- The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 29 Mar 1979, p. 294-305
- Mitchell, W.O., Speaker
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- Item Type
- "There is only one expert who is qualified to examine the soul and the life of a people and to make a valuable report: the native novelist." Mr. Mitchell begins with these and other words from Mark Twain, and continues with a discussion of his life as a Canadian novelist. Through personal reminiscenses, he illustrates what these words mean, this "unconscious absorption" of Canada and Canadianism. He concludes with remarks about what a native novelist can tell us about the soul, life, speech, character, manners, and feelings of his country's people.
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- 29 Mar 1979
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- Full Text
- MARCH 29, 1979
The Day I Spoke for Mr. Lincoln
AN ADDRESS BY W.O. Mitchell, CANADIAN AUTHOR
CHAIRMAN The President, Reginald W. Lewis
BRIG. GEN. LEWIS:
Members and friends of The Empire Club of Canada: We have been bombarded recently with press reports having to do with the "Canadianization," if you will, of national television broadcasting. On the face of it this would appear to suggest that we should be trying to compete with the popular entertainment vehicles at which the Americans are so expert, which is precisely the reason why we watch that kind of programming.
I am on the side of those who are of the opinion that we cannot hope to compete at the "sit-com, shoot-'em-up" level with the Americans, but that we should expend our effort at doing what we do best and that is presenting ourselves to ourselves in the tradition and to the standard that has already been established by the National Film Board and the CBC.
Our speaker today is a part of that tradition. There can be few in our audience who are not familiar with the long-running classic CBC radio serial, Jake and the Kid, and its author, Mr. W.O. Mitchell.
Speaking for myself: I am in awe of authors. To think that somebody can write a whole book, and then get it published, really impresses me.
A kindred spirit is the Dean who was thrilled that his wife's book had just been published. It certainly ranked second, in his estimation, that his wife had also just presented him with a son.
A friend came up and shook his hand to congratulate him on his son and heir, saying, "Congratulations, Mr. Dean."
The pleased Dean reacted. "Yes, it is rather splendid of my wife, especially as she had no help from me and just a little from a minor canon."
Mr. Mitchell is a westerner, born in Weyburn, Saskatchewan and a graduate of the University of Alberta. He has been a salesman, a schoolteacher and he even moved east to become Maclean's fiction editor from 1948 to 1951. Moving back west, this time to High River, Alberta, he worked as a freelance writer and wrote the Jake and the Kid series for radio. He has been writer-in-residence at the University of Calgary, at his alma mater the University of Alberta, at the University of Toronto and at Atkinson College of York University.
Along the way he has written six novels, one of which became the successful motion picture, Who Has Seen the Wind? He collected a Stephen Leacock medal for humour for Jake and the Kid in 1962. Notwithstanding their western settings, each novel holds up a mirror in which the Canadian character is reflected, or as one critic puts it: "He portrays his characters with an affectionately comic note in a style that is appropriately unpretentious." Another, writing of his The Vanishing Point has this to say: "Mitchell is a lover of life for whom the `irresponsible' is often irresistible--he is a humanist who anchors his narrative in a milieu he knows well."
Perhaps I should stop now before I get into a milieu that I do not know well, but of which we may all be the wiser after listening to our guest.
Ladies and gentlemen, I know you all share my delight that our speaker has found time in his busy schedule to be with us today, and I am honoured at this time to present to you novelist, humorist, raconteur, an Officer of the Order of Canada and a great Canadian--W.O. Mitchell.
Ladies and gentlemen: "A foreigner can photograph the exteriors of a nation, but I think that's as far as he can get. No foreigner can report its interior, its soul, its life, its speech, its thought. A knowledge of these things is acquirable in only one way, not two or four or six. It is through absorption--years and years of intercourse with the life concerned, living it, indeed sharing personally in its shames and prides, its joys and griefs, its loves and hates, its prosperity and reverses, its shows and shabbiness. Of what real value is observation? One learns people through the heart, not the eyes or the intellect."
