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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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...
(The entire section is 863 words.)