No Man Is an Island


Richard Lemm, Milton Acorn: in Love and Anger. Ottawa: Carleton UP, 1999. 279pp.

In the Foreword to Milton Acorn: in Love and Anger, Richard Lemm explains that his book "began as an exploration of Milton Acornís years on Prince Edward Island and his Island identity and as an appreciation of his poems with an Island focus" (x). Lemm argues that Acorn depended on his experiences of P.E.I. for his moral and aesthetic perceptions of the world as a whole, and that his best poems are grounded in the Island. But Lemmís book tries to do more than explore Acornís "Island identity." It performs some of the functions of a comprehensive biography by delving into obscure episodes of the subjectís life. Lemm retrieves and examines new evidence concerning, for instance, Acornís war-time injury and early discharge from the army, the illegitimate child he supposedly apostrophizes in the poem "To My Red- Headed Son," and the contradictions between his middle-class family background and his self-created image as a working-class poet.

Yet Lemm stops short of offering his book as a full-fledged biography. Although the publishers describe it as such in the back-cover blurb, Lemm omits the word "biography" from his title, and he admits that "much work remains to be done on Acornís life in Montreal, Vancouver,ÖToronto" and other places where the poet sojourned in his peripatetic career (xi). Lemm gives only the bare bones of Acornís relationship and brief marriage to Gwendolyn MacEwen, referring readers who want more information to Rosemary Sullivanís biography of MacEwen. Since the marriage was not a direct part of Acornís "Island identity," Lemm has no interest in supplementing Sullivanís work by analysing from Acornís point of view the relationship between two of the most important Canadian poets of the post-1950s era. Lemmís lack of interest in this relationship is blatantly revealed by the fact that MacEwenís name is misspelled throughout his book.

Similarly, Lemm gives superficial treatment to the beginnings of Acornís career as a serious poet. Like many other artists, Acorn in his youth emerged from the provincial peripheries to seek a metropolitan cultural centre, which he found in the early 1950s in Montreal. Since he was committed to working-class and Marxist revolutionary political ideals, he began his professional literary career as a member of the Labor-Progressive Party (LPP), the name adopted from 1943 to 1959 by the Communist Party of Canada. In the LPP cultural clubs of Montreal, in the pages of the Partyís weekly newspaper the Canadian Tribune and culture magazine New Frontiers, and through his relationship with the Communist poet Louise Harvey, Acorn developed many of his literary and political enthusiasms. Although for the rest of his life Acorn professed a socialistic political philosophy, he left the LPP and Montreal in the late 1950s because his restless nature craved new challenges and because he had become dissatisfied with the Partyís rigid notions of art. But he was always grateful to the Party and its publishing media for having provided the literary milieu he needed at a time when the few bourgeois cultural outlets in Canada offered little encouragement to beginning artists.

In fact, Acorn declared in a 1977 essay on the Communist poet Joe Wallace that the LPP was "the nearest thing to my spiritual home I ever found" ("In Wry Memoriam" 4). But Acornís sentiments on this and many other subjects are excluded from this book. Indeed, Lemm is little inclined to let Acorn reveal in his own words his thoughts on politics, literature, regional and personal influences, or anything else. The justification for this suppression of Acornís own testimony Lemm concisely expresses by quoting a letter from James Deahl, Acornís literary executor: "MiltonÖwas an A-l bull shitter" (91). The accusation would seem to be justified, for anecdotes abound in Canadian literary scholarship and folklore of Acornís autobiographical mythologizing. Of course, Acorn was not the first imaginative writer to create legends about himself, and the process of separating fact from legend is one of the more arduous but necessary tasks imposed on the biographer. The information and attitudes expressed in Acornís correspondence, furthermore, are by no means all "bullshit." Acorn's letters and other manuscript papers, full as they are of the author's histrionics and self- aggrandizement, are essential source material in the explication of his complex personality.

But Lemm seems reluctant to make extensive use of the manuscript sources. Although the Acorn papers in the National Archives at Ottawa consist of more than forty volumes, Lemm does remarkably little with the poetís correspondence and notebooks, preferring to emphasize interview material that he has accumulated himself, even when this material consists of vague and superficial recollections.

Milton used to come out here to visit my husband. Heíd stay a couple of hours. They were good buddies, and my husband thought Milton was brilliant and knew so much about history. They talked mainly about history, I think. Maybe some poetry, but mainly history. (182)

Instead of incorporating such trivia into synthetic paraphrase or eliminating it altogether, Lemm too often provides extensive quotation from his transcripts, as if after having gone to the trouble of accumulating this material he is determined to use all of it.

