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A Teacher’S Life
by Douglas Fetherling

critic rather than a teacher, and felt uneasy in his long association with the University of British Columbia, Thomas has been that much rarer creature: a gifted teacher first and foremost. She’s published a number of books on CanLit, beginning with Canadian Novelists 1920-45 (1946). Others have included Love And Work Enough: The Life of Anna Jameson (1967) and several works wholly or largely devoted to Margaret Laurence and her writing. Many will remember Thomas’ collaboration with John Lennox on William Arthur Deacon: A Canadian Literary Life, which appeared in 1982 and seemed to ignite a long explosion in Canadian literary biography that echoes even now. But these seem to have been only the published manifestations of her abilities in the classroom, as many of her students, now themselves among the leading figures in Canadian studies, will attest. At eighty, she has finally got round to telling her own story in Chapters on a Lucky Life (Borealis Press, 351 pages, $24.95 paper). Being a literary historian, Thomas cannot help, almost in spite of herself, placing her past in the context of Canadian writing. Quoting her opening sentences will show perfectly what I mean: “Strathroy, the town where I was born and grew up, was in every way a perfect fit for our various archetypal Canadian small towns. Like Leacock’s Mariposa, it could be seen as a hotbed of inflated self-esteem and unlikely get-rich-quick schemes. Like Sara Jeannette Duncan’s Elgin it was the commercial centre for the farming land round it, its citizens possessed of a strong sense of their special importance in the life of the entire country. Like Margaret Laurence’s Manawaka, it could be seen as stifling and repressive, but still a homeland from which it was impossible to ever really separate. Like Robertson Davies’s Deptford, it could also be seen as ‘more varied in what it offered to the observer than people from more sophisticated places generally think, and if it had sins and follies and roughness, it also had much to show of virtue, dignity and even nobility.’” The nearest significant academic institution to Strathroy is the University of Western Ontario, where Thomas ended up teaching extension and summer courses for many long years until the robust 1960s economy resulted in the creation of a number of new Canadian universities, including York in the outer suburbs of Toronto. Aside from her shrewd and thoughtful chapter on literary biography, the most engaging part of the book is her account of the York start-up. We’re now getting frequent accounts of what Canadian writing and publishing were like in the 1960s, but very little has been written so far about the third horse in the troika: teaching Canadian literature. Here, as with the other two, there was a wonderful seat-of-the-pants quality to the enterprise, a sense that one was making up the rules as one went, that anything was possible given enough caffeine. Michael Redhill, one of today’s important young critics and editors, stated recently in an introduction to a poetry anthology that the two most important Toronto cultural institutions of the past generation were York University and the Coach House Press. At first, showing my generalized ignorance of academic life, I disagreed silently. I mumbled to myself that surely York has become the most important cultural institution in suburban Downsview only because the Canadian Forces base there has been closed. I’ve come to regret my mutterings. Of course Redhill was right. York was the driving force in the creation of the CanLit curriculum, far more so than the University of Toronto, where the syllabus seemed dowdy and intellectually brittle by comparison. York was more on a par with the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser in the quality of both the teachers and students it attracted, if one is to judge by the effect its alumni have had on Canadian writing. Chapters on a Lucky Life is an autobiography as well as a memoir. Much of it, especially when it verges on the genealogical or the marital, will be of special interest to Thomas’ family and friends. But of course, even these sections help to flesh out the personality of this immensely bright and needlessly shy woman who has been central to so much of Canadian writing for the past thirty years without ever quite imposing her own ego on the often chaotic proceedings, as so many others have tried to do. This is a gentle and intelligent work by a gentle and fiercely intelligent individual whose influence on the scene has been far out of proportion to the height of her profile—by her own choice. My one criticism is that she’s forgotten to retell one of her best anecdotes—about how, when her children were small and she was living with her family on Keele Street in Toronto, she would hire an adolescent girl who lived across the street to baby sit. Her name was Wendy (later Gwendolyn) MacEwen. “The most serious and intense fourteen-year-old babysitter you could possibly imagine,” Clara told me once. “Frightening.”

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