Family and friends gathered at Morley Callaghan’s Toronto home last Feb. 22 on the renowned writer’s 87th birthday. As the guest of honor descended the staircase, the well-wishers sang For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow. Writer and editor Barry Callaghan, who was present, later recalled that his father loudly asserted,
“I have never been a jolly good fellow.” The crowd laughed, but there was some truth in the remark. Although engaging and gregarious, Callaghan was never anything as passively benign as a jolly good fellow. When he died in Toronto last week, Canada lost one of its most treasured men of letters. In a career spanning she decades, he wrote dozens of short stories,
20 novels, including 1951 Governor General’s Award winner The Loved and the Lost, and That Summer in Paris (1963), a memoir of his 1929 adventures with Ernest Hemingway and other members of the city’s literary smart set. Said Jack McClelland, former president of publishers McClelland and Stewart: “He made every word, every sentence, count.”
He was also, as McClelland noted,
“one of a handful of Canadian writers who made Canadian writing known internationally.” As a young writer in the late 1920s and the 1930s, he quickly gained widespread fame in North America and Europe, and his stories appeared in publications that included The New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly and Maclean’s. In later years, the critical reception to his work was mixed. Still, prominent U.S. critic Edmund Wilson, writing in 1960, described Callaghan as “perhaps the most unjustly neglected novelist in the English-speaking world.” Throughout his long career, he generally wrote about unexceptional people—spinsters, priests and alcoholics, children, aspiring showgirls and crooks—in straightforward, rigorously direct prose. In 1985, Ken Adachi, then The Toronto Star’s book reviewer, wrote that Callaghan managed to capture “an essence of the extraordinariness of ordinary lives.”
His own beginnings were at once ordinary and exceptional. Bom in Toronto in 1903, he was the son of a railway dispatcher, Thomas Callaghan, and his wife, Mary, who were both of Irish Catholic descent. Although neither of
his parents had much formal education, his mother loved great poetry and his father could quote the speeches of Sir Wilfrid Laurier. As a University of Toronto undergraduate in the early 1920s, young Morley was an avid debater and a serious amateur baseball pitcher. By that time, he had also begun to write stories. In the
summer of 1923, he worked as a reporter at The Toronto Star, where Hemingway was also employed. After reading some of Callaghan’s fiction, Hemingway praised it and urged him to continue. Callaghan obtained a degree from Toronto’s Osgoode Hall Law School and was called to the bar in 1928, but he never practised: in the same year, Scribner’s of New York City published his first novel, Strange Fugitive, the story of a lumberyard gang boss who becomes a murderer.
Shortly after marrying Lorette Dee in 1929,
he travelled with his wife to Paris, joining the golden group of North American expatriates that included Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. The most familiar anecdote from the period, which Callaghan tells in That Summer in Paris, concerns a boxing match that he had with Hemingway. Novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was supposed to be the timekeeper, let a round go on far too long, and Callaghan flattened Hemingway. The boxers’ friendship—and Hemingway’s with Fitzgerald—never recovered from the blow. Late in life, Callaghan lamented to an interviewer, “I am probably better known for boxing with Hemingway than for anything I’ve written.”
But his greatest success as a writer followed his return to Toronto. Spirituality and redemption, issues arising out of his Catholic upbringing, became central to his major novels of the 1930s. Such Is My Beloved (1934) is about a priest who encounters hostility from everyone around him when he tries to rescue two prostitutes from a life of sin; in They Shall Inherit the Earth (1935), a man allows his stepbrother to drown and then lets his father take the blame for the death; and More Joy in Heaven (1937) focuses on a paroled convict’s ultimately unsuccessful struggle to reform.
Callaghan then entered a period that he described as a “spiritual dryness,” in which he virtually stopped writing fiction. He turned to broadcasting, print journalism and column writing to support his wife and two sons, Michael, who is now a Toronto business consultant, and Barry. The drought ended in 1951 with The Loved and the Lost, a story set in Montreal that deals with social barriers and people who attempt to cross them. Rejected by eight publishers before Macmillan of New York accepted it, it won a Governor General’s Award for fiction and gained a reputation among many critics as Callaghan’s masterpiece. His later novels, which included A Fine and Private Place (1975) and his last book, A Wild Old Man on the Road (1988), did not attain the populé larity of his earlier works.
Last week, Barry Callaghan said that his father, who was widowed in I 1984, was “a fiercely independent I man all his life.” Even after breaking his hip last spring, he persisted in walking to the neighborhood grocery store where he did his shopping. Barry Callaghan also observed that his father always treated people the way he wrote—with directness and clarity. “I could say anything to my father, and he felt free to say anything to me,” the son added. In That Summer in Paris, Callaghan wrote that a good writer was one who had learned to “tell the truth cleanly.” It was a lesson that he was lucky enough to acquire early—and one that stayed with him all his life.
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