In Defense of Forgotten Canadian Novelists
“Remembering Ralph Conner”
Commentator 14/7-8 July-August 1970.
A few weeks ago, I visited Winnipeg. It was not for the first time: I had driven past the city once before on my way along the Trans-Canada highway, and had explored Portage Avenue in search of a restaurant. And another time, I passed through the CPR’s Canadian, and stopped long into to peer into the old, derelict CPR hotel. This time, I flew in and stayed for a few days; and while there, I picked up the centennial issue of Mosaic which sums up a hundred years of Manitoba’s literary environment.
Mosaic is a quarterly established three years ago at the University of Manitoba. I am not one of its most faithful readers. University quarterlies were better 10 years ago, when there were fewer of them. Yet, the Manitoba Centennial issue of Mosaic should win some subscribers for the journal. It is well-designed, and contains an impressive roster of authors, all of whom have had something to do with Manitoba, whether by arranging to be born there, or by living there for a few, presumably formative, years.
One essay in the collection stood out. I had, I should explain, started at the beginning of the issue, as I generally do, and had read a brief, fascinating account of growing up on a Manitoba far by W. L. Morton, distinguished professor of Canadian history now at Trent University [in Peterborough] but formerly at the University of Manitoba. Essay number two was ‘Ralph Connor and the New Generation” by the present managing editor of the Brandon Sun, who, as it happens, is Ralph Connor’s --that is, Rev. Charles W. Gordon’s grandson, Charles Gordon. In the early years of the last century, Ralph Connor was probably Canada’s best-known author. Yet the tone of Gordon’s essay is defensive. He seems to think that his grandfather’s reputation needs defending from modern critics. That surprised me a little.
For, when I grew up on an Ontario farm and started school at the end of the Great Depression, the little library at our one-room school had a fair representation of Ralph Connor’s books on it shelves. There were also a number of tattered Connor volumes at home. I learned most of what I knew about the early Scottish settlements in Ontario from Glengarry School Days, and The Man from Glengarry. I went through the War of 1812 with Ralph Connor’s The Runner, which still turns up in second-hand bookstores. It was some years before I ceased seeing the Canadian west in terms of The Patrol of the Sundance Trail, or Corporal Cameron. Connor’s Canadian west antedated the west of the oil sands, potash and acres of wheat.
And while I was at it, I also read Jalna, by Mazo de la Roche, and Mabel Dunham’s The Trail of the Conestoga and Towards Sodom, and Marion Keith and Arthur Stringer. Thank Heaven I read them before I went to university; otherwise I would have learned that they were not worth reading, and I should have denied myself a great deal of pleasure.
Ralph Connor’s grandson makes one significant point in his essay, which he titles ‘Ralph Connor and the New Generation.” Open a volume of Ralph Connor, as I did a few years ago when I re-read The Man from Glengarry, now in McClelland and Stewart’s “New Canadian Library” series, and you become aware, not of a mere generation gap, but of a great gulf between the present, and Connor’s world. What separates us is mainly a matter of style. Style is the ephemeral medium which a writer must use to communicate, and unless he has the luck to have his novel prescribed as recommended reading in grade school, his style will date him within a decade or two. Connor’s style had dated him into oblivion.
Yet a good story dating to before WW II is still a good story. A competent script writer could still produce a fine TV special from Glengarry School Days. I suspect that somewhere, in the remote corners of Canada, Ralph Connor still has a few aficionados.