Biography in English

Biography in English is the written record of a person's life. Canada's search for an identity has been long, continuous, sometimes so fervent that it becomes notorious, at its best positive as an effort of understanding. Part of knowing what we are is knowing who we are, and biographical writing in Canada, in its several forms, has taken up this question.

Biography has shown itself to be an approach which appeals to readers of differing tastes and experience, partly perhaps because they can satisfy curiosity about the past, even secure light upon the present, through the lives of people who actually existed in a real and pressing world. Answers about who Canadians are are still far from plentiful, but many have been attempted over the last century or so.

Obituaries, Eulogies and Biographical Accounts

Obituaries, eulogies and biographical accounts of essay length and style are forms of biography in brief that began to appear in the 19th century. Obituaries, of some fullness and in which appear the leading facts and some effort at interpretation going beyond the litany of funeral rhetoric, have remained important sources. The most valuable often appear in publications of societies or year books, such as the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Canada.

Memorials of book length, some of which provide useful documentary evidence along with the prevailing appreciation, appeared in the mid-19th century, eg, in John Carroll's celebration of Methodist preachers, Case and His Contemporaries (5 vols, 1867-77), Henry Scadding's The First Bishop of Toronto (1868) for John Strachan, and Fennings Taylor's Thos. D'Arcy McGee (1868).

Collections of Short Accounts

In the latter half of the 19th century, coinciding with one of the periods when interest in the nature of the Canadian identity was strong, there were a number of efforts to compile collections of short accounts. Henry James Morgan is the revered early name with Sketches of Celebrated Canadians in 1862, the year he also began the first continuing publication of biographical interest, the Canadian Parliamentary Companion. His works include Types of Canadian Women (1901) and the important Canadian Men and Women of the Time (1898; rev ed 1912). This latter work, including only persons alive at the time of publication, was the ancestor of the "Who's Who" that began appearing at the turn of the century. Morgan's Men and Women was, in fact, incorporated into The Canadian Who's Who, first published in 1910.

Another pioneer of the short biographical sketch was Fennings Taylor, who collaborated with William Notman to produce Portraits of British Americans (3 vols, 1865-68). To the 1880s belong the works of J.C. DENT, with The Canadian Portrait Gallery (4 vols, 1880-81), and G.M. Rose, ed, A Cyclopaedia of Canadian Biography (2 vols, 1886, 1888).

Hundreds of other compilations have appeared, sometimes as part of larger works, and presenting national, regional, local or topical coverage. An example is A Standard Dictionary of Canadian Biography by Sir Charles G.D. ROBERTS and A.L. Tunnell (1934-38). These efforts to bring together brief accounts of men and women continue to be made. They are generally useful, but are not usually literary works.

Since its first appearance in 1926, W. Stewart WALLACE's Dictionary of Canadian Biography, because of its comprehensiveness, has taken pride of place among the collections and has retained it through several revisions. It assumed the title the Macmillan Dictionary of Canadian Biography in 1963, a few years before the DICTIONARY OF CANADIAN BIOGRAPHY/DICTIONNAIRE BIOGRAPHIQUE DU CANADA published its first volume in English and French editions in 1966. This large project's scholarship and reference strengths are complemented by readability, and a special contribution of its "life and times" account of Canada is the large number of biographies of persons hitherto known only fleetingly and unlikely to command attention on their own from biographers.

Biographical Series

Biographical series were another early form of presenting the "doers" of Canada. From 1903 to 1908 the "Makers of Canada" series (20 vols) appeared, edited by literary men Duncan Campbell Scott and Pelham Edgar. The "Chronicles of Canada" (1914-16) allotted 13 of 32 volumes to individuals. Lorne PIERCE, pursuing his redoubtable efforts to encourage Canadian writing, set up the "Makers of Canadian Literature" series (12 vols, 1923-26).

Activity of this type came again in the 1970s, when a number of series were launched. These include "Canadian Biographical Studies" (UTP), "Canadian Lives" (Oxford), and the National Gallery's "Canadian Artists," all of which make particular use of scholarly research; "The Canadians" (Fitzhenry and Whiteside), designed especially for students; and Lorimer's paperback reprint series "Goodread Biographies." In 1971 the province of Ontario started a major historical studies series including biographies of premiers, 5 of which have appeared to date.

