Raymond Knister 1899-1932
(Full name John Raymond Knister) Canadian novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, and critic.
Knister was known primarily for his realistic narratives set in rural Canada. While his works were not recognized by the general public during his lifetime, Knister was a highly respected member of the Canadian literary community during the 1920s and early 1930s, and recent criticism has acknowledged him as a pioneer in establishing a distinctively modern voice in Canadian literature.
Knister grew up on a farm near Comber in North Essex County, Ontario. He attended the University of Toronto, but was forced by poor health to return to his parents' farm. Around 1919, Knister began publishing critical essays, poems, and stories about rural Canadian life in various magazines. In 1922 and 1923 he worked as a reviewer for the Windsor Border Cities Star and the Detroit Free Press before moving to Iowa City to serve as editor of the avant-garde literary magazine The Midland and to attend Iowa State University. In 1924, Knister lived for a brief time in Chicago, where he worked as a taxi driver and published reviews for the Chicago Evening Post and Poetry magazine. Moving to Toronto in late 1924, he became a frequent contributor of articles and stories to the Toronto Star Weekly and made the acquaintance of several notable Canadian writers, including Morley Callaghan, Mazo de la Roche, Merrill Denison, and Charles G. D. Roberts. Knister married Myrtle Gamble in 1927, and their daughter Imogen was born in 1930. In 1931 Knister was awarded first prize in a publisher's contest for the unpublished manuscript of his novel My Star Predominant (1934), a fictional rendering of the life of John Keats. That same year he moved his family to Montreal where he became acquainted with such well-known writers as Leo Kennedy, Frederick Philip Grove, Dorothy Livesay, A.M. Klein, and F. R. Scott. In August, 1932, Knister drowned near Stoney Point on Lake St. Clair. Dorothy Livesay, in a memoir of Knister that was published in Collected Poems of Raymond Knister (1949), maintained that Knister's death was a suicide, but her conclusions have been strongly disputed by Knister's wife and daughter, and such critics as Marcus Waddington.
Knister's best known fiction and poetry reflects his desire to capture the essence of rural Canadian life. In White Narcissus, Knister delineated the struggle of Richard, a successful writer, as he attempts to convince his longtime girlfriend Ada to marry him and leave her parents behind in the small rural town where the two grew up. While the expressive prose style of White Narcissus has been generally well received, some critics have found Knister's use of symbolism awkward, and have faulted him for failing to fully develop the novel's themes and plots. Collected Poems of Raymond Knister contains such poems as "The Hawk," "Boy Remembers in the Fields," "Lake Harvest," "A Row of Stalls," and "The Plowman," which vividly depict rural experience and the Canadian landscape. In both his poetry and his fiction Knister presented sharply realistic portrayals of everyday images and events in order to illustrate their exceptional qualities, and communicated these impressions in a conversational language style. Speaking of Canadian literature and subject matter, Knister stated that "when we trust surely, see directly enough, life, ourselves, we may have our own Falstaffs and Shropshire Lads and Anna Kareninas."
White Narcissus (novel) 1929
My Star Predominant (novel) 1934
Collected Poems of Raymond Knister (poetry) 1949
Selected Stories of Raymond Knister (short stories) 1972
Raymond Knister: Poems, Stories, and Essays (poetry, short stories, and essays) 1975
The First Day of Spring: Stories and Other Prose (short stories and essays) 1976
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SOURCE: "A Canadian Novel," in The New York Times Book Review, August 25, 1925, p. 9.
[In the following review, the critic praises White Narcissus for its expressive prose style, but faults the novel's lack of substance and heavy-handed use of symbolism.]
Raymond Knister, a young Canadian writer, has produced in White Narcissus a first novel of very considerable charm. It is a supremely atmospheric story, in which dark and introspective moods are developed and elaborated somewhat at the expense of the plot. Mr. Knister's prose is an excellent medium for the expression of his emotional attitudes; it never flags and never becomes clogged or difficult. The result is a novel of memorable color, and of regrettably thin substance.
