The Young Turks: A Biographer's Comment

By Patricia Morley

Arthur Smith, Frank Scott and Leo Kennedy were Canada's tangry young men' in the 1920's.  At the time, they knew very little of Canadian poetry prior to 1925, if their 1970's confessions are to be believed: "We despised them unbeknownst, and you can quote me," is Leo Kennedy's gleeful comment.1  The group disliked, with all the enthusiasm and intolerance of youth, contemporary imitators of the nineteenth-century poetic tradition.  They were avid, intellectual, ambitious — eager to carve out their own place in the sun.  Literary criticism written by the Montreal group between 1925 and 1930 should be read as the work of young radicals who were reacting to a poetic establishment perceived as decadent and who were plotting a coup d'état against the Philistines under the banners of T.S. Eliot and modernity.

     One look at a contemporary photograph of Charles G.D. Roberts, then in his mid-sixties, goes far to explain their opposition to the poetic ideals he embodied.  Picture a dark, three-piece suit, a monacle complete with black ribbon, a haughty expression and an Establishment air.  Any young intellectual would hate his guts on sight.  Their uniform offered a nice contrast.  Again, I quote Leo Kennedy: "We all dressed alike, the young bucks of those days — corduroy-collared yellow slicker, right to your heels.  Everyone wrote on everyone's slicker, like casts today.   They were very cheap, about two dollars."2 More recently, in response to a question on H.L. Mencken's influence, Kennedy added that affluent students wore racoon coats; the rest, yellow slickers.  A pork pie hat, with the front brim turned down, went with the coat, but it was a point of pride to be hatless with a slicker, rain or shine.  A copy of The American Mercury sticking out of one's pocket was the sign of the intellectual and completed the uniform.3

     Mencken's iconoclastic style suited the Young Turks perfectly and was a major influence on their prose style in the twenties.4  Publisher Louis Schwartz, in the only piece he contributed to The McGill Fortnightly Review, calls Mencken "the creator of a new sort of writing. . . Americanese of a racy bumptiousness so vivacious and interesting that he is eagerly followed by a large number of people. . . . Mencken is essentially a young man's critic, violent and destructive."5  It is unfortunate that some of the wittier attacks on Canadian literature by Smith, Kennedy et al have been received, a generation and two generations later, for their content rather than their style.  Such remarks would include Smith's slam at Canadian poets, "whose works are to be bought from the same patriotic motive that prompts the purchaser of Eddy's matches or a Massey Harris farm implement and read along with Ralph Connor and Eaton's catalogue";6 and the following diatribe by Kennedy:

In our gum-shoeing among the possible causes of the great Canadian calamity — the dearth of inspired and intelligent authorship — we are brought back again and again, by one path or another, to the Canadian Authors' Association.  They have foisted themselves on the local public creating a market at home for their product, and from their Philistine entrenchment direct their Canadian Books Weeks — one with Fish Week Music Week, and Mother's Day — their Afternoon Teas, their Inspired Committees formed for the reception of lecturing English and United States literati, and similar happy diversions.  All to their profit and self-gratification, no doubt, but scarcely likely to benefit our purely hypothetical literature.7

In the same article, Kennedy notes that action must be taken against the Philistines and proclaims: "that action is ridicule."   The Montrealers had learned their lesson well from "the half-fabulous Antichrist of Baltimore."8

