As you know from Stories About Storytellers I’ve long had a huge admiration for Hugh MacLennan. There’s a whole chapter in that book about him, full of admiring stories, showing how this man bestrode Canadian culture, carving a trail for other writers. You’ll recall that he won three Governor-General’s Awards for Fiction, but — just as important — also two for Non-Fiction, thanks to his wide-ranging essays.
My new book will have a chapter on him. While most of the chapters are centred on a Province (“Saskatchewan!” or “The Coasts of B.C.”) his is simply “Hugh MacLennan’s Canada”. As you’d expect, it deals with Halifax, and Montreal, and Quebec City, and Sherbrooke and his beloved Eastern Townships, including North Hatley, where he died in 1990.
But since Hugh was also the author of The Colour of Canada, and The Rivers of Canada (where as a young editor I played a role as a minor tributary) for this book of Literary Tourism I have him take us right across the country, to the roaring Fraser in the West, and the mighty Mackenzie in the north. His love of the country comes through in every line he wrote.
He was such a major Canadian figure that he was often called up for national assignments. In 1958 the country was facing a General Election, with two leaders who were not well known, Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker (who had just won an unexpected minority). To allow people to get to know them better Maclean’s magazine selected Hugh to be one of a panel of three interviewers, with Pierre Berton as the Chair.
The interview with Diefenbaker did not go well . Here is how Pierre Berton described it in his memoir, My Times : “When the interview ended and the prime minister left, I looked at Hugh MacLennan, who was clearly badly shaken by the encounter. “The thought of that man being prime minister…” he kept saying. Suddenly he hurried to the washroom and threw up.”
There are other, much more surprising revelations about Hugh in the book.