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Hugh Maclennan, 1907-1990
by Paul Stuewe

WHEN HUGH MACLENNAN passed away on November 7 of this year, Canadian literature lost one of its most respected figures. The recipient of five Governor General's Awards and 18 honorary degrees, MacLennan created a body of work that sensitively reflected the shifting thoughts and sensibilities of a young nation's sometimes painful coming of age. Brought up in Nova Scotia and educated at Dalhousie and Oxford universities, MacLennan embarked upon a teaching and writing career in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression. After almost a decade of unsatisfying teaching posts and unsuccessful experiments in fiction, the 1941 publication of his first novel, Barometer Rising, heralded the appearance of a dynamic new voice on the Canadian literary scene. Stark, realistic and permeated by a strong sense of the need to put our colonial past behind us, Barometer Rising made the 1917 Halifax harbour explosion into a potent image of the turbulent future that awaited a truly independent country. In 1945 his second novel, Two Solitudes, powerfully portrayed the French-English conflicts that have constituted one of the dominant themes of our cultural life. Its title (an allusion to verses by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke) soon became a catch-phrase applied to any discussion of anglophone-francophone relations, and has continued to be used to express those feelings of mutual awareness and alienation that characterize Canada's current condition. MacLennan's subsequent achievement, in non-fiction as well as fiction ensured him of a permanent place in the Canadian literary pantheon. Essay collections such as Cross-Country (1949), Thirty and Three (1954), and The Other Side of Hugh MacLennan (1978) demonstrated that he was a shrewd commentator on a wide variety of topics, and his texts for the travel volumes Seven Rivers of Canada (1962) and The Colour of Canada (1967) are models of evocative descriptive writing. As a novelist, MacLennan continued to write provocative, overtly thematic fictions that made up in realistic intensity whatever they lacked as polished literary artefacts. The Precipice (1948), Each Man's Son (195 1), Return of the Sphinx (1967) and Voices in Time (1980) are important contributions to his fictional oeuvre, and The Watch That Ends the Night (1959) deserves special mention as a moving meditation upon the perils that await an idealist confronting the brute realities of the 20th century. MacLennan's later years were spent in the relative quiet of Montreal's McGill and Concordia Universities, where he kept abreast of new literary developments while working on his memoirs. Throughout a life relatively untouched by dramatic incident and yet always cognizant of the stresses of modern times, he remained sharply aware of what a character in Each Man's Son described as the human condition: "Life was never so vivid as when it was in danger, nor was a human being ever so vitally himself as when he had passed through pain and emerged on the other side of it." Hugh MacLennan's prodigious accomplishments as an observer and interpreter of the Canadian experience ensure that his own passage through life will become a permanent part of our literary history.

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