Hugh MacLennan MacLennan, Hugh (Vol. 92) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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 Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Oxyrhynchus: An Economic and Social Study (nonfiction) 1935
Barometer Rising (novel) 1941
Two Solitudes (novel) 1945
The Precipice (novel) 1948
Cross-Country (essays) 1949
Each Man's Son (novel) 1951
Thirty and Three (essays) 1955
The Watch That Ends the Night (novel) 1959
Scotchman's Return, and Other Essays (essays) 1960; also published as Scotman's Return, and Other Essays, 1960
Seven Rivers of Canada (essays) 1961; also published as Rivers of Canada [revised edition], 1962
Return of the Sphinx (novel) 1967
The Other Side of Hugh MacLennan: Selected Essays Old and New (essays) 1978
Voices in Time (novel) 1980
On Being a Maritime Writer (nonfiction) 1984

Robert H. Cockburn (essay date 1969)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Two Solitudes," in The Novels of Hugh MacLennan, Harvest House Ltd., 1969, pp. 47-69.

[In the following excerpt, Cockburn provides an in-depth analysis of character, theme, and setting in Two Solitudes. Overall, he finds the first half of the novel aesthetically and intellectually superior to the second.]

The title of MacLennan's second novel has long since passed into the language as a common descriptive phrase of Canadians; and Two Solitudes is probably still the best-known of his books. MacLennan wrote it, one feels certain, because of the importance of the theme; here was a chance to examine the major rift in Canadian life; here,...

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Alec Lucas (essay date 1970)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Constructing a Canada," in Hugh MacLennan, McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1970, pp. 10-17.

[In the following excerpt, Lucas remarks on the main themes of MacLennan's fiction.]

MacLennan served a long apprenticeship to his trade. He never woke to find himself famous. His was a long, slow climb beset by graduate studies, newspaper work, and the chalk-and-blackboard-chore of teaching at Lower Canada College (1935–1945)—as well as by his failure to publish his first three works of fiction: an international novel, So All Their Praises, completed at Princeton (1933), Man Should Rejoice (1937), another international novel, and Augustus...

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David Arnason (essay date Fall 1972)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Canadian Nationalism in Search of a Form: Hugh MacLennan's Barometer Rising," in Journal of Canadian Fiction, Vol. 1, No. 4, Fall, 1972, pp. 68-71.

[In the essay below, Arnason discusses MacLennan's formulation of a Canadian consciousness in Barometer Rising and Two Solitudes.]

Hugh MacLennan published his first novel, Barometer Rising, in 1941. Since that time, he has become the "grand old man" of Canadian novelists, an assessment that has little to do with his age or the quality of his achievement, but is rather an acknowledgement that the development of a Canadian consciousness is paralleled in the development of his work.


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Patricia A. Morley (essay date 1972)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "MacLennan's Early Novels: Life Against Death," in The Immoral Moralists: Hugh MacLennan and Leonard Cohen, Clarke, Irwin & Company, 1972, pp. 37-52.

[In the following excerpt, Morley discusses MacLennan's treatment of puritanism and sexuality in Barometer Rising, Two Solitudes, and The Precipice.]

In his study of the psychoanalytical meaning of history [Life Against Death, 1970], Norman O. Brown describes Freud's theory of the dualism which underlies human conflicts, a dualism which Freud sees in terms of two basic instincts driving men towards life or death. This dualism is grounded in the very nature of life. Freud describes the instincts...

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Hugh MacLennan with Ronald Sutherland (interview date Spring-Summer 1976)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview in Canadian Literature, Nos. 68-69, Spring-Summer, 1976, pp. 40-8.

[In the following interview, MacLennan discusses various influences on his writing.]

[Sutherland]: How long have you been here in Quebec, Hugh?

[MacLennan]: I came to Quebec the fall of 1935 to teach for Lower Canada College and live in at $25.00 a week. I came late in the term, because they simply had to get somebody else, I suppose. And I've been permanently based in Montreal ever since then.