     Schwartz' description of Mencken as a young man's critic is significant.  Kennedy, in his Canadian Mercury article of 1929, makes frequent references to youth, in a way that might remind those of us who survived the 'sixties of a maxim then current: 'Don't trust anyone over thirty.'   Despite the ironic fact that Mencken himself was then in his late forties, Kennedy sees the opposition as greybeards.  He calls the Canadian Authors' Association "that pillar of flim-flam, a stumbling block over which the aspiring younger Canadian writer must first climb before approaching his local Parnassus."9  Rather Victorian language and imagery, that.  Kennedy sees "restless, dissatisfied and on the whole, sceptical young people" as the hope for Canadian literature.  And a paragraph on influences begins, "Having as yet no worthwhile tradition of their own, the young men are inclined, and wisely, to look abroad for that which will influence them."10 Influences acknowledged by Kennedy include Sherwood Anderson, Lawrence, Willa Cather (on style); Wyndham Lewis, T.S. Eliot and Barbusse (on thought).  There is no reference here to Mencken, yet every paragraph betrays his influence on the Montrealer's prose style.  Chesterton was also omitted from this list, yet his "philosophy of laughter" was a major influence on Kennedy.  "There is so little sanity in solemnity," Leo writes in praise of Chesterton, "only God can be solemn."11

     Smith's famous piece in the Canadian Forum in 1928 is good debating rhetoric, in the manner of Mencken.   Thrust and parry, ridicule rather than the intellectual analysis he pretends to favour, are the critic's chosen weapons.  Smith is the young general, skilfully deploying his troups after a few unsuccessful encounters: "So far, it is true, literature as an art has fought a losing battle with commerce, but the campaign has barely begun.  Reinforcements are on the way."12  Previously, Smith acknowledges "little skirmishes, heroic single stands, but no concerted action." The military metaphor runs throughout the piece, with Smith as the "critic-militant" or "crusader."   Smith's opponents, in this "fight for freedom," are represented by the members of the Canadian Authors' Association and by those who confuse patriotism and the cliches of a national geography with good writing.  Smith's witty put-downs of "the far north and the wild west and the picturesque east" ignore the very real political, economic and demographic forces in Canada which hampered the development of our literary culture.

     In his last paragraph, Smith suggests that the "philosophical critic" (implicitly, himself) will have to examine the fundamental position of the artist in a new community, and the influence upon the Canadian writer of his position in time and space.  The latter requirement, curiously, is immediately refuted by the charge that Canadian poetry is far too self-conscious of its position in space "and scarcely conscious at all of its position in time."  Some of Smith's literary criticism is keenly analytical, but he never outgrew his early training in the New Critical gospel of Art as divorced from place and time, 'international' in themes and standards.  The single quotes reflect my own conviction that such a goal, such standards, are illusory.  Like Margaret Laurence and Peter Such, I find that " 'International art' . . . means the cultural forms of the dominant imperial cultures of the times."13

     Kennedy, conversely, was aware of regional forces as being significant in literature.  His 1929 call to arms concludes with the expectation that "these younger Canadians" in whom he hopes will "write each of the soul and scene of his own community. . . .  Only a Canadian Whitman, and by that I mean a man of his genius and spiritual breadth, will correctly interpret the whole Canadian consciousness."14  Smith's "Rejected Preface to New Prouinces (1936)" sounds the New Critical call for "pure poetry," a phantasm presumed to exist "as a thing in itself," and the Archibald MacLeish dictum, "A poem should not mean but be."15   Smith's famous separation of literature into cosmopolitan and provincial stems, of course, from the same roots.  He concludes an article on contemporary poetry in The McGill Fortnightly Review (15 December, 1926) with the mock-rueful exclamation, "we are become, God help us! — by natural right, a member of that despised sect — the Aesthetes."

     Victorian was a dirty word to the Young Turks, and a favorite target.  It conjured up visions of their antagonists in three-piece suits, with dictionaries of Greek mythologies under their arms, hopelessly mired in sexual and cultural taboos.  Kennedy speaks of the least attractive aspects of Victorianism holding Canadian writers by the gullet:

There was nothing particularly wrong with Victorian English beyond that it took literary giants to write in it enduringly, but even the English have put it by for good.  The Victorian tradition was transplanted here in the flower of its youth, and has by now outgrown its usefulness.  This is a reality of which the majority of Canadian Authors of any merit are tragically unaware.16

Leon Edel recalls the group's delight "in needling the stuffed shirts, the Victorians." Smith contrasts the vagueness and verbosity he sees in "most poetry of the Victorian period" with the simplicity and sincerity of his ideal moderns.17   Actually, one would look far to find a greater simplicity and sincerity than in many of the sonnets written by Lampman and Roberts in the nineteenth century.  But the Young Turks judged by what they saw in anthologies such as J.W. Garvin's Canadian Poets and Poetry (1916), in its 1926 revised edition.  A look into some of Garvin's bathetic selections quickly moves one into the Young Turks' camp. At least temporarily.

