Hugh MacLennan MacLennan, (John) Hugh - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

MacLennan, (John) Hugh 1907–

A Canadian novelist, essayist, and editor, MacLennan has emerged as a major voice in Canadian literature. Dealing almost exclusively with nationalistic themes in his work, he has created many vivid portraits of the Canadian character and experience. If not strikingly innovative, his work is skillfully crafted, and has played a positive role in the development of a Canadian identity. (See also CLC, Vol. 2, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

George Woodcock

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The reason for MacLennan's reputation, and for his undoubted importance as a novelist, are to be found in the original way in which he has interpreted the Canadian scene to his fellow countrymen rather than in any originality of approach to the art of the novel itself. Indeed, if we are concerned with fictional technique, one of the most striking characteristics of Barometer Rising and MacLennan's four later novels is their relative conservatism. They are unashamedly didactic; they rely heavily on environmental atmosphere and local colour; their characterisation is oversimplified and moralistic in tone; their language is descriptive rather than evocative; and their action tends to be shaped externally by a Hardyesque use of circumstance and coincidence. What does distinguish them is MacLennan's combination of theme and symbol—his development of the problems of individuals in an emerging nation by means of action built on a simple but powerful foundation of universal myth.

The myth is that of Odysseus translated into terms of modern living; the Odyssey itself was the product of a people in the process of becoming aware of itself, and, appropriately, the theme which MacLennan uses it to illuminate is the growth of a Canadian national consciousness. Indeed, the most striking—and in some ways the most jarring—feature of MacLennan's books is the degree to which the national theme in its various aspects forms an imposed pattern within which the lives of the characters tend to be worked out rather than working themselves out…. This predominance of the national theme is a factor that must be taken into account in any attempt to understand MacLennan's work, since it bears a close relationship to his most evident weaknesses as a novelist, and also since its progressive assimilation into a fictionally viable form runs parallel to his growth towards maturity as a writer. (pp. 7-8)

MacLennan not merely establishes in Barometer Rising a Homeric plot of the wanderer returning to a mysteriously changed homeland. He also uses for the first time a group of symbolic characters which will recur in various permutations in his later novels; the returning wanderer, the waiting woman, the fatherless child, the wise doctor—sometimes transformed into the wise old man, and the primitive, violent, but essentially good giant. If we wish to seek a Homeric parallel, the quintet of Odysseus, Penelope, Telemachus, Mentor and Eumaeus seems obvious, though MacLennan is too good a writer to follow the pattern slavishly, and we shall see the relationships of these five basic characters changing from novel to novel until, in The Watch that Ends the Night, the wanderer, the wise doctor and the primitive giant are finally united in that super-Odysseus, Jerome Martell.

There are some satisfying things in Barometer Rising. The atmosphere—the very physical feeling—of Halifax four decades ago is admirably recreated, and the action moves with the right momentum towards the grand climax of the explosion. And this event is celebrated in a passage of fine reconstructive reporting which establishes at the outset the power of describing action in which MacLennan has always excelled. The later chapters narrating the rescue work are maintained at a level of sustained vigour, and the diminuendo from catastrophe to the saddened realisation of human happiness when Neil and Penelope are finally and fully reunited gives the appropriate last touch to the novel's balance.

But these virtues, which make Barometer Rising a constantly interesting book, are balanced by defects which are due partly to deficiencies in technique and partly to MacLennan's view of life and the world. For example, the relationship between the lovers is the least convincing of all the relationships in the novel because of a curiously embarrassed clumsiness which makes MacLennan incapable of dealing with any aspect of sex except in high-mindedly sentimental terms. (pp. 9-10)

More serious, because it seems to spring from a philosophic fatalism perennial in MacLennan's attitude, is the mechanical impetus that at times—and particularly during the explosion—takes the action wholly out of the hands of the characters. (p. 10)

The final flaw of Barometer Rising comes from the too articulate concern of the major characters with the destiny of Canada. There are times when this theme assumes a crude and abstract form which tears like a jagged spur into the unity of both feeling and style….

