Hugh MacLennan Analysis

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Throughout his career, Hugh MacLennan was a prolific writer of nonfiction. Following his youthful attempts at poetry and the publication of his dissertation on a Roman colonial settlement in Egypt, Oxyrhynchus: An Economic and Social Study (1935, 1968), MacLennan began writing articles, reviews, autobiographical pieces, travel notes, and essays, publishing in a variety of magazines, including The Montrealer, Maclean’s, and Holiday. Journalism sometimes served as a necessary supplement to his income and occasionally was used to try out material later incorporated into his novels. It has been claimed that his talent finds truer expression in his essays than in his novels; while this may be a questionable judgment, there is no denying the excellence of much of his nonfiction. Selections from the more than four hundred essays that he wrote have been collected in four books, the first two of which won Canada’s Governor-General’s Award: Cross-Country (1949), Thirty and Three (1954), Scotchman’s Return, and Other Essays (1960), and The Other Side of Hugh MacLennan: Selected Essays Old and New (1978, Elspeth Cameron, editor). Additionally, his concern for Canada’s history and geography found expression in his Seven Rivers of Canada (1961; revised as Rivers of Canada, 1974) and The Colour of Canada (1967). Rivers of Canada, in which MacLennan provided the text to accompany the beautiful photography of John de Visser, contains some of his best writing.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Hugh MacLennan, as his biographer, Elspeth Cameron, has observed, “set out to be a writer, not a ’Canadian’ writer,” yet it was as a Canadian “nationalist” that he was first recognized, and in spite of his intermittent attempts to renounce this label, it was as a distinctively Canadian writer that his career and his reputation developed. He held a solid place as something like the dean of Canadian letters; for many years he was a public figure in Canada, appearing on radio and television, frequently being asked to comment not only on Canadian writing but also on culture generally and on politics. He made continual attempts to tap the American market (with some success, especially with The Watch That Ends the Night), his works have been translated into many languages, and his last novel, Voices in Time, is international in setting, yet MacLennan was thought of both in his own country and elsewhere as a, perhaps the, Canadian novelist.

Having written two unpublished novels with international settings, MacLennan turned to his own Halifax, Nova Scotia, when writing Barometer Rising. This first published novel was immediately successful and was praised for its Canadian nationalism. His next novel, Two Solitudes, treated the divisions between the English and French cultures in Quebec; the book’s title, taken from Rainer Maria Rilke, entered popular usage as a convenient phrase to sum up this cultural schism. MacLennan continued...

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Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Is the determinism of Hugh MacLennan based more on Greek tragedy, Calvinism, Freudianism, or some combination?

How well does MacLennan reconcile French and English Canada?

Assess MacLennan’s “Canadian way of looking at things.”

Was MacLennan’s view of the future determined chiefly by the time and circumstances of his early life?

Explain and exemplify MacLennan’s montage narration.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Buitenhuis, Peter. Hugh MacLennan. Edited by William French. Toronto: Forum House, 1969. A biography of MacLennan, critical analyses of his six novels and his nonfiction, and a bibliography. Buitenhuis supports MacLennan’s preoccupation with Canadian nationhood. The assessment of MacLennan’s strengths and weaknesses is even-handed but somewhat academic.

Hochbruck, Wolfgang, and James O. Taylor, eds. Down East: Critical Essays on Contemporary Maritime Canadian Literature. Trier, Germany: Wissenschaftlicher, 1996. Contains Susanne Bach’s useful study “The Geography of Perception in Hugh MacLennan’s Maritime Novels.”

Leith, Linda. Introducing Hugh MacLennan’s “Two Solitudes”: A Reader’s Guide. Toronto: ECW Press, 1990. An excellent source for students of the novel. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Lucas, Alec. Hugh MacLennan. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1970. Each chapter addresses a different component of MacLennan’s vision in general and social morality in particular. The introduction, conclusion, and a bibliography constitute the rest of this clear assessment of MacLennan’s fiction and essays.

Tierney, Frank M., ed. Hugh MacLennan. Ottawa, Ont.: University of Ottawa Press, 1994. A good critical study of MacLennan. Provides bibliographical references.

Twigg, Alan. “Hugh MacLennan.” In Strong Voices: Conversations with Fifty Canadian Authors. Madeira Park, B.C.: Harbour, 1988. This absorbing 1979 interview focuses mainly on MacLennan’s lifelong interest in Canadian nationhood and the influence of that interest on his writing.

Woodcock, George. Introducing Hugh MacLennan’s “Barometer Rising”: A Reader’s Guide. Toronto: ECW Press, 1989. This careful, instructive methodology for reading the novel also includes a chronology of MacLennan’s life and publications, biographical details, an assessment of MacLennan’s place in Canadian literature, and a partially annotated “Works Cited.”

Woodcock, George. “Surrogate Fathers and Orphan Sons: The Novels of Hugh MacLennan.” In Northern Spring: The Flowering of Canadian Literature. Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 1987. In this essay from his two-part book on Canadian prose writers and poets, Woodcock examines what he perceives in MacLennan’s writing as a central metaphor for the definition of “Canadian” nation: a generational theme. Also discusses the strongly didactic element that pervades MacLennan’s works.