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THOMSON, EDWARD WILLIAM – Volume IX (1861-1870)

d. 20 April 1865 in York Township, Canada West


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MacMECHAN, ARCHIBALD McKELLAR, university teacher and author; b. 21 June 1862 in Berlin (Kitchener), Upper Canada, eldest son of the Reverend John McMechan and Mary Jean McKellar; m. 1889 Edith May Cowan of Gananoque, Ont., and they had three daughters; d. 7 Aug. 1933 in Halifax.

Archibald MacMechan’s father, a Presbyterian minister, had come to Upper Canada from Ireland five years before the birth of his first child. The family moved to Picton in 1866, and Archie, as he was affectionately known, would remember the time he and his two brothers spent there with great fondness. This idyllic period ended suddenly when his mother died in childbirth in 1870. Throughout his life, in his private journals, MacMechan would mourn the loss of his “dear and beautiful young mother.” For his father he felt admiration but apparently little affection.

The boy was sent to live in Hamilton with his maternal grandfather, Archibald McKellar*, soon to become Ontario’s commissioner of agriculture and public works in the Liberal administration of Edward Blake*. He remained there until his graduation from the local collegiate. In 1880 MacMechan entered University College, Toronto, where he studied modern languages. Among his professors he was particularly impressed by the philosopher George Paxton Young*, of whom he later wrote that, more importantly than instructing his students in metaphysics, Young taught them “to think and … to live.” From essays MacMechan contributed to the student newspaper, the Varsity, and other publications from this time, some of them collected in The porter of Bagdad and other fantasies (Toronto, 1901), there emerges a picture of a sensitive and idealistic young man, given to romantic musings on his possible early death.

After earning an honours ba from the University of Toronto in 1884, MacMechan taught high school, first in Brockville and then in Galt (Cambridge), saving as much money as he could. A self-professed Victorian throughout his life, he regarded Ruskin, Carlyle, and Tennyson as his pre-eminent literary heroes, and in the summer of 1885 he travelled to their homeland in Britain, earning his passage by working on a cattle boat. The pages of a journal he kept during the trip reveal his love of the sea and his excitement at visiting the “Mother Country” for the first time. The following year he entered Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md, as a doctoral candidate in comparative philology. There he also began to write essays for newspapers, including Goldwin Smith*’s Week (Toronto). He completed his dissertation in 1889; it was published in Halifax the same year as The relation of Hans Sachs to the Decameron, as shown in an examination of the thirteen Shrovetide plays drawn from that source …. The work demonstrates his mastery of the German methods of scholarship being promoted at Johns Hopkins, as well as his knowledge of the literature of several European languages, including Old Norse, German, French, and Italian.

Also in 1889 MacMechan married Edith May Cowan of Gananoque, and he was appointed George Munro* professor of English at Dalhousie University in Halifax, succeeding William John Alexander*, who moved to Toronto. The governors had evidently been concerned about selecting someone as young and inexperienced as MacMechan for this tenured position, and President John Forrest*, keen to hire him, privately proposed a “gentleman’s agreement” whereby if, after two or three years, MacMechan did not satisfy their concerns, he would “quietly withdraw.” He never needed to do so and would spend the rest of his career at Dalhousie.

Halifax immediately appealed to the new arrival, and the city and the province of Nova Scotia would inspire much of his work throughout his life. He soon established a pattern that continued almost unbroken for 44 years: teaching, private scholarship, writing for journals and newspapers, a happy home life with his wife and three daughters – Jean Harriet, Grace Frederica, and Edith Archibald (called Polly) – regular attendance at Fort Massey Presbyterian Church, two blocks from his home on Victoria Road, and outdoor activities that included walking, golfing, and swimming in the Northwest Arm, often until mid November.

The publications of his early years at Dalhousie were of a scholarly nature. His editions of Carlyle’s Sartor resartus (Boston, 1896) – for many years the definitive edition – and On heroes, hero-worship, and the heroic in history (Boston, 1901) were published in an American series of standard authors edited by recognized scholars. A selection of Tennyson’s poems appeared six years later. But MacMechan had already begun to demonstrate an interest in the history of his adopted province, which he affectionately called “Ultima Thule.” Soon after his arrival in Halifax he had joined the Nova Scotia Historical Society, where he presented a paper on a minor Restoration dramatist, John Crowne, whose father, William*, was among the earliest settlers in Acadia. Following in the footsteps of the province’s first commissioner of public records, Thomas Beamish Akins*, he compiled two volumes of source materials for early Nova Scotia history, published in Halifax in 1900 and 1908 in a series begun by Akins. Later would appear his chapters on Nova Scotia history in the multi-volume Canada and its provinces: a history of the Canadian people and their institutions … (Toronto, 1913–17), edited by Adam Shortt and Arthur George Doughty.

