Saturday, August 25, 2007

William Arthur Deacon

Biography of William Arthur Deacon

Bill Deacon was born in Pembroke, Ontario, in 1890. The son of a lawyer and practicing nurse, his family heritage would play an important role in the development of Deacon's intense nationalism later on in life. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that Deacon's experiences in his early years were the most formative of his entire life.

Until 1907, Deacon lived in Stanstead, Quebec attending the main college there. Located in the eastern townships and within the close range of the American border, Stanstead offered Deacon an initial, if not brief, exposure to Canada's southern neighbor. Deacon credited his early education at Stanstead for igniting an intense love of of his country - “a Canadian nationalist was born 57 years go. I am he” - and equal love of Canadian literature: “I was thrilled and listened so intently...because this eloquent man, reading these Canadian poems, told me what it was to be Canadian.1” While Deacon's love of all things Canadian can be traced to Stanstead College, his life-log antithesis to an overbearing British imperial hegemony can be said to have begun in his early school years. After graduating, Deacon went on to Victoria College in Toronto, where his newfound Canadian sensibilities were faced squarely against the old British heritage of the school environment.

In particular, Deacon came to resent one of his particular teachers, the English department head Pelham Edgar, because as he later explained to Emily Murphy, “I know him to be an aper of the English gentleman, he can never forget that his mother was Lady Edgar.2” One final experience that laid the foundation for Deacon's subsequent life and career choices was the doctrine of Theosophy. Briefly explained, this was a philosophical system based on the fundamental and eternal qualities of truth that are common to all. With mystical overtones similar to those of many eastern religions, Theosophy would instill in Deacon a life-long sense of duty and mission, a mission that would find its apex in Canadian literature.

These early years then set the tone for Deacon's later decisions in life. In William Arthur deacon: a Canadian Literary Life, biographers Clara Thomas and John Lennox have argued that from Deacon's graduation at Victoria until his completion of his law degree at the University of Manitoba (that is roughly from 1910-1918), these were the years that “were crucial in his choice of a life-long philosophy and a life's work.3” While it is hard to contradict this argument, since Deacon's awareness of Theosophy occurred during this time, it should be remembered that his most formative experiences (as it will be reflected in later years) had their roots before 1910. Deacon's family history of which he was very proud , included some four generations of lawyers and the College which he attended at Stanstead had a long tradition of its own since its founding in 1829. Both of these factors conspired to instill in Deacon a deep sense of connection to the local history, land and culture of his surroundings. In other words, Canada and not the British empire, became the preeminent source of Deacon's inspiration, a local anchor for his nascent sense of identity and nationalism.

Writing in 1953, Deacon looked back at his career and expressed his satisfaction at having been intended “to play nursemaid to Canadian literature...I regard this country as important and therefore its writers as very important.4” Deacon was reflecting on early 20th century Canada, a time when society did not give enough value to its own writers and poets - “they have no respect for literary natives here unless they made their mark abroad5” - an argument that continues to hold significance in more modern times. In fact, for many Canadians, the cultural and political orientation which they expressed pointed, similar to that of Deacon's early English teacher at Victoria, towards the British Empire. The Imperial sentiment, arguably expressing itself more on a culturally hegemonic level than on a daily personal level of individual Canadians, was nonetheless an important orientating factor for Canadian identity and values.

1 comment:

John Townsend said...

Why did this man treat famed Canadian author L.C. Montgomery so dismissively ... particularly since he claims to have championed Canadian literature and Canadian writers? It's this kind of essential duplicity that belies his "humble" claim, and why he was never really taken seriously and is now generally forgotten.