Autobiographical Writing in English | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Autobiographical Writing in English

Letters, journals, diaries, memoirs and autobiographies are all ways of saying to the reader, "I was there.

Autobiographical Writing in English

Letters, journals, diaries, memoirs and autobiographies are all ways of saying to the reader, "I was there." Although differing in many ways, these forms are alike in having an authoritative "I" who recounts events and impressions experienced amid a specific social context, and a "there" that can be readily located in time and space. Because they speak in such personal tones, these records and narratives are rich in human interest. Social and intellectual historians find them especially valuable sources, and they are increasingly studied by literary historians and critics as well.

Journals, Diaries and Letters: The Lost Arts

The circumstances of colonial life particularly favoured the writing of journals, diaries and letters. Explorers, fur traders, missionaries, surveyors, government officials and army and law-enforcement officers were all obliged by their superiors to keep daily records of their work (see Exploration Literature: Travel Literature; Exploration and Travel Literature in French).

Emigrants and travellers, especially women, wrote long letters home to their families and friends, and many kept diaries and journals. Although seldom written with publication in mind, these documents occasionally reached print because they contained information and commentary of use or interest to a wider readership. Written on the spot, they are a treasure trove for historians seeking to reconstruct the daily lives of private individuals.

Literary scholars recognize in them a means by which newcomers to Canada practised putting into words whatever they found new and noteworthy in the landscape, climate, inhabitants, institutions, customs or speech of British North America. Although all 3 forms are now almost lost arts, the journals, diaries and letters of earlier generations of Canadians are becoming increasingly available in modern editions and reprints.

Memoirs and Autobiographies

By contrast, memoirs and autobiographies continue to appear regularly. Unlike letters and diaries, they view events in retrospect and are often written with publication and posterity in mind. These works are more limited in historical reliability - the writer will have forgotten or suppressed a good deal - but the author has greater opportunities for achieving a shaped and finished narrative.

Memoirs are more loosely constructed than autobiographies, and reveal more of external circumstances than of inner development. Often appearing under the simple title Memoirs or a variant (Recollections, Reminiscences, Forty Years in ... ), they are characteristically anecdotal and episodic, with the focus dispersed among the many interesting people and places the writer has known.

Autobiography, on the other hand, downplays the context and highlights the unfolding drama of self-knowledge and growth, thus drawing in the literary critic, who analyses the autobiography's projection of a narrative persona, the deployment of dramatic, descriptive and narrative skills, and the achievement of structure, pattern or design in the whole.

A cluster of books describing Upper Canada [Ontario] before 1850 shows all these forms in their characteristic 19th-century guises. Elizabeth Simcoe, wife of Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe, kept a diary from 1791 to 1796 that was published in 1911 and then re-edited in 1956 by Mary Quayle Innis as Mrs. Simcoe's Diary. Describing life in official circles at York [Toronto], it is at a far remove from Our Forest Home (1889), based on the letters and journals of Irish emigrant Frances Stewart, who settled in the 1820s on the Otonabee River near Peterborough.

Among Stewart's neighbours were Samuel Strickland, author of Twenty-Seven Years in Canada West (1853), and his more famous sisters, Catharine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie. Traill's letters to her family in England were published as The Backwoods of Canada in 1836 for the information of intended middle-class British emigrants; it is now one of the classics of Canadian literature.

Moodie wrote autobiographically of her years of Roughing It in the Bush (1852) and her later Life in the Clearings (1853). The British author and feminist Anna Jameson visited her attorney general husband in York and then used her journals as the basis for Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada (1838), giving the observations and opinions of a sophisticated and adventurous visitor.

Other times and places yield their quota of firsthand accounts. Labrador is the scene for journals by Captain George Cartwright (1911), recollections by Lambert de Boileau (1861) and Captain Nicholas Smith (1937), and autobiographies by Sir Wilfred Grenfell (A Labrador Doctor, 1919; Forty Years for Labrador, 1932) and Elizabeth Goudie (Woman of Labrador, 1973). Colonel William Baird recorded his Seventy Years of New Brunswick Life (1890) but was overtopped by New Brunswick Baptist minister Joshua N. Barnes in Lights and Shadows of Eighty Years (1911). Sir Andrew Macphail's The Master's Wife (1939) is a polished and memorable vignette of Prince Edward Island life in the later part of the 19th century.

