An Enduring Myth

English Prof. Sherrill Grace studies the North for what defines us

by Gavin Wilson
Staff writer

Picture Sherrill Grace was working in her home office when the drone of a twin-engine airplane prompted her to look out the window.

Its bright yellow fuselage bold against the blue sky, the plane circled English Bay once and then headed north. The sight filled Grace with longing. It reminded her of the Canadian North -- the focus of her recent work and fast becoming a personal passion.

"There is still a romance about it, I'm afraid. The North has that quality, and an extraordinary beauty. We want to go there for adventure, to be purified," says Grace, a professor in the Dept. of English who has made three trips to the Arctic in the course of her research.

When Grace spied the north-bound airplane, she was writing a chapter of her new book, Canada and the Idea of North. In its pages she will explore the impact the North has had for 150 years on the Canadian psyche, shaping our politics, art, music, culture and geography.

Grace contends that the Canadian North is as enduring a myth of cultural and national significance as the American West is to the United States.

But what does it really mean to Canadians, she wonders. How is it used to shape cultural identity and government policy? And where, exactly, is the North? Torontonians proudly sing that they are "the true North, strong and free," but residents of Inuvik or Churchill would scoff.

"The North has a powerful hold over our imaginations, but we have an extremely vague notion of what the North really is and one that has nothing to do with the real people who live there and the issues they face," Grace says.

One of the key elements in the construction of Canada's cultural identity that she is exploring is how artists have portrayed the North.

Group of Seven painters Lawren Harris and A.Y. Jackson both made trips to the Arctic and sub-Arctic. Their work had a direct influence on poet F.R. Scott and playwright Herman Voaden, among others, and helped to establish a pattern that continues today in works by Judith Thompson, Margaret Atwood, Rudy Wiebe and Mordecai Richler.

But not only artists have been concerned with the North, as Grace points out.

"The North has been used since Confederation to try to unite the country. Whenever there has been a crisis and a need to build confidence in our future, people invoke what Glenn Gould called `the idea of North' to encourage national pride and spirit."

It worked for John Diefenbaker, whose "northern vision" helped give him the greatest landslide victory in Canadian electoral history in 1958.

Doing her research, which has taken her to Baffin Island, Bathurst Inlet and by car up the Dempster Highway to Inuvik, Grace has begun to understand how the concept of North is sometimes used to exploit northerners and manipulate those of us in the south.

"It's completely changed the way I think about this country. North of 60 degrees, people are often living in Third World conditions and face many social problems and issues that are ignored in the south."

With an eye on the formation of Nunavut in 1999, Grace intends to call the last chapter of her book, "The North Writes Back." It will feature the thoughts of northern historians, sociologists, writers and artists, who are finally gaining a voice.

Grace has devoted herself to the study of Canadian culture and literature since her days as a graduate student at McGill University. After joining UBC in 1977, she quickly established herself as a major critic of Canadian literature with books on Margaret Atwood and Malcolm Lowry.

Many say her most important publication is 1989's Regression and Apocalypse: Studies in North American Expressionism, which examines the influence of German Expressionism on the art, theatre and fiction of 20th-century Canadians and Americans.

But it is her work on Lowry -- the troubled, peripatetic British writer who wrote much of his masterpiece, Under the Volcano, while living in a squatter's shack on the Dollarton mud flats -- that is earning her the greatest attention.

Her doctoral work on Lowry culminated in 1982 in a well-received book, The Voyage That Never Ends: Malcolm Lowry's Fiction. Later, she edited a 1992 anthology of critical essays on Lowry. And now the second volume of Sursum Corda! The Collected Letters of Malcolm Lowry has just been published. "Sursum Corda" is a Latin phrase from the Mass meaning "lift up your hearts" that Lowry used to close many of his letters.

Although UBC's library has the world's greatest collection of Lowry manuscripts, letters and memorabilia, Grace also scoured private collections and libraries throughout Europe and North America for the letters, almost 800 of which she has published.

"Some people say, `If only he had stopped writing letters he might have written more fiction, perhaps another Under the Volcano.' I say, `Yes, but these glorious, glorious letters should be enjoyed on their own merits.'"

In the letters, Lowry displays a stunning gift for language. He also provides analyses of literature, insights into politics and people and comments on his own writing, Grace said.

His most famous letter, written to publisher Jonathan Cape in 1946, is a chapter by chapter exegesis of Under the Volcano. The letter is 30 pages long and in it Lowry explains his allusions to Dante, Faust, the garden of Eden, the Cabbala and much more. The Volcano, Lowry tells Cape, deals "with the forces in man which cause him to be terrified of himself."

Another letter, sent to his hospitalized mother in England, turns into a Stephen Leacock-like short story about his own hospital experiences in Canada.

The shortest one, sent to a friend when Lowry was in the depths of drunken despair in 1954, contains a single, chilling word: "Bang!"

His last letter was written just days before he died in 1957 of an alcohol and barbiturate overdose. Grace describes it as "a moving, painful, heartbroken letter, filled with memories of Dollarton and quotes from Wordsworth."

While the collected letters have been hailed as a triumph and established Grace as a world authority on Lowry, editing them took its toll. Grace spent two years transcribing Lowry's illegible handwritten scrawl, five years annotating and proofreading with her research assistants and three years putting the two volumes through the press.

Grace will be the keynote speaker at the 1997 Malcolm Lowry Symposium, an international celebration of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Under the Volcano at the University of Toronto in June.