More informally, the subject matter of MacMechan’s essays and articles also shifted to his immediate environment. Through a subsequent collection of these pieces, The life of a little college and other papers (Boston and New York, 1914), the reader gains some idea of his public life. His private self is revealed in the journals he kept between 1893 and 1895: his doubts about his ability to fulfil the responsibility he had taken on at Dalhousie, his fears of inadequacy as the breadwinner for his beloved family, his sense of insecurity as a junior scholar, and his vivid awareness of the drudgery of teaching. But entries about such topics become increasingly rare, and no journals survive for the period between 1895 and 1916; later diaries are almost formal, providing a record of the professional activities of a successful teacher and writer, punctuated by references to domestic life. The self-examination of the younger MacMechan is largely absent, and it is no longer possible to trace the evolution of his thought.

His mature years were devoted to his students, a weekly book-review column in the Montreal Standard, his work as university librarian from 1906, and his personal writing. For much of his career he laboured single-handedly to teach English language, literature, and composition at Dalhousie, gradually becoming more assured as a lecturer and involving his students in the correction of their essays using a method that proved mutually beneficial. Among his protégés were writers such as Lucy Maud Montgomery*, Hugh John MacLennan*, and Ernest Redmond Buckler; distinguished professors of English such as Garnett Gladwin Sedgewick, later department head at the University of British Columbia; folklorist Mary Helen Creighton*; and diplomat and diarist Charles Stewart Almon Ritchie*. Many would remember his heroic efforts: “No teacher worked more diligently than he to set before Canadian students an ideal of style,” recalled Wilhelmina Gordon, professor of English at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. During World War I MacMechan also lectured on naval history at the Royal Naval College of Canada while it was in Halifax, and in the 1920s he taught extension courses in Shakespeare and 20th-century literature at Dalhousie. His public talks on literary figures, particularly the Victorians, were well attended. The weekly columns he published show his awareness of changing ideas in literature, as well as his own preferences and limitations. Virginia Woolf’s novel To the lighthouse (London, 1927) received a tepid review, but he praised her essay A room of one’s own (London, 1929), which reflected his belief “that it is better for any woman to be employed than to be idle, to earn her own living than to be dependent on some male relative.” In response Woolf wrote to thank him for his “sympathy & understanding.”

In the immediate aftermath of the Halifax explosion on 6 Dec. 1917, MacMechan had to deal with damage to the university library, where the windows had been blown in and the books needed protection against rain and snow. A few days later he was asked by banker Dugald MacGillivray, who chaired the rehabilitation committee, to write an official history of the tragedy that had overtaken the city. The Halifax Disaster Record Office, with MacMechan as director, was established in a room provided by the Morning Chronicle newspaper. He and his assistants quickly began the enormous task of gathering information, including eyewitness accounts from survivors. Nineteen chapters were completed and two additional chapters projected. But, whether because of an attempt to cover up or to shift responsibility for the disaster or for some other reason, the manuscript remained unpublished during his lifetime.

Two incidents highlight MacMechan’s growing concern with the state of Canadian nationhood in the early 1920s. The first was the publication of an article entitled “Canada as a vassal state,” a denunciation of the Americanization of the country, which appeared in the Canadian Historical Review (Toronto) in December 1920 and received widespread attention among the country’s intellectual elite. His long association with American universities, particularly with those in New England – he had taught several summer sessions at Harvard and was a friend of cultural historian Charles Eliot Norton and Shakespearean scholar George Lyman Kittredge – meant that his ideas were taken seriously. The following March in Montreal MacMechan helped to found the Canadian Authors Association (CAA). Elected a vice-president, he joined an executive that included Hiram Alfred Cody*, Oscar Pelham Edgar*, Isabel Ecclestone Mackay [MacPherson*], Helen Letitia McClung [Mooney*], and Thomas Chapais*. On his return to Halifax he immediately set about establishing a Nova Scotia branch, of which he became president. He also undertook a lecture tour in Ontario organized by the society the following year. His involvement in the CAA demonstrates his belief in the need for a strong national feeling in Canada. Over and over he stated his belief that “a country comes into being only as it is written about.” He had long expressed, both in the classroom and in “The dean’s window,” his weekly column in the Standard, his desire to find a Canadian author who wrote “maturely.” That few did so – many others employing what he termed “a fig-leaf over their mouths” – postponed for him the day when Canadian literature could take its place internationally.

