26 June 2009

Galt's Damaged Pastor Novelist

92 Glenmorris Street, Cambridge, Ontario, home of Robert E. Knowles

I spent much of this past Father's Day in Cambridge, that awkward, factitious product of forced amalgamation. It's a city without a centre, dominated by a strip of parasitic plazas, malls and big box retailers. Still, the older areas have retained much of their beauty. The gem remains the weakened downtown of what was once Galt.
Margaret Avison was born here and, as a girl, Mazo de la Roche called it home.

One hundred years ago, Galt's literary community was dominated by Robert E. Knowles, novelist and very popular pastor of Knox's Presbyterian Church. It's said that for a time Knowles' Canadian sales rivaled those of L. M. Montgomery and Ralph Connor. Between 1905 and 1911 the reverend published seven novels, including The Handicap (1910), which I have before me. I confess that I've never made it past the first page:
"An' how far might it be to Liddel's Corners now, boss?"
The man who asked the question seemed very much in earnest about it and his tone. which, by the way, was distinctly Irish, implied that considerable hung upon the answer.
As one sets down the commonplace inquiry after the long lapse of years it certainly sounds insignificant enough. But it was quite a different matter to the rosy-cheeked traveller that frosty winter morning as the heavily-laden stage made its creaking way along the primitive road that led from Hamilton to Glen Ridge.
Nor did the question seem a trifling one to the other occupants of the four-seated sleigh, if quick and eager glances in the direction of the driver may be considered evidences of interest. As a matter of fact, some of them stirred a little in their seats as...
Yes, yes, yes, but how far to Liddel's Corners?

(The answer – nine miles – comes at the end of the third page.)

Thumbing through The Handicap, I see that I may have been too ready to dismiss. 'The Canadian atmosphere gives it a touch of the unusual', says an anonymous 1911 New York Times review, but I see signs of even greater quirkiness.

In the novel's concluding chapters, 'The Right Hon., The Premier' and 'Sir John A.'s Handiwork', none other than John A. Macdonald shows up to save the day.

After The Handicap Knowles wrote only one more novel, The Singer of the Kootenay. Jean O'Grady, who penned Knowles' entry in The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, suggests that alcoholism brought an end to his careers as a novelist and as a minister of the cloth. Not at all fitting for a man who'd previously devoted much energy to the goals of the temperance movement. Knowles spent his later years working as a journalist for the Toronto Daily Star.

Cambridge has honoured Knowles with a spot in its 'Hall of Fame', making much of his work against that old demon alcohol, while carefully avoiding mention of his personal struggles with drink.

The city's large public library system doesn't have a single one of his books.

1 comment:

  1. I'm a public library librarian. I weed. I can offer a couple of suggestions explaining the absence of a local author's books from the local public library. The first and most obvious is that books wear out, get old and die, just like a lot of other things do. This happens especially fast with modern books, and once out-of-print they are not replaceable. There is also the Plague of public libraries to consider. Books go missing: lost (by patrons), lost (by staff), lost (by miss-shelving); they run away from home, they dematerialize, they commit suicide. Once again, if the title is out-of-print, it is not replaceable.