I must explain. These are not my words. I've been plagiarizing again. They belong to Sam Clemens, who is, of course, long dead, and so is unable to be with us at the Empire Club today.
He continues: "There is only one expert who is qualified to examine the soul and the life of a people and to make a valuable report: the native novelist. This expert is so rare that the most populous country can never have fifteen conspicuously, confessedly competent ones in stock at one time. This native specialist is not qualified to begin work until he has been absorbing during twenty-five years. How much of his competency is derived from conscious observation? The amount is so slight that it counts for next to nothing in the equipment. Almost the whole capital of the novelist is the slow accumulation of unconscious observation--absorption."
I agree with Mark Twain. And I'd like to add that the first third of the twenty-five years of absorption that he mentions are the important staining years. We could call them the litmus years. They stain us with our own part of the earth's skin through our allotted years of life indelibly. These early years of unconscious absorption position us each with his own peculiar perspective, determine the fragile contract each has with his own identity. During these years we may or may not achieve a delicate balance between what's inner and what's outer. Old-world cultural baggage carried to the new world may seem paramount to abstracting sociologists and other intelligently generalizing tourists. But in the competency of the artist they are not paramount.
By an artist, I mean someone who does a great deal for its own sake. I wish that all human beings were such people, but it's lucky they aren't, because the nation would go to ruin if it were populated entirely by artists who do things for their own sake only. In our western, contemporary, materialist culture not nearly so many people do things for their own sake as did, perhaps, renaissance man.
I don't mean simply declared artists, because I think there are two kinds of art: there is life art and there is "art art," life artists and "art artists." If I had to be only one of these, I guess I'd choose to be the first--a life artist rather than a practising artist, because when it comes to a choice between life and the illusion of life, which is art, I cannot too strongly recommend life.
I have called this talk "The Day I Spoke for Mr. Lincoln," because at the time when I was filling in those litmus years, a subconscious notebook out of which I could draw bits of people, themes, insights and stories, I also became a Canadian. This is when that sort of thing happens. It happened to me in my first twelve years as a prairie gopher in southern Saskatchewan.
The year I was twelve, I developed a tuberculous wrist and was taken out of school for almost a year. It was almost as though, every day for that year, some great blackboard eraser wiped all the children off the streets between nine and four, but it missed me. In our town, Weyburn, or the province of Saskatchewan, or Canada, or the world, I was the only kid left alive. What life remained on the streets was completely adult: Mr. Erhard holding the lines of the town horses, great rumped and hairy footed, with red ribbon woven through the braided plugs of their tails and little silk Union Jacks flapping from the top of the hames. They pulled the honey wagon. But they did it with ponderous dignity and style.
Every day, a dray piled with the frozen solid geometry of ice cakes went down Sixth Street where I was, alone, alive. And the man with leather chaps patched darkly with water shadows split it to ice-chest size, the chill splinters flying. He didn't mind if you took some chips. You brushed off the sawdust and sucked on them. There was cool drool, because the chunks were too big for your mouth. It was numbing cold and you couldn't stand it very long so you spit it out into a catching hand. Then when you sucked in the air, it burned.
I used to go next door to an empty lot, where little girls picked rose petals and took them home and crushed them with their mother's potato masher to make rose water. Next day the little girls would bring old aspirin bottles to school. "Do you want to smell my rose water?"
It should have been delightfully perfumed . . . but it wasn't. It had a thick and disappointing odour, smelling ever so faintly like old arm pits.
What I'm doing now is illustrating what Mark Twain meant by "unconscious absorption." It doesn't seem to have anything to do with anything. However, it does if you become a writer. Because this is where you find your sensuous fragments--your smells, your touches, your sounds, out of which you build your illusions and your bits of people.
It's also where you become a Canadian.
I used to walk out to the end of Sixth Street to the swimming hole, to the luke and muddy little Souris. I've stored through unconscious absorption and forgotten and found again the earth taste of that water. In the Okanagan, where we have our summer home, the lake water that we drink comes pure out of Mabel Lake through a plastic pipe. And you know, that water tastes funny. It lacks a sort of escargot flavour. And also when I walk out of it, there are no bloodsuckers fattening on my thigh or my belly--or worse--to be pulled and pulled, while they stretch elastically, until they come loose with a pop!
