||The Russian Connection
by Douglas Fetherling
JAMES MAVOR`S two-volume autobiography, My Windows on the Street of the World, published in 1923, is one of the little mysteries of the second-hand book trade. Volume one is common as dirt but volume two is extremely difficult to find. If their relative scarcity were reversed, many more people would have heard of Mavor today and think of him as the brilliant figure (and fascinating memorist) that he was - rather than simply as the founder of the famous Canadian theatrical dynasty.
When Mavor was hired to teach political economy at the University of Toronto in 1892 he was said to be "among the top 10 or 12 most distinguished English economists." Actually, he was a Scot, born in 1854, and something more than an economist - he was a particularly broad-ranging example of that still-new breed, the social scientist. His early background, as set out in the ubiquitous volume one, reminds me of H. G. Wells`s. He was reared in the countryside, only to be thrown into the riotous industrialization of a big city (Glasgow), where he discovered twin talents for science and the humanities. On the one hand, he assisted Sir William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) in his famous electrical experiments; on the other, he was an idealist who read Kant and Hegel. At one point he was editor of two magazines simultaneously - one on art, the other on engineering.
At the U of T (where Mackenzie King was one of his students) he proved illsuited to lecturing or getting along with his colleagues. Yet, as S. E. D. Shortt says in his 1976 book The Search for an Ideal: Six Canadian Intellectuals and Their Convictions in an Age of Transition 1890-1930, Mavor "was variously described as a `kindly genius,` Toronto`s` most picturesque academic personality,` and` an academic Admirable Crichton."` He knew or corresponded with a strange assortment of figures, from Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde to the polar explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson. But his most important friendships - to which considerable portions of the elusive volume two are devoted - were with two of the leading Russians of the 19th century: the scientist Prince Peter Kropotkin, who put the ism in anarchism, and Count Leo Tolstoy, representing the non-scientific and Christian side of the libertarian philosophy.
Mavor started out on the political left, a friend of William Morris. By the time of his death in 1925, he was, in Shortt`s words, "an orthodox classical economist dedicated to preserving the capitalist status quo." But in 1897, only five years into his Canadian life, he was not yet hardened, and he persuaded his old friend Kropotkin to come visit him in Toronto.
Mavor already had learned from Tolstoy that the Doukhobor sect was looking to emigrate from Csarist Russia. By having Kropotkin as his houseguest for two weeks, before sending him on his way to B.C., Mavor was able to persuade him that Canada would be the perfect choice. Once the seed was planted, Mavor used his influence with the Dominion government, making all the necessary arrangements, including the all-important agreement that the Doukhobors be exempt from military service. The whole story is told in much more detail in George Woodcock and Ivan Avakumovic`s books The Anarchist Prince ( 1950) and The Doukhobors (1968).
Along with his eye for character and ear for anecdote, it was Mavor`s constant and observant travelling that makes My Windows one of the most interesting Canadian autobiographies. He was familiar not only with Europe and every part of North America but also Japan and Korea, to say nothing of China (north and south), where he observed some of the Boxer uprising. But he never quite overcame his affiliation or affliction with Russia. He knew the taiga of Siberia as well as the parlours of St. Petersburg, and wrote about the country (and later the Bolshevist revolution) with a curious combination of passion and detachment. Here again are the two sides of his nature - the humanist and the scientist.
It was Mavor who persuaded Kropotkin to write Memoirs of a Revolutionist, of which Mavor then said: "There does not, I think, exist in any literature a more charming series of autobiographical sketches or any more vivid account of the social movement of the latter half of the 19th century." Which could almost be a blurb - admittedly, a very hyperbolic one -for My Windows.