Morley Callaghan

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Callaghan, Morley 1903–

Callaghan, the Canadian novelist, short story writer, and playwright whom Edmund Wilson once described as "perhaps the most unjustly neglected novelist in the English-speaking world," has been active in the literary world for more than fifty years. Throughout his career his work has been characterized by its clean, journalistic style, ironic tone, and strongly moralistic themes. (See also CLC, Vol. 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Horace Gregory

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In some respects Morley Callaghan is by far the most interesting member of the contemporary hard-boiled school of fiction. Under the surfaces of a prose style that runs in deadly parallel to the familiar technique of Ernest Hemingway, he uncovers a warm, vibrant, boyish personality. He exhibits a curiosity about human behavior that seems to be at war with the very method he has chosen as his medium. His short stories and novels are actually concerned with the subtle, often tender, sometimes downright sentimental phases of human relationship. As evidence of his vitality he displays a wholesome sense of humor in his very short story about a young priest facing a problem in practical theology as he tries to expel a drunkard from a confessional. Even in the hands of Ernest Hemingway, the hardboiled manner is suspect—behind a brightly polished exterior you discern a soft, almost tearful admission that the world is no place for sweet young lovers—and in the case of Morley Callaghan you half expect the apparition of another Booth Tarkington, gifted with the naive curiosity of a Sherwood Anderson. (p. 45)

Horace Gregory, "Mr. Callaghan's Medium," in The Nation (copyright 1930 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. CXXX, No. 3378, April 2, 1930 (and reprinted in Morley Callaghan, edited by Brandon Conron, McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited, 1975, pp. 45-6).


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Callaghan's importance has nothing to do with style. His control of language, despite the triumphs of a dozen short stories and numerous passages in the novels, was for many years uncertain; and his tendency to synopsize rather than dramatize led him to substitute hazy case histories for living patients. Having learned the fashionably flat accent of James T. Farrell and Sherwood Anderson, the youthful Callaghan was content to present people who dressed "nicely" or "neatly"; who looked "lovely" or "handsome"; who felt "sad" or "jolly" or "simply splendid"; and who spent interminable hours chatting "easily", just out of earshot. But where Farrell's mannerism was relentlessly consistent, Callaghan's was erratic. He could rise to moments of brilliant description when he remembered his native Toronto sharply, and he could recreate a fight or a lunch-counter conversation with the authority of a good documentary film. Too often, however, his interest in theme led him to abuse the expectations that he had established in his reader. He had not learned, and did not learn until 1937 (More Joy in Heaven), that each scene could simultaneously delineate character, forward the action and develop meaning; or that the illusion created by fiction, whatever the convention adopted, must be fully coherent. It is an evasion, moreover, to say that Callaghan creates "thin" characters because he wants us to see them as symbols…. [The] whole success of his fiction depends on our willingness to accept his characters as living men.

Callaghan, then, is not primarily a stylist. The critics of the 'twenties who enthusiastically and mistakenly compared him with Hemingway were soon stricken with amnesia. Their young discovery, careless of the fashionable idiom as well as the dernier cri of socialism, wrote as badly as Melville.

But Callaghan, like Melville, had something to say, and he has learned to say it with increasing richness and power. He has given us...

(This entire section contains 2518 words.)

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a modern vision of the human condition which has no parallel in Canadian fiction. It is this that makes him an important writer. Beginning, like the other writers of the 'twenties, with the ruins of a world just "saved" by a War to End War, he reacted to its confusion and despair with complete originality…. [He] faced the facts of his generation and probed through andbeyond them to find a secure ground for action and belief. He became, in short, a religious writer—not one of the apologists who defends traditional religion by contriving convenient modern exampla, but an artist who looked searchingly at his experience (including the potent -isms and -ologies of the day) and concluded that the temporal world cannot be self-redeemed; that human frailty is bearable only in the light of divine perfection.