MacLennan's second and third novels, Two Solitudes and The Precipice, are even more dominated than Barometer Rising by the effort to create the arch of Canadian unity, and, because everything else in them is eventually subordinated to the elaboration of the national theme, they are the least successful of MacLennan's novels, in human understanding and formal cohesion alike. (p. 11)

[The] first part of Two Solitudes has a close unity; it is bound together by the common anxieties of war and by the virtual identity of the larger problem of racial conflict with the actual lives and relationships of the characters. The problem seems to grow with the story rather than the story being fabricated to suit the problem, and the characters, Father Beaubien, Captain Yardley, the financier Huntly McQueen, Athanase himself, are up to this point well-knit and self-consistent. If Two Solitudes had ended with Tallard's death, it would have been a moving and cohesive book. But up to this point it merely presents the problem of racial relations; it does not have the logical completeness of presenting a solution, and this MacLennan seeks, at the expense of his novel, in its later chapters.

After Tallard's death the central character becomes his second son, Paul, a Telemachus fated to complete his father's unfinished Odyssey…. [He] can speak English without a French accent and French without an English...

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Dorothy Farmiloe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Over the years, through a steadily deepening analysis of the national scene, Hugh MacLennan has been exploring the meaning of Canadianism; each of his novels, in some manner, has been a variation on this theme. His long study of all aspects of the Canadian character has peculiarly fitted him for the writing of The Watch that Ends the Night in which he traces Canada's coming-of-age. More important, in this novel he has gone back to examine what he feels are the character-shaping protoforms of the Canadian identity as exemplified by the fur trader. In one magnificent chapter of The Watch that Ends the Night in which the boy Jerome escapes down the wilderness river in his canoe, Hugh MacLennan is giving us his version not only of the Canadian character, but of the Canadian myth.

The most rewarding, and probably the shortest, route into MacLennan's latest novels is through his essay "The People Behind this Peculiar Nation." In this brief study MacLennan wrote that the fur trade has been as basic to the Canadian character as the sea has been to England's; that nations as well as children tend to forget the events of early years; that these events sink into and become part of the national subconscious. The true makers of Canada, he maintains, were not the Victorians whose ghastly statues surround the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, but the voyageurs…. If we accept true myth as originating in either the historical or the religious background of a people and belonging to their collective subconscious, then it becomes clear that Hugh MacLennan is leading us, in this essay, toward his definition of the Canadian myth. In the significant section dealing with Jerome's childhood in The Watch that Ends the Night …, MacLennan has consciously embodied in narrative form all the mythic elements of our early history that he had outlined in his essay.

This chapter is a flashback episode, one of many, in the life of Jerome Martell told partly in his words and partly in the words of the protagonist George Stewart. The boy's experience is a mythologized version of the early years of this country. Jerome, having inadvertently witnessed his mother's murder, flees the community of the lumber camp to face the utter loneliness of the virgin wilderness. The social myth pursues him in the form of the Engineer; here is Jerome's description of him:

"There was a man that winter," he said, "that used to frighten me the way a snake frightens me now. There was nothing snake-like about his appearance, but there was a look in his eye, the way he had of looking at everybody. He never talked at all, and when he drank he drank sullenly. We all called him the Engineer because … he was the only man in camp who could keep the motorboat in repair. He was dark and lean and he had this queer, drawn look in his face, and he used to carry a spanner wherever he went…."…

(pp. 1-2)

The entire chapter is related with deliberate simplicity and understated emotion in passages that, like the one above suggesting the sullen ugliness of a mechanical civilization, are cumulatively and powerfully effective. In contrast to the Engineer, Jerome symbolizes the Voyageur. His lonely struggle to escape, his attitude to his predicament, his native fortitude and resourcefulness, all add up to a display of the same survival tactics that enabled the early coureurs de bois to exist in the wilderness. (pp....

