This is an excerpt from Douglas Gibson’s new book Stories About Storytellers: Publishing Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Alistair MacLeod, Pierre Trudeau, and Others, running every Friday. The following is from the chapter on Teacher, Novelist, Essayist , and Cottager, Hugh MacLennan.
One of the things I liked best about Hugh MacLennan — and there were many things to like — was his easy democratic touch. He loved to tell the story from his earliest days about his household in Cape Breton being wakened by a crowd of men fresh from an altercation. When his doctor father threw up the window to make enquiries, a voice floated up. “We’re sorry to disturb you, Doctor, but the gentleman I was fighting with has bitten off my nose!” (I once told that story in Alistair MacLeod’s presence, and Alistair — a proud son of Cape Breton — was not pleased. I hope he’ll forgive this repetition, with its marvellous use of the courteous “gentleman,” which Robert Louis Stevenson’s Alan Breck would have understood completely, and which Hugh relished.)
He liked and respected real, live ordinary people, disliking, by contrast, the “red tabs and red officer faces” he mentions in Two Solitudes. In his essay “An Orange from Portugal,” he writes affectionately about Halifax in his youth. “In the old days in Halifax we never thought about the meaning of the word democracy: we were all mixed up together in a general deplorability.”
The essay “Einstein and the Bootleggers” gives us an intriguing look at Hugh and that “general deplorability.” Any Princeton graduate student with half a brain would have eagerly collected stories about Einstein on the campus — but how many of them would have hung around with bootleggers? “In those days,” Hugh says, “some of my best friends were ex-bootleggers,” and we learn that these were real, very tough characters who had used baseball bats for other than sporting purposes and had done time in jail. They send an intruding truck driver on his way with threats because he was rash enough to sneer at Einstein, who was, after all, their genius.
But let’s go back to the basic facts about Hugh MacLennan. He was born in 1907 in Glace Bay, a mining town in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and his family soon moved to the province’s capital, Halifax. He studied Classics at Dalhousie and went on to win a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. His father, a hard-working doctor, made sure that he was indoctrinated with Calvinist Scottish values, greeting the scholarship news (which might have led to unseemly celebration in the snow) with the words, “Go and shovel the walk, Hugh. It badly needs it.” Doctor Sam, by the way, had earlier gained fame in the local paper by provoking the headline “Doctor Hunts Gas Leak With Burning Match — Finds It!”
After Oxford, Hugh got his Ph.D. at Princeton, where he once came across Albert Einstein gazing at a snowball in his hands with total fascination, and once (as I’ve just mentioned) found him blundering into a bootlegger’s café, to be protectively treated there.
Hugh came back to Canada in 1935, at the height of the Depression. Unable to get a university job, he took one at the private boys’ school, Lower Canada College, in Montreal. There he was a notable teacher. One boy, later a distinguished mp, told me that he was summoned to the headmaster’s study and briskly informed that his mother had just died. Released into the school corridor, he stood there blinking in shock, until one of his teachers, Hugh MacLennan, came up, threw his arms around him, and held him fast, while the macho crowds flowed around them, gaping.
In 1951, by then an acclaimed author, he accepted a position in the Department of English at McGill University. The salary was so low that, in the telling phrase of his biographer, Elspeth Cameron, “Even his publishers were horrified.”
Money was a problem. His first wife, Dorothy Duncan, was stricken by a series of embolisms, and in those days medical care in Canada was ruinously expensive. So Hugh not only taught and wrote books, he took on regular magazine writing assignments, amassing more than 400 essays over the years, and winning two Governor General’s Awards for his essay collections, in addition to his three fiction prizes.
He lived quietly at home with his second wife, Tota, spending their summers in North Hatley. He died in 1990. I was informed of his death by the wonderful Doris Giller — after whom the famous literary prize is named. She was at the time a journalist, on deadline, phoning for the Toronto Star, but was so aware of my affection for Hugh that she offered to give me half an hour to compose myself for the necessary interview about Hugh’s career. As for that career, the five Governor General’s Awards speak for themselves, as do the nineteen honorary degrees he earned during his lifetime. As an article in the National Post put it in 2009, he was Canada’s “first world-class writer.”