In this sense, Callaghan's vision is closer to the art of T. S. Eliot than to any of the novelists whom he resembles superficially. But his consuming interest in the life of the ordinary, inarticulate man and his compassion for human suffering has given his work a unique character. Confining himself largely to people who "feel"—people who are barren of "ideas" in any sophisticated sense—he has had to discover a means of revealing dramatically the nature of their quest for significance in the terrifying flux of the modern world.

At length (and this takes us to the story of his development as a novelist) he has wrought out a fictional form in which the surface events function simultaneously as realistic action and symbolic action, revealing both the empirical and the spiritual conflicts of his protagonists. This duality, moreover, is never merely a tricky fictional device calculated to entertain both the naïve and the knowing; it is fundamental to Callaghan's perception of the interdependence of the spiritual and empirical realms. Man's career occurs in the imperfect world of time, but its meaning (man's dignity or "place") depends finally on a larger reality out of time. To escape the first world is physical death; to ignore the second is to embrace the condition of the Wasteland—life-in-death. This tension, to which Callaghan's best fiction gives dramatic form, is the fundamental tension of life. By exploring the relation of these two worlds—empirical and spiritual—Callaghan has written the "little man's" Ash Wednesday and Burnt Norton. (pp. 60-2)

Undoubtedly [Strange Fugitive], with its jazz-age atmosphere of speakeasies and available women, and its dramatic testimonial that crime does not pay, said what a conventional reader wanted to hear. Harry Trotter, after all, was a weak-witted, dangerous little rat who got what he deserved. Society maintains its health by exterminating such unscrupulous rodents, or by allowing them to exterminate each other.

But the book is crowded with a host of things which suggest that Callaghan wished to communicate something quite different than this conventional platitude; that he was interested not in the feelings of an outraged community but in the plight of an inarticulate and confused soul such as Harry Trotter. (p. 63)

[The] fabric of the novel is so full of untied threads and accidental knots that no reader could be expected to see its pattern clearly, or to be convinced by its statement. For all its surface "freshness", what we see in Strange Fugitive is the uncertain attempt of a young artist to say something that he has felt profoundly.

It is worth dwelling on the defects of this book for a moment more so that we may see clearly the artistic problems that Callaghan had to overcome. On the realistic level, he failed to give all of his dramatis personae an organic function in the action. In real life, perhaps, every person with whom we have more than casual contact adds his pebble or sliver to the developing structure of our identity. But in fiction, where the artist strives to create an illusion of completeness within limited space, there is no room for passing minutiae; these things must be distilled to produce the maximum effect with the minimum of means. Strange Fugitive distracts the reader with characters and motifs that have only a momentary importance in the tale. (p. 64)

In Strange Fugitive … we have a first definition of Callaghan's two worlds, and an illustration of the failure of one individual to rise above the mechanical, cause-and-effect morality of the empirical realm. At the same time, we see that Callaghan's statement has failed artistically, in part because of the facility of its style, but more seriously because of its failure to make surface incident and implicit meaning fully resonant and coherent.

In the two novels which follow Strange Fugitive, Callaghan moves deeper and deeper into his exploration of the two worlds with which man must come to terms if he is to realize his humanity fully, but his mastery of both style and form are still uncertain. If theme and plot are married, they maintain separate establishments. Thus It's Never Over and A Broken Journey both develop in a series of episodes which, whatever their symbolic significance, fail to cohere as plausible action. (pp. 65-6)

Symbolically, [A Broken Journey] is meaningful, but at the level of fact it is incredible. By failing to create a believable empirical world, Callaghan has failed himself and his reader. His statement possesses only a theoretical validity. (p. 66)

[Through] the narrow discipline of the short story, he learned to achieve a completeness of effect that eluded him in the novel. A good dozen of the stories collected in Now That April's Here (1936) treated one aspect or another of the grand theme with a luminous sureness and economy. He was able, moreover, to shift the emphasis of his exploration from negative to positive: instead of showing how people … failed in their quest to find their secure "place" in the universal scheme, he learned to create characters who achieved the quest.

