Study Guide

Hugh MacLennan

Hugh MacLennan Biography

Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In his novels and nonfiction writings Hugh MacLennan articulated views about Canada’s identity that were widely shared in the mid-twentieth century. John Hugh MacLennan was the only son and second child of Dr. Samuel and Katherine (MacQuarrie) MacLennan. His mother was warm, outgoing, and romantic, while “Dr. Sam,” as he was known in the mining community of Glace Bay, was an austere, reserved, dedicated physician who maintained a strict Presbyterian atmosphere in the home. Determined that his son should become a classical scholar, he would spend hours every night drilling him in translating Latin and Greek. The family moved to Halifax in 1915, and Dr. Sam enlisted in the Canadian army. He was sent to France. Wounded, he was returned home a year later. Observing these events and the catastrophic munitions explosion in Halifax in 1917 helped shape MacLennan’s horror of war.

After receiving his degree from Dalhousie University in 1928, MacLennan won a Rhodes Scholarship. Upon returning in 1932 with a degree in classics from the University of Oxford, he was turned down for an appointment at Dalhousie in favor of an Englishman, a decision which he attributed to the continuance of a colonial mentality in Canada. He spent the years from 1932 to 1935 acquiring a Ph.D. at Princeton University; he found the methods of the American graduate school narrowly pedantic, but he contrived to write a dissertation about a declining Roman colony in Egypt that can be seen as expressing his lifelong concern with national identity.

During this decade of intense studying, MacLennan pursued other interests as well. He excelled at tennis, winning the Maritime Provinces singles championship in 1929. His first novel, “So All Their Praises,” was accepted in 1933 by a publisher who unfortunately went bankrupt before the manuscript could be published. Unable to secure a university post during the Depression, he reluctantly accepted the drudgery of schoolmastering in Montreal’s Lower Canada College, a job he labored at from 1935 to 1945. On an Atlantic voyage he met Dorothy Duncan, an American who painted and was to write...

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Hugh MacLennan Biography (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

John Hugh MacLennan was born in Glace Bay, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, on March 20, 1907. He drew on his memories of this birthplace, a coal-mining company town set at the edge of the Atlantic, explicitly in Each Man’s Son, but his impressions of the seagirt land, a topography appropriate to the Scottish Highland character that was his heritage, entered, less directly, into much of his work. In this setting, his father practiced medicine among the miners. A dominating figure, “the Doctor” was to become the prototype of a number of characters in his son’s novels.

In 1915, when MacLennan was eight, the family moved to Halifax, a venerable but lively port that fascinated the boy. The small city, with its sense of community, became a lifelong ideal for MacLennan, as did the contrasting beauty of the Cape Breton countryside where the family spent time in the summer, prefiguring the thematic retreat to the woods of many of MacLennan’s fictional characters. As recounted in Barometer Rising, much of Halifax was destroyed by an explosion in 1917, but the city was rebuilt, and MacLennan was reared there, doing well in both studies and sports, and graduated from Dalhousie University in 1928.

Later in that year, a Rhodes scholarship allowed him to attend Oxford. While there he played rugby and tennis; an excellent athlete, MacLennan, as a novelist, frequently used sports to reveal character. At Oxford, he also wrote poetry and traveled extensively, during vacations, on the Continent. These holidays, especially those to Germany, were drawn upon in his first two, unpublished, novels and returned to in Voices in Time, and some of his own experiences from this time were used in creating those of his character, Paul, in Two Solitudes.

MacLennan also studied at Oxford, quite diligently in fact, and graduated in 1932, proceeding to graduate studies at Princeton. Returning to England, he met, on the ship, an American, Dorothy Duncan, who was to become his first wife. His developing love and his new devotion to becoming a novelist absorbed more of his...

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Hugh MacLennan Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

John Hugh MacLennan, the only son of dour Calvinist surgeon Samuel MacLennan and his vivacious, artistic wife, Katherine MacQuarrie MacLennan, was born in the mining town of Glace Bay on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada, on March 20, 1907. Though three generations of MacLennans had lived on Cape Breton, the doctor thought of himself as Scottish. Like the Scots in the homeland, he had aspirations of improvement through education. Consequently, in 1912 and 1913 he decided to take specialist training abroad, his family joining him in the summer, and at the beginning of World War I he moved to Halifax, where both he and Hugh would have more opportunities. There Hugh witnessed his father’s departure to war and his return as an invalid. The boy also witnessed in 1917 the carnage wrought by the explosion of a TNT-laden ship in Halifax Harbor.

In accordance with his father’s aspirations—indeed, demands—MacLennan studied the classics, in 1928 took an honors B.A. from Dalhausie University, played championship tennis, won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, and took a B.A. from Oriel in 1932. While in Oxford, he also traveled considerably in Britain and the Continent, observing firsthand the economic and political conditions that led to World War II. He also wrote poetry. Unable to find a publisher for it, a failure that he blamed on the Depression, MacLennan turned to fiction with Ernest Hemingway as his model.

Unable to find a job in 1932 because of the Depression and colonialism—the two classics positions available at Canadian universities went to Englishmen with no better qualifications than his—MacLennan followed his father’s insistent advice and accepted a fellowship for a Ph.D. at Princeton University. In 1935, Princeton awarded him the degree for a study, based on papyri, of the decline and fall of Oxyrhynchus, a Greek city in Egypt, in the third century. Princeton published the thesis.

Yet MacLennan was unable to find a publisher for the novel that he had written by 1935 and could not get a teaching position at a Canadian university. He thus became a schoolmaster at Lower Canada College, a private high school, in order to be able to marry and support Dorothy Duncan, an American whom he had met on the ship from England in 1932. Despite the demands of his teaching, MacLennan continued to write. When...

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Hugh MacLennan Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Critics of Hugh MacLennan’s novels deplore his conservative techniques: his didacticism, his allegorizing the stories of individuals, his heavy use of local color, his oversimplified and moralistic characterization, his describing rather than evoking, his use of external circumstance, his basically chronological narration, his prudish and clichéd accounts of sex. Defenders counter that his “reconstructive reporting” of historical events is superb and commend his development of counterpoint, memory, and montage narration. Future assessments will probably praise his capturing, as he said, “the conflict . . . between the human spirit of Everyman and Everyman’s human condition”—Everyman, of course, wearing twentieth century Canadian garb.