Hugh MacLennan


Hugh MacLennan : biography

March 20, 1907 – November 9, 1990

Barometer Rising

Dorothy convinced MacLennan that the failure of his first two novels was he had set one in Europe and the other in U.S.A; she persuaded him to write about Canada, the country he knew best.Cameron (1981), 133. She told him that "Nobody’s going to understand Canada until she evolves a literature of her own, and you’re the fellow to start bringing Canadian novels up to date." Until then there had been no real tradition of Canadian literature, and MacLennan set out to define Canada for Canadians through a national novel.Peepre-Bordessa, Mari (1990), 52.

Barometer Rising, his novel about the social class structure of Nova Scotia and the Halifax Explosion of 1917, was published in 1941.

Later novels

His most famous novel, Two Solitudes, a literary allegory for the tensions between English and French Canada, followed in 1945. That year, he left Lower Canada College. Two Solitudes won MacLennan his first Governor General’s Award for Fiction.

In 1948, MacLennan published The Precipice, which again won the Governor General’s Award. The following year, he published a collection of essays, Cross Country, which won the Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction.

In 1951, MacLennan returned to teaching, accepting a position at McGill University. In 1954, he published another essay collection, Thirty and Three, which again won the Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction.

One of MacLennan’s students at McGill was Marian Engel, who became a noted Canadian novelist in the 1970s. Another notable student was Leonard Cohen, the popular songwriter, poet and novelist.

Duncan died in 1957. MacLennan married his second wife, Aline Walker, in 1959. That same year, he published The Watch That Ends the Night, which won his final Governor General’s Award.

In 1967, he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada. In 1985 he was made a Knight of the National Order of Quebec.

MacLennan continued to write and publish work, with his final novel Voices in Time appearing in 1980. He died in Montreal, Quebec.

The Canadian band The Tragically Hip, on their album Fully Completely, have a song called "Courage (for Hugh MacLennan)". A passage from The Watch That Ends the Night is adapted for use in the song.

Family and childhood

MacLennan was born in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia on March 20, 1907.Cameron (1981), 4–5.Hoy (1990), 1. His parents were Dr. Samuel MacLennan, a colliery physician, and Katherine MacQuarrie; Hugh also had an older sister named Frances. Samuel was a stern Calvinist, while Katherine was creative, warm and dreamy, and both parents would be large influences on Hugh’s character.Cameron (1981), 5–6. In 1913, the family spent several months in London while Samuel took on further study to become a medical specialist.Cameron (1981), 8. On returning to Canada, they briefly lived in Sydney, Nova Scotia before settling in Halifax. In December 1917, young Hugh experienced the Halifax Explosion, which he would later write about in his first published novel, Barometer Rising.Cameron (1981), 13. From the ages of twelve to twenty-one, he slept in a tent in the family’s backyard, even in the cold winter, possibly as an escape from his strict father.Cameron (1981), 15. Hugh grew up believing in the importance of religion; he and Frances regularly went to Sunday School, and the family attended Presbyterian church services twice each Sunday.Cameron (1981), 12. He was also active in sports, and became especially good at tennis, eventually winning the Nova Scotia men’s double championship in 1927.Cameron (1981), 17, 21.


Unpublished novels

At Princeton, MacLennan wrote his first novel, So All Their Praises. He found one publisher who was willing to take the manuscript, as long as he made certain changes; however, this company went out of business before the book could be published.Cameron (1981), 87. In spring 1935, he finished his PhD thesis, Oxyrhynchus: An Economic and Social Study, about the decline of a Roman colony in Egypt,Hoy (1990), 1.Cameron (1981), 91. which was published by Princeton University Press and reprinted in 1968 by A.M. Hakkert.

In 1935, there were very few teaching jobs available as a result of the Depression,Cameron (1981), 101. and MacLennan’s field of study, the Classics, was in particular becoming less significant in North American education. He took a position at Lower Canada College in Montreal, even though he felt it was beneath him, as just his Dalhousie BA would have been a sufficient qualification for the job. He generally did not enjoy working there, and resented the long hours required of him for low pay, but was nonetheless a stimulating teacher, at least for the brighter students.Cameron (1981), 105–106. MacLennan would later poke fun at Lower Canada College in his depiction of Waterloo School in The Watch That Ends the Night.Cameron (1981), 104. On June 22, 1936, he and Dorothy were wed near her home in Wilmette, Illinois, and settled in Montreal.Cameron (1981), 112.

Meanwhile, in 1934–1938, MacLennan was working on his second novel, A Man Should Rejoice.Cameron (1981), 107–112, 119. Longman, Green and Company and Duell, Sloan and Pearce both showed strong interest in the novel, but in the end neither published it.Cameron (1981), 119–120.

In February 1939, MacLennan’s father died after suffering from high blood pressure. It was a huge shock to MacLennan, as in the previous year they had just begun to become closer and to reconcile their opposing views.Cameron (1981), 121. For several months after his father’s death MacLennan continued to write letters to him, in which he discussed his thoughts on the possibility and implications of a war in Europe.Cameron (1981), 121–124.