The shift from negative to positive begins with Such Is My Beloved (1934), a remarkable novel whose hero is a priest—a "little man" like Callaghan's other heroes—but one who has made an overt spiritual affirmation. It is significant, I think, that Callaghan should now turn to an explicitly Christian pattern. Since many of the protagonists of his earlier work were led to "feel" the religious position as the only workable answer to the human predicament, it is appropriate that he should examine this conclusion in terms of a hero who has bound himself fully to the religious way of life. (pp. 66-7)

In Such Is My Beloved Callaghan has created his first coherent parable of the nature of man's earthly quest. The symbolism is traditionally Christian, but it is never imposed upon the materials. The novel is a "test" so to speak, of the conviction towards which Callaghan's heroes move, and though the temporal church does not come off unscathed, the test is nonetheless valid; for love—a transcendent love such as Father Dowling's—is the only response which gives meaning to the inescapable facts of human weakness and pain.

Yet Such Is My Beloved, significant as it is in Callaghan's developments as an artist, is not fully satisfactory as a novel. The Robisons, the powerful parish do-gooders, are too thinly realized to be convincing as Father Dowling's opponents, and the sad Italian family, burdened with twelve children, plays an exemplary rather than organic part in the novel. Nevertheless, Father Dowling's story clinches Callaghan's confidence in his perception of two worlds which are indispensable to man. His subsequent work will proceed to show that Love is a possible attainment in the life of Everyman.

They Shall Inherit the Earth (1935) though still unsuccessful in creating a coherent world, gives us a hero who learns through pain and suffering that love is as much a renouncing of the self as a triumph of the ego. The most interesting thing about this work is the new meaning which Callaghan attaches to the figure of his heroine. In the first novels there had been a clear-cut distinction between the luscious mistress and the loved one who (whatever her beauty) filled the hero with an oppressive sense of mingled duty and longing. Now, in the figure of Anna, we discover that physical love can become a blessing and a fulfilment if the lover will only give himself unreservedly. Real love teaches a vast tolerance and a willingness to submit the selfish needs of the self to a larger unity…. True love is, finally, a recognition of divine love which lifts us above the particularity of the temporal order into the timeless permanence of the One.

Having thus defined the nature of his two worlds and tested his conviction that man can realize his humanity only by applying the values of the second to the circumstances of the first, Callaghan devoted himself in the novels which followed to deepening and sharpening the expression which he gave to his vision. More Joy in Heaven and The Loved and the Lost are good novels by any standard. In style they are firm and direct. The stereotyped diction has given place to a much more concrete, precise vocabulary: sentences which habitually tapered away in spineless participial constructions have been eliminated; and the narrative manner has moved more and more towards carefully dramatized scenes. Still better, image-symbol motifs are no longer used episodically, but are maintained skilfully throughout the entire action. Callaghan, in short, has gone far towards giving his fictional structures the coherence and richness that is fundamental to art.

In this process one other important development has taken place. Callaghan now knows … that the hero who achieves his quest will be, in worldly terms, a baffling, implausible figure. (pp. 67-9)

More Joy in Heaven is one of the most piercingly ironic books in modern literature—a relentless document of the fate of a Saviour. (p. 69)

Here there is scarcely a character or an image which does not function organically in the devastating spectacle of [the martyrdom of the Savior-figure]—Mankind's terrifying habit of making and breaking plaster saints without grasping the meaning of real saintliness. This is indeed a work calculated to make mad the guilty, appall the free and confound the ignorant. (p. 70)