Travel Narratives

Travel and adventure in the North and West have likewise proved fertile themes. Accounts by fur traders include John McLean 's Notes of a Twenty-five Years' Service (1849) and P.H. Godsell's Arctic Trader (1934). Missionary work lies behind the letters and journal of Charlotte Selina Bompas, edited in 1929 by S.A. Archer as A Heroine of the North, and memoirs in 5 volumes by Methodist John C. McDougall, including Pathfinding on Plain and Prairie (1898) and In the Days of the Red River Rebellion (1903). Early mounted policemen of a reminiscent bent include John G. Donkin (Trooper and Redskin in the Far Northwest, 1889) and Colonel Sam Steele, who wrote of his Mountie days and much else in Forty Years in Canada (1915). Of many Klondike books, 2 that stand out are Martha Louise Black's My Ninety Years (1976; first published in 1938 as My Seventy Years) and Laura B. Berton's I Married the Klondike (1954).

More recent travel writing about the North includes Joanne Ronan Moore's Nahanni Trailhead (1980), one of the many about the Nahanni, and David Pelly's Expedition (1981), in which he retraces his ancestor's trip to the Arctic. David McFadden in A Trip Around Lake Erie (1980) and A Trip Around Lake Huron (1980) domesticates the travel narrative as the account of a family camping trip which makes the occasion for a meditation on Canadian identity. If personal travel narratives have all but disappeared from contemporary Canadian writing, the few that are still published tend to be about travels outside Canada and are often written by poets and novelists. This is a trend prefigured by Sara Jeanette Duncan in The Crow's Nest, her autobiographical account of travelling with her husband in the British civil service in India. More recently, George Woodcock 's South Sea Journey (1976), which emerged out of his script for a CBC documentary, takes up the theme of travel outside of Canada, while P.K. Page's Brazilian Journal records some of her years as a diplomat's wife in South America. Gwendolyn MacEwen in Mermaids and Ikons: A Greek Summer (1978), George Galt in Trailing Pythagoras (1982) and, most radically, Daphne Marlatt in Zócalo have joined to a travel account a personal quest narrative more typical of the plot of autobiography.

Homestead Accounts

Homesteading on the Prairies generated dozens of first-person settlers' accounts and memoirs. Mary Georgina Hall wrote letters home describing A Lady's Life on a Farm in Manitoba (1884), and E.A. Gill told of his days as A Manitoba Chore Boy (1912). Wheat and Woman (1914) is Georgina Binnie-Clark's self-portrait as a woman grain farmer in Saskatchewan. In his Northwest of 16 (1958) J.G. MacGregor describes growing up on the Alberta frontier; the journals and letters of Sarah Ellen Roberts, whose family also homesteaded in Alberta, were edited for publication by Latham Roberts under 2 titles, Of Us and the Oxen (1968, Canadian ed) and Alberta Homestead (1971, US ed). An unusual and striking story is contained in the letters of Hilda Rose, written from near Fort Vermilion, Alta, first published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1927 and issued as The Stump Farm a year later. Monica Storrs's letters, edited by W.L. Morton (1979), describe the settling of the Peace River district, while Susan Allison's A Pioneer Gentlewoman in British Columbia (1976) describes early ranching in the Similkameen. Gilbert Roe's Getting the Know How (1982) documents with precise detail early railroading a well as homesteading. Homesteader (1972), the title James M. Minifie chose for his recollections of a Saskatchewan boyhood, speaks for an entire genre.