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Ronald Sutherland

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Return of the Sphinx] contains a great many insights which are pertinent and valuable…. [It] is probably the most important Canadian novel to appear for many years. I emphasize the word Canadian, and I am going to make a general observation about the works of Hugh MacLennan which may disturb some critics in this country. As I have become more and more deeply involved and conversant with Canadian literature in both languages, it has become increasingly evident to me that Hugh MacLennan is one of the few writers in the emerging mainstream. By mainstream I mean that sphere of experience, consciousness and identification which is essentially and peculiarly Canadian. (p. 15)

[The] main distinguishing feature [of that sphere of consciousness] would have to be dependent upon the main distinguishing feature of the Canadian Nation—the co-existence of two major ethnic groups. To be in the emerging mainstream of Canadian literature, therefore, a writer must have some awareness of fundamental aspects and attitudes of both language groups in Canada. It is just such awareness on the part of a few which is slowly moulding a single, common Canadian mystique out of the previous parallel threads of evolution. The parallel threads, of course, are still there, and the majority of Canadian writers seem content, in some cases consciously determined to continue the process. But Hugh MacLennan is one exception. And not only is MacLennan one of the few in the mainstream; his body of works is the current which has given that mainstream definition and momentum. It is not surprising that the perceptive American critic Edmund Wilson, in describing his reaction to Hugh MacLennan, should say, "I came to recognize that there did now exist a Canadian way of looking at things."… So many other Canadian writers … are in the tributaries rather than the mainstream. And what is more, they are in the tributaries of American literature, not Canadian. Which does not mean, of course, that the work of these authors has any less literary merit. Indeed, in terms of universality of theme and appeal it could mean, and in some cases has meant, the very opposite. The mainstream is a matter of sphere of consciousness, not artistic skill; although sometimes the latter can be conditioned by the former. (p. 16)

Ronald Sutherland, "The Fourth Separatism," in Canadian Literature, No. 45, Summer, 1970, pp. 7-23.∗

Warren Stevenson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 generation, Paul Tallard and Heather Methuen, and their eventual marriage…. I think the time has come for a reassessment of this position. (p. 53)

It has also become a commonplace of criticism of Two Solitudes that "the idea of Canadian unity becomes the main symbolic theme," which MacLennan attempts to embody in...

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Dave Godfrey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] charge of turgidness or parochialism which comes from misunderstanding MacLennan's novels cannot in all fairness be levelled at [the essays in The Other Side of Hugh MacLennan]. Indeed, what he seems best at is the light, the witty, and the exotic. The evocations of English eccentrics are delightful and precise, the recreations of the Halifax past acknowledge that it has all fled and gone, while even the high-table pieces on "Literature and Technology" or "Scotland's Fate: Canada's Lesson" admit that one should be concerned not so much with outdoing George Grant as with keeping the audience awake before the brandy arrives. (p. 57)

MacLennan's way of looking at the world, like that of James Reaney and D. H. Lawrence, has been shaped by apocalyptic Christianity. But whereas Lawrence fought the shaping and Reaney carefully sought external situations through which that shaping power might express itself, MacLennan has lived in uneasy truce with it all of his life. The terms of surrender have never been signed.

The very concern with audience that lends his lighter work so much charm works against the full expression of this deeper current, while his concern with history leads him to give voice to the more powerful strains of Christianity which existed in his society and which were non-apocalyptic…. But the apocalyptic vision is not rooted in social change or expressed through social change; it is far more absolute, random, and mysterious, and its dichotomies do not find resolution. In his fiction, MacLennan lets this vision have its way at the deepest levels, which is why the critics are always fundamentally disquieted by his novels: their social framework is so near, so historical, but their mythology is disconnected from our central (and unexamined) mythology. It is at once too dark and too hopeful: too dark for the liberals and too hopeful for the cynics and the disco-conservatives.

MacLennan himself has remained true to his convictions all these years. In terms of his audience he has been willing to make many concessions of style, content, and attitude because he has never really made any concessions in terms of his vision. (pp. 57-8)

Dave Godfrey, "The Apocalyptic Christianity of Hugh MacLennan," in Saturday Night (copyright © 1978 by Saturday Night), Vol. 93, No. 9, November, 1978, pp. 56-8.

Catherine Sheldrick Ross

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The six novels that form the MacLennan canon explore for us, in specifically Canadian terms, a familiar pattern of the humanist's quest for an ideal society, consequent disillusionment and despair, and finally spiritual transcendence. There are striking parallels between the narrator's sense, by the end of Barometer Rising, that he is witnessing "a great country move into its destiny" and the Renaissance humanist's feeling of historic participation in rebirth from Gothic darkness. In their desire to provide an ideal literary model for Canada's development, MacLennan's early novels resemble the numerous mirrors for Christian Princes and the literary models for ideal societies written during the Renaissance. The...

(The entire section is 997 words.)