     Philistine was their favorite pejorative after Victorian, and was synonymous with the efforts of their dear enemy, the Canadian Authors' Association.  The Editorial of the second issue of their radical new journal, The McGill Fortnightly Review, declares: "it is impossible to view the excesses of 'Canadian Book Week' in a favorable light.   Publicity, advertising and the methods of big business are not what is required to foster the art and literature of a young country such as Canada, while the commercial boosting of mediocre Canadian books not only reduces the Authors' Association to the level of an advertising agency but does considerable harm to good literature."18  Smith's call for Canadian criticism in The Canadian Forum in 1928 attacks reviewers for favouring Canadian literature from the angle of "Buy Made in Canada Goods."  Kennedy, in a passage already quoted, finds Canadian Book Weeks "Philistine entrenchment" aimed at profit and self-gratification.  The Young Turks saw themselves as idealistic defenders of art against a materialism which neither valued nor understood the finer aspects of culture.

     Skirmishes indeed.   Forays into enemy territory.  Half a century later the polemics are amusing.   They were conducted with evangelical zeal at the time.

     Throughout the twenties and early thirties, Art Smith was the group's acknowledged leader.  Kennedy remembers meeting him at the Pig and Whistle Pub, "our drinking spot."  Smith's reputation had preceded him so that Leo, in 1981, remembers regarding him with reverence.   Leo, whose university career began and ended with extension courses in literature at the University of Montreal, had already discovered the seventeenthcentury Metaphysical poets.  He credits Smith, however, with making him see more in the Metaphysicals than he had seen for himself.  "We were kindred spirits on the Metaphysicals," Leo remembers (11 March 1981): "I liked Frank better, but I esteemed Arthur more, and thought him a better poet and critic." A little later, Kennedy called Smith "my mentor twice-removed," referring to Frank Scott's influence as primary.   Arthur's ideas were often received by Leo at second hand, via Frank.  "We all worshipped Smith, because he appeared in The Dial regularly.  I appeared once," Kennedy added.19   Webs of influence spun off in many directions.  W.E. Collin writes that, for him, "Kennedy acted as a catalyst whose presence effected an absorption of T.S. Eliot's 'Wasteland' and Frazer's The Golden Bough into Canadian poetry."20  Eliot, Yeats, Dickinson and Frazer, and the Metaphysical poets, were enthusiasms common to the Montreal group of friends, as Smith's early essays indicate and conversation with Kennedy confirms.

     Frank Scott generously acknowledges Smith's primacy: "I've had a special relation to Smith all my life," Scott told me at Concordia University (13 March, 1980).  Smith's first degree was in science, not literature.  And Scott, by the time he met Smith, was the oldest in the group and had returned from a year's work at Oxford.  Yet it was Smith who introduced his friends to T.S. Eliot et al; and Smith whose zeal founded and supported The McGill Daily Literary Supplement and its successor, The McGill Fortnightly Review.21

     Smith is recalled by Leon Edel, another member of the Montreal group and managing editor of The Fortnightly.   In the mid-seventies Edel writes:

He possessed a fund of civility, which meant he said all the polite things; but he was a tempest of poetry and revolt against Establishment hypocrisies. . . .  Smith first taught me the meaning of literature, how words could be made expressive and shaped into a poem.  He made me feel the modern idiom, the use of words as this year's language shorn of old accretions of meaning.   He had a sense of all this: I can't say where it came from, but F.R. Scott has testif1ed that he too found Smith inspiring in his accurate feeling for modern literature as vivid and life-giving expression.22