Soon after his arrival in Halifax MacMechan had begun research for a planned biography of novelist and poet James De Mille*, who had taught history and rhetoric at Dalhousie, and in 1893 he arranged for “Behind the veil,” an unpublished poem by De Mille, to be printed in a limited edition. MacMechan’s first signed article in the Standard, entitled “Canadian literature: a private view,” appeared in 1905, and the following year a lengthy piece under the heading “Book and beaver” was devoted to the subject. In the same newspaper in 1910 he asked, “Have we a literature?” A popular extramural lecturer, MacMechan frequently chose Canadian authors as his focus. In 1923 he introduced a full course at the university. The following year saw the appearance of his Head-waters of Canadian literature (Toronto). Its publication coincided with that of John Daniel Logan and Donald Graham French’s Highways of Canadian literature … (Toronto, 1924), with which it was often confused, much to MacMechan’s irritation, as Logan’s attacks on his knowledge of the subject had long exasperated him. MacMechan rightly claimed in his preface that the “chief singularity” of his work “lies in treating together the Canadians who write in French and the Canadians who write in English.” Similarly, his course at Dalhousie introduced students to French Canadian literature, using as a text Jules Fournier*’s Anthologie des poètes canadiens, edited by Olivar Asselin (Montréal, 1920).

For MacMechan the publication of Head-waters marked a turning away from literature and an increasing focus on the history of Nova Scotia, which he always spoke of with affection and regarded as his spiritual home. From the early 1920s he collected and published accounts of notable adventures at sea, drawing on extensive research into primary documents and correspondence with those who remembered or had participated in the events. Archivist and historian Daniel Cobb Harvey* later described how MacMechan had “hobnobbed with sailors and master mariners, strove to master every nautical term and to distinguish every type of sailing craft.” Since his youth he had been interested in the seafaring life. An early essay, “‘The best sea story ever written,’” which appeared in the Queen’s Quarterly (Kingston, Ont.) in 1899, was a prescient assessment of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, the whale (New York and London, 1851) at a time when the novelist’s reputation was in eclipse. MacMechan recalled reading the book in “the dim, dusty Mechanics’ Institute Library … of an obscure Canadian village, nearly twenty years ago.”

His narratives combine his passionate love of Nova Scotia and its past with his awareness that the tradition of “wooden ships and iron men” was rapidly disappearing, giving way to “iron ships and wooden men.” They appeared in three volumes: Sagas of the sea (London, [1923]), Old province tales (Toronto, [1924]), and There go the ships (Toronto, [1928]). One of the best-known stories, “The saga of ‘Rudder’ Churchill,” for many years a staple of high-school textbooks, relates how Captain George Washington Churchill and his nephew and first mate, Aaron Flint Churchill, risked almost certain death to replace the rudder on the Research, a 1,459-ton, full-rigged ship owned by Thomas Killam* of Yarmouth, after it was repeatedly broken during a stormy crossing of the Atlantic in the winter of 1866–67. Charles Lindsay Bennet, MacMechan’s colleague at Dalhousie, recollected seeing “Archie” leafing through the newly published Sagas of the sea and saying that he thought it was the most important work he had done and “the one for which I will be remembered longest.”

In his foreword to Tales of the sea (Toronto, 1947), a selection of MacMechan’s chronicles, novelist Thomas Head Raddall conveys something of the author’s awareness of the history that surrounded him and inspired his writings. Raddall evokes “an erect and dignified figure with a grey torpedo beard, walking the streets of Halifax in a curious aloof way as if he had them all to himself.… His knowledge of the old seaport and its long romantic story was so complete that for him when he chose, the present time did not exist; he could ignore the clerks and shopgirls (and schoolboys) who scurried past intent upon the petty worries of the twentieth century and see only the redcoats, the buckskin-clad rangers and tarry seamen of the eighteenth. An uncanny faculty, not to be acquired lightly nor dismissed with a shrug.”

Many public honours came to Archibald MacMechan during his lifetime. In 1916 he had been elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, three years later he was one of several distinguished Canadian guests at celebrations in New York marking the centenary of American writer James Russell Lowell’s birth, and in 1920 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by his alma mater, the University of Toronto. This last tribute was, he recorded in his journal, “greater than I could ever have wished.” He received the Royal Society of Canada’s Lorne Pierce Medal, presented in recognition of distinguished service to Canadian literature, in 1932 and an honorary degree from Dalhousie the following year.

