Raymond Knister Essay - Critical Essays

Knister, Raymond


Raymond Knister 1899-1932

(Full name John Raymond Knister) Canadian novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, and critic.

Knister was known primarily for his realistic narratives set in rural Canada. While his works were not recognized by the general public during his lifetime, Knister was a highly respected member of the Canadian literary community during the 1920s and early 1930s, and recent criticism has acknowledged him as a pioneer in establishing a distinctively modern voice in Canadian literature.

Biographical Information

Knister grew up on a farm near Comber in North Essex County, Ontario. He attended the University of Toronto, but was forced by poor health to return to his parents' farm. Around 1919, Knister began publishing critical essays, poems, and stories about rural Canadian life in various magazines. In 1922 and 1923 he worked as a reviewer for the Windsor Border Cities Star and the Detroit Free Press before moving to Iowa City to serve as editor of the avant-garde literary magazine The Midland and to attend Iowa State University. In 1924, Knister lived for a brief time in Chicago, where he worked as a taxi driver and published reviews for the Chicago Evening Post and Poetry magazine. Moving to Toronto in late 1924, he became a frequent contributor of articles and stories to the Toronto Star Weekly and made the acquaintance of several notable Canadian writers, including Morley Callaghan, Mazo de la Roche, Merrill Denison, and Charles G. D. Roberts. Knister married Myrtle Gamble in 1927, and their daughter Imogen was born in 1930. In 1931 Knister was awarded first prize in a publisher's contest for the unpublished manuscript of his novel My Star Predominant (1934), a fictional rendering of the life of John Keats. That same year he moved his family to Montreal where he became acquainted with such well-known writers as Leo Kennedy, Frederick Philip Grove, Dorothy Livesay, A.M. Klein, and F. R. Scott. In August, 1932, Knister drowned near Stoney Point on Lake St. Clair. Dorothy Livesay, in a memoir of Knister that was published in Collected Poems of Raymond Knister (1949), maintained that Knister's death was a suicide, but her conclusions have been strongly disputed by Knister's wife and daughter, and such critics as Marcus Waddington.

Major Works

Knister's best known fiction and poetry reflects his desire to capture the essence of rural Canadian life. In White Narcissus, Knister delineated the struggle of Richard, a successful writer, as he attempts to convince his longtime girlfriend Ada to marry him and leave her parents behind in the small rural town where the two grew up. While the expressive prose style of White Narcissus has been generally well received, some critics have found Knister's use of symbolism awkward, and have faulted him for failing to fully develop the novel's themes and plots. Collected Poems of Raymond Knister contains such poems as "The Hawk," "Boy Remembers in the Fields," "Lake Harvest," "A Row of Stalls," and "The Plowman," which vividly depict rural experience and the Canadian landscape. In both his poetry and his fiction Knister presented sharply realistic portrayals of everyday images and events in order to illustrate their exceptional qualities, and communicated these impressions in a conversational language style. Speaking of Canadian literature and subject matter, Knister stated that "when we trust surely, see directly enough, life, ourselves, we may have our own Falstaffs and Shropshire Lads and Anna Kareninas."

Principal Works

White Narcissus (novel) 1929

My Star Predominant (novel) 1934

Collected Poems of Raymond Knister (poetry) 1949

Selected Stories of Raymond Knister (short stories) 1972

Raymond Knister: Poems, Stories, and Essays (poetry, short stories, and essays) 1975

The First Day of Spring: Stories and Other Prose (short stories and essays) 1976


The New York Times Book Review (essay date 1925)

SOURCE: "A Canadian Novel," in The New York Times Book Review, August 25, 1925, p. 9.

[In the following review, the critic praises White Narcissus for its expressive prose style, but faults the novel's lack of substance and heavy-handed use of symbolism.]

Raymond Knister, a young Canadian writer, has produced in White Narcissus a first novel of very considerable charm. It is a supremely atmospheric story, in which dark and introspective moods are developed and elaborated somewhat at the expense of the plot. Mr. Knister's prose is an excellent medium for the expression of his emotional attitudes; it never flags and never becomes clogged or difficult. The result is a novel of memorable color, and of regrettably thin substance.

