Eggleston's Literary Life

Wilfred Eggleston, Literary Friends. Ottawa: Borealis Press, 1980. 134 pp.

This latest publication by Wilfred Eggleston, following a number in such diverse fields as dominion-provincial relations, science in war, and literary history in a social context, provides additional evidence of the versatility of this well-known Canadian author. Drawing upon personal reminiscence, Mrs. Eggleston's diary and his own log, as well as correspondence accumulated over the years, he has reconstructed a lifetime of happy relationships with many persons, particularly, as the title indicates, with writers in various fields. Although by its nature inevitably autobiographical, the focus of attention is on the friends themselves and the Egglestons' relationships with them. It thus provides a useful and interesting supplement to the author's already published autobiography, While I Still Remember.

     Recording sometimes in minute detail, an exercise which can and does bring the images of the past vividly to mind, could, if carried beyond a certain point, threaten continuity and meaningful sequence. What gives a sense of wholeness to the work, however, is the projection of the author's own personality, his characteristic responses to the needs and interests of his friends, in short, his evident endowment with the gift of friendship, sympathy, and understanding. His constant concern, in the midst of a crowded life, to help others in need, emerges clearly from his record, although certainly not deliberately obtruded upon the reader's attention.

     A case in point is his involvement with the affairs of the Canadian Writers' Foundation. Much of what he has to say is a tribute to the untiring efforts of the late Pelham Edgar to establish an organization dedicated to the support and encouragement of authors who found themselves in difficulties through trying to earn a living from their writing. In the last decades of the nineteenth century many Canadians in all walks of life, conspicuously those inclined towards authorship, sought in the United States opportunities that they could not find in their own country. The tragic story of Raymond Knister, a friend of the Egglestons, and pioneer of the modern movement in Canadian literature, is indicative of the continuing plight of Canadian authors, although Pelham Edgar's successful effort to secure a pension from the government of R.B. Bennett for Sir Charles Roberts gave some hope of a possible improvement in the second quarter of the present century. Although a setback was experienced when the government of Mackenzie King failed to recognize its predecessor's action as a precedent on the death of Roberts in 1943, there are others, as Professor Eggleston makes clear, who stepped into the breach, notably P.D. Ross and Harry Southam, together with Theresa and Donald Thompson, through whose efforts the Foundation was able to survive, and thus to carry on, as it still does, its essential work. There were of course men like Duncan Campbell Scott who enjoyed secure incomes throughout their lives, but financial worries continued to haunt persons of distinction such as Sir Charles' brother Theodore Goodridge Roberts and his own son Lloyd. A less well-known case than these is that of Dr. Eggleston's early mentor, Ephraim Weber, whose correspondence with Lucy Maud Montgomery he has edited, in affectionate memory of the one and unstinted admiration of the other. To these could no doubt be added further examples, that of Frederick Philip Grove being one of the most eminent mentioned in the work under review. The chapter devoted to Grove will interest many readers, not least professional students of Canadian literature familiar with the main outline of the case of that mysterious person. Professor Eggleston's growing puzzlement concerning the discrepancies in Grove's own account of his early life in Europe, and his eventual doubts, as well as those of his friend, Dr. R.B. Inch of Brandon, were confirmed only with the publication of Professor Spettigue's revelations following that scholar's searching investigation of all surviving evidence.

     It is clear from the references to the poems of Duncan Campbell Scott that appreciation of a writer's work might not be gained on immediate acquaintance. It is here suggested that an early impression such as that formed from exposure to the very different rhythms and imagery of Bliss Carman's poetry could and did prevent enjoyment of the work of his distinguished contemporary. He states that his friend, Lloyd Roberts, further prejudiced him against Scott and it was only with the publication of E.K. Brown's seminal essay in his book, On Canadian Poetry, that Professor Eggleston was able to reexamine Scott's poems in the light of Brown's reassessment which assigned Scott a very high rank indeed. This is not the place to comment at length on Brown's estimation of the work of Lampman and Scott as compared with that of Carman and Charles Roberts. There are those who regard Brown as having done less than justice to the two Maritime poets. Nevertheless it was Brown's book, published in 1943, which initiated a general revision in literary evaluation, so we may regard Professor Eggleston as having been one of many who were influenced in the same way.

     What we have just been discussing is, however, a minor point compared with a question that he himself raises at the outset of his work as to how it was that he developed a lifelong interest in Canadian literature. Such a question might seem impossible to answer were it not for certain conclusions which the reader can draw from various parts of the book. To be reared on an arid prairie at two remote locations, one of which was fifty miles from the nearest town, in an age before radio and television, and even without such an essential means of communication as a telephone, might well appear to have been the last place to come upon the requisite stimuli. It is true that literature never became a vocation in the strict sense, excepting for occasional excursions into fiction-writing, but even publication in diverse fields, exhibiting in the best light aspects of "the higher journalism", not to speak of such scholarly works as The Frontier and Canadian Letters, require an explanation in terms of the social and intellectual environment that helped to form Professor Eggleston's abilities and to subsume his achievements. His account of his early reading of books sent by a relative in England, and the impressions made by a selection of the Romantic poets that he found in his school reader, appear to have been sufficient to have given his mind the particular bent which it never afterwards lost. These initial impressions, further strengthened by Bliss Carman's recital of his poems on a visit to the Calgary Normal School while young Eggleston was a student there, were later confirmed by the enduring influence of Ephraim Weber, all of which suggests the possibility of a supplement to the theory of literary movements as stemming from complex and dynamic societies. One is here reminded of the observation made by the late Roy Daniells in the Literary History of Canada that the "critical mass" essential to the occurrence of a creative movement need not be great. Of course one cannot compare the conditions subsisting within the experience of a relatively isolated individual with those of an intellectually endowed and complex society, either on a grand scale or even in such a diminutive form as that of the Fredericton poets. At the same time, as we may conclude from Professor Eggleston's own statement, the stimulus given to Ephraim Weber by his teacher, and which he himself in turn received, was of sufficient moment to have instilled in him an enduring predilection for the literary life.

Alfred Bailey