The Unknown and Unsung

Although the majority of autobiographers and memoirists have some other, previously established, claim to fame, a few have written in the role of spokespersons for the unknown and unsung. G.H. Westbury published Misadventures of a Working Hobo in Canada in 1930, just as the Great Depression began to make hoboes of many men. Saints, Devils, and Ordinary Seamen (1946) were the subjects of memoirs by Lieutenant W.H. Pugsley, while Norman B. James made his mark in history with his Autobiography of a Nobody (1947). Phyllis Knight, through tape recording and editing by her son Rolf, has shown us the extraordinary dimensions of A Very Ordinary Life (1974). Maria Campbell's moving story in Halfbreed (1973) represents a side of Canadian life too little known or understood; in The Book of Jessica (1989) actress Linda Griffiths narrates the tensions and issues of racism around her theatrical performance developed from Campbell's autobiography. Jane Willis Geneish writes one of several accounts of residential schooling in An Indian Girlhood (1973). Other native writers, including Lee Maracle in Bobbi Lee: Indian Rebel (1975; extensively rev 1990) and Beverly Hungry Wolf in The Ways of My Grandmothers (1980), significantly adapt the conventions of autobiography to reflect native concepts of self in relation to the community. Much contemporary Inuit writing takes the form of autobiography, often in English: Alice French's My Name is Masak (1976) provides another account of residential schooling, Minnie Aodla Freeman writes of Life Among the Qallunaat (1978) and Lydia Campbell writes at the interface of Inuit and other settler cultures in Sketch of Labrador Life by a Labrador Woman (1984). Other Inuit autobiography, such as I, Nuligak (1966), have been translated into English and some, such as Anthony Apakark Thrasher's Skid Row Eskimo (1976) or Life Lived Like a Story (1994) - the latter recounting the life stories of 3 women elders from the Yukon and edited by anthropologist Julia Cruikshank - are the product of collaboration between journalists or anthropologists working from taped interviews.

The Political Memoir

Prime ministers occasionally write memoirs, but seldom autobiographies; their private letters and diaries are often useful correctives to their "official" selves that appear in state papers. Two volumes of Robert Borden 's Memoirs were published in 1938; John G. Diefenbaker's One Canada appeared in 1975. Lester B. Pearson 's Mike (3 vols, 1972-75) is autobiographical, although the last 2 volumes were ghostwritten after his death. Affectionately Yours (1969), edited by J.K. Johnson, is an attractive little collection of letters by, and occasionally to, Sir John A. Macdonald.

The diaries of Prime Minister Mackenzie King, running to many volumes, have raised more questions than they answer. But the "inside story" provided by slightly lesser lights in politics and public life can entertain and inform; witness Judy LaMarsh 's Memoirs of a Bird in a Gilded Cage (1968). Politicians, civil servants and soldiers with long careers tend to ruminate over many volumes with considerable tendency to self-justification; among the most important and credible of such memoirs are Paul Martin's A Very Public Life (1983-85) and Hugh Keenleyside 's memoirs (1981-82). Charles Ritchie proved that superb diarists are not altogether extinct: The Siren Years: A Canadian Diplomat Abroad was published in 1974, to be followed by An Appetite for Life (1977), Diplomatic Passport (1981) and Storm Signals (1983).

World War II produced a suprisingly limited number of autobiographies and memoirs and a few journal accounts; most of these are by immigrants to Canada who survived the Holocaust or by people who suffered unusual imprisonments. Exemplary among these is the diary Henry Kreisel kept as an adolescent during his internment in a Maritime camp as an "enemy alien" (1975; Another Country 1985), and 2 accounts of suviving concentration camps, Eva Brewster's Vanished in Darkness (1984) and Anita Mayer's One Who Came Back (1981). Peggy Abkhazi in A Curious Cage (1981) gives a rare acccount of internment of "enemy subjects" by the Japanese in Shanghai, while Takeao Nakano, in Within the Barbed Wire Fence (1980) tells of Canadian internment of the Japanese.

In the context of changing social concerns foregrounded by the feminist movement, recent autobiographical narratives have for the first time addressed issues of childhood sexual abuse. Sylvia Fraser traces the impact of such abuse on her life and writing in My Father's House (1987), while Liza Potvin contextualizes the abuse she experienced in terms of her family's Catholicism and her mother's refusal to see what was going on in White Lies (for my mother) (1992). Among such accounts, Elly Danica's Don't, an account of the most extreme abuse and child prostitution, has proven most compelling to survivors of sexual abuse, partly because of the intensity with which its prose conveys the child's anguish.

