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Douglas Fetherling - A Pioneer Theorist
by Douglas Fetherling

THERE WAS a moment when E. K. Brown, one of Canadian literature's first critical theorists, might have abandoned the greener academic pastures of the United States and returned here to live. In 1947 he was asked to he dean of graduate Studies at the University of Toronto. He would have accepted, too, if Harold Innis, a member of the selection committee, hadn't decided that he wanted the job for himself. Innis's ensuing ultimatum, which ill becomes his legend, ensured that Brown would still be on the faculty of the University of Chicago when he died of a brain turnout in 195 1, at the age of 4 5.

Like his far longer-lived contemporary A. J. M. Smith (who spent most of his career at the University of Michigan), Brown was a Canadian studies specialist in exile, furiously turning Out essays and reviews for publications back home to keep his name alive while also struggling, less successfully, to interest Americans in the world of Canadian writing.

In such very small circles, Brown was famous as the author of On Canadian Poetry (1943), a Ryerson Press book designed by Thoreau MacDonald. Its aim was to rehabilitate the so-called Confederation Poets, those born in the 1860s whom people struggling to introduce the modernist movement liked to dismiss as the Maple Leaf School -- because they had drawn their inspiration almost entirely from an idealized vision of the Canadian landscape. Brown thought and argued well, concentrating Much of his attention on Archibald Lampman and on Duncan Campbell Scott (who was Brown's lifelong friend and Lampman's literary executor). He wrote or edited numerous other books on Canadian, British, and American subjects (including the first biography of Willa Cather), but it's for On Canadian Poetry that he'll forever be best known among his own kind.

Unlike the early modernists, who tended to took back admiringly on Walt Whitman, Brown was one of those who, in matters concerning education as well as literature itself, derived his stance from Matthew Arnold -- particularly the view that the purpose of education was to expose oneself to the best of what previous generations had thought and written.

The renown of most of Brown's own teachers, Stich as Pelham Edgar, has faded (despite a 19 5 2 anthology of Edgar's work edited by Northrop Frye another Ryerson title). But Brown's flame, while flickering, has remained alight, partly because he possessed one of the most agile Canadian minds of his generation, partly because he was skilled at writing and speaking to lay as well as specialized audiences. In 1977, David Staines, the Ottawa literary historian, reaffirmed both claims when he assentbled E. K. Brown: Responses and Evaluations -- Essays on Canada for the New Canadian Library. Now comes a wise, sympathetic, and sometimes surprising biography, E. K. Brown: A Study in Conflict (University of Toronto Press), by Laura Smyth Groening.

The conflict referred to in Groening's subtitle is not only the one between Canada and the United States or the one between Arnoldian elitism and Whitmanesque Populism, but also -- I would guess -- the one between scholarly rectitude and participation in public life as a purveyor of ideas.

One of her most memorable descriptions concerns the time that Brown, having been educated at Toronto, the Sorbonne, and Cornell, was teaching at Cornell. The Second World War was on, and Brown felt strongly that lie Should take some part in Canada's mobilization. He begged leave to accept a job as Mackenzie King's ghost-writer that Liberal Party friends had arranged for him. As Groening wryly puts it, "King had already worn out a number of speech writers, sortie illustrious, some merely diligent, but all exhausted by the exigencies of trying to conform to the Prime Minister's demanding, distinctive style." Brown went so far as to compile lengthy lists of King's favourite words and phrases. For his part, Kim, mentioned Brown from time to time in his diaries in a tone of weary resignation."

The key chapter of this biography is "The Politics of On Canadian Poetry," in which Groening gets at the heart of her subject's achievement. Quite early on, she writes, when Brown "stopped comparing Canadian poets to their British predecessors -- and be was the first critic to avoid that invidious practice lie simultaneously became the first Canadian critic [to] make an important change in the methods of criticism. It was not that lie would eschew evaluation [but rather that lie] would simply call a moratorium oil existing cultural expectations and try to introduce alternative stands...."


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