At best, he seems to regard the archival sources only as confirmation of what he has learned from his interviewees. He thus begins his brief account of the romantic and literary relationship between Acorn and Louise Harvey by quoting what he has been told about the relationship by Deahl and the wife of a P.E.I. friend of Acorn. But the laconic assertions that "Harvey was Acornís Ďgirlfriendí" and that she was "the first really important Ďgirlí in Miltís life" (93) add nothing to the narrative of the erratically passionate relationship revealed in the Acorn-Harvey letters.

Lemm gives a few excerpts from these letters, but since the love affair with Harvey is not directly relevant to Acornís "Island identity" he provides only a limited exposition of it. Indeed, in his eagerness to get on with what really interests him Lemm leaves a minor but revealing gap in the biographical record. "The correspondence provides no direct evidence of why their relationship faltered," he declares (94). In fact, if Lemm had taken a few extra hours at the National Archives to look through Harveyís letters to her friend Dorise Nielsen, he would have found Harveyís brief version of the breakup. In letters of November 27, 1957 and January 23, 1958, Harvey claims that over the winter of 1955-56 Acorn had a "nervous breakdown," became "utterly callous" toward her, and proved himself "a horror and an incubus who kept haunting me quite literally." Acorn's irrational and sometimes frightening behaviour, especially towards women, defies conclusive explanation, but the serious biographer should attempt an explanation, based on the available evidence. Lemm does make some brief speculations about Acornís homophobia that could be applied to his misogyny: "[a] more thorough analysis might take into accountÖhis intimateóin fact dependentórelationship with his mother, and his possible anxiety, frustration, or confusion about his own sexuality" (228). But Lemm is not interested in attempting such a "thorough analysis," any more than he is interested in making a thorough search of archival sources.

Besides favouring interview material, Lemm spends more time than necessary challenging earlier biographical and critical studies of Acorn, especially Chris Gudgeonís short journalistic biography Out of This World: the Natural History of Milton Acorn (1996) and Ed Jewinskiís critical study Milton Acorn (1990) in the Canadian Writers and Their Works series. I agree with Lemmís complaints that Gudgeon is too speculative and Jewinski is too unsympathetic to Acornís political commitments, but I am not sure that such complaints need to be so extensively expressed. The obsession with annihilating the opposition before presenting new arguments has been enshrined in so-called scholarly method, but perhaps it is time for serious scholars to lighten up on it. The strong arguments and original research of a new biography or critical study should be their own justification.

Instead of worrying about the biographical and critical commentary of others, Lemm could have more conscientiously devoted himself to strengthening his own. Throughout the book he is particularly negligent about Acornís literary relationships. In his discussion of the longstanding and mutually influential relationship between Acorn and Al Purdy, he quotes from Purdyís introduction to Iíve Tasted My Blood and from other Purdy essays, but does not extensively use the substantial unpublished correspondence between the two poets. Nor does he follow his brief account of the LPP period with details about Acornís involvement with such people as Louis Dudek in the non-Communist literary milieu of Montreal. He mentions that Acorn "associated with some of the major figures in the development of modern Canadian poetry" (99), and provides a catalogue of names as well as an elementary explication of "modernism," complete with a definition from the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms and a quotation from the article on "Poetry In English" in the Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature. But he offers no details that would be appropriate to a serious discussion of Acornís participation in the Canadian modernist and early postmodernist movements. Lemm similarly glosses over Acornís years in Toronto and Vancouver, correcting a few dates and details here and there and only occasionally providing full accounts of particularly significant episodes, such as the awarding of the "Peopleís Poet" medal that Acorn received from his literary peers in 1970.

But Lemmís interest perks up noticeably when he gets to the 1975 publication of Acornís most extensive poetic tribute to P.E.I., The Island Means Minago, and his more-or-less permanent return to the Island in 1981. He has much to say about Acornís peregrinations around Charlottetown, his nature rambles in the countryside and parks, and his interaction with Island people. In his discussion of The Island Means Minago Lemm refers to the struggle between Island tenant farmers and absentee landowners that inspires some of Acornís poems, not only discussing Acornís poems at length, but even including excerpts from a historical study of the subject.

He is also very interested in Acornís involvement with P.E.I. literary circles in the early 1980s. Acornís social interaction with Island writers is biographically interesting, but not as literarily significant as Lemm would like to believe, for by the time Acorn settled on the Island to live out his few remaining years his most significant work as a poet was arguably behind him. Dauntless in his pursuit of the Island motif, however, Lemm not only emphasizes the final years, he goes beyond them to summarize the "upwelling of interest in literary writing in P.E.I." since Acornís death (7). Lemm calls attention to this "upwelling" in his opening chapter, furthermore, as if he wanted to establish at the outset that Acornís life and literary career were primarily important not for their own sake but for what they anticipated.