So that's the unconscious absorption that I speak of, when I filled a subconscious notebook, when I wandered lonely over the prairie, the prairie wind dirging through the great harp of telephone wires. They hummed and they twanged and they seemed to adjust themselves endlessly against the abiding prairie stillness.
I can remember standing with the whole thrust of the prairie sun on my own vulnerable head, looking down at the dry husk of a dead gopher crawling with ants and flies and undertaker beetles. I can remember the black and white magpies and the quick and skipping lift of a western meadowlark that surprised me again and again, and marked me for all of my life.
I told you that I developed a tuberculous wrist and because of this my mother had to take me to a warmer clime. We ended up on the Gulf of Mexico, where I lived from the age of twelve to seventeen. The first year we went down to Florida was the year I studied to become an elocutionist.
It wasn't my idea. It was my mother's. Every Saturday I had to go to Madame Brocklebank's School of Dance, Drama, Music and Elocution. The reason was that my mother, without benefit of Mendelian Law, had decided that music and recitative talents were sex-linked characteristics. My grandpa had come over from Belfast at the time of the potato famine. When he died in East Flamborough County, the Presbyterian minister at his funeral said that some of the selections from the poets took on new meaning under his recitation. You add to this that my father was an elocutionist who put himself through Victoria College during the latter part of the last century by reciting.
When my mother died, I received his notice book. "Lawn Social at the Manse: A Peach Festival under the Auspices of the Ladies Aid of Balmoral Church," "Concert of the Young Men's Literary Society of Dundas Street," "The Gore Street Methodist Church Social and Concert." The Dundas Banner said my father's humour was "clean, wholesome and refreshing." I don't see how it could have been anything else under such auspices!
My mother sang alto in the Knox Presbyterian choir back in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. She knew I was tone deaf. My grandfather was tone deaf, my father was tone deaf and bad things come in threes. But good things come in threes, too. If grandpa could recite the poets, and also my father, she would enrol me in Madame Brocklebank's School of Dance, Drama, Music and Elocution, to which I roller-skated every week. Ten blocks away, I could hear Noreen Symington's cornet; two blocks away, some protesting piano student playing "The Robin's Return," a beautiful piano selection. The robin just makes it up the hill and down the other side. In front of the school itself, I could hear "Tiptoe Through the Tulips," and "East Side, West Side." They were the only pieces to which the school's tap dancers could dance.
I think Madame Brocklebank left her doors and windows open for advertising purposes.
Each Saturday, my assignation was with a woman called Miss Dora Finch. She waited for me in a doll's house under a pecan tree at the back of Madame Brocklebank's School of Dance, Drama, Music and Elocution. Miss Finch came from Birmingham. She anticipated Tennessee Williams by about twenty-two years. She wore a gauzy long gown that dripped, and she moved as though she were wading through a lagoon. She didn't get up from a chair, she bloomed from the chair. And when she sat down, it was with all the drifting grace of dandelion down. She was a very spiritual woman: about ninety-nine per cent spirit and one per cent flesh, as compared to Madame Brocklebank. She was a generously built woman with a monocotyledonous bosom, who was about ninety-nine per cent flesh and one per cent spirit.
I spent one hour under Miss Finch each Saturday morning, during which she gave me gestures, facial expressions, postures, to go with such pieces as "The Fool." So you don't believe me? I'm not making this up. Here's Billy Mitchell doing "The Fool."
"The Fool. Look from the window. All you see was to be his one day, forest and lawn and lea. And he goes and casts them aside, casts them aside to die in the dark, part of him mud, part of him blood, the rest of him (close the eyes in the pain-too-great-to-be-borne expression, lower the voice but don't forget the chest chambers) not at all!"
I wish Claire Drainey had been here today. She's never seen me do that number.