MacMechan had retired from teaching in 1931 but maintained his ties with the university and continued to live in Halifax, devoting himself to research and writing. He had always enjoyed excellent health, apart from having a slight limp (possibly the result of childhood polio), which he never mentioned, it would seem, save for one poignant entry in his journal when he wrote of waking from a pleasant dream in which his lameness had disappeared. He retained a youthful vigour remarked by many who knew him and accentuated by his long excursions on foot – he often walked to Bedford, a distance of 10 miles, took refreshment at Miss Murphy’s Tea Room, and returned to Halifax by train. It therefore came as a great shock to his family and friends when, after only a few days’ illness, MacMechan died at his home on 7 Aug. 1933 of phlebitis of the leg and a pulmonary embolism. He is buried in Camp Hill Cemetery beneath a granite gravestone surmounted by a Celtic cross, within sight of the Halifax Citadel.

An anonymous obituarist (probably D. C. Harvey) summed up his friend and former teacher in these words: “A radical in thought, ever championing the freedom of the professor and regarding the university as a clearing-house for ideas; a conservative in action, holding fast to that which was good; a chaste and lucid stylist, never using words without ideas; a literary and scientific historian; a kindly but frank reviewer;… a genial host; he was a type of Canadian that could not be obscured by the fogs of the Atlantic or the short-sightedness of his own generation.”

Janet E. Baker

A bibliography of many of Archibald McKellar MacMechan’s publications can be found in the author’s Archibald MacMechan: Canadian man of letters (Lockeport, N.S., 2000). A selection of his poetry appeared posthumously as Late harvest (Toronto, 1934). Headwaters of Canadian literature was reprinted in the New Canadian Library ser. (Toronto, 1974) with an intro. by M. G. Parks. The Halifax explosion: December 16, 1917, comp. Graham Metson (Toronto, 1978), contains the text of the 19 chapters that MacMechan completed about the disaster. Selected maritime stories from earlier collections were republished in Tales of the sea and At the harbour mouth, ed. John Bell (Porters Lake, N.S., 1988). Manuscript material is held by DUA in the Archibald MacMechan fonds (MS-2-82, 1-63) and by NSA in the Archibald MacMechan fonds (MG 1, vols.572a, 1486, 2124).

“Archibald McKellar MacMechan,” RSC, Trans., 3rd. ser., 28 (1934), proc.: viii–ix. C. L. Bennet, “Archibald MacMechan,” Bibliographical Soc. of Can., Papers (Toronto), 3 (1964): 17–26; “Topics of the day,” Dalhousie Rev., 13 (1933–34): 378–81. A. R. Bevan, “James De Mille and Archibald MacMechan,” Dalhousie Rev., 35 (1955–56): 201–15. Wilhelmina Gordon, “Archibald MacMechan,” Queen’s Quarterly (Kingston, Ont.), 40 (1933): 635–40. Lyn Harrington, Syllables of recorded time: the story of the Canadian Authors Association, 1921–1981 (Toronto, 1981). D. C. H[arvey], “In memoriam: Archibald McKeller [sic] MacMechan,” N.S. Hist. Soc., Coll. (Halifax), 22 (1933): xxix; “Notes and comments,” CHR, 14 (1933): 343–45. G. G. Sedgewick, “‘A.M.’ – Archibald MacMechan,” in Our sense of identity: a book of Canadian essays, ed. Malcolm Ross (Toronto, 1954; repr. from Dalhousie Rev., 13 (1933–34), 451–58), 147–55. S. E. D. Shortt, “Archibald MacMechan: romantic idealist,” in his The search for an ideal: six Canadian intellectuals and their convictions in an age of transition, 1890–1930 (Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1976), 41–57. H. L. Stewart, “Archibald MacMechan [1862–1933],” in Leading Canadian poets, ed. W. P. Percival (Toronto, 1948), 145–51. P. B. Waite, The lives of Dalhousie University (2v., Montreal and Kingston, 1994–98).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Janet E. Baker, “MACMECHAN, ARCHIBALD MCKELLAR,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 20, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macmechan_archibald_mckellar_16E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macmechan_archibald_mckellar_16E.html
Author of Article:   Janet E. Baker
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   2017
Year of revision:   2017
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