James De Mille

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(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

James De Mille 1833-1880

Canadian novelist.

While an esteemed scholar and rhetorician at two Canadian universities, James De Mille sustained a second career as a prolific writer of popular Victorian novels. He was regarded as an extremely learned professor of rhetoric, history, English literature, and classics and possessed a thorough knowledge of Latin, Hebrew, and Greek. He also commanded a working knowledge of Sanskrit and Arabic. In addition to these academic and linguistic pursuits, he composed novels, publishing more than twenty “potboilers”—as the author himself called them—before his sudden death in 1880. Churning out boys' adventure stories, historical novels, and satirical romances, De Mille was, by and large, ignored by the nineteenth-century critical community, whose collective opinion was strongly swayed by the odd dichotomy between De Mille as an esteemed professor and De Mille as a writer of sensational novels. His literary reputation primarily rests on only one novel, A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder (1888), published anonymously eight years after his death. Structured as a story-within-a-story, the satirical novel has only been accepted as a minor classic of Canadian fiction since the 1960s, with critical debate centering on the question of genre and the novel's date of composition, literary influences, organization, object of satire, and biblical undertones.

Biographical Information

De Mille was born on August 23, 1833, in Saint John, New Brunswick, the third child of Elizabeth and Nathan Smith De Mill (James added the “e” to his surname sometime after 1865). A shipowner and prosperous lumber merchant, Nathan De Mill was a respected member of the community and a strict, evangelical Christian. Though Nathan De Mill was born an Anglican, he joined the Baptist church in 1842. Therefore, from the age of nine, James was raised a Baptist. He attended Baptist schools, including Horton Academy, which his father helped to found, and later Acadia College (now Acadia University). From 1850 to 1852, James toured Europe with his brother, gathering facts and tidbits of information that would inform his fiction for the next thirty years. He enrolled at Brown University in Rhode Island in 1852, graduating two years later with a master's degree. While at Brown, James, an avid reader, began writing fiction and essays for such publications as Putnam's Monthly. A few years later he started a bookstore in Saint John to help his father, whose lumber business was failing. By 1859 the bookshop had closed, having amassed over twenty thousand dollars in debt that James was not able to repay until the early 1870s. That same year he married Elizabeth Anne Pryor, with whom he had three sons and one daughter.

In 1860 James began contributing serial fiction to the Christian Watchman, a publication edited by his brother, Elisha, an Anglican minister. The following year he was named professor of classics at Acadia College. By that time James had already published one novel, the anonymous Andy O'Hara (1861), and there were indications that he was turning from the strict piety of the Baptist church. Colleagues remembered that he referred to himself as a sincere Christian yet delighted in satirizing evangelical piety. By 1865 he decided to leave Acadia for Dalhousie College in Halifax, where he accepted the chair of history and rhetoric. At this time he also left the Baptist church in order to join the Anglican church, a decision not made official until a year after his father's death. There are indications, too, that during this time De Mille had already begun work on A Strange Manuscript. For the next fifteen years he supplied popular novels for New York and Boston publishers. By 1870, when he had five manuscripts published, critics claimed that De Mille's feverish writing pace was an attempt to ease his financial burdens. De Mille died suddenly in 1880.

Major Works

The bulk of De Mille's output consists of sensational novels,...

(The entire section is 1,731 words.)