After eight weeks of roller-skating to Madame Brocklebank's, I qualified to take part in the twice-monthly concert that Madame Brocklebank put on. She herself was the star performer. She got up and lowered a kind of gang-plank for every one of the students, before they did whatever they were going to do. Which brings us to Noreen Symington.
I disliked and distrusted this well built girl, who was about two inches higher than I was and who could probably have put me down, and who played the cornet. And every time there was one of these concerts, Noreen Symington played the same cornet solo, called "The Eagle and the Rabbit."
Madame Brocklebank would come forward and say, "The selection you are about to hear, played by little Noreen Symington, is entitled `The Eagle and the Rabbit.' It depicts an eagle, high, effortlessly soaring in the blue. Far, far below him he spies a little rabbit going buckety-buckety. Down he plummets, clutches the little furry creature in his talons arid bears him, grunting, kicking and squealing, aloft."
Over the years I have worked with a number of composers. Morris Surdon did the Jake and the Kid stuff; there was Harry Somers and Lou Applebaum. I'm tone deaf, and they all know I'm that way. But they're all illiterate, so that's all right. And I would say, "By the way, speaking of cornets, are you familiar with that lovely cornet solo, `The Eagle and the Rabbit'?" They weren't. Morris said, "You made it up, Mitchell." But I didn't. It really was what Noreen Symington blew on her cornet every time we had a concert.
My mother wasn't too impressed with these concerts. They were sort of incestuous affairs attended only by blood relatives. She felt she had spent a lot of money to train me and she wanted to unload me in public.
About this time, Miss Finch told me that Noreen and I had been selected to take part in the Decoration Day program at Williams Park. I was to deliver Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. I had only a month to work on it.
Now, because of that unconscious absorption I told you about, I was already a committed Canadian. At first I wasn't thinking too clearly, but it didn't take me too long to realize that this might be treason. I owed allegiance to the King, and the beaver, and the maple leaf. I don't know how I had overlooked it. Every time I turned around, I knew I stood amid alien corn. These people said "zee," and they accused Canadians of saying "hoose, moose and loose," when they really meant "hoose, mowse and lowse." And they said they had won the War of 1812. They celebrated Thanksgiving on the wrong day. They also got the wrong month while they were at it.
I didn't know what I was going to do. I put off memorizing it. Then during a class in solid geometry, I hit on a solution to satisfy all allegiances. I spent the whole evening memorizing Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. It's a cinch. Any idiot can memorize it, and I did, but with thirty-nine very, very slight changes. Wherever Mr. Lincoln said "we," or "us," or "our," I changed it to "you," or "your." So my improved version started out, "Four score and seven years ago, your forefathers brought forth on this continent a new nation." My adapted ending became, "with charity for all, it is for you to resolve that this nation under God . . ."
I didn't try it on my mother, let alone Miss Finch. By the next morning I knew it wouldn't do.
On Decoration Day afternoon, the Williams Park bandshell was frighteningly crowded: one Tallahassee senator as master of ceremonies, forty-nine Daughters of the American Revolution (which is the same sort of thing as the I.O.D.E.), and John Philip Sousa and his band (they played down there in the winter time), Madame Schumann-Heink, who was combining a visit to St. Petersburg with her last concert appearance that night at the Congregational Church. She was seventy-two and my mother said she had delayed her retirement by about ten years. Then there was Noreen Symington who would blow guess what on her cornet, and Babe Ruth, who did nothing except to be Babe Ruth, and that was the finest thing done on any Decoration Day program that year.
I left out one celebrity. He sat between me and Noreen Symington, an old Confederate Civil War veteran. There were about nine of them still left alive. His grey forage cap was tipped forward on his head and he smelled of moth balls. There was also a sort of ripe-fig smell about him, and I figured that one out when I saw the morning-glory mouth of a brass spittoon by his left foot and my right foot.
At this time, I used to recite in my elocution suit. It was a double-breasted reefer blue coat with a blue velvet collar (from our dining-room curtains) and beautiful ice-cream white flannel trousers.
