Douglas Gibson on Hugh MacLennan

Hugh MacLennan, author of Two Solitudes, passed away in 1990. To represent him during this year's Canada Reads experience, we asked his friend and editor, Douglas Gibson. Gibson was MacLennan's friend first: the two met at their respective cottages in North Hatley, Quebec. He then became his editor and, later, his anthologist. 

In 2011, Gibson became an author himself. His book, Stories About Storytellers is about his experience editing Canada's greatest writers, including Stephen Leacock, Robertson Davies, Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro. The book's longest chapter is about Hugh MacLennan and we are proud to bring you an excerpt, which you can read below.

Jay Baruchel is defending Two Solitudes during the Canada Reads debates February 11-14.

Stories About Storytellers

By Douglas Gibson


One of the things I liked best about Hugh MacLennan -- and there were many things to like -- was his easy democratic touch. He loved to tell the story from his earliest days about his household in Cape Breton being wakened by a crowd of men fresh from an altercation. When his doctor father threw up the window to make enquiries, a voice floated up. "We're sorry to disturb you, Doctor, but the gentleman I was fighting with has bitten off my nose!" (I once told that story in Alistair MacLeod's presence, and Alistair -- a proud son of Cape Breton -- was not pleased. I hope he'll forgive this repetition, with its marvellous use of the courteous "gentleman," which Robert Louis Stevenson's Alan Breck would have understood completely, and which Hugh relished.)

He liked and respected real, live ordinary people, disliking, by contrast, the "red tabs and red officer faces" he mentions in Two Solitudes. In his essay "An Orange from Portugal," he writes affectionately about Halifax in his youth. "In the old days in Halifax we never thought about the meaning of the word democracy: we were all mixed up together in a general deplorability." The essay "Einstein and the Bootleggers" gives us an intriguing look at Hugh and that "general deplorability."

Any Princeton graduate student with half a brain would have eagerly collected stories about Einstein on the campus -- but how many of them would have hung around with bootleggers? "In those days," Hugh says, "some of my best friends were ex-bootleggers," and we learn that these were real, very tough characters who had used baseball bats for other than sporting purposes and had done time in jail. They send an intruding truck driver on his way with threats because he was rash enough to sneer at Einstein, who was, after all, their genius.

But let's go back to the basic facts about Hugh MacLennan. He was born in 1907 in Glace Bay, a mining town in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and his family soon moved to the province's capital, Halifax. He studied Classics at Dalhousie and went on to win a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. His father, a hard-working doctor, made sure that he was indoctrinated with Calvinist Scottish values, greeting the scholarship news (which might have led to unseemly celebration in the snow) with the words, "Go and shovel the walk, Hugh. It badly needs it." Doctor Sam, by the way, had earlier gained fame in the local paper by provoking the headline "Doctor Hunts Gas Leak With Burning Match -- Finds It!"

After Oxford, Hugh got his Ph.D. at Princeton, where he once came across Albert Einstein gazing at a snowball in his hands with total fascination, and once (as I've just mentioned) found him blundering into a bootlegger's café, to be protectively treated there. Hugh came back to Canada in 1935, at the height of the Depression. Unable to get a university job, he took one at the private boys' school, Lower Canada College, in Montreal. There he was a notable teacher. One boy, later a distinguished MP, told me that he was summoned to the headmaster's study and briskly informed that his mother had just died. Released into the school corridor, he stood there blinking in shock, until one of his teachers, Hugh MacLennan, came up, threw his arms around him, and held him fast, while the macho crowds flowed around them, gaping.

In 1951, by then an acclaimed author, he accepted a position in the Department of English at McGill University. The salary was so low that, in the telling phrase of his biographer, Elspeth Cameron, "Even his publishers were horrified."