Early in his book, Lemm announces that he himself arrived in Canada in 1967 and moved to P.E.I. in 1983, as if these facts had some relevance to the historical and regional perspectives that Milton Acorn: in Love and Anger is trying to establish. I would suggest that his personal perspective has drawn him toward an all-too-common fallacy about Canadian literature. The explosion of writing, publishing and other "cultural industries" that has taken place in Canada since the 1960s has led to the widespread assumption that Canadian culture before the 1960s is only significant as a prefiguration of later, more important developments. Yet the Canada in which Acorn first launched his literary career was not quite so dull as Lemmís book implies. It would make much more sense to me to study Acornís life and works in terms of the people and the events characteristic of the Canadian cultural milieu in the years that Acorn came to maturity as a poet. It is true that artists like Al Purdy, Louis Dudek, Irving Layton, Leonard Cohen, Mordecai Richler, Norman Levine, and many others had to struggle against monumentally philistine and conservative attitudes in the 1950s and early Ď60s. Nevertheless, their contributions to the national cultural legacy are every bit as importantóif not as quantitatively substantialóas those of succeeding generations. More to the point, they were part of the cultural world to which Acorn belonged.

Just as Acorn was much more than a prefiguration of literary movements that emerged after his death, he was more than a regional poet. While emphasizing the P.E.I. that he knows himself and that he finds in Acornís poetry, Lemm badly neglects the larger Canadian cultural scene in which Acorn lived and developed. The Island provides a good beginning perspective from which to explore Acornís peripatetic life, and a principle of unity by which to understand Acornís writings, but too much emphasis on this perspective inevitably creates limitations and distortions. Lemm does acknowledge in his Foreword that Acornís personality "was too much a blend of the Island and the mainland cities he inhabited during three decades, to compartmentalize his life and poetry rigidly into Ďislandí and Ďoff-Islandí" (x). But his indifference to the "off-island" elements of Acornís life and times is obvious.

Twice in the course of the book, Lemm indulges in speculations about Acornís hypothetical opinions of P.E.I. in the 1990s. "What would Acorn think [of Charlottetown] today," he muses rhetorically, "the freight sheds torn down and oil tanks moved, and the waterfront redeveloped for tourismÖa new kind of entrepreneurial spirit, and new plans for prosperity?" (76). More than one hundred pages later Lemm picks up the same rhetorical speculation, as if it were the unifying question posed by his book: "would he see tourism as an invasion: Island society conquered by the transnational culture of capitalism? Or would he accept it as a way for Islanders to survive and the Island to become a part of global culture, maintaining its regional uniqueness while gaining trendy cafťs, quality bookstores and cinemas, boutiques and galleries, and other features of cosmopolitan cultureÖ?" (204).

Although this kind of prophetic speculation has nothing to do with Acornís life and achievements as an Islander, a Canadian, or a poet, an attempt to answer Lemmís questions might serve as a reminder of what Acorn really believed. As a Marxist, Acorn would recognize the "new entrepreneurial spirit" as another version of the old one, with "culture" subsumed in the opiate of entertainment that keeps the proletariat unconscious of the vicious and destructive processes of the capitalistic obsession with profit. Or, as a conservativeóin the sense that he believed in the conservation of all that was good about the pastóAcorn might have echoed the words of Stephen Leacock as he mused on the future of Canada in the closing year of the Second World War: "[t]ourism [like foreign trade] is another empty economic nut, the sale of scenery and servicesóby a nation of guides and waitersóto outside people taking a vacation from the world's real work" (101). Acorn would disagree with Leacock about the nature of "the worldís real work," but he would certainly disapprove of the postmodern nation of guides and waiters that boasts of both its superiority to earlier generations and its submission to the "entrepreneurial spirit" of the new world order.

Lemm has not tried to turn Acorn into the poet of Green Gable Land, but he has failed to recreate the shouting revolutionary poet of the 1950s, Ď60s and Ď70s. Milton Acorn: in Love and Anger should please readers in P.E.I. and those who share Lemmís view of Canadian literary history. But if Lemm intends his book as a biography, he has defined his subject much too restrictively to fulfill the biographical purpose.

 

Works Cited

 

Acorn, Milton. "In Wry Memoriam." Canadian Dimension 4-5 (Sept. 1977): 38-43, 51.

Harvey, Louise. Letters to Dorise Nielsen 27 Nov. 1957 and 23 Jan. 1958. Nielsen Papers, National Archives of Canada.

Leacock, Stephen. While There Is Time: the Case against Social Catastrophe. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1945.

James Doyle