Hugh MacLennan Additional Biography


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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(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.