Did you come directly from the Maritimes?

Directly from Halifax. I did not have a job. I got my Doctor's degree at...

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Warren Stevenson (essay date Winter 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Neglected Theme in Two Solitudes," in Canadian Literature, No. 75, Winter, 1977, pp. 53-60.

[In the essay below, Stevenson argues that the idea of "individual self-awareness" is an important though neglected secondary theme that adds to the unity of Two Solitudes.]

It has become almost a commonplace of criticism of Hugh MacLennan's Two Solitudes to say that the novel succeeds brilliantly up to the end of the twenty-ninth chapter, portraying the death of Athanase Tallard, but is less convincing in the last twenty-three chapters portraying the symbolic resolution of the theme in the education and maturation of the members of the second...

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Robert D. Chambers (essay date Winter 1979–80)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hugh MacLennan and Religion: The Precipice Revisited," in Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d'études canadiennes, Vol. 14, No. 4, Winter, 1979–80, pp. 46-53.

[In the essay below, Chambers discusses The Precipice as an examination of "developments in modern North American consciousness."]

A few years ago, in the course of a review [in University of Toronto Quarterly (Summer 1971)] of critical opinion about Hugh MacLennan's novels, I summarized—perhaps cavalierly—the general response to The Precipice (1948): "a disaster on every count." That judgment was directed at the novel's techniques, particularly MacLennan's tendency to...

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Stephen Bonnycastle (essay date Winter 1979–80)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Power of The Watch that Ends the Night," in Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d'études canadiennes, Vol. 14, No. 4, Winter, 1979–80, pp. 76-89.

[In the following essay, Bonnycastle provides a structural analysis of MacLennan's novel, focusing on the protagonist's consciousness and MacLennan's recurring passages of lyrical description.]

The Watch that Ends the Night has had a notable success in Canada and abroad. There seems to be agreement that it is MacLennan's best novel, and a fairly general consensus that it is one of the most important novels in the body of Canadian literature. Many critics have written about it, either in short...

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Elspeth Cameron (essay date Autumn 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Not With a Whimper: Hugh MacLennan's Voices in Time," in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 20, No. 2, Autumn, 1981, pp. 279-92.

[In the following excerpt, Cameron examines MacLennan's thematic treatment of technology and power.]

"If I have been prophetic in my earlier novels, it would not be pleasant if I were prophetic in this one," Hugh MacLennan commented [to Burt Heward in "Masterful Novel Protests Humanity's Ignorance," Citizen Ottawa, (27 September 1980)] of his latest novel, Voices in Time. Certainly if a mighty nuclear blast such as the one he describes taking place near the end of this century were indeed to shake the...

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Barbara Pell (essay date Spring 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Faith and Fiction: Hugh MacLennan's The Watch That Ends the Night," in Canadian Literature, No. 128, Spring, 1991, pp. 39-50.

[In the following essay, Pell examines religious and spiritual themes in The Watch That Ends the Night, arguing that the novel's primary subject is a "search for religious peace—a truce between man's spirit and his fate."]

There is an inherent tension, even conflict, between faith and fiction. The modern realistic novel has a professed mimetic relationship to the post-Christian era we live in that is artistically inimical to acts of grace and expressions of faith. This conflict is somewhat analogous to the crisis in modern...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Cameron, Elspeth. "Hugh MacLennan: An Annotated Bibliography." In The Annotated Bibliography of Canada's Major Authors, edited by Robert Lecker and Jack David, pp. 103-53. Downsview, Ontario: ECW Press, 1979.

Lists books, essays, and reviews by MacLennan as well as citations and annotations for criticism on his works.


Cameron, Elspeth. Hugh MacLennan: A Writer's Life. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981, 426 p.

Traces MacLennan's life and artistic development, with a chapter devoted to each novel.


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