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.
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.
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.
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.