Morley Callaghan Callaghan, Morley - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Morley Callaghan 1903-1990

(Full name Morley Edward Callaghan) Canadian novelist, short story writer, journalist, playwright, and autobiographer.

The following entry provides criticism on Callaghan's works from 1992 through 1999. For criticism prior to 1992, see CLC, Volumes 3, 14, 41; for an obituary entry on Callaghan, see CLC, Volume 65.

Callaghan is best known for his allegorical fiction in which he infuses seemingly ordinary human relationships with complex moral, psychological, and religious significance. His prominent themes include redemption and salvation, the discrepancies between illusion and reality, and the conflict between materialism and spiritualism. He established a solid reputation during the 1930s as a significant new fiction writer, and his short stories were especially well received. In the 1940s, however, Callaghan ceased writing short fiction, concentrating instead on long, complex novels that generally met with slight critical favor. Callaghan's publications of the 1970s and 1980s renewed interest in his career, and he is now regarded as an important figure in twentieth-century Canadian literature.

Biographical Information

Callaghan was born on September 22, 1903, in Toronto. He attended the University of Toronto, graduating with his B.A. degree in 1925. He also worked as a journalist at the Toronto Star in the early 1920s. It was there he met Ernest Hemingway, who recommended Callaghan's fiction to Ezra Pound, who aided in its initial exposure. While in law school, Callaghan's short stories appeared in several periodicals; his first novel, Strange Fugitive, was published in 1928. One of many expatriate writers to travel to Paris in the 1920s, Callaghan associated with such literary celebrities as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. During the 1930s, influenced by Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson, Callaghan began to write spare, journalistic novels. He worked with the Royal Canadian Navy on assignment for the National Film Board during World War II. Callaghan became a well-known radio and television personality in Canada in the 1940s and 1950s. He received several awards for his body of work, including the Lorne Pierce Medal for Literature in 1960, the Royal Bank of Canada award for distinguished work in 1970, and the Companion Order of Canada in 1983. He died on August 25, 1990, in Toronto.

Major Works

Callaghan's novels have been described as spare and journalistic in nature and reflect an interest in the moral and spiritual effects of prevailing social conditions. His first major novel, Such Is My Beloved (1934), is the story of a Roman Catholic priest whose awareness of the conflict between his spiritual convictions and his bourgeois status enables him to understand the two prostitutes he tries to reform. Redemption and salvation are again prominent themes in They Shall Inherit the Earth (1935), in which a man's guilt for allowing his malicious stepbrother to drown combines with the physical poverty he endures during the Depression. Callaghan departed from the style of his early novels during the 1950s, attempting to apply his characteristic themes in a form similar to that of the nineteenth-century novel. In his later publications, commentators detect a return to the moral vision and concise, unobtrusive style of his early work. A Time for Judas (1983) is a complex biblical-historical narrative about Judas Iscariot. Written in the colloquial manner of Callaghan's realistic parables, this novel focuses sympathetically on Judas's betrayal of Jesus Christ. Functioning simultaneously as a defense of Judas and as a treatise on the artist's responsibility to himself and others, the book abounds with allusions and parallels to modern times. In his autobiographical memoir, That Summer in Paris (1963), Callaghan discusses his experiences with various literary celebrities, including Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and the origins behind his own fiction.

Critical Reception

Critics have frequently debated the effectiveness of Callaghan's novels, focusing particularly on whether his understated prose style is an effective means of presenting moral conflicts and uncertainties. In fact, many critics consider Callaghan's stories to be his best work. His spare, reportorial narrative style is often compared to that of Ernest Hemingway, and his friendship with the infamous American author is a recurring topic of interest for commentators. There was renewed critical attention to Callaghan's oeuvre in the 1970s and 1980s, and around that time scholars began to debate his place within the Canadian literary tradition. Today he is regarded as a significant figure in twentieth-century Canadian literature.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Strange Fugitive (novel) 1928

A Native Argosy (short stories) 1929

It's Never Over (novel) 1930

No Man's Meat (novella) 1931

A Broken Journey (novel) 1932

Such Is My Beloved (novel) 1934

They Shall Inherit the Earth (novel) 1935

More Joy in Heaven (novel) 1937

Now That April's Here, and Other Stories (short stories) 1937

Turn Again Home (play) 1940

Luke Baldwin's Vow (juvenilia) 1948

The Varsity Story (novel) 1948

To Tell the Truth (play) 1949

The Loved and the Lost (novel) 1951

Morley Callaghan's Stories (short stories) 1959

The Many Colored Coat (novel) 1960

A Passion in Rome (novel) 1961

That Summer in Paris: Memories of Tangled Friendships with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Some Others (memoir) 1963

Stories (short stories) 1967

A Fine and Private Place (novel) 1975

Close to the Sun Again (novel) 1977

A Time for Judas (novel) 1983

The Lost and Found Stories of Morley Callaghan (short stories) 1985

Our Lady of the Snows (novel) 1985

A Wild Old Man on the Road (novel) 1988

Margaret Avison (essay date summer 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Avison, Margaret. “Reading Morley Callaghan's Such Is My Beloved.Canadian Literature, no. 133 (summer 1992): 204-08.

