Hugh MacLennan 1907–1990
(Full name John Hugh MacLennan) Canadian novelist and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of MacLennan's career, focusing on his novels. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2 and 14.
A distinguished figure in modern Canadian literature, MacLennan is known for his vivid portrayal of the Canadian character and experience. Although his novels usually address regional concerns, critics have observed that his skillful craftsmanship and sensitive exploration of such broad themes as father-son relationships, various manifestations of the abuse of power, and the social and moral disintegration of the twentieth century, have made his works accessible to readers around the world. As J. E. Morpurgo has stated: "Among Canadian novelists Hugh MacLennan was the most consistent in his ability to create an essentially Canadian mythology without abdicating the novelist's responsibility to be at once idiosyncratic and universally comprehensible."
A fourth-generation Nova Scotian of Highland Scots heritage, MacLennan was born in Glace Bay on Cape Breton Island, a coal-mining town in Nova Scotia, where his father ran a medical practice. When MacLennan was eight the family moved to Halifax, which served as a naval base during World War I, and his father joined the Canadian army. In December 1917 a munitions ship collided with a relief ship in the Halifax harbor, causing an explosion which destroyed a large portion of the town and killed almost 2,000 people. MacLennan witnessed the devastation caused by this accident and later used the event as the focal point of his first published novel, Barometer Rising (1941). MacLennan's father constantly encouraged him to excel in both athletic and scholastic endeavors, particularly tennis and classical Greek and Latin studies. From 1924 to 1928 MacLennan studied at Dalhousie University in Halifax, graduating with a Governor General's medal for classical studies and a Rhodes scholarship. During the next four years MacLennan continued his studies in classics at Oxford University in England. Upon graduation, he applied for a position in the classics department at Dalhousie, but, after being turned down in favor of an Englishman, began his doctoral studies at Princeton University in 1932. While at Princeton, MacLennan began writing fiction; his first published work, however, was his doctoral dissertation Oxyrhynchus (1935), which examined the social and economic causes of the decline of an early Roman colony in Egypt. In 1935 MacLennan began teaching history and classics at a pri-vate boys' school in Montreal. Following the popular and critical success of his first two novels, Barometer Rising and Two Solitudes (1945), MacLennan resigned his teaching position in 1945 to devote himself to his literary career. Although he received numerous awards and honors during the following years, his subsequent works were generally less successful financially, and in 1951 he returned to teaching part-time at McGill University, where he remained until his retirement in 1979.
Set during World War I, Barometer Rising focuses on Neil Macrae, a disgraced young military officer who returns to Halifax in 1917 to wreak vengeance upon Colonel Wain, the officer who falsely blamed him for a bungled mission, and to resume his romantic relationship with Penny, the colonel's daughter. Before Macrae can carry out his plan for revenge, two ships collide in the harbor causing an explosion which kills many of the town's residents, including Colonel Wain. Neil demonstrates his heroism during the cleanup effort following the explosion and subsequent blizzard; he is reunited with Penny at the novel's end. Barometer Rising is considered an important expression of the increased spirit of nationalism and independence that arose in Canada during the early part of the twentieth century. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the novel's publication, William H. New commented on the allegorical nature of the novel, observing that "the two generations into which the central characters divide … represent the young Canada and the controlling Great Britain; the explosion which figures as a prominent event in the story represents both the First World War and the political severance between Canada and Britain, which historically accompanied it. The novel is also a work that can be read with interest outside Canada, for the conflict that it depicts is ultimately not limited by national boundaries." Focusing primarily on the period between the world wars, MacLennan's Two Solitudes examines the conflict between Canada's Catholic, French-speaking heritage and its Protestant, English-speaking one. Through an assorted cast of characters—including a wealthy Quebec landowner, a writer, and an English-Canadian industrialist—the novel explores the social and political conflicts between English and French Canadians, suggesting that the two cultures should resolve their differences. Set partly in a fictive Ontario town and partly in New York and Princeton, The Precipice (1948) delineates a romance between a Canadian woman and an American engineer while simultaneously comparing and contrasting American and Canadian views on material success, technology, and religion, particularly the guilt-complex as derived from Canadian Puritanism. Noted for its authentic local color and dialogue, Each Man's Son (1951) centers on Dr. Daniel Ainslie, a physician in a small Canadian mining town on Cape Breton Island who is troubled by insecurity about his religious faith, his relationship with his father, and his wife's inability to bear children. Desiring a child to restore meaning to his life, Ainslie adopts a boy named Alan, the orphaned son of a local boxer. Return of the Sphinx (1967), the sequel to Each Man's Son, centers on Alan Ainslie's troubled relationships with his children during the social and political turmoil in Quebec during the 1960s. One of MacLennan's most successful novels, The Watch That Ends the Night (1959) explores the insecurities of Canadians who grew up between the world wars by relating the impact of international events on the narrator, his wife, and her former husband. Widely translated, this novel is noted for its psychological insight, characterization, and humor. MacLennan's last novel, Voices in Time (1980), is similarly concerned with international events. Set in the year 2039 after a nuclear holocaust has destroyed most of civilization, Voices in Time relates the efforts of an elderly man to make sense of the letters, diaries, and videotapes left to him by two of his relatives, a German historian who participated in Nazi atrocities and a radical Canadian television personality who provoked social disturbances during the 1960s. Voices in Time garnered praise for its sophisticated exploration of humanity's abuse of power.
Critical reaction to MacLennan's work has been mixed. Although he received three Governor General's awards for fiction—for Two Solitudes, The Precipice, and The Watch That Ends the Night—and two for nonfiction—for Cross-Country (1949) and Thirty and Three (1955)—some critics have faulted his methods as outdated and have lamented what they consider his tendency toward didacticism. Many scholars have, however, praised his concern with the human condition, his exploration of the Canadian character and the tensions in Canadian society, his efforts to combine realism and symbolism, and his interest in the theme of power. Remarking on Voices in Time, which many critics regard as MacLennan's most accomplished work, Elspeth Cameron has stated that MacLennan's "enduring central theme has been the choice facing all men: whether power is to be used for constructive or destructive ends, a theme he has treated with increasing complexity and impact." Commenting on MacLennan's literary career, Canadian novelist Robertson Davies has observed that "Hugh MacLennan has not written nice books, but the best books of which he was capable, and they have not always been easy or friendly reading. Always there has been that exploration of his very own Canadian consciousness, which has thrown up boulders of philosophical disquisition on what might have been the smooth lawns of his story-telling. He has refused to bury the rocks and roll the lawns, and has taken the consequences of his decision." While MacLennan's works have not been greeted with universal acclaim, his gift for eliciting understanding and appreciation of Canada and its people have established him as an important and influential figure in Canadian literature.