The body of image and incident with which Callaghan fills out [the] beautifully conceived structure [of The Loved and the Lost] adds a dimension that was at best inchoate in the first novels. It is probably true, as Malcolm Ross has suggested, that Callaghan "plays by ear" in constructing such harmonies. His avowed anti-intellectualism would seem to argue against a high degree of self-consciousness. But whether self-conscious or "natural", his mature control of form cannot be gainsaid. The examination of two image patterns in The Loved and the Lost must suffice as illustration. In his opening description of the geography of Montreal, Callaghan tells us that "Those who wanted to remain as they were liked the mountain. Those who wanted a change preferred the broad flowing river. But no one could forget either of them." As this basic dichotomy develops, it defines pictorially the complex limits of the action. The mountain, the home of the rich and powerful whites appears as a menacing barrier of black stone to Jim McAlpine. The lower town, home of the negro population, on the other hand, appears as a dazzlingly white blanket of snow. White and black, then, light and darkness, sight and blindness, are characteristic of both parts of the human city. The weak and despised, living near the river, want change; the rich and the powerful, living on the mountain, prefer things as they are. But neither group is blameless. The meeting place of the two groups is the secular temple of an arena where they witness the legal ritual of a hockey game.

This, then, is the mixed community of mankind in which Jim and Peggy must test the validity of their respective views of the meaning of man's quest. Again the white-black imagery helps the reader. Jim, as a child, had been excluded from the garden of his wealthy friends by a high black hedge. As an adult, this hedge is translated for him into the black barrier of the mountain. And it is this barrier which he is determined to conquer. He will climb his mountain or hedge, and guard his position jealously. Peggy, on the other hand, found her sanctimonious "socially acceptable" home an intolerable cage of man-made rules. She discovered pleasure in simple communion with a negro family—the outcasts of the community. Peggy's course, in short, led her to recognize the value of love—quite uncompromised by worldly considerations. Jim's course led him to value the worldly rewards of money and power above all else. For him, black has become the symbol of hate and exclusion; for her it is the sign of love and community. (pp. 72-3)

The Loved and the Lost … sees Morley Callaghan's art reach a distinguished fulfilment. It is a parable as old as faith, as relevant as man's apparently undying need to realize his best self, and as durable as language. (p. 73)

Hugo McPherson, "The Two Worlds of Morley Callaghan," in Queen's Quarterly, Vol. LXIV, No. 3, Autumn, 1957 (and reprinted in Morley Callaghan, edited by Brandon Conron, McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited, 1975, pp. 60-73).

Howard Engel

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In … A Fine and Private Place, Morley Callaghan writes in the familiar parables that have marked his work since his first published novel came out in 1928. He is concerned with the conscience, the moral part of humanity, the part that makes man different from the animals and more interesting to watch. Yet throughout his long career he has observed people as though they were beasts at play. He records our battles, our coupling, our struggles for supremacy, our defeats. He is delighted to show how men behave badly in a social world of their own creation. He does this with tightly organized stories that are almost Biblical in their spare directness. From Strange Fugitive, a working class Decline and Fall, through novels like the gallows-obsessed It's Never Over and They Shall Inherit the Earth to the more familiar The Loved and the Lost, Callaghan marshals his people in tightly controlled moral tales that betray the masterful short story writer he is.

A Fine and Private Place works like a short story, or … a novella. There are no extra characters or incidents. It is pared to the bone, as you would expect from Callaghan; there is no fat. As in all of Callaghan's novels, the city in which he places the story plays a part as important as the leading players. Here the city is Toronto. (p. 63)

Callaghan is one of the few writers of his time to produce a body of work. In a country of one-book writers, he stands out. His books have been criticized as being uneven and over-disciplined, but they always have a concentration and rough-hewn energy that transcends the tight style he picked up so long ago.

In A Fine and Private Place, a title borrowed from Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress," we are invited to look at the dark side of life. The fine and private place of the title is the grave. As a title it has its problems. Over the book may fall the shadow of death, but it is not about death….

A Fine and Private Place has the compactness of Callaghan's early work. It is a short book, lacking the wider focus of A Passion in Rome and The Many-Colored Coat….

In the main, none of the characters is compelling or interesting enough to demand a commitment from the reader….

At its worst the book seems a simplistic manoeuvring of people and events to fit a preordained pattern. At its best you forget all that and just read and enjoy. There are hundreds of tiny observations of human behaviour that make up the difference….