[In the following essay, Avison provides an appreciation of Callaghan's work, asserting that his spare narrative style may have been detrimental to his literary legacy.]

Rereading this novel [Such Is My Beloved] impelled me to reread the many many other novels and stories to seek an overview of Morley Callaghan's work now that it is completed (although still there may be new books, collections of stories that so far have appeared only in the leading U.S. magazines of the 1920s and 1930s).

A conviction began to emerge. Gripping as his plots are, realistic as his settings and situations, Callaghan was all out, not so much for storytelling, as for utterance. I don't mean that there is any trace of the propagandist, the exhorter, the apologist, the schematizer, in him. Rather, he invites and probes the very recalcitrance of his people and his situations, he courts the ambiguities, to make sure he is not caught by any extraneous considerations: a process of refining the gold of what he sees. “I was loyal to my search for the sacramental in the lives of people,” he told an interviewer, “to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. This used to be considered the great and only aim of art.”1 It has been asked, I too have asked, why a powerful stylist (many passages attest that he is that) lets stand those places that sink, go flat, indicate rather than speak; granted that they are never key passages, but all the same, why? I suspect that he might tell us that a person can grow as many feet as a centipede if he fusses too much, and he will end up never saying it, never really getting there.

Although Morley Callaghan was already qualifying as a lawyer when I was just in public school, the time-gap between us closed over the years; by the 1940s I was generously included, Saturday evenings at Eustace and Mary Lowry Ross's house or in Morley and Loretto's second-floor duplex on Walmer Road, in an ongoing conversation with their friends about books new and old, ideas, the literatures of other countries, languages. On more than one occasion one of us would debate prose style with Morley. Blunt, simple, immediate, realistic—that style fits some themes, but not others, surely? His reply was stubborn, then. It has remained so. In the 1960s he wrote: “The words should be as transparent as glass, and every time a writer used a brilliant phrase to prove himself witty or clever, he merely took the mind of the reader away from the object and directed it to himself.”2 And almost thirty years later he was still insisting that such vanities should be beneath a writer. “I wanted language to come easily, you know? I believed in that, I always sit back objectively and detached, and observe … the whole effect is in the way you see it, not in the scheming to achieve an effect. … If you see it right, then it comes out right.”3 This is not a casual method; economy of words involved cutting, going over and over an unsatisfactory passage. Look at his first sentences: “It was not true that Jeannie Warkle had been too easy for Joe Stanin.”4 “Joseph Carver, the publisher of the Montreal Sun, lived on the mountain.”5 No slipshod craftsman could launch a tale this ably. It took pains to get the “language to come easily”—although I suspect this attention was focused on the key passages, not the transitional bits.

Isn't it astonishing that, though Callaghan was loved and respected as a TV pundit, his Canadian viewers did not go on to devour his books? By 1929 he had become a literary celebrity in the United States. In 1960 Edmund Wilson was calling him “the most unjustly neglected novelist in the English-speaking world.”6 Why has he “occupied a curious position in the literary history of his own country, where he has been both honoured and put down, and at times almost ignored?”7 As my own enthusiasm grew with reading, the fascination of the question grew.

Are the books ‘dated’ in any significant way? I think not. Some adjustment of perspective is asked of readers. Particulars change from decade to decade: current slang is of course missing although the tone of the 1934 street talk still carries conviction; the Hospital and the Cathedral of this novel still mark their area, but the downtown streets west and south are altogether different now; the priggishness of pre-war Toronto died out in the war years; there was little plane travel then, no television, no subway in Toronto—in 1934 people walked—in this novel shoes get wet in the slush, galoshes matter, winter streets soak through a hole in the sole. All the same, these and other stories published long before Hugh MacLennan's or Margaret Laurence's are immediate still, and surprisingly approachable.