Individual Volumes

Significant individual volumes of biography began to appear sporadically around the turn of the century: G.E. Fenety's Life and Times of the Hon. Joseph Howe (1896), J.S. Willison's Sir Wilfrid Laurier (2 vols, 1903; rev 1926), C.R.W. Biggar's Sir Oliver Mowat (2 vols, 1905), James Cappon's Roberts and the Influences of His Time (1905), and W.D. LeSueur's Count Frontenac (1906) - all by established writers and dealing with major figures.

In the 1920s attention to the genre quickened, with O.D. Skelton's The Life and Times of Sir Alexander Tilloch Galt (1920); V.L.O. Chittick's Thomas Chandler Haliburton (1924); William Kennedy's Lord Elgin (1926); Chester New's Lord Durham (1927); G.P. deT. Glazebrook's Sir Charles Bagot, Lorne Pierce's William Kirby, Carl Y. Connor's Archibald Lampman (1929) and James Cappon's Bliss Carman (1930).

From the 1950s to the 1970s, biographies appeared in numbers that escape easy enumeration. Figures associated with the governance of Canada received major attention from a growing company of Canadian historians using documentary holdings to give reinterpretations and full-scale accounts that went beyond the "life and letters" approach favoured by earlier writers. The magisterial title is Donald CREIGHTON's John A. Macdonald (2 vols, 1952, 1955), which became, and has remained, a landmark.

Many important political figures have still not found book-length biographers, but the field has had significant entries that continue to be viewed as "classics" for Canada and additions are steady: C.B. Sissons, Egerton Ryerson (2 vols, 1937, 1947); William Kilbourn, The Firebrand: William Lyon Mackenzie (1956); Kenneth McNaught, A Prophet in Politics: J.S. Woodsworth (1959); W.J. Eccles, Frontenac (1959); Roger Graham, Arthur Meighen (3 vols, 1960-65); J.M.S. Careless, Brown of "The Globe" (2 vols, 1959, 1963); Dale Thomson, Alexander Mackenzie (1960); George F.G. Stanley, Louis Riel (1963); John Morgan Gray, Lord Selkirk of Red River (1963); Margaret Prang, N.W. Rowell (1975); Thomas Flanagan, Louis "David" Riel (1979); Robert Craig Brown, Robert Laird Borden (2 vols, 1975, 1980); and J. Murray Beck, Joseph Howe (2 vols, 1982, 1983); Jeffrey Williams, Byng of Vimy (1983); Patrick Brode, Sir John Beverley Robinson (1984); Michael Webb, Norman Bethune: Doctor Under Fire (1993).

The extensive source material for William Lyon Mackenzie KING and the enigmas of his long career have attracted an unusual number of biographical approaches, from Bruce Hutchison's popular The Incredible Canadian (1952) through the 3 "official" volumes of MacGregor Dawson and H. Blair Neatby (1958-76) to a psycho-biographical study by Joy Esberey in 1980 and Heather Robertson's fictional treatments, Willie: A Romance (1983) and Lily: A Rhapsody in Red (1986).

Entries into biography from academic historians are now rarer, except for the major cross-country efforts elicited by the DCB/DBC. Historical interests change over time, and the newer fields of business history, labour history, women's studies, native studies and ethnic studies have often led to group portraits rather than to those of individuals.

Business history is one "new" area, however, which has attracted the attention of a number of biographers. In the 1960s came Ross Harkness's J.E. Atkinson of the Star (1963) and Alan Wilson's John Northway (1965), early entries in a field that now includes major studies such as Michael Bliss's A Canadian Millionaire: The Life and Business Times of Sir Joseph Flavelle (1978).

With his Sir Frederick Banting (1984), Bliss moved on to science, another growing field of interest for biographers accompanying recent scholarly examinations of the history of science and technology in Canada. Norman BETHUNE's colourful medical career, for instance, has continued to provoke curiosity since Ted Allan and Sydney Gordon published a first study in The Scalpel and the Sword (1952, rev 1971); Roderick Stewart followed in 1973 with Bethune. The Brian Mulroney era spawned a number of books including Claire Hoy's Friends in High Places (1987) and John Sawatsky's Mulroney: The Politics of Ambition (1991).