Richard Miln, the protagonist of the story, is a successful advertising man, who was born in a remote and rural section of a Canadian Province. He returns from time to time to the neighborhood of his youth—partly to renew old associations and to recover the sense of his own identity. Behind the nostalgia which draws him back to the country there is a deeper motive. He always returns to renew the offer of his love to Ada Lethen, the sweetheart of his childhood. Richard is convinced of Ada's love for him, but he never quite succeeds in breaking through the emotional barriers which her strange home had erected about her. Ada was the daughter of a...

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Raymond Knister (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Canadian Literati," in Journal of Canadian Fiction, Vol. IV, No. 2, 1975, pp. 160-68.

[In the following excerpt, written before his death in 1932 and published posthumously, Knister discusses the history and development of Canadian literature, using autobiographical information to describe critical reaction to his works.]

We have wanted to discover and create a new heaven and new earth here in Canada, and to make others see it. When we write a poem about the pines, a novel about the mounties, or paint a picture of geometric ice-floes, we hasten to ask each other, "Isn't this really Canadian? Isn't it different from the productions of efete Europe or the United States, where the people think only of dollars, paint skyscrapers, and write about stockyards. This Canada of ours is a wonderful country. Her mineral resources alone.…"

To be sure, different environments and modes of life do make for subtle differentiations in the human spirit. But our writers have seldom cared to probe deep enough to find them. We want to be different, but not too different. The ideal Canadian litterateur is a man who has been educated as an English gentleman, though certain New England Universities will pass; in addition he should know French and Quebec life. Nor should he forget his training, but write about Canada as accurately and sympathetically as possible from the point of view of an ominiscient tourist who, after all, knows better things. We want not so much to be different as to have had different experience about which we can talk at tea as suavely as anybody. It amounts in fact to our wanting to be American or English with an additional background which will lend chic, inspite of the elemental, or an unsullied outlook, according to taste. So the differences we formulate are not important or intrinsic, and our creations have only seemed to exchange trappings with those of other countries.

Again we forget that plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. We forget that the differences between men are not more important than their similarities. It might be pleasant to believe that the open spaces and association with sagacious animals and noble savages have made us braver and more unselfish than other peoples, though as a matter of fact half our population has nothing directly to do with the great open spaces, not to mention the animals and savages; and those who have mostly lived on farms almost identical with farms to be found in Connecticut, Michigan, and Kansas. And we have cities that in spite of polite contrary pretensions would like to boast of skyscrapers higher than those of New York, or an underworld more sinister and ubiquitous than Chicago's.

What then of our noble determination to make an all-Canadian literature where none was? If this is the Canadian attitude, if we would like to be like Englishmen or Americans and yet we are sure we must be better because of our glorious mines and forests—how does it affect the Canadian writer who wants to write about Canadian life sincerely? We can't consider those who lightheartedly take Canada for a gold-mine of "good yarns", northerns and westerns. They are usually candid enough in their way. But what about those who have been born in Canada, have been moved by its life, tried to picture it, and become more or less worried about their failure, or the seeming impossibilities of their task? Why is it that, in spite of the able and well-known Canadian writers whose books are read in the States, American readers never think of "the Canadian novel" as they think of "the Scandinavian novel?"

The comparison is not wholly unfair, for though Norway and Sweden are older, civilization, as generally understood, has not advanced farther in them than in Canada; nor are they more open to the influence of powerful neighbors. Yet these small countries have a body of creative writers which command the respect of the world: disinterested, profound, intensely local and yet—the antithesis cannot be avoided—universal. Canada's classics (to Americans) are Ralph Connor, L. M. Montgomery, and Robert W. Service. Further comparison is not necessary.

But—what of the generations following these writers? It is thirty, fifty years since such books began to be written. Surely in that time, in a young country throbbing with energy and growth, there must have been a few young men and women who burned to give forth a microcosmic projection of what they knew, winning the favor of the gods and the praises of men? There were and there are: but their throes have not given birth to anything more nearly mountainous than the old-style pine-trees. In truth they have been in a sad way, and the conditions have not been wholly of their own making.