     The man whom this issue of Canadian Poetry honours and whom Edel called the "dean" of Canadian poetry is recently dead.23  A.M. Klein has been dead for some years.  Buffy Glassco died in the winter of 1980.   Others in the group — Kennedy, Scott, Edel — are valiant survivors who not only endure but who continue to write.  Most of them now belong to the very Establishment they once contested so hotly.  Their work has become part of the Canadian literary tradition whose existence they denied: a nice irony.  In this 1981 context, I like to remember these men in their youth, clothed in yellow slickers, racoon coats, and the fiery rectitude of knights, charging at Establishment windmills under the banner of Art.  The Young Turks.


  1. Leo Kennedy to myself, 3 June, 1981.   Over the last five years, Kennedy has confessed to me on many occasions his ignorance in the 1920s of Canadian poetry.  Frank Scott told me in February, 1973, as we were flying back East from a Writers' Conference in Calgary and Banff, that he had not read the Confederation poets prior to 1930.[back]

  2. Kennedy to myself, 11 March, 1981.[back]

  3. Ibid., 3 June, 1981.[back]

  4. Ibid.: "There wasn't a kid on the McGill campus who didn't have a copy of the American Mercury sticking out of his pocket.  God, we were all soaked in him!"[back]

  5. Louis Schwartz, "Mr. Mencken," The McGill Fortnightly Review, I, 9 and 10 (22 March, 1926), 72, italics mine.[back]

  6. A.J.M. Smith, "Wanted — Canadian Criticism," Canadian Forum, 1928, rpt. in Towards a View of Canadian Letters, Selected Critical Essays 1928-1971 (Vancouver: U.B.C. Press 1973), p. 168.  The structure of this collection conceals Smith's historical development as a critic.[back]

  7. Leo Kennedy, "The Future of Canadian Literature," Canadian Mercury, I, 5-6 (April-May, 1929), 99.[back]

  8. Schwartz, "Mr. Mencken," p. 72.[back]

  9. Kennedy, "The Future of Canadian Literature," pp. 99-100, italics mine.[back]

  10. Ibid.[back]

  11. Kennedy, "Chesterton," MFR, II, 3 (1 Dec., 1926), 22.[back]

  12. Smith, "Wanted — Canadian Criticism," p. 169.[back]

  13. See Margaret Laurence, "Ivory Tower or Grassroots?  The Novelist as Socio-Political Being," A Political Art.   Essays and Images in Honour of George Woodcock (Vancouver: U.B.C. Press, 1978), p. 17; and Peter Such, Canadian Forum (Dec.-Jan., 1976), p. 77.[back]

  14. Kennedy, "The Future of Canadian Literature," p. 100.[back]

  15. Smith, "A Rejected Preface to New Provinces (1936)," Canadian Literature, 24 (1965), rpt. in Towards a View of Canadian Letters, pp. 171-72.[back]

  16. Kennedy, "The Future of Canadian Literature," p. 100.  The capital A denotes members of the CAA.[back]

  17. Smith, "Contemporary Poetry," MFR, II, 4 (15 December, 1926), 31.[back]

  18. Editorial, MFR, I, 2 (5 December, 1925), 1.[back]

  19. Kennedy to myself, 25 March, 1981, at Bishop's University, Symposium on the 'thirties.[back]

  20. Letter of W.E. Collin to myself, 17 November, 1980.[back]

  21. See Leon Edel, "When McGill Modernized Canadian Literature," in The McGill You KnewAn Anthology of Memoirs 1920-1960, ed. Edgar A. Collard (Don Mills, Ont.: Longmans, 1975), p. 113.[back]

  22. Ibid.[back]

  23. Ibid., p. 121.[back]