After a publisher had rejected one of MacLennan’s first novels, suggesting that it needed a stronger sense of locale, the publisher became an external force that directed the young writer’s focus to the Canadian scene. When, in 1960, the great American editor and critic Edmund Wilson found in MacLennan’s essays “a Canadian way of looking at things which had little in common with either the ’American’ or the British colonial one and which has achieved a self-confident detachment in regard to the rest of the world,” he set his seal on the reputation of MacLennan as a Canadian nationalist. Although it is true that his seven published novels are set in Canadian culture and that his heroes, like the author himself, come home again, it is also true that MacLennan’s world travels and his studies of classics and history in universities of three nations, as well as his Canadian heritage, have informed his thinking and his novels.
In his doctoral research in 1935, for instance, MacLennan found that the private enterprise responsible for Rome’s greatness “was also responsible for the reduction of democratic communities to quasi-feudal serfdom.” As early as Two Solitudes, MacLennan warned against the dangers of uncontrolled capitalism. In his next novel, The Precipice, the same message appears as a denial of the value of the American Dream. Later, in 1960, MacLennan identified another element of the cycle of history. From a book by Gordon Rattray Taylor, MacLennan adapted the Freudian notion that “the extreme father-identifier, the ’patrist’ is compelled by hidden psychological needs to crave authority,” whereas the mother-identifier, the matrist, “hates conflict . . . is bored by power . . . tends toward democracy” and “softens by corruption any authoritarian institutions he has inherited.” In history, matrist and patrist political systems alternate. Disturbed by the permissiveness of the 1960’s and 1970’s, MacLennan foresees in Voices in Time democratic freedom declining into chaos and ushering in a new authoritarianism as antidote.
All of MacLennan’s novels treat the conflicts of father and son, not only because MacLennan spent years coming to terms with his own stern father, but also because MacLennan knows his Freud and his Sophocles. Scholar Alec Lucas points out numerous Oedipus motifs in the novels: “heroes with physical defects,” “separation from the father; the search for a father during which . . . [the son] discovers himself,” “kindly foster-parents, and sexual attraction to a member of one’s own family or a maternal female.” In MacLennan’s first three novels, Barometer Rising, Two Solitudes, and The Precipice, the rebellious sons never come to terms with their fathers or their fathers’ sexuality. In Each Man’s Son, however, the middle-aged son gives up the ghost of his father, and in The Watch That Ends the Night, MacLennan turns Dr. Jerome Martell, a parallel to his own father, into a Christ figure. By 1980, MacLennan himself has turned into a father, critical of the permissive younger generation; but his author figure, childless John Wellfleet in Voices in Time, becomes the kindly teaching father to the children of the future.
MacLennan scholar T. D. MacLulich says that MacLennan’s historical study leaves him uncertain as to whether society’s course is determined by forces beyond human control. The play of human will against externally determined destiny is also the subject of Sophocles’ great Oedipus tragedies, which MacLennan loved. The thinker who grew up with a Calvinist father and who came to manhood during the Great Depression might well be inclined to see the external as determiner. Yet critics who fault MacLennan for the use of external determiners are unwise. Such events as the Halifax Harbor explosion in Barometer Rising, which frees Neil Macrae from a disgrace (also externally caused by a false accuser), are actual determiners in real life; and it is his reaction to the suffering caused by the explosion that frees Neil from the desire for revenge. Yet the lesson of tragedy and of life is that the noble individual must struggle against determinism or, unable to prevail, accept fate with dignity and self-control. MacLennan and his heroes do one or the other; they are never craven.
The great myth of the struggle of life—of will against determinism—is that of Odysseus. That myth recurs in all the novels. Like Odysseus, Neil Macrae in Barometer Rising comes home unknown to Halifax from World War I, wounded and disgraced, to reclaim his identity and his place in society, to take vengeance on his enemy, and to restore his house. Neil and his faithful Penny and their son are reunited in seasoned happiness like that of Odysseus, Penelope, and Telemachus. In Each Man’s Son, structured like the Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614) with counterpointed scenes at home and in the world, Archie MacNeil, a boxer, lacks Odysseus’s cunning to survive the exploitation of prizefighting, and his wife, Mollie, lacks the strength to resist her suitor. On his return, Archie kills Mollie and her lover and dies, but “Telemachus” (the son) survives to live with Dr. Ainslie, a Calvinist mentor at...
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