THROUGH its Canadian Biography Series, ECW Press is filling a gap in our knowledge of writers, at the same time as it is publishing biographies of well-known Canadians in other fields. These three recent biographies of Canadian literary figures meet the need for informative, accessible texts about our important writers.
The volumes on Dorothy Livesay, Alice Munro, and Stephen Leacock all attempt to outline the subject's life and provide brief discussions of the relationship of literature to that life. Paradoxically, Peter Stevens's Dorothy Livesay: Patter-is in a Poetic Life, the book that is most interesting in terms of biography, is also the most ponderous when it comes to relating writing to life. Livesay's career is fascinating. Her pursuit of literary, academic, and political interests in the 1920s and '30s, Stevens shows, made for a thorough-going radical posture in her work. While doing social work in Montreal and New Jersey, Livesay witnessed first- hand the effects of racism and sexism, and was able to work with these themes in her poetry in ways that were ultimately more radical -- if only because of her lifelong commitment -- than those of the Spender-Auden group (from whom she did learn much).
Stevens is also forthright in dealing with the personal: Livesay's love affairs and marriage and bouts with alcohol and cancer. But Livesay's fierce use of her erotic life in her poetry, and the recognition that has come to her in the last two decades, keep the biography an optimistic one. Its main flaw is an overly literal attempt to link events in Livesay's life to her work, as in the book's opening connection of a snowstorm on the evening of her birth to subsequent poetic imagery.
In Alice Munro: A Double Life Catherine Sheldrick Ross articulates more directly the split between the author's life and her work. As the title indicates, Ross documents in some detail Munros trajectory from suburban Vancouver housewife to internationally acclaimed short-story writer. Munro's years in Vancouver and Victoria in the 1950s and '60s are poignantly described: she would lie and tell neighbours that she was sewing curtains when she needed time to write. Ross argues that this domestic background, I coupled with a rural Ontario upbringing that repressed emotions, creativity, and hope, led to the central themes of Munro's fiction. Munro is adamant about revealing the tragedy in personal relationships and the hypocrisy that causes this unhappiness, and she admits that they issued from the loneliness and expectations in the first half of her life.
Since the spectacular success of Dance of the Happy Shades in 1968 (she was then 37), Munro has been at the top of her craft and profession. As Ross notes, by the mid-1970s Munro was so established a writer that she began to be represented by an American agent, resulting in her long-term relationship with the New Yorker. Ross's account of Munro's early life establishes that it was a rich source for her fiction; her description of the 1970s and '80s, however, is little more than a chronicle of publication dates and reading tours.
Stephen Leacock is usually read today for his humorous sketches of country rubes and coldhearted banks. In Stephen Leacock: The Sage of Orillia, James Doyle delineates a complex and multi-disciplinary career. Leacock was competent in three or four different milieus: academic economics, humorous writing, public speaking, and popular journalism. His career as an academic was conventional, if successful, while his talent for burnout led to a reputation that Doyle describes, with some hyperbole, as "worldwide." Leacock's public speaking and popularizing are probably the most offensive aspects of his intellect: his tour of the British Empire in 1907 strengthened his love for all things white and British, and he spoke and wrote of the need to hold back Asiatic emigration and Black rule. Similarly, his belief that women were only suitable for marriage muddies our contemporary image of the stand-up comic of Orillia.
Doyle deals frankly with Leacock's ethnocentrism -- a more proper word might be racism -- and avoids, for the most part, what he calls "The Rehabilitation of Leacock." But as a background source for the writer, Doyle's study, like Ross's and Stevens's, is both useful and timely. All three volumes boast attractive covers and photographs, detailed chronologies, and short bibliographies.