MacLennan, (John) Hugh
MacLennan, (John) Hugh 1907–
A Canadian novelist, essayist, and editor, MacLennan has emerged as a major voice in Canadian literature. Dealing almost exclusively with nationalistic themes in his work, he has created many vivid portraits of the Canadian character and experience. If not strikingly innovative, his work is skillfully crafted, and has played a positive role in the development of a Canadian identity. (See also CLC, Vol. 2, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
The reason for MacLennan's reputation, and for his undoubted importance as a novelist, are to be found in the original way in which he has interpreted the Canadian scene to his fellow countrymen rather than in any originality of approach to the art of the novel itself. Indeed, if we are concerned with fictional technique, one of the most striking characteristics of Barometer Rising and MacLennan's four later novels is their relative conservatism. They are unashamedly didactic; they rely heavily on environmental atmosphere and local colour; their characterisation is oversimplified and moralistic in tone; their language is descriptive rather than evocative; and their action tends to be shaped externally by a Hardyesque use of circumstance and coincidence. What does distinguish them is MacLennan's combination of theme and symbol—his development of the problems of individuals in an emerging nation by means of action built on a simple but powerful foundation of universal myth.
The myth is that of Odysseus translated into terms of modern living; the Odyssey itself was the product of a people in the process of becoming aware of itself, and, appropriately, the theme which MacLennan uses it to illuminate is the growth of a Canadian national consciousness. Indeed, the most striking—and in some ways the most jarring—feature of MacLennan's books is the degree to which the national theme in its various aspects forms an imposed...
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Over the years, through a steadily deepening analysis of the national scene, Hugh MacLennan has been exploring the meaning of Canadianism; each of his novels, in some manner, has been a variation on this theme. His long study of all aspects of the Canadian character has peculiarly fitted him for the writing of The Watch that Ends the Night in which he traces Canada's coming-of-age. More important, in this novel he has gone back to examine what he feels are the character-shaping protoforms of the Canadian identity as exemplified by the fur trader. In one magnificent chapter of The Watch that Ends the Night in which the boy Jerome escapes down the wilderness river in his canoe, Hugh MacLennan is giving us his version not only of the Canadian character, but of the Canadian myth.
The most rewarding, and probably the shortest, route into MacLennan's latest novels is through his essay "The People Behind this Peculiar Nation." In this brief study MacLennan wrote that the fur trade has been as basic to the Canadian character as the sea has been to England's; that nations as well as children tend to forget the events of early years; that these events sink into and become part of the national subconscious. The true makers of Canada, he maintains, were not the Victorians whose ghastly statues surround the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, but the voyageurs…. If we accept true myth as originating in either the historical or the...
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[Return of the Sphinx] contains a great many insights which are pertinent and valuable…. [It] is probably the most important Canadian novel to appear for many years. I emphasize the word Canadian, and I am going to make a general observation about the works of Hugh MacLennan which may disturb some critics in this country. As I have become more and more deeply involved and conversant with Canadian literature in both languages, it has become increasingly evident to me that Hugh MacLennan is one of the few writers in the emerging mainstream. By mainstream I mean that sphere of experience, consciousness and identification which is essentially and peculiarly Canadian. (p. 15)
[The] main distinguishing feature [of that sphere of consciousness] would have to be dependent upon the main distinguishing feature of the Canadian Nation—the co-existence of two major ethnic groups. To be in the emerging mainstream of Canadian literature, therefore, a writer must have some awareness of fundamental aspects and attitudes of both language groups in Canada. It is just such awareness on the part of a few which is slowly moulding a single, common Canadian mystique out of the previous parallel threads of evolution. The parallel threads, of course, are still there, and the majority of Canadian writers seem content, in some cases consciously determined to continue the process. But Hugh MacLennan is one exception. And not only is MacLennan one of the...
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It has become almost a commonplace of criticism of Hugh MacLennan's Two Solitudes to say that the novel succeeds brilliantly up to the end of the twenty-ninth chapter, portraying the death of Athanase Tallard, but is less convincing in the last twenty-three chapters portraying the symbolic resolution of the theme in the education and maturation of the members of the second generation, Paul Tallard and Heather Methuen, and their eventual marriage…. I think the time has come for a reassessment of this position. (p. 53)
It has also become a commonplace of criticism of Two Solitudes that "the idea of Canadian unity becomes the main symbolic theme," which MacLennan attempts to embody in the lives of his characters. Without pretending to deny the primacy of the theme of Canadian self-awareness and unity, I would like to suggest that the novel contains an important subsidiary theme which most critics have overlooked and which helps to unify the novel. I refer to the theme of individual self-awareness, worked out in terms of a contrast between two types of persons, those who learn to come to terms with what MacLennan calls "the ultimate solitude" and those who don't. The title thus has another dimension than the French-English dichotomy to which it is usually applied. The quotation from Rilke which constitutes the novel's epigraph is an important clue to its meaning: "Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect, and...
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[The] charge of turgidness or parochialism which comes from misunderstanding MacLennan's novels cannot in all fairness be levelled at [the essays in The Other Side of Hugh MacLennan]. Indeed, what he seems best at is the light, the witty, and the exotic. The evocations of English eccentrics are delightful and precise, the recreations of the Halifax past acknowledge that it has all fled and gone, while even the high-table pieces on "Literature and Technology" or "Scotland's Fate: Canada's Lesson" admit that one should be concerned not so much with outdoing George Grant as with keeping the audience awake before the brandy arrives. (p. 57)
MacLennan's way of looking at the world, like that of James Reaney and D. H. Lawrence, has been shaped by apocalyptic Christianity. But whereas Lawrence fought the shaping and Reaney carefully sought external situations through which that shaping power might express itself, MacLennan has lived in uneasy truce with it all of his life. The terms of surrender have never been signed.
The very concern with audience that lends his lighter work so much charm works against the full expression of this deeper current, while his concern with history leads him to give voice to the more powerful strains of Christianity which existed in his society and which were non-apocalyptic…. But the apocalyptic vision is not rooted in social change or expressed through social change; it is far more...
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Catherine Sheldrick Ross
The six novels that form the MacLennan canon explore for us, in specifically Canadian terms, a familiar pattern of the humanist's quest for an ideal society, consequent disillusionment and despair, and finally spiritual transcendence. There are striking parallels between the narrator's sense, by the end of Barometer Rising, that he is witnessing "a great country move into its destiny" and the Renaissance humanist's feeling of historic participation in rebirth from Gothic darkness. In their desire to provide an ideal literary model for Canada's development, MacLennan's early novels resemble the numerous mirrors for Christian Princes and the literary models for ideal societies written during the Renaissance. The increasingly sombre tone of the later novels is an acknowledgement that the gap between the ideal model and the actual Canada is as unbridgeable as the gap between Erasmus' "Philosophy of Christ" and the statecraft of Henry VIII. (p. 5)
MacLennan's six novels, from Barometer Rising to Return of the Sphinx, develop according to this pattern. The national odyssey of the early novels to find an ideal Canada becomes a quest for the otherworldly Celestial City. The change occurs midway in The Watch That Ends the Night and accounts for that novel's noticeable shift in tone from the detailed, realistic account of the Thirties experience at the beginning to the spiritualized conclusion in which the everyday...
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