Newfoundland Letters

Reviewed by David Johnstone

Elizabeth Popham and David G. Pitt provide an invaluable resource to scholars of Canadian modernist poetry with E. J. Pratt: Letters, the last instalment of the Collected Works series. These letters show the man behind the poetry that was arguably both the groundwork for and the substance of modernism in Canada. Pratt’s poetry takes part in the “making of Canadian culture” in the first half of the twentieth century, while his letters record it. Ironically, the editors introduce the text with a quotation from Pratt: “As for my own letters and correspondence generally, I haven’t preserved a syllable—not a letter.” However, this is revealed to have been not necessarily the whole truth. Rather, the collection that the editors present is vast—and wholly indispensable for scholars in the field and those with an interest in Pratt’s poetry.

Pratt’s idiosyncrasies flourish in this text—his “erratic capitalization” and innovative indentation have purposefully been left unedited—to nearly the same extent that his realistic portrayal of Newfoundland’s dialect flourishes in his early poetry. The reader is given a glance into his private personality, as opposed to his cultivated public personality, as it develops through the letters. Pratt is often charming, but he also proves himself to be extremely extroverted and dependent on social relationships. To his close friend Arthur Phelps he writes, “Hi there! You old bees-wax! Hi there! you of the golden aureole! How are ye? How are ye? Why the Sam Hill, Art have I not received a line from you since your sail from Bobcaygeon? Here Lal [Phelps’ wife] has written Vi [Pratt’s wife] twice most devotedly, most voluminously, but ne’er a chirp from you.” Northrop Frye once quoted a small magazine’s Notes on Contributors that read: “E. J. Pratt is the best poet and the kindest man in Canada.” Consider Pratt’s correspondence a testament to the latter, if not the former, as his insistence on hosting guests and throwing “stags” shines in many of these letters. Without doubt, I can say that Pratt is not your isolated artist—he is a friend. And reading this collection, it is as if he is your friend.

Of course, there is a voyeuristic feeling to the kind of insight into a person’s life that letters can provide. This collection is no exception. However, the compassion that Pratt so often brings in his correspondence with his wife and child can be utterly heartwarming, too. To his daughter, Claire, while she is at camp, he writes: “I am breathless at the way you write. Your description of the lake and the clouds was a prose poem. You really do not know how beautifully you can write. It is either modesty or an inferiority complex which denies the ability. Now cultivate it because it is an immense joy when it is pursued.” Pratt’s letters, at times, share this poetic quality. When they do, they are not only “an immense joy,” but an inspiration.

The cultivation of the public personality is valuably revealed too: the control that Pratt exercised over his image is clear from the beginning. Of Newfoundland Verse (1923), Pratt writes to his editor, Lorne Pierce, to “kindly see to it that such an ugly, stiff term as ‘Professor’ [be] absolutely excluded [from any publicity]: first, because the title is at present technically incorrect and, secondly, the term is sufficient to stultify any poetic claims which a writer may, in all modesty, put forth.” He begrudges the term several times throughout, both when applied to him and when applied to others. Pratt’s desire for success in the early years is shown when, after writing “The Witches’ Brew,” he writes to his editor again: “I should like it to be tried out upon one or two American and English Publishers first—firms of a more aggressive character that take hold of young men . . . I am not particularly anxious for Canadian publication alone for reasons I will state later.”

At another point we are given Pratt’s thoughts on some of the first submissions to Canadian Poetry Magazine—“One and one half tons of stinking mackerel”—as he bemoans that he must “not ignore the traditional schools, though [he keeps] out the scarlet maples and the beaver dams wherever possible.” While Pratt may seem to celebrate Canada in a poem like Towards the Last Spike (1952), he resists the nationalistic maple leaf-slinging image quite passionately and distastefully in his letters. Pratt longed to be a poet not restricted by borders, as his letters make clear: “though I objected to the Maple Leaf on the cover it was put on.” Pratt’s resistance to performing these stereotypes and being constricted to Canada is due in large part to his being, in some ways, an outsider in Canada: Newfoundland did not officially join the country until 1949.

Popham and Pitt’s detailed effort is undeniable, serving any interested reader beyond expectation. However, for the reader who craves more after diving into these 792 pages, there is an online edition that is thoroughly hyperlinked and which includes many more letters, including some of the other sides of the correspondence. That being said, the content of these letters, while admittedly dry in places, is enough to keep a reader or scholar occupied for quite some time. This resource is one for the shelves of any researcher in the field, and it will no doubt be cited regularly.

This review “Newfoundland Letters” originally appeared in Eclectic Mix Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 234 (Autumn 2017): 175-176.

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