Insight into the Artist's Iconography

Canadian performing and creative artists have written few substantial autobiographies. Harry Adaskin has given us 2 volumes of memoirs, of which the first, A Fiddler's World (1977) contemplates his childhood and vocation as a musician. Raymond Massey has also written 2 volumes of theatre memoirs (1976, 1979) which are rather superficial in their theatrical account but are again of interest regarding his childhood and regarding other Massey family members. Among the liveliest of the memoirs of Canada's film and television personalities are those by Harry Rasky (1980) and Andrew Allen (1974). Humphrey Carver, British-educated artist turned Canadian landscape designer and urban planner, provides a detailed, analytic look at the environmental issues around his career in Compassionate Landscape (1975). Someone With Me: The Autobiography of William Kurelek (1980) documents nervous breakdown and recovery through religious conversion and provides insight into the artist's iconography; John Davenall Turner has given us a promising beginning to an autobiography he was unable to complete in Sunfield Painter (1982). Two Canadian artists turned to writing late in their careers. Emily Carr, one of Canada's best-known painters, found a style distinctively her own in her sketches The Book of Small (1942), her autobiography Growing Pains (1946) and her journal Hundreds and Thousands (1966) as she had in her painting. New England-born painter Mary Meigs personifies herself as a Virginia Woolf character in her Lily Briscoe: A Self-Portrait (1981); she would continue her autobiographical enterprise in The Medusa Head (1983) and The Box Closet, also published in the 1980s.

Literate and shapely autobiographies often rest on long years of practice in prose writing. Journalists such as James M. Minifie and Grattan O'Leary (Recollections of People, Press, and Politics, 1977) have the fluency and wit of professionals. Florence Bird is another longtime journalist and public figure with an important story to tell; the fact that she tells it under the title Anne Francis, An Autobiography (1974) will confuse some younger Canadians until they read her book.

Knowlton Nash in History on the Run (1984) writes about his Washington years with some analytic depth; James Gray's Troublemaker! (1978) describes Canadian social history and newspaper politics; Bruce Hutchison writes a more personal memoir of his years as a journalist in The Far Side of the Street (1976). More recently, publisher and freelance writer Douglas Fetherling has written of the 1960s youth culture in Canada in Travels by Night (1994) and Globe and Mail art and architecture critic John Bentley Mays has published a revealing account of his depression (1995).

Scholars read and write a good deal, but like prime ministers they are generally too discreet to lay bare their inmost thoughts and feelings in autobiography. Notable exceptions are historian Arthur Lower, with My First Seventy-Five Years (1967) and Victoria College's Kathleen Coburn, who, while disclaiming autobiographical intent, nevertheless charts a fascinating course in In Pursuit of Coleridge (1977).

On the whole, however, Canadian scholars have not used autobiography in a way that reflects the complexity or range of their experience, with the notable exception of John Kenneth Galbraith, who in A Life in Our Times (1981) manages to convey something of his career while being wickedly funny about both his early education at the Ontario Agricultural College and about Princeton University.

There are several once-popular Canadian authors who have written autobiographies that seem more durable than their poetry and fiction. James Oliver Curwood and Ralph Connor (Charles W. Gordon) sold millions of copies of their novels in the early 20th century; Curwood's Son of the Forests was published in 1930, Gordon's Postscript to Adventure in 1938, shortly after his death. Nellie McClung, although now best known for her early feminist activism, first made her name as a writer of stories. Her 2 volumes of autobiography, Clearing in the West (1935) and The Stream Runs Fast (1945), convey a warm and attractive personality.

Laura Goodman Salverson was an Icelandic-born novelist who won a Governor General's Award for her 1939 autobiography Confessions of an Immigrant's Daughter, and Frederick Niven's reflections on his life in Coloured Spectacles (1938) have more artistry and interest than his long historical novels. Edna Jacque's popular verse is no longer read but her account of her trials in Uphill All the Way (1977) now interest those seeking information about Canada's working-class women.