I may be pardoned for offering myself as corpus vila; it appears necessary at this point to venture into autobiography in order to explain my meaning. When I started to write, some few years ago, I was a farm lad of little academic education or worldly acquirements. I had read rather widely, not to an unheard-of quantity, perhaps one hundred volumes a year from the time I was fourteen until I was twenty-one. Long before this period I had decided that I must become an author, my only vaccilation being occasioned by a visit at the age of nine to an uncle who was a railway station agent. Well, it was getting time to start. What should I write about? It had been essays of a literary turn at first—there was one on the centenary of Froude. Then I went to Toronto University, but was unable to finish my first year, succumbing to pneumonia and pleurisy. The university magazine printed articles of mine on "The Intellectual Mutt and Jeff" (Don Quixote and Sancho Panza), "The Modern Novel," and "Stevenson Twenty-Five Years After," this latter a glowing tribute of five thousand words.

But when I got back to the farm and recovered my health by dint of working fourteen to sixteen hours in the field until autumn, I began to change my views about writing. There was something about the life that I lived, and all the other farm people round me, something that had to be expressed, though I didn't know just how. But the attempt would have to be made in the form of short stories. I had read a great...

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Marcus Waddington (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Raymond Knister: A Biographical Note," in Journal of Canadian Fiction, Vol. IV, No. 2, 1975, pp. 175-92.

[In the following excerpt, Waddington traces connections between events in Knister's life and works.]

Knister's profound sympathy and understanding for the farming people with whom he grew up is continually revealed in his art. He believed that one of the functions of literature was to heighten cultural awareness. "When a literature has been built up from the soil of a country and the lives of its people", he wrote, "the latter become conscious in a new way of those scenes and that life" [quoted in Dorothy Livesay's "Memoir," in Collected Poems of...

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Peter Stevens (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: An introduction, in The First Day of Spring: Stories and Other Prose by Raymond Knister, University of Toronto Press, 1976, pp. xi-xxvi.

[Stevens is an English-born Canadian poet, critic, and educator. In the following excerpt, he surveys Knister's short stories, essays, and reviews.]

It is tempting to read the facts of Raymond Knister's life as a legend of the romantic artist, the writer whose blossoming career was cut short by early death. The parallel with someone like John Keats is uneasily apparent, particularly when one remembers that Knister wrote a novel My Star Predominant, based on the life of Keats, and shortly before his death Knister's wife...

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Margot Northey (essay date June-July 1977)

SOURCE: "Comfortably Rural," in The Canadian Forum, Vol. LVII, No. 672, June-July, 1977, pp. 44-5.

[A Canadian educator and critic, Northey is the author of The Haunted Wilderness: The Gothic and Grotesque in Canadian Fiction (1976). In the following review, she praises Knister's diverse talents as a writer and critic, noting the authentic voice, nostalgia, and "concealed art" in The First Day of Spring.]

In his introduction to The First Day of Spring: Stories and Other Prose, Peter Stevens claims that Raymond Knister is a much more varied author than the scanty critical pronouncements maintain. By bringing together in one volume Knister's short...

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Paul Denham (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "Beyond Realism: Raymond Knister's White Narcissus," in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1978, pp. 70-7.

[In the following essay, Denham discusses the gothic and realist elements in White Narcissus.]

A renewal of interest in Raymond Knister is evident in three recently published collections of his work. To date, however, White Narcissus, his only novel set in Canada and first published in 1929, has provoked little attention apart from a paperback reprint in 1962 with an introduction by Philip Child. David Arnason suggests that this neglect is probably just as well: "The novel," he writes, "will not sustain hard and sophisticated...

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Glenn Clever (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "Point of View in White Narcissus," in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1978, pp. 119-23.

[In the following essay, Clever notes that Knister's narrative technique in White Narcissus, undermines the effectiveness of the novel.]

[In his introduction to White Narcissus], Philip Child claims that in Raymond Knister's White Narcissus "the narrative is in the third person, but it is told through Richard's consciousness even though the story is more Ada's than his." If the story were told this way, the novel would be less disconcerting to read. In fact, Knister has little control over point of view, as Child's later comment,...

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Further Reading


Burke, A. "Raymond Knister: An Annotated Checklist." Essays on Canadian Writing 16 (Fall-Winter 1979-1980): 20-61.

Comprehensive annotated bibliography of works by and about Knister; includes information on unpublished works collected in various archives.


Livesay, Dorothy. "Raymond Knister: A Memoir." In Collected Poems of Raymond Knister, by Raymond Knister, pp. xi-xii. Toronto: Ryerson, 1949.

Traces Knister's career and interprets his writings as well as events preceding his death, portraying the author as a depressed, frustrated artist and likening him to John Keats and Ranier...

(The entire section is 215 words.)