While I am not calling this book a success, I would say that it is a welcome addition to the Callaghan canon. Callaghan is a peculiar writer. In the details he often falls apart before your eyes, but when you look at him, head on, see what he has created in more than fifty years in more than seventeen books, you sink in amazement. He sits across the path of Canadian literature like an old Labrador, you're not quite sure how to approach him, but you can't ignore him. (p. 64)

Howard Engel, "Callaghan's World of Criminals and Saints," in Saturday Night (copyright © 1975 by Saturday Night), Vol. 90, No. 3, July/August, 1975, pp. 63-4.

Judith Kendle

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Content with the assumption that [Morley Callaghan] is a Roman Catholic novelist, most criticism simply ignores the seriousness of his quarrel with the Church, and to date there has been no acknowledgment of the aesthetic nature of his views. It is possible, at least, given the importance Callaghan attaches to his vocation as an artist, that his moral philosophy owes as much to aesthetic considerations as it does to Roman Catholic doctrine. Such, indeed, has proved the case. Whether or not Callaghan's criticism of Christianity arises out of his youthful determination as an artist to look at the world freshly for himself, it is clear that he plumps for individual insight and imagination in preference to doctrinal approaches to truth. He tends, in fact, to equate superior insight with artistic talent or appreciation and to delegate to the Artist the moral grandeur and the sympathy more commonly reserved for the Priest. Confidence in art, moreover, virtually replaces his faith in orthodox dogma or creed; wherever traditional belief survives it has undergone significant change. Thus, while his belief in the transcendent power of love and concern for the spiritual life of the individual are derived from the Christian tradition, Callaghan means something very different from caritas by love and is, for the most part, resolutely critical of orthodox, doctrinal, and institutional forms of Christianity. Not enough attention has been paid to the author's own disclaimer: "The last thing that's in my mind is to write religious books." (p. 13)

Callaghan often finds himself in violent disagreement with major tenets of the Christian faith. He is particularly distressed by Christian pessimism about human nature and theological conceptions about the nature of love and inveighs loudly against their survival in the works of Roman Catholic and secular writers alike.

He disagrees, for example, with the dualism he discerns at the heart of Western Christianity. Indeed, he identifies it in That Summer in Paris with "that fantasy running through modern letters and thought that man is alien in this universe" and regards writers as various as Pascal and Henry Miller to be equally heir to that tradition…. In the same work, he is distressed by Christian fears of human sexuality and attacks an otherwise "beautiful writer" like Mauriac's evident "disgust with the flesh." Callaghan feels positively "pagan" in comparison and even views the "correct copulations" of D. H. Lawrence as an Anglo-Saxon over-reaction.

Hierarchical conceptions of love are thus mocked in Such is My Beloved, and the entire Christian vision of life as sorrowful rejected in A Passion in Rome (1961). Orthodox theological opinion which considers man's spiritual love for his fellow man to be but a pale imitation of Divine caritas, and where sexual passion does not rate at all, accords ill with Father Dowling's own experience in the first novel as evidenced by his reading of the "Song of Songs," while Sam Raymond contends in the second that "any fool could see" for himself that, far from being a miserable existence compounded of sex, sin and suffering wherein the only escape from "desire" was death, the human condition is frequently enjoyed by men and women, whose only sin, if any, is their obvious delight in sensual pleasure.

Callaghan is also critical of Christian conceptions of human nature as fallen and of Redemption only through Grace, regarding them as destructive of human dignity, responsibility, and free will. The idea of "original sin" does not appeal to him, nor to Strange Fugitive's hero, Harry Trotter; speculation about innate depravity bores and irritates Callaghan; and he regards Christianity's "awareness of evil" as "a hopeless spiritual trap." (pp. 14-15)

[The] whole burden of Callaghan's moral philosophy, with its emphasis upon the fullest self-realization possible and upon life as it is lived upon this earth, is often inimical to the other worldly and self-sacrificial Christian tradition of Redemption through Grace and out of Time. Regarding mortality as "a gloomy inevitable experience," Callaghan explains in his memoirs how he himself avoided morbid preoccupation with death (as well as futile speculation about the meaning of life) by immersing himself as fully as possible in the day to day business of living in order to realize … all his "potentialities" and "possibilities" as a man. (p. 15)

