Flint & Feather: The Life and Times of E. Pauline Johnson, Tekahionwake|
by Charlotte Gray
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|The Mohawk Princess
by Anne Cimon
As we learn in Flint & Feather, Charlotte Gray's erudite and enthusiastic biography of Canadian native poet E.Pauline Johnson, known also by her Mohawk name, Tekahionwake, her older sister, Evelyn, played a major role in how the poet is remembered. As Gray explains in her Afterword, "Evelyn burnt as many of her sister's papers as she could lay her hands on. Letters, unpublished verses, journals, receipts, performance schedulesłthey all went up in smokeą"
This made Gray's task as Johnson's newest biographer very challenging, but Gray's research skills are well-honed as demonstrated in her prize-winning books, such as her recent Sisters of the Wilderness.
Gray had sources of information not only from Johnson's previous biographers, but from an acquisition in 2000 by the National Archives of Canada, of a cache of 18 letters of Pauline Johnson to Archie Kains, a lifelong beau and friend. And as exciting, more letters turned up as Gray worked on the manuscript.
Johnson can take her place among the great women writers whose psyche will remain more of a mystery, like Emily Dickinson who was a recluse, and Jane Austen (whose older sister Cassandra also furiously edited her letters).
Flint & Feather then is not an intimate biography, and the reader can only mourn the loss of primary materials, for the few epistolary quotations that Gray uses testify to the extraordinary charm and wit of Johnson, who entranced thousands during her nineteen cross-country tours by rail of Canada, and several visits to London, England, as a "recitalist".
Johnson regaled her audiences with her own compositions in verse, dressed in her costume of buckskin and bear claw necklace in her first act, then an elegant Victorian gown. Johnson knew how to make the most of her dual heritage.
Telling Johnson's life story in chronological order, Gray delves immediately into the controversial but happy nineteenth-century marriage between Emily Howells, a Victorian lady originally from Bristol, England, and George Johnson, a Mohawk chief of the Six Nations Reserve in Brantford, Ontario.
Johnson had a comfortable upbringing with her two older brothers and sister living at Chiefswood, a mansion on the reserve. By the age of 14, she sensed her calling as a poet. Encouraged by her mother, who liked to pen verse herself, Johnson had memorized long passages from her favorite work The Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. She also passionately read the poet Algernon Swinburne, whom she would later meet as an old man in the literary salons of London, England.
When her beloved father, who was an interpreter and go-between with the colonial government, tragically died, Johnson, then in her early twenties, had to move with her family to a modest house in Brantford, off the reservation. Johnson asked herself the perennial question all artists do: how to earn money by her works?
Gray vividly reconstructs the poet's fascinating transformation into a mesmerizing stage figure. Johnson was gifted with beauty and grace, and a melodious voice. She soon adopted her Mohawk grandfather's name Tekahionwake and fought the literary stereotype of the "passive Indian maiden" with her original epic compositions that sensitized her audiences to the increasing plight of her people.
Though Johnson had to fight her mother and sister's disapproval of her being an "actress", a demeaning position in their eyes, she continued to earn money to help the family and pay her way across the wilds of Canada, the beauty of which she eloquently described in her writings. Johnson also had to defend her choice of partners for the stage, such as the burlesque Walter MacRaye with whom she would enact her original playlets that gently satirize the British snobs of her day.
The biography does not explain why Johnson never married, though she had love affairs. The stage seemed to be the place where Johnson, nicknamed "The Mohawk Princess", found healing from the tensions of her life as a person of mixed blood. At the age of forty, after suffering a life-threatening bout of the disease erysepilas, which left her with some disfigurement and loss of her beautiful thick hair, Johnson quickly returned to the stage wearing a wig.
An ambitious and extroverted woman, Johnson had dreamed of having her first book of poems The White Wampum published in what was the English literary capital, London, England. She achieved this in 1895, attracting the attention of the firm of John Lane, the firm that had published Oscar Wilde.
As Johnson matured and saw the harm that was being done to her "red brothers" through political decisions that oppressed, rather than honoured the Indian people, Johnson wrote articles for newspapers and magazines, as well as narrative poetry, that decried the wrongs that were being committed. Her vision called for understanding and compassion rather than revenge, and appealed for equality.
Certainly as a nineteenth-century woman, Johnson was remarkable. As Nellie McClung wrote in her memoir, after attending a performance in Manitou, Manitoba, Johnson was "the first great personage that we had met, and we knew it was time for white gloves and polished shoes."
Johnson's eccentric character is captured in the fascinating anecdotes included in the biography. Once the poet confided to a Mounted Police that: "The desire of my life had been to possess an Indian scalp" and soon her wish was fulfilled as the officer presented her with an authentic Sioux scalp that she hung from her costume belt for the stage.
Johnson eventually could twist the most powerful men of the nation around her little finger. She could ask favors of Prime Minister Laurier, whom she addressed in her letters as "Sir Wilfrid". He happily provided her with laudatory letters of introduction to the elite in Britain.
Johnson became popular at a time when poetry was considered the highest art in the new Confederation of Canada. Her life spanned a dynamic and optimistic period in our history when nationalism was a fresh and powerful force.
As the subtitle implies, Gray chose (wisely) to write about Johnson in the context of her times. This is what makes the book so valuable and appealing: it should captivate not only those interested in reading about a Canadian literary figure of talent but also history buffs who want to learn more about how our country developed from Confederation to the eve of the Great War.
At the end of her life, Johnson settled in the booming town that was Vancouver, partly to be close to her friend, Chief Joe Capilano, who liked to tell the tales of his people, the Squamish, which Johnson transcribed and collected in Legends of Vancouver. This book was published by the Women's Literary Club to raise money to pay the cost of the hospital care Johnson needed. In her early fifties, she was suffering from breast cancer.
Alerted by a misguided friend, her sister Evelyn left Brantford to nurse the poet despite Pauline's wishes to keep her independence. The relationship between the sisters continued to be rocky, though Gray in her balanced style, offers some sympathy for the older sister's actions.
On March 10, 1913, the city of Vancouver came to a standstill for an hour as Johnson's funeral cortege passed through the city. Both white and native people thronged the streets to pay their last respects to Pauline Johnson, Tekahionwake.
Gray has assessed Johnson's literary merits fairly. Her reputation has suffered the ups and downs of many great writers, but this inspiring biography confirms E.Pauline Johnson as a unique and unforgettable Canadian poet.
Anne Cimon has recently published a bilingual edition of her poetry entitled All We Need/ Tout ce qu'il faut with Borealis Press.