Barometer Rising, 1941
Two Solitudes, 1945
The Precipice, 1948
Each Man’s Son, 1951
The Watch That Ends the Night, 1959
Return of the Sphinx, 1967
Voices in Time, 1980
Oxyrhynchus: An Economic and Social Study, 1935
Thirty and Three, 1954
Scotchman’s Return, and Other Essays, 1960
Seven Rivers of Canada, 1961, revised 1974 (as Rivers of Canada)
The Colour of Canada, 1967
The Other Side of Hugh MacLennan: Selected Essays Old and New, 1978 (Elspeth Cameron, editor)
On Being a Maritime Writer, 1984
Dear Marian, Dear Hugh: The MacLennan-Engel Correspondence, 1995 (Christl Verduyn, editor)
McGill: The Story of a University, 1960
Hugh MacLennan’s Best, 1991 (Douglas M. Gibson, editor)
In his novels and nonfiction writings Hugh MacLennan articulated views about Canada’s identity that were widely shared in the mid-twentieth century. John Hugh MacLennan was the only son and second child of Dr. Samuel and Katherine (MacQuarrie) MacLennan. His mother was warm, outgoing, and romantic, while “Dr. Sam,” as he was known in the mining community of Glace Bay, was an austere, reserved, dedicated physician who maintained a strict Presbyterian atmosphere in the home. Determined that his son should become a classical scholar, he would spend hours every night drilling him in translating Latin and Greek. The family moved to Halifax in 1915, and Dr. Sam enlisted in the Canadian army. He was sent to France. Wounded, he was returned home a year later. Observing these events and the catastrophic munitions explosion in Halifax in 1917 helped shape MacLennan’s horror of war.
After receiving his degree from Dalhousie University in 1928, MacLennan won a Rhodes Scholarship. Upon returning in 1932 with a degree in classics from the University of Oxford, he was turned down for an appointment at Dalhousie in favor of an Englishman, a decision which he attributed to the continuance of a colonial mentality in Canada. He spent the years from 1932 to 1935 acquiring a Ph.D. at Princeton University; he found the methods of the American graduate school narrowly pedantic, but he contrived to write a dissertation about a declining Roman colony in Egypt that can be seen as expressing his lifelong concern with national identity.
During this decade of intense studying, MacLennan pursued other interests as well. He excelled at tennis, winning the Maritime Provinces singles championship in 1929. His first novel, “So All Their Praises,” was accepted in 1933 by a publisher who unfortunately went bankrupt before the manuscript could be published. Unable to secure a university post during the Depression, he reluctantly accepted the drudgery of schoolmastering in Montreal’s Lower Canada College, a job he labored at from 1935 to 1945. On an Atlantic voyage he met Dorothy Duncan, an American who painted and was to write several nonfiction books; they were married in 1936.
After several publishers had rejected his second novel, “A Man Should Rejoice,” his wife persuaded MacLennan to switch from the foreign settings of his first two novels to a Canadian setting for his third. The result was Barometer Rising, in which the climax for the main characters is the Halifax explosion of 1917, which MacLennan had witnessed and vividly re-creates. He voices the idea that Canada had come of age through its participation and sacrifices in World War I. The considerable success of this novel was to be exceeded by his next, Two Solitudes. Here he addresses the deep-rooted gulf in Canada between French Canadians and English Canadians. In a turn of plot reminiscent of that in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (but without their deaths), the marriage of Paul Tallard and Heather Methuen is designed to suggest what a real union between the two founding nations could do for Canada. After the success of this second novel he resigned from Lower Canada College. Following a period of journalism and broadcasting and the publication of Each Man’s Son in 1951 he took a part-time teaching position in the English department at McGill University; he assumed a full-time post in 1964, becoming a professor emeritus in 1979.
The declining health of MacLennan’s wife–she suffered a series of embolisms–added greatly to the pressures he experienced. She died in 1957, after a successful career as a nonfiction writer. He dedicated The Watch That Ends the Night, originally entitled Requiem, to his deceased wife.
The turbulent 1960’s, with the rise of separatism and terrorism in Quebec, further contributed to MacLennan’s reevaluation of the simplistically optimistic view of that province’s future which he had suggested in Two Solitudes some twenty years earlier. In Return of the Sphinx Alan Ainslie has become prominent in Canadian politics, but his career is ruined by his son’s involvement with French Canadian terrorists. Threatened in this novel, civilization was virtually eradicated in his next. Voices in Time, MacLennan’s last novel, is set in Montreal fifty years after a computer error has caused a nuclear holocaust. John Wellfleet, one of the few survivors, struggles to make sense of the recent past from diaries, tapes, and other records that escaped destruction. Using a technique of narrative time shifts that he had employed successfully in The Watch That Ends the Night, MacLennan reiterates his major theme, that civilization will be destroyed if the lessons of history are ignored.
Combining Canadian regionalism in setting with national and international concerns and plots derived from myth, MacLennan steadily developed an international audience (most of his novels have been translated into several foreign languages). Some critics have found in his work a tendency to didacticism, labored dialogue, repetitiousness, and stereotyping of characterization. Nevertheless, his ability to write gripping narrative in such episodes as the Halifax explosion in Barometer Rising, Jerome’s boyhood flight downriver in The Watch That Ends the Night, and Conrad Dehmel’s tragic involvement with Nazism in Voices in Time is widely recognized. In 1982 MacLennan retired from McGill after more than thirty years of teaching there. He died in Montreal on November 7, 1990, at the age of eighty-three.