham Greene might have been important for some classes years ago, but he's not being used in any classes here. The title you site above might be a good book, a classic, or something worth having - to you - but to a library looking to increase their circulation, the majority of users are not going to use or even look at that book. Libraries of all kinds have to judge whether or not their focus audience will use the material, if not, it's a costly purchase given the time procuring the material, processing the material, and taking care of the material.

    1. I disagree that it's a matter of use. Robert E. Knowles was a man of great significance in Galt's early history. Living in a community numbering in the hundreds, his novels achieved international recognition, praise, and sales. As a man of the cloth, he was sought out as a speaker in both this country, the republic to the south, and overseas.

      Knowles' books take up eight inches of shelf space at best, which is hardly a burden to any library. The title I cite, The Handicap, is not a classic, but it was a best seller. It should be held in a public library serving the community it depicts.

      True, the majority of users are not going to use or even look at "that book," but the same can be said for every volume held by every library. The Handicap is not costly. Procuring a copy is a matter of a few key strokes.

      Here, I encourage.