The old man next to me needed the spittoon, but it wasn't doing him much good. He was chewing tobacco, you see, and he had palsy, which jigged his feet, jumped his knees and trembled his hands and rippled through his shoulders and jerked his head with such crack-the-whip violence that it completely ruined his aim. And you know what I'm wearing. My elocution white flannel trousers.
I can remember Madame Schumann-Heink and Mr. Sousa doing "The Star-Spangled Banner" rather well, but then I don't recall much else, except Noreen Symington and her cornet. I know that there really is a piece called "The Eagle and the Rabbit." I know bloody well how that rabbit felt when it was in the eagle's talons. Noreen finished. She bowed. She knocked the spit from her mouthpiece and put it on her hip. She turned about, came back and sat down. Then I saw the senator looking over at me.
I pulled myself together, tightening my chest and shoulder muscles to still the tremors. I reminded myself of Noreen's nerveless approach to public performance, I rose smartly and stepped firmly--right into the Confederate War veteran's spittoon.
Now look. To get your foot out of a spittoon, you can't tip your toe forward like a ballet dancer, because it brings your heel out where the spittoon goes around that way. And you can't pull it out this way. This was established in a whispered conference with the senator, who asked me then if I wished to forgo my part in the program. I was tempted, but I said, "No!" I would just wear the spittoon and do Lincoln's Gettysburg Address the way my mother and Miss Finch and Madame Brocklebank had said I would do it.
To this end, I anvil-chorused my way to the front of the bandshell.
The green benches were empty all over St. Petersburg that day. Everybody was in Williams Park, and everybody had been issued a fan when he came in. And so it was that not only did I catch palsy from the old veteran, but the whole park caught palsy. The fans got the Spanish moss and the banyan leaves going and everything had palsy.
Not only that. I discovered, just as my mother and Miss Finch and Madame Brocklebank had predicted, that I had forgotten Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. I got the opening paragraph. But from there on, I left Mr. Lincoln--or he left me. But I did a very clever thing. I ad libbed in a Lincolnesque fashion and caught up with him in the last paragraph. ". . . shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."
The fans stopped. The leaves and the Spanish moss were still. And then I got my first ovation.
Oh--the way you get your foot out of a spittoon is just to unlace your shoe and take your foot out of it. Then you take the shoe out of the spittoon, and ... wipe it off.
My mother helped me do this. She said she was very proud of me, and that my father, if he had been alive, would have been proud too. Then I realized that she thought that I had delivered Lincoln's Gettysburg Address! Not just my mother. Everybody in that park. I discovered something. Everybody has heard about Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Nobody knows Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
I said that I didn't think it was the right thing for a Canadian to do, but she said that she guessed it was, because Mr. Lincoln belonged to the whole world.
We are, of course, a hundred or a hundred and fifty years behind our neighbours to the south in almost everything, including secession. I hope we find a Mr. Lincoln.
I'd like to return now to Mark Twain, who says: "Does the native novelist try to generalize the nation? No. He lays plainly before you the ways and speech and life of a few people grouped in a certain place, his own place. In time, he and his brethren will report to you the life and the people of the whole nation: the life of a group in a New England village, in a New York village, in a Texan village, in an Oregon village, in villages in fifty states and territories. And then the farm life in fifty states and territories. A hundred patches of life and groups of people in a dozen widely-separated cities. The Indians will be attended to, and the cowboys, and the gold and silver miners, the negroes, the idiots and congressmen, and the Irish, the Germans, the Italians, the Swedes, the French, the Chinamen, the Greecers; and the Catholics, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, the Congregationalists, the Baptists, the Spiritualists, the Mormons, the Shakers, the Quakers, the Jews, the Campbellites, the infidels, the Christian Scientists, the mind curists, the faith curists; the train robbers, the white caps, the moonshiners. And when a thousand able novels have been written, there you have the soul of the people, the life of the people, the speech of the people and not anywhere else can these be had; and the shadings of character, manners, feelings, ambition will be infinite."
The appreciation of the audience was expressed by Catherine Charlton, a Director of The Empire Club of Canada.