Raymond Knister Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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 In 1931 Knister was awarded first prize in a publisher's contest for the unpublished manuscript of his novel My Star Predominant (1934), a fictional rendering of the life of John Keats.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."