Is Callaghan's stubborn, unique approach to style the reason his work is undervalued? Are people misled by the drive and seeming simplicity of the language to expect another whodunit or a good yarn to while away an idle hour? and baffled and put off when unbearable snarl-ups develop, and are not resolved or leave you wondering whether they have been resolved? Because these simple novels are not at all simple. Who is the lover, who is the beloved, of the title? Why is the central character presented—not in the first sentence—against the background of his most recent sermon “on the inevitable separation between Christianity and the bourgeois world”? This passage does not work as characterization. It does provide the context in which three parties are set on their collision course:...

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John W. Burbidge (essay date fall 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Burbidge, John W. “Religion in Morley Callaghan's Such Is My Beloved.Journal of Canadian Studies 27, no. 3 (fall 1992): 105-14.

[In the following essay, Burbidge elucidates Callaghan's treatment of religion in Such Is My Beloved, viewing the novel as a commentary on the “Song of Songs.”]

In his seminal work, The Meaning and End of Religion, Wilfred Cantwell Smith challenged a common assumption, one which holds that religion is an entity that can be isolated, defined and studied like other topics of scholarly inquiry. Only in periods when pluralism reigns do people talk about religions in the plural, and distinguish them by such...

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Russell Brown (essay date winter-spring 1993-94)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brown, Russell. “Callaghan, Glassco, and the Canadian Lost Generation.” Essays on Canadian Writing 51-2 (winter-spring 1993-94): 83-112.

[In the following essay, Brown discusses how Callaghan's memoir That Summer in Paris and John Glassco's Memoirs of Montparnasse challenges the American-in-Paris myth of expatriate life in the 1920s.]


If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you. …

—Ernest Hemingway, epigraph to A Moveable Feast, 1964

The notion, in...

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Marianne Perz (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Perz, Marianne. “Staging That Summer in Paris: Narrative Strategies and Theatrical Techniques in the Life Writing of Morley Callaghan.” Studies in Canadian Literature 22, no. 1 (1997): 96-116.

[In the following essay, Perz contends that Callaghan employs theatrical techniques in his memoir That Summer in Paris.]

The people in the principal cafés … might just sit and drink and talk and love to be seen by others.

(Hemingway, A Moveable Feast 100)

In “Mimesis: The Dramatic Lineage of Auto/Biography,” Evelyn Hinz proposes a new poetics of life writing, one that...

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Justin D. Edwards (essay date 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Edwards, Justin D. “Strange Fugitive, Strange City: Reading Urban Space in Morley Callaghan's Toronto.” Studies in Canadian Literature 23, no. 1 (1998): 213-27.

[In the following essay, Edwards considers Callaghan's portrayal of Toronto in his novel Strange Fugitive.]

The City is of Night; perchance of Death, But certainly of Night

(Thomson 34)

I am … a citizen of no mean city

(Acts 21:39)

If, as Steven Marcus claims, “the city continues to be a text,” it is a text fraught with ambiguities, paradoxes,...

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Barbara Pell (essay date 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Pell, Barbara. “Morley Callaghan.” In Faith and Fiction: A Theological Critique of the Narrative Strategies of Hugh MacLennan and Morley Callaghan, pp. 65-73. Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Pell delineates the defining characteristics of Callaghan's fiction.]

Although he did not share MacLennan's nationalistic vocation to define this country in fiction, Morley Callaghan was arguably the other most important founding father of the modern Canadian novel. One of Canada's most prolific writers for over sixty years, he produced in that time sixteen novels, five books of short stories and novellas, a book of...

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Gary Boire (essay date 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Boire, Gary. “The Language of the Law: The Cases of Morley Callaghan.” In Dominant Impressions: Essays on the Canadian Short Story, edited by Gerald Lynch and Angela Arnold Robbeson, pp. 75-86. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Boire examines Callaghan's use of the language of the law in his short stories between 1925 and 1928.]

This discussion has two discrete, yet intersecting, points of departure. I want to consider, first, Morley Callaghan as an experimental short story writer—more specifically, a postcolonial writer intensely aware of his own resistant activity within a well-established colonialist genre. I want to...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


James, William Closson. “The Ambiguities of Love in Morley Callaghan's Such is My Beloved.Canadian Literature, no. 138 (fall-winter 1993): 35-51.

Traces Callaghan's ideological and literary development, culminating with the author's emphasis on the religious nature of Such is My Beloved.

Metcalf, John. “Winner Take All.” Essays on Canadian Writing 51-52 (winter-spring 1993-1994): 113-45.

Metcalf unfavorably compares Callaghan's fiction to that of Ernest Hemingway and asserts that critical assessments of Callaghan's work have often been exaggerated.

Additional coverage...

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