Richard Miln, the protagonist of the story, is a successful advertising man, who was born in a remote and rural section of a Canadian Province. He returns from time to time to the neighborhood of his youth—partly to renew old associations and to recover the sense of his own identity. Behind the nostalgia which draws him back to the country there is a deeper motive. He always returns to renew the offer of his love to Ada Lethen, the sweetheart of his childhood. Richard is convinced of Ada's love for him, but he never quite succeeds in breaking through the emotional barriers which her strange home had erected about her. Ada was the daughter of a...
(The entire section is 435 words.)
SOURCE: "Canadian Literati," in Journal of Canadian Fiction, Vol. IV, No. 2, 1975, pp. 160-68.
[In the following excerpt, written before his death in 1932 and published posthumously, Knister discusses the history and development of Canadian literature, using autobiographical information to describe critical reaction to his works.]
We have wanted to discover and create a new heaven and new earth here in Canada, and to make others see it. When we write a poem about the pines, a novel about the mounties, or paint a picture of geometric ice-floes, we hasten to ask each other, "Isn't this really Canadian? Isn't it different from the productions of efete Europe or the United States, where the people think only of dollars, paint skyscrapers, and write about stockyards. This Canada of ours is a wonderful country. Her mineral resources alone.…"
To be sure, different environments and modes of life do make for subtle differentiations in the human spirit. But our writers have seldom cared to probe deep enough to find them. We want to be different, but not too different. The ideal Canadian litterateur is a man who has been educated as an English gentleman, though certain New England Universities will pass; in addition he should know French and Quebec life. Nor should he forget his training, but write about Canada as accurately and sympathetically as possible from the point of view of an...
(The entire section is 2586 words.)
SOURCE: "Raymond Knister: A Biographical Note," in Journal of Canadian Fiction, Vol. IV, No. 2, 1975, pp. 175-92.
[In the following excerpt, Waddington traces connections between events in Knister's life and works.]
Knister's profound sympathy and understanding for the farming people with whom he grew up is continually revealed in his art. He believed that one of the functions of literature was to heighten cultural awareness. "When a literature has been built up from the soil of a country and the lives of its people", he wrote, "the latter become conscious in a new way of those scenes and that life" [quoted in Dorothy Livesay's "Memoir," in Collected Poems of Raymond Knister 1949]. He felt himself bound to express the truth about his community, the people who comprised it, and their way of life. "There was something about the life that I had lived, and all the other farm people around me, something that had to be expressed, though I didn't know just how" ["Canadian Literati," Knister Papers].
Knister's poems, like his stories, show him experimenting with new shapes and forms moulded out of the raw material of country life. His early stories and poems each present an integrity of 'Image', a wholeness of life in infinitely varying patterns. They are, all of them, redolent of the earth and of the sights and sounds which greet men as they toil over it.
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SOURCE: An introduction, in The First Day of Spring: Stories and Other Prose by Raymond Knister, University of Toronto Press, 1976, pp. xi-xxvi.
[Stevens is an English-born Canadian poet, critic, and educator. In the following excerpt, he surveys Knister's short stories, essays, and reviews.]
It is tempting to read the facts of Raymond Knister's life as a legend of the romantic artist, the writer whose blossoming career was cut short by early death. The parallel with someone like John Keats is uneasily apparent, particularly when one remembers that Knister wrote a novel My Star Predominant, based on the life of Keats, and shortly before his death Knister's wife reported in the diary she kept at that time that her husband was full of optimism about his future: he said, 'I feel just as Keats did when he said he was just coming into his powers. I feel as though I am just coming into mine.'
But the facts of Raymond Knister's life need no romantic interpretation. His life is illustrative of the role of the writer in the first decades of the twentieth century in Canada, and Knister himself seemed well aware of the difficulties involved in that role in this new country.
Raymond Knister was born in Ruscom, near Comber, in Essex County, Ontario on 27 May 1899. His father was of German stock, a man who industriously farmed the land in several places in Essex and Kent...
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SOURCE: "Comfortably Rural," in The Canadian Forum, Vol. LVII, No. 672, June-July, 1977, pp. 44-5.
[A Canadian educator and critic, Northey is the author of The Haunted Wilderness: The Gothic and Grotesque in Canadian Fiction (1976). In the following review, she praises Knister's diverse talents as a writer and critic, noting the authentic voice, nostalgia, and "concealed art" in The First Day of Spring.]
