The Politics of the Imagination: A Life of F.R. Scott

by Sandra Djwa
528 pages,
ISBN: 0771028253

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Great Scott
by Bruce Whiteman

In a short article written in 1977 and published the following year in the Laurentian University Review; Sandra Djwa remarked that, unlike the critic, the literary historian "simply documents what is: preferably in as elegant a manner as can be managed." This may present a pretty naive view of history (literary or otherwise), but it also raises the useful point that Canadian literature still lacks documentors. We have, if anything, a superfluity of critics willing and able to give detailed and sometimes illuminating views of individual works of art or overviews of genres and aesthetic trends. But there is a dearth of specialists willing to undertake the rigours of textual criticism, of biography, of the collecting of letters, of bibliography - in short, of the whole range of literary history which provides the necessary ground from which informed criticism springs.
Djwa's biography of F.R. Scott is a solid and impressive contribution to this neglected aspect of Canadian literary studies, though, given the breadth of her subject's interests, it is a good deal more than that too. Scott's distinguished career as a politico, a constitutional expert, and a poet makes him a daunting subject. Not the least successful aspect of The Politics of the Imagination is Djwa's ability not only to deal competently with Scott's divergent passions, but to hold the strands of her narrative together as one story. This she manages with aplomb, and if (as one suspects) she had a lot of swotting to do on Canadian political and legal history in preparation for the book, the hand of the amateur is not in evidence here. The fact that I noticed a couple of slips in the literary part of the text (for example, Ralph Gustafson'r Anthology of Canadian Poetry - not the Penguin Book of Canadian Verse- was issued in 1942, not 1941) suggests that specialist readers in law or history might also find a few details with which to quibble. But these are, after all, minor details, and over-all Djwa is an eminently trustworthy guide to a complex man with complex interests.
Scott was born in 1899, and he once remarked that he hoped to live to the year 2000 "so as to intrude on three centuries." His death in 1985 left that wish unfulfilled, but he nevertheless lived through and influenced a lengthy span of Canada's literary and political history. His life encompassed the First World war (in which he did not fiight, though he attempted to enlist on five separate occasions) and the patriation of the Constitution, the waning of the Confederation poets' hegemony and the advent of postmodernism, and the prime ministerships of Sir Wilfrid Laurier and Brian Mulroney. Scott was both blessed and burdened with a father who was well known as a poet and deeply respected as an Anglican minister and war hero, and Djwa is doubtless correct when she writes that Scott's ideals and activities as an adult reflected a struggle against this powerful father figure. Less speculative is the suggestion that Canon Scott instilled in him instincts to care about people and to achieve, interests that Scott was not always able to balance. When he became dean of law at McGill in the early 60s, a job which he had long deserved and coveted. Scott surprised his colleagues by being intransigent and authoritarian when they had expected him to be liberal and committed to change.
It was only in his retirement that Scott finally had much time to devote to writing, but his intelligence and phenomenal energy saved him from being a Sunday poet. His involvement with the McGill Fortnightly Review and with the anthology New Provinces (1936) assures him a place of importance in Canadian modernism, and a handful of his poems are among the best of his generation. But as Scott himself recognized, his multifarious interests and other demands on his time kept him too much from poetry. Djwa tells of his breaking down when a poein was criticized by fellow poets at an informal reading, and of his admission that "I've wanted to be a poet but I've spread myself too thin."
His Collected Poems deservedly won the Governor General's award in 1981, but they are not a touchstone for Scott's generation in the way that Pratt's or Layton's or Purdy's are for theirs. At the same time, it is amazing how long Scott's work remained contemporary. One cannot imagine, for example, any other poet of his generation publishing a book with Contact Press, as Scott did in 1957.
The only difficulty which Djwa is unable to overcome is that many of Scott's friends and colleagues, and his wife Marion (who is an artist in her own right) are still alive. This has made it necessary for her to be discreet about certain aspects of Scott's personality and certain incidents in his life. She refers only in passing, for example, to two serious love affairs without identifying the women. This is the price that a biographer pays whose subject is alive or. only recently dead. On the other hand. Djwa has benefited enormously from extensive interviews with Scott's political and literary friends. The Politics of the Imagination may not be the definitive biography of I? R. Scott; it is nevertheless a fine achievement and worthy of a man about whom one might say adapting his own words about painter Pegi Nicol -- "He was a Canadian of these difficult days / When greatness is in our thoughts / And our hands are numb. / Only part of him died. / His alive is alive."

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