Money was a problem. His first wife, Dorothy Duncan, was stricken by a series of embolisms, and in those days medical care in Canada was ruinously expensive. So Hugh not only taught and wrote books, he took on regular magazine writing assignments, amassing more than 400 essays over the years, and winning two Governor General's Awards for his essay collections, in addition to his three fiction prizes. After three decades, he left McGill, the university botching his departure so badly that alumni were enraged. Hugh, of course, refused to make a fuss, despite my urging, and moved out of his urgently required McGill office. Thanks to the intervention of Graham Fraser, the son of a North Hatley friend, a rival university, Concordia, was able to supply him with an office, but his heart wasn't in it.

He lived quietly at home with his second wife, Tota, spending their summers in North Hatley. He died in 1990. I was informed of his death by the wonderful Doris Giller -- after whom the famous literary prize is named. She was at the time a journalist, on deadline, phoning for the Toronto Star, but was so aware of my affection for Hugh that she offered to give me half an hour to compose myself for the necessary interview about Hugh's career. As for that career, the five Governor General's Awards speak for themselves, as do the nineteen honorary degrees he earned during his lifetime. As an article in the National Post put it in 2009, he was Canada's "first world-class writer."

North Hatley, of course, is where I first met him. It is only vaguely disguised as Ste. Elizabeth ("for the purpose of non-identification") in Hugh's essay "Everyone Knows the Rules." There he summed it up as "a place where everyone loves everyone else. We play tennis and sail together and sit on verandas and are wise about the affairs of the world." It is also the setting of one of Hugh's best essays, "Confessions of a Wood-Chopping Man," which, with its obvious love of the Eastern Townships landscape, is still infectiously good reading. At the cottage Hugh was at his relaxed best, and I got to know him in the round of cocktail parties and visits for drinks and/or dinner that mark the end of a well-spent August day.

I can report that he was a charming guest -- in a brief encounter he looked like a gentler version of the British actor Trevor Howard -- and was interested in everyone, courteous in a slightly formal way, and always willing to discuss any point raised, whether it was the fortunes of the Athenians, the Jacobites, the local tennis champion, the Liberals in Ottawa, the Vietnamese, the Book of the Month Club, or the Montreal Canadiens. In his elder-statesman role he was willing to hold the conversational floor and become the centre of attention if that was appropriate. But -- and here he differs noticeably from some other authors I have known -- he was quite happy to lapse back into the audience while someone else held centre stage.

He was a courteous host -- although one not totally at ease with infants and small children, who were the realm of his wife, Tota -- and adult encounters worked better at his cottage than those where crayons were involved. But at that first honeymoon dinner party chez MacLennan and over the years, at lunches or dinners or other events in North Hatley, Montreal, or Toronto, I always found him to be very good company and enjoyed his Halifax-Oxford drawl, his mischievous smiles, and his emphatic bursts of laughter.

He was regarded with affection and pride in North Hatley, which was a place of more than average literary accomplishment. People like Frank Scott, Blair Fraser -- and now Graham Fraser and the elegant columnist Norman Webster -- were to be found there in the summer. (Four-year-old Graham Fraser was so impressed by the tall legal scholar/poet Frank Scott falling splashingly out of a canoe at the dock that he clamoured admiringly, "Do it again, Mr. Scott, do it again!") Ralph Gustafson, Ronald Sutherland, Douglas Jones, Alison Pick, and other literati have also graced the little town.

Local legend has it that Hugh was a highly competitive tennis player (he won the Nova Scotia doubles title in his youth) but one constantly afflicted -- sometimes to a slightly amusing extent -- by aches and pains that prevented his game from ever quite reaching its zenith. And certainly in his later years, friends found that enquiries about the state of his health were not to be casually made.

He was a kind and caring man, of course. I once saw him break into a run -- in his late sixties -- as he rushed off to give assistance on hearing that an elderly friend had just suffered a heart attack at the tennis court. I have mentioned, too, the incident from his days as a teacher at Lower Canada College when his instinctive kindness helped a boy in trouble. The reader will not be surprised to learn that that particular boy grew up to keep a watchful and helpful eye on Hugh and his wife in their last difficult days.

