Hugh MacLennan Essay - MacLennan, Hugh (Vol. 2)

MacLennan, Hugh (Vol. 2)

MacLennan, Hugh 1907–

MacLennan is the Canadian novelist and essayist considered by many to be nearly indispensible to the understanding of modern Canada. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Hugh MacLennan is so special a figure that he requires some explanation. I should describe him as a Highlander first; a patriotic Nova Scotian second (he is a native of Cape Breton); a spokesman for Canada third; and—but simultaneously with all of these—a scholar of international culture and a man of the great world….

Mr. MacLennan seems to aim … to qualify, like Balzac, as the "secretary of society," and one feels that in his earnest and ambitious attempt to cover his large self-assignment he sometimes embarks upon themes which he believes to be socially important but which do not really much excite his imagination. An example of this, it seems to me, is his probably best-known novel, Two Solitudes (1945)….

If he is dull when he is merely being conscientious, he is capable, when an emotional force lays hold of him and charges his material, of enveloping the reader in a spell that makes it hard for one to separate oneself from the story. I found this true of both The Precipice and The Watch That Ends the Night….

This spell of Hugh MacLennan's is of rather a special old-fashioned kind that we do not often find in modern fiction…. He may carry you through almost a whole book—as in The Watch That Ends the Night—by the power of poetic vision, then let you down at the end in a spasm of revelation that will leave you disappointed because unconvinced. I think that the trouble here is that he finds a certain difficulty in ending his novels because … he cannot bear to leave his characters, always exposed to possibilities of disaster, without some positive salvation and exaltation. His books are full of moral reawakenings. No matter how despairing one has been, one must pick oneself up in good order and not merely face life again but ride on in a gallant spirit. One's honor is of paramount importance; one must never be trapped into actions that are unworthy of a man of honor….

Hugh MacLennan's methods as a novelist are usually as old-fashioned as the virtues of his characters…. The one feature of MacLennan's novels that does seem to me new and interesting is his use of the geographical and the meteorological setting. He always shows us how the characters are situated—as they pursue their intrigues, undergo their ordeals or are driven by their desperate loves—in a vast expanse of land and water, the hardly inhabited spaces of the waste upper margin of a continent.

Edmund Wilson, in his O Canada: An American's Notes on Canadian Culture (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1964, 1965 by Edmund Wilson), Farrar, Straus, 1965, pp. 59-75.

The most notorious example of the Canadian imagination betrayed by critical self-consciousness is Hugh MacLennan's attempt to forge in his fiction our national identity. The two dominant preoccupations in his novels—his personal struggle for selfhood on the one hand and his public attempt to define the Canadian consciousness on the other—do not relate to each other in a genuine dialectic; rather the public ambition provides an escape from the irresolvable complexities of the personal dilemma. This pattern is constant in all of MacLennan's books. The imaginative core of his writing lies in the father-son relationship which in his first book, Barometer Rising, is set forth in the struggle between the young war victim, Neil MacRae, and his tyrannical uncle, Geoffrey Wain. But the drama in the novel is ultimately a false one, for this oedipal conflict is evaded by means of the Halifax harbour explosion; indeed there is never a confrontation between the antagonists, for the explosion conveniently kills Wain and leaves MacRae free to depart with Wain's daughter. In the last half of the book the Halifax disaster becomes the novel's authentic subject (again the documentary instinct in Canadian art), the external drama in the harbour and, finally, the question of Canada's international identity supplanting the novel's imaginative theme. This preoccupation with national identity reaches embarrassing proportions in Two Solitudes and The Watch That Ends the Night. Each Man's Son is potentially MacLennan's most effective novel for here he returns to the actual landscape of his Cape Breton childhood and the conflict is more genuinely painful because it is confused with feelings of nostalgia; but again the plot is resolved in deus ex machina fashion (MacLennan's classicism?) and the novel again has a hollow centre.

David Stouck, "Notes on the Canadian Imagination," in Canadian Literature, Autumn, 1972, pp. 9-26.