Despite quarrels with authority and Christian doctrine, Callaghan retains affectionate respect for Mother Church. A variety of churches file across his pages as inescapable physical facts and spiritual signs of man's loftiest aspirations; priests do, upon occasion, tender perfectly good advice, and many of his characters, notably his women, draw strength and comfort still from their faith and from traditional ritual and dogma. There is, on the other hand, neither hesitation to expose imperfections, nor compunction to mute condemnation of the Church's palpable failures. The work witnesses, in fact, to the demise of Church influence in society, and to the disaffection of contemporary man.

It would seem that Callaghan hopes to fill the gap. Readily admitting "there is no doubt I'm hopelessly corrupt theologically," while aiming, nevertheless, as he explains in That Summer in Paris, to "relate a Christian enlightenment to some timeless process of becoming," Callaghan proceeds by way of intuition to a set of personal convictions which owes more to his own aesthetic philosophy and the creative process than to orthodox Christian belief, and whose expression in terms of religious symbol or jargon betrays ironic distance as much as their source. (p. 16)

On the one hand, a Biblical text is used in They Shall Inherit the Earth to refute Christian otherworldliness with irony, while on the other "the bold sensual phrases" of religious poetry stand in direct opposition to theological commentary. Far from religious exhortation to transcend the sensual self through spiritual striving, Callaghan interprets "The Beatitudes" as a call for self-realization and wholehearted commitment to the world. Similarly his reading of the "Song of Songs" in Such is My Beloved contradicts orthodox opinion. (p. 17)

[One could argue] that Callaghan's sense of metaphor, particularly his attempt as he explains it in his memoirs to reunite the "flesh" and the "word" in his work, is Catholic in a fundamental way…. Whether or not Callaghan achieves reconciliation in his work, it is likely that he has some such theory in mind in view of his distaste for separations and duality. It is possible, in fact, that what he is arguing for in novels like Such is My Beloved is a renewed sense of the sacredness of ordinary human experience, which the Church, in his view, has forgotten. One misses, however, in Callaghan "that sense of commitment and obligation, which," it has been suggested, "is the essence of religion." Callaghan's allegiance is all to himself…. Resisting the authority of Christian dogma by treating the Bible as a piece of literature, Callaghan effects a transformation of belief. Traditional religious concepts are reinterpreted in the light of his experience as an artist, and the Christian faith is ultimately replaced with what amounts to a theology of the creative imagination. Resurrection in terms of metaphysics is dismissed; innocence born of ignorance is a sin; and salvation is achieved through awareness. (p. 18)

[Callaghan makes] an unusual connection in his work between innocence and evil. He suggests, moreover, that innocence that is not knowing is a sin. Three of his novels in particular, Such is My Beloved, More Joy in Heaven, and The Many Colored Coat, illuminate the relationship between the two. (p. 19)

It is tempting to read Callaghan's work as an exercise in rationalization. If the sudden finality of revealed truth is rejected, then the artist is obviously free to choose his own. Certainly he insists upon his own insights. Whether or not, or how serious the author is in his equation of the Artist with an All-seeing God, it is clear that he usurps "the old authoritarian priest." Indeed, Callaghan's treatment of the Roman Catholic Church is related to an essentially aesthetic philosophy of life, and the effect of this upon the work is crucial. Not only are efforts made in the novels to combat traditional concepts of innocence and the fatal fall to knowledge with complementary myth, with a kind of redemptive quest for awareness and the approach of the Artist to God, but orthodox ritual and symbol are put to literary as opposed to devotional use…. If God has not quite disappeared from Callaghan's pages, His Church has become historical fact, and as the Bible fades more and more into myth and literature, it is clear that it is imaginative approaches that are redemptive…. (pp. 21-2)

Judith Kendle, "Callaghan and the Church," in Canadian Literature, No. 80, Spring, 1979, pp. 13-22.


Callaghan, Morley


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