Creative Writing in Canada, by Desmond Pacey and published by The Ryerson Press in 1952, is a short history of English-Canadian Literature. In this edition, the book covers the Colonial Period 1750-1867, the Confederation Period 1867-1897, the Early Twentieth Century 1897-1920, and an Introduction to the Literature of the Last Thirty Years, 1920-1950. Also included is a section on The Poetry of the Last Thirty Years and Prose Fiction since 1920.
The Preface states that the book was undertaken at the request of Dr. Lorne Pierce as a companion volume to John K. Ewers Creative Writing in Australia. (John Ewers was a novelist, poet and schoolteacher in Western Australia.) In Pacey’s own words, the book is a “selective survey which does not pretend to be exhaustive, but aims to single out the most interesting work in each period.”
In this edition, Pacey quotes a 1950 Times Literary Supplement which declared that “Canada is a country with no indigenous culture.” Pacey counters that argument by stating that while Canada is greatly influenced by British, American and European models, certainly neither England, France nor Italy, for example, had any “indigenous” culture either. Stimulation evolved over time.
Pacey goes on to argue that “Canadian art as a whole and perhaps literature particularly, has a distinctive conception of man’s lot on the earth, a conception engendered by the peculiar features of the Canadian terrain. There is a family resemblance between the paintings of Tom Thomson and Emily Carr, the poems of Duncan Campbell Scott and E.J.Pratt and Earle Birney, and the novels of Grove and de La Roche and Callaghan: in all of them is dwarfed an immensely powerful physical environment which at once is forbidding and fascinating.” Pacey attempts to demonstrate his assertion throughout the book.
Pacey concludes the volume with the assertion that Canadian literature is a response to the “overwhelming facts of geography, to the pressures of a frightening but alluring climate and landscape” which has had important consequences for the Canadian writer’s attitude toward his fellow-men (and women). He goes on to say, “Canadian literature…is recognizably North American in its vigor, range, and optimism, but it is more stable if less spectacular than that of the United States because it has been restrained not, as in Europe, by the pressure of a strong tradition, but by the pressure of a stern environment.”
Frederick Philip Grove by Desmond Pacey, published by The Ryerson Press in 1945, is the study of one of Canada’s iconic authors, Frederick Philip Grove. A second edition was published in 1970 under the Critical Views on Canadian Writers series.
Pacey, in his 1945 edition, says Grove, “is regarded by most critics of Canadian literature as one of the two or three most important novelists we have produced, but his work is not widely known even here as it should be, and still less outside. … Grove’s greatest strength as a novelist is the patient accuracy and intelligence with which he records and interprets the processes of ordinary life. There must co-exist in any creative artist, an unusual capacity for observation and a large measure of imaginative power. Where these two powers are in equilibrium at high tension, the very highest art results.”
Certainly, for Lorne Pierce, legendary Ryerson Press editor, this was an observation that must have run true. Pierce agreed to publish Grove’s Settlers of the Marsh in 1925. It is the dark story of prairie settler Niels Lindstedt, an immigrant, who after first being seduced, married and then murdered his wife Clara Vogel, a former prostitute. The novel had been rejected by Macmillan Canada perhaps due to the squalid nature of its content, however truthful its portrayal may have been. But Pierce recognized Grove as “a real genius” and that Settlers of the Marsh was a “classic”.*
The 1925 Ryerson Press catalogue notes that: “Critics have compared this novel to those of Thomas Hardy and Knut Hansun. It is a realistic study, outspoken and compellingly powerful, of life in the pioneer districts on the western plains of Canada… L.M. Montgomery has called the book “a great and fascinating work of fiction.” “Its franker pages,” she adds, “have the straight simplicity of the Bible.” No stronger romance has come from the pen of a Canadian writer.”
The novel contained scenes which would have certainly been offensive to many during the 1920s in Canada. Although The Ryerson Press found a US publisher with which to co-publish, sales were not brisk and after 3 years, only 1000 copies had been sold. Interestingly enough, however, Pierce’s decision to publish was confirmed when then Prime Minister Sir Arthur Meighn wrote to congratulate The Ryerson Press on having the “literary courage to recognize a work of art when you see it, and having the courage to publish it.”*
*from Both Hands, A Life of Lorne Pierce of The Ryerson Press, by Sandra Campbell
Grove was considered a writer of historical fiction and it seemed that, at times, his writing spilled over into real life. His autobiography, In Search of Myself, 1946, was shown to include “names and dates that were dubious at best, completely false at worst.” Pacey acknowledged, in his 1970 revised edition of Frederick Philip Grove that Grove’s own autobiography was largely fiction rather than fact.
Other works of Desmond Pacey published by The Ryerson Press include The Picnic and other stories, Ten Canadian Poets: A group of Biographical and Critical Essays, Creative Writing in Canada, revised 1962. This is the fourth edition of Dr.Pacey’s highly regarded collection of Canadian short stories. Prepared with copious notes on each author, the twenty-nine stories in this book include the work of such important writers as Thomas Chandler Haliburton, Alden Nowlan, Stephen Leacock, Irving Layton and others.
The fourth edition of A Book of Canadian Stories, originally published in 1947 and revised in 1962, contains 29 short stories by 29 Canadian writers and was considered a radical revision necessary to include the many newcomers to the Canadian scene, many for the first time: Irving Layton, David Walker, Hugh Garner, and Brian Moore. In addition writers such as Susanna Moodie, Frederick Philip Grove, Alden Nowlan, Ethel Wilson, Morley Callaghan, Mordecai Richler and Alice Munro are featured.
“These stories are essentially Canadian in flavour. They provide insight not only into the problems of a Canadian nation – but into the problems of being Canadian. Students of English Literature will find A Book of Canadian Stories particularly helpful. As short stories for the general reader, they are enjoyable in their own right.”
Like Canada itself, Pacey concludes, “Canadian literature has developed relatively slowly and unspectacularly, but I believe that I speak for most Canadians in predicting that it has a great future before it.”
William Cyril Desmond Pacey (1917-1975) was born in Dunedin, New Zealand and educated in Canada at Victoria College and Trinity College, Cambridge attaining a Ph.D. in 1941. He became professor of English at Brandon College, University of Manitoba in 1940. He joined the Wartime Information Board in 1943 and subsequently joined the English department of the University of New Brunswick in 1944. Pacey was acting dean by 1955, dean of graduate studies in 1960 and vice-president of the university in 1970. Desmond Pacey died in 1975.