It seems probable, however, that Stephen Leacock's The Boy I Left Behind Me (1946) will always rank below his satiric sketches, and poet Robert Service added nothing to his fast-dimming lustre in Ploughman of the Moon (1945) and Harper of Heaven (1948). Similarly Thomas Raddall's In My Time (1976) is good deal more pedestrian than his novels, and Earle Birney's Spreading Time (1980) is an account of literary feuds that trivializes his poetic achievement. Whether Mazo de la Roche will be remembered for her novels, her autobiography, Ringing the Changes (1957), both, or neither, is for posterity to decide. These authors and hundreds more Canadians have put it on record that, like Edith Tyrrell in 1938, I Was There, and in so doing they have added imaginative texture and depth to Canadian prose writing.

The Category of Fiction

It is generally assumed that autobiographers, having chosen to tell their life stories, may write selectively and with some dramatic colouring, but will not deliberately mislead the reader as to essential facts. Thus it was something of a literary scandal when noted naturalist and conservationist Grey Owl, whose autobiographical Pilgrims of the Wild appeared in 1935 (2nd ed, 1968), was revealed at his death in 1938 as English-born Archie Belaney. Much the same excitement attended Douglas Spettigue's unmasking of novelist Frederick Philip Grove, a development that put large parts of Grove's much-admired autobiography, In Search of Myself (1946), into the category of fiction. More recently, John Glassco's tour de force in Memoirs of Montparnasse (1970), held by many to be the apex of Canadian literary autobiography, has been shown to be fictionalized in the author's account of the circumstances of its writing, and perhaps in much else.

Full-fledged men and women of letters having until recently been rare in Canada, we have few accounts of a literary life, but those few are worth seeking out, especially Glassco's memoirs (1970); Lovat Dickson's account of his Canadian youth and British publishing career in The Ante-Room (1959) and The House of Words (1963); and George Woodcock's Letter to the Past (1982), about his British childhood, and his account of his work in Canada in Beyond the Blue Mountains (1987). Dorothy Livesay narrates her childhood between the wars as a daughter of a newspaper magnate in Beginnings: A Winnipeg Childhood (1975), and the translation of Gabrielle Roy's autobiography Enchantment and Sorrow (1987) has been powerfully formulative of Canadians' sense of what it meant ot grow up French on the prairies before WWII as well as what the best of Canadian autobiography can do.

Fredelle Bruser Maynard also describes a Manitoba childhood, this time as the daughter of a Jewish shopkeeper in a series of small towns, in Raisins and Almonds (1972); she continues the account through her marriage and her coming to writing in The Tree of Life (1988). In Journeys Through Bookland (1984) Stan Dragland writes autobiography as a memoir of his reading, and in a series of essays collected in A Likely Story (1995). Robert Kroetsch writes about his experiences of childhood and youth important to his writing, then displaces the autobiographical narrative onto a fictionalized persona for the rest of his account.

Among the most analytic and engaging of the growing number of autobiographies about Canadian writers' beginnings is The Russian Album (1987), in which Michael Ignatieff narrates the story of his grandfather's service to and displacement from the Czar's court, his father's Canadian diplomatic service and eventual professional disappointment, and his own decision to live the political life differently through writing.

Ingatieff is only one of a number of writers who have recently turned to the effects of their parents' or grandparents' roots or of immigration on their own lives. The forms they develop to deal with very disparate experiences are among the most innovative in Canadian autobiographical writing. Denise Chong, for example, combines biography with autobiography in The Concubine's Children (1994), the story of 3 generations of Chinese women in Canada. Clark Blaise and Bharati Mukherjee collaborate to write something between a personal memoir and a travel book in Days and Nights in Calcutta (1977), a work that becomes the more telling when read against Blaise's own account of his early life as the child of mixed French and English, Canadian and American parentage in essays published in 1982 in The Iowa Review and Salmagundi. The tour de force among such writing, however, indeed among all the Canadian autobiographical writing in English to date, remains Michael Ondaatje's narrative of his return to Sri Lanka and his recovery of his family's stories about themselves in Running in the Family (1982).

Further Reading