They were difficult days, too, since our society is not good at looking after an old, very proud couple like the MacLennans. In the last few years of his life, Hugh's activities were severely circumscribed by the fact that his beloved wife was almost bedridden. Hugh faithfully -- though somewhat inexpertly, since he was a man of his generation -- looked after her and ran the household, doing the shopping and the cooking, which took up most of his day and caused friends to be concerned about their diet.

In the summer of 1990, just before what proved to be my last visit to their apartment on Summerhill Avenue, a pleasant walk from the McGill campus, I stressed on the phone from Toronto that I wanted to take them out for a really fine dinner. Yet when I reached the apartment and indicated that all of Montreal was our oyster -- the Ritz, perhaps, or somewhere in Old Montreal? -- discussion revealed that the place they really preferred for dinner, the culinary pinnacle, as it were, was Ben's Delicatessen, "Home of the Best Montreal Smoked Meats." Yes, Ben's brightly lit café on De Maisonneuve, which famously had fed lines of hungry men each day during the ten lost years of the Depression. So to Ben's we went. But not before I had been forced to stop Hugh, who was then very frail, from courteously hastening off to hail us a cab on Côte-des-Neiges. I finally managed to persuade him that I needed the walk -- and at that point honour was satisfied, and I was permitted to go out and get the cab.

He was a great gentleman, a dignified man for whom the word "courtly" might have been invented, yet he was far from stuffy. His conversation was frequently uproariously funny, sometimes bawdily so. That earthy humour rarely finds its way into his writing, although I proudly included in the anthology Hugh MacLennan's Best the story of the buxom Cape Breton lady teacher unwise enough to ask a small boy trying to define "quadruped," "What have I got two of that a cow has four of?" The plainspoken boy obviously came from a dairy farming background. We can imagine the nickname young Neilly bore to the end of his Cape Breton days.

But MacLennan's gift in conversation was genuine wit -- pointed, clever, perfect. Three examples. In the sixties his student, then friend, young Leonard Cohen explained to Hugh the importance that he and his generation ascribed to enjoying every possible sexual opportunity that offered itself. "Leonard," said Hugh, "you're no different from a girl back home in Nova Scotia. She was called 'Anytime Annie.'" Leonard, of course, did not take Hugh's abstemious advice, to the relief of many ladies, going down though the years. Once, in a discussion about the latest tragic outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland, he said to me, "Of course you must understand, Douglas, that the trouble there is caused by the fact that the population of Ulster is split between two religions -- [long pause] -- anti-Protestantism and anti-Catholicism."

And let me quote another flash of wit, not his, but retold by him with what I might call adoptive delight. The not altogether popular principal of McGill, Cyril James, once happened upon a group of four deans lunching at the Faculty Club. "Aha," he said, "the proper collective noun for such a group would perhaps be 'a dread of deans.'"

"And for you, I suppose," shot back a dean, "it would be 'a lack of principals.'" His stories -- and he was full of stories -- revolved around characters he had known. He loved unusual characters and enjoyed meeting and chatting with them. He made slow progress along the street at North Hatley towards the post office, or along Sherbrooke on his way to and from McGill, as he encountered acquaintances of all sorts, and of all collar colours, and stopped to chat with them.

I never knew him as a teacher, but I know the type of teacher he must have been. The same well-stocked, allusive mind that saw connections everywhere and made him a great essayist -- from Captain Bligh to Albert Schweitzer in two easy moves -- must have made him a good, challenging, and thought-provoking teacher for bright kids. It must also have made him the despair of lesser lights, who expected the course to follow the outline, for God's sake, and failed to see what on earth the Mafia in Montreal could possibly have to do with Robert Browning. And Leonard Cohen, a great admirer, once told me of Hugh becoming so moved as he tried to describe the depth of James Joyce's loneliness in exile that he stood lost in tears, while the awestruck class filed silently out of the room.

Excerpted from Stories About Storytellers by Douglas Gibson. Copyright Douglas Gibson, 2011. Reprinted with permission of ECW Press.

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