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Douglas Fetherling - Diplomatic Presence
by Douglas Fetherling

I WRITE THIS at the time of President Bill Clinton's inauguration, when people have begun to wonder which former cowboy, bootlegger, or political bagman he might appoint as American ambassador to Canada (for such has long been the custom, regardless of which party controls the White House). The situation puts me in mind of William Cooper Howells, who spent most of his last years as an American diplomat in Canada.

Howells (1807-94), son of a Welsh Quaker, emigrated to America and became a printer and an editor. According to his son, William Dean Howells, the famous novelist of late-Victorian America and editor of the Atlantic Monthly, he was "not a very good printer, not a very good editor ... but he was the very best man I have ever known." Readers are free to judge for themselves, thanks to the elder Howells's autobiography, Recollections of Life in Ohio from 1813-1840.

That title at first sounds as unpromising as any you might ever fear to find running along the spine of a book. But the text itself, or rather the spirit that informs it, gives Recollections the potential to be the perfect desert-island reading. The senior Howells was among those rare writers who are valuable not for their literary skill or imagination but for the sheer generosity of their spirit and their tireless, stumbling search for improvement as human beings.

Impractical and unworldly, but an extraordinarily hardworking fellow all the same, he supported a large family, and none too well, by starting one newspaper or magazine after another. They had titles such as The Gleaner, The Retina, and The Eclectic Observer, and were not only adamantly against slavery but in favour of black equality. They were also anti-war. By the 1850s Howells found himself the proprietor of a mainstream paper in central Ohio which he used to promote the newly formed Republican Party (the party of Lincoln, not that of Reagan and Bush, which it took a few years to become).

As Kenneth S. Lynn explains in William Dean Howells, An American Life, a 1971 biography, W. C. Howells used the paper to support James A. Garfield's campaign for Congress. He picked a winner, and he was rewarded for his prescience long before Garfield reached the White House. In 1874, Garfield persuaded President Ulysses S. Grant to make the elderly editor the American consul to Quebec City. There his daughter, the novelist and journalist Annie Howells, met and married Achille Frechette, the journalist and younger brother of the far better known Quebec poet Louis Frechette.

James Doyle writes in his dual biography Anne Howells and Achille Frechette (1981) that the posting to Quebec City was "not the most desirable of assignments, in comparison to some of the more picturesque and more remunerative European consulships such as his son's wartime assignment in Venice" (or for that matter Nathaniel Hawthorne's sinecure in Liverpool - in those days, you see, consuls were allowed to pocket the passport and visa fees: a perfect job for writers). But Howells threw himself into the task nonetheless, winning friends in a way that amateur American

diplomats in Canada seldom do.

Eventually the damp weather in Quebec began to affect him, and his friends arranged for Howells to be promoted to the consulship at Toronto. There too he carried out his duties conscientiously, good-naturedly, and with a deep and affectionate interest in Canada's past and culture. When his patron Garfield was assassinated (these things happen), General Grant and Mark Twain interceded with the new president, Chester Arthur, to keep Howells from being turfed out in favour of some other patronage appointee. In 1883, however, failing health finally forced him to quit. He died in 1894. Recollections was published posthumously.

By that time, his daughter and son-in-law had long since settled in Ottawa (where Frechette was chief House of Commons translator under Laurier). They furiously wrote books and articles and presided over a literary salon that, at various times, included Charles Sangster, W. D. LeSueur, John G. Bourinot, Archibald Lampman, D. C. Scott, Wilfred Campbell - in fact, pretty much the full roster of 19th-century literary Canada.

Until W. C. Howells, no American diplomat had ever taken such a beneficial interest in Canadian writing and the arts, learning as much as he could, contributing to the extent he was welcome. Until Annie Howells, English and French writers in Canada had never had a place where they could go regularly and interact as each other's interested equals, socially and intellectually. Never before and maybe never since.


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