In his introduction to The First Day of Spring: Stories and Other Prose, Peter Stevens claims that Raymond Knister is a much more varied author than the scanty critical pronouncements maintain. By bringing together in one volume Knister's short stories, a series of his sketches about rural life, and a number of his critical essays, Stevens allows us to assess Knister's versatility and to discover little recognized talents.
A refreshing discovery is that Knister has a sense of humour. Dorothy Livesay has remarked on the sombre tone of his fiction. but the sketches, collected under the title "Corncob Corners and Other Places," are humorous in a homespun way. At times they have a gently ironic tone reminiscent of Leacock's treatment of Mariposa; occasionally they are as corny as the title suggests.
A more important realization afforded by Stevens' volume is that Knister was an astute critic who had a sensitive finger on the literary pulse of his...
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SOURCE: "Beyond Realism: Raymond Knister's White Narcissus," in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1978, pp. 70-7.
[In the following essay, Denham discusses the gothic and realist elements in White Narcissus.]
A renewal of interest in Raymond Knister is evident in three recently published collections of his work. To date, however, White Narcissus, his only novel set in Canada and first published in 1929, has provoked little attention apart from a paperback reprint in 1962 with an introduction by Philip Child. David Arnason suggests that this neglect is probably just as well: "The novel," he writes, "will not sustain hard and sophisticated academic analysis, but it will survive it ["Preface," Journal of Canadian Fiction, 1975]. Much of the scant commentary on White Narcissus has seen it as an early experiment in realism. Desmond Pacey, for instance, links Knister with Callaghan and Grove in moving Canadian fiction away from regional and historical romance towards a realistic rendering of ordinary places and events [Creative Writing in Canada, 1961]. Although most critics agree that the novel has serious flaws, they usually assert that its strength lies in its rendering of the life of a particular place and time. Philip Child, for example, insists on Knister's "success in describing farm life and manners, and … his splendid talent for catching, with simple...
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SOURCE: "Point of View in White Narcissus," in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1978, pp. 119-23.
[In the following essay, Clever notes that Knister's narrative technique in White Narcissus, undermines the effectiveness of the novel.]
[In his introduction to White Narcissus], Philip Child claims that in Raymond Knister's White Narcissus "the narrative is in the third person, but it is told through Richard's consciousness even though the story is more Ada's than his." If the story were told this way, the novel would be less disconcerting to read. In fact, Knister has little control over point of view, as Child's later comment, "In the case of Richard and Ada … the core of their characters is blurred by the fog of their wavering moods," tacitly acknowledges.
A casual reader looking into the book might concur with Child's first assertion. In the opening paragraphs Knister lets us into Richard's consciousness: "He found incredibly foreign the road down which he swung … He felt lost… It was an immediate relief.… Milne was inclined to wonder…" But any closer reading soon shows the randomness of point of view. Take the statement that "a boy of eleven with yellow hair on a thin neck rushed around the corner of the house …" Richard could apprehend the boy's appearance, but since he does not know the boy, how does he apprehend at first glance...
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Burke, A. "Raymond Knister: An Annotated Checklist." Essays on Canadian Writing 16 (Fall-Winter 1979-1980): 20-61.
Comprehensive annotated bibliography of works by and about Knister; includes information on unpublished works collected in various archives.
Livesay, Dorothy. "Raymond Knister: A Memoir." In Collected Poems of Raymond Knister, by Raymond Knister, pp. xi-xii. Toronto: Ryerson, 1949.
Traces Knister's career and interprets his writings as well as events preceding his death, portraying the author as a depressed, frustrated artist and likening him to John Keats and Ranier Maria Rilke.
Child, Philip. Introduction to White Narcissus, by Raymond Knister, pp. 7-16. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1962.
Draws upon Livesay's memoir for biographical information and discusses symbolism, realism, and unadorned style in White Narcissus.
Kennedy, Leo. "Raymond Knister." The Canadian Forum (September 1932): 459-61.
Mostly favorable commentary on White Narcissus and My Star Predominant, praising characterization and plot development, but faulting an incomplete "embodiment of significant theme" in White Narcissus.
Stevens, Peter. "The Old Futility of Art:...
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