Imagine having this biography: your father is friends with the Prime Minister during the First World War and serves as one of his deputy ministers, while you serve with distinction on the Western Front. Enlisting as a private at the outbreak of war, you are tapped for officer training and rise to Major, are wounded at Ypres, awarded the Military Cross, and then horribly wounded and left for dead on the Somme. You recover, eventually, though carry a horrendous wound along the length of your face.
In 1929 you write a novel of your war experience that is compared favourably in both London and New York to the likes of All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms. A major literary figure writes a glowing forward to the text while many more offer dust-jacket blurbs. It will be your only novel. During the depression you achieve a prominent position in the largest and most influential advertising agency in the world, earning a salary three times that of an MP, but give that up to serve your country again during the Second World War. No longer fit for soldiering, this time you serve as one of the Prime Minister’s personal secretaries, who you advise until your second war is won.
If that man were British or American there would be a biography available and his novel would be in print. There would be academic essays devoted to his work and he would occupy a small, but permanent station in the nation’s literary history. But he’s not a Yank or Brit; he’s Canadian and forgotten.
Peregrine Acland was an extraordinary man and his novel All Else is Folly is a thoughtful, subtle and provoking account of the Great War, that deserves to be remembered, and deserves to be read. Thankfully, it is due to be republished this fall for the first time in eighty-three years, with an introduction from one of Canada’s most engaging academic writers.
As the hundredth anniversary of the outset of the Kaiser War approaches, several other forgotten and neglected Canadian novels of the war are creeping back into print. W. Redvers Dent’s Show Me Death! is due to be republished soon by the Canadian arm of Oxford University Press, while George Godwin’s Why Stay We Here and The Eternal Forest have been republished by the devoted Robert Thompson of Godwin Books. With James Hanley’s The German Prisoner, Charles Yale Harrison’s Generals Die in Bed, and Humphrey Cobb’s Paths of Glory, it is now possible (or soon will be) for the first time since the Depression for a Canadian university to offer a course that examines the literary experience of the Canadian soldier during the First World War. I think that’s exciting.
I’m a book collector and have amassed a good collection of Canadian books that deal with the First World War, primarily novels and poetry, but also unit and official histories. My intention is to share some of the information and ephemera I’ve gathered over the past several years, and present it in a way that may be of interest to the general reader, but hopefully is particularly helpful to students of this literature.
War literature tends to be abandoned by English departments who at best view it as historical writing, at worst dismiss it outright as uninteresting: the Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature (1997) for example, has entries for Caribbean-Canadian Literature, Italian-Canadian, Ukrainian, Yiddish, Lesbian Writing and the Southern-Ontario Gothic, but no entry for War Writing. History departments, though more open-minded, tend to de-emphasize literary merit to the degree that one can often find themselves in a surreal realm where Frank Prewett and Douglas Durkin are viewed as equals. I’d like to think my vantage point is somewhere in between, and hope to lob illumination shells in both directions.
I intend to begin with Peregrine Acland, then work my way through Godwin, Child and Dent. This is my first blog, so pardon formatting difficulties, etc.
Thank-you for stopping by.