In recent years journalists have been prominent in the field of biography. In 1963 came Peter C. NEWMAN'S Renegade in Power: The Diefenbaker Years, inaugurating a series on recent leaders that includes Richard GWYN's Smallwood (1968; rev 1972 and 1999) and The Northern Magus: Pierre Trudeau and the Canadians (1980) and Geoffrey Stevens's Stanfield (1973). Joseph SCHULL has made valuable contributions to biography in his Laurier (1965) and Edward Blake (2 vols, 1975, 1976).

Such accounts fall in with a long-established tradition of popular biography that has embraced writers of other backgrounds on subjects as various as James Fitzgibbon and Laura Secord, "Tiger" Dunlop and D'Arcy McGee, Josiah Henson, Pauline Johnson and L.M. Montgomery, Emily Murphy, Sara Jeannette Duncan, Ernest Thompson Seton, Gabriel Dumont, Gilbert Parker, J.S. Woodsworth and C.D. Howe.

The University of British Columbia established a medal for contributions to popular biography in 1951. The list of winners shows that any attempt to draw a line between popular and scholarly biography hardly holds, and the medal is now given simply for "biography."

The literary biography of Canadian writers has been slow to emerge, and the explanation undoubtedly lies in the delayed appearance of serious attention to Canadian literature in the universities. Collections began to appear in the 1960s and 1970s: Guy Sylvestre, Brandon Conron and Carl Klinck, Canadian Writers/Écrivains canadiens (1964, 1966), Clara Thomas, Our Nature - Our Voices (1972) and Frank Davey, From There to Here (1974), are examples. Lengthier treatments have appeared in series already mentioned and in such undertakings as the Twayne World Authors series (from the 1960s onwards), W.H. New's volumes for the Dictionary of Literary Biography (vol 1, 1986) or the ECW Press series of "Canadian Writers and Their Works," which provide biographical accounts in support of literary analysis and criticism.

Literary biographies, as such, are still not numerous. Contemporary examples are Norman Shrive's Charles Mair (1965), Clara Thomas's study of Anna Jameson, Love and Work Enough (1967), and Lovat DICKSON's several accounts of Grey Owl.

A quickening pace is discernible with Douglas Spettigue's FPG: The European Years (1973), David R. Beasley's account of John Richardson in Canadian Don Quixote (1977), Elspeth Cameron's Hugh MacLennan (1981) and Irving Layton (1985), Usher Caplan's portrait of A.M. Klein, Like One that Dreamed (1982), William Arthur Deacon: A Canadian Literary Life by Clara Thomas and John Lennox (1982), David Pitt's first volume on E.J. Pratt (1984) and John Caldwell Adams's Sir Charles God Damn (1986) on G.D. Roberts. Claude BISSELL'S 2 volumes on Vincent Massey (1981, 1986) have made much clearer the role of a major figure in the development of Canadian culture. More recent biographies on Canadian writers include Ed Jewinski's Michael Ondaatje: Express Yourself Beautifully (1994), Elspeth Cameron's Earle Birney: A Life (1994) and James King's The Life of Margaret Laurence (1997).

Canadians have also made significant contributions to the biography of writers elsewhere, eg, Lovat Dickson, H.G. Wells (1969) and Radclyffe Hall (1975); George Woodcock, The Crystal Spirit (1966), on George Orwell; Phyllis Grosskurth, John Addington Symonds (1964), Havelock Ellis (1980) and Melanie Klein (1986); and Michael Millgate, Thomas Hardy (1982).

The same delayed response, and the same reliance on biographical material as part of something else, has characterized the attention given to artists. Single volumes have, however, appeared, eg, Moncrieff Williamson's Robert Harris (1971), Maria Tippett's Emily Carr (1979) and J. Russell Harper's Krieghoff (1979).

Since the 1960s libraries and archives have rapidly acquired documents and papers relating to Canadian writers and other cultural figures, the majority of whom are still living and working. Indeed, no account of biography, in any field, can ignore the major contribution made to it by the development, particularly since WWII, of library and archival collections in all parts of Canada and the sharing of them made possible by interlibrary loan, microfilm and microfiche. Because of these resources, biography can be sounder and surer in its documentation of the events of a life.

It still remains, however, that biography is a literary art. Any author attempting it is challenged to call upon gifts of understanding and interpretation, of choosing and shaping, of style and colour to give life and truth to the subject. For this reason, the work of biography is never done, and new readings of individuals are inevitable over the years. Biography, one of the "great observed adventures of mankind," as Henry James put it, is not likely to lose its power to attract the talents of writers and the curiosity of readers.