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Manitoba History: F. P. Grove: Manitoba’s International Writer of Stature

by Klaus Martens
Universitat des Saarlandes, Saarbrucken, Germany

Number 57, February 2008

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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He who can honestly say, “I meant to do this or that and did it,” very likely did not pitch his aim very high. I have met many men in my life who have done things and whose names are consequently known far beyond the confines of their country. With a few of them I have been intimate; and of these there was none but said that he had failed. What others called their achievements, they considered mere by-products of their striving for something greater, something beyond their reach, perhaps beyond man’s reach. What made them great was not what was within their grasp; it is so easy to do what is within one’s grasp. What made them great was that they reached for the stars. For only he can, even in the smallest thing, go beyond the limit accessible to all men who sets his goal in the realm of what is accessible to no man. A beacon reached, as I have expressed it in another connection, is a beacon left behind; only the beacon that cannot be reached will always beckon (from F. P. Grove, “A Treatise on J. W. Crow,” p. 4-5).

Of Frederick Philip Grove, the great German-Canadian writer based in Manitoba during perhaps the most important period of his life, a great deal needs to be said or needs saying again. In the years since his central role in the shaping of the Canadian literary institution much has changed. Canadian literature has developed enormously; it has recovered equally from traumas of colonial and post-colonial heritage to develop a firm identity of its own. At the same time, reassessing some of what has been said and left unsaid about Grove, but also about Canadian literature, has become a literary and historical debt due. Often pushed aside in more recent compilations of Canadian literary history, Frederick Philip Grove, as the first Canadian writer of intercultural significance, can now be introduced to a new audience as an intriguing avant-garde author in his own right, but also as a figure central to the inception of modern Canadian literature after the Great War.

Frederick Philip Grove (1871-1948).

Frederick Philip Grove (1871-1948).
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Personalities - Grove, F. P. 1, N23274.

Grove’s life and career may be told as three interlocking stories. First, there is the story of Grove’s personal struggles and his past in Europe as an accomplished and prolific novelist, essayist and highly productive translator of French, English, and Spanish poets and novelists but also of the Arabian Nights. Second, we follow the odyssey of a pseudonymously living immigrant teacher through the small towns and the lonely villages of pioneer Manitoba—Haskett, Morden, Winkler, Virden, Gladstone, Leifur, Falmouth, Ferguson, Eden, Ashfield, Rapid City, Winnipeg—and his human struggles as a Canadian writer and dedicated family man. Third, the story of Canada’s literary and cultural development in the 1920s to 1940s must be told.

In his public and private life, Grove has been known as a controversial figure. It is perhaps less well known that he was a fascinating and often admirable human being, besides having clearly been one of the most pivotal figures in the making of twentieth-century Canadian literature. At the beginning of the third millennium, almost sixty years after the author’s death in 1948 and the many conflicting findings and sometimes hasty speculations about his hidden European past and his life in Canada, a reassessment of Grove’s life and achievement in the context of his times is a task of restitution long overdue.

As early as 1951, the Canadian writer, teacher, and culture-critic A. L. Phelps observed about his long-time friend and protégé: “Grove remains for most Canadians acknowledged, but unread—an author with a reputation and no public” (Phelps, Canadian Writers: 36). This was true at the time and has since become doubly true, not only as a result of Grove’s once unavoidable obfuscation of his past spent in Europe, an early period both socially difficult and literarily impressive. When, twenty-five years after his death, Grove’s German name and identity first became known, the very sensation of the discovery did not enhance his reputation but unfortunately deflected readers’ attention from Grove’s work and his very real achievements towards incriminating occurrences then only partly known and, due to insufficient knowledge, only whispered about.

Typical of a titillating view of Grove arising from these circumstances is the vague characterization by J. Hind-Smith: “Frederick Philip Grove—the most mysterious figure in Canadian literature—who hid his ‘bad’ background and his real identity under the name ‘Grove,’ and whose injured and self-defeating pride led him to create supermen and tyrannical fathers in his books” (Hind-Smith, Three Voices, p. 146). To be sure, if there was anything “bad” about Grove’s solid background rooted in the petite bourgeoisie of the city of Hamburg in northern Germany before the end of the nineteenth and the first decade of the twentieth century, it must be the year 1903 -1904. It was that year that he was forced to spend in a Bonn prison because of the betrayal of a formerly close friend, a rich young man who, for literary and other favours rendered, had first consented to lend him sizeable sums of money and then had abruptly turned around, called the loan when Grove was abroad, and, out of jealousy, informed on him to the police when Grove was unable to pay. The period in prison he spent furiously working on two novels of his own, translating a large number of other works, and connecting with such leading European writers of the day as André Gide and H. G. Wells. Indeed, if anything at all might be called “bad” about Grove’s past as Felix Paul Greve, it might be his impossibly heroic efforts at achieving a superior education in spite of his lowly beginnings, his mastery of five new and ancient languages, his astonishing success in moving in the best circles of society, his enormously successful attempts at making and remaking himself. Grove went against everybody’s expectations for somebody of his background and refused the ready-made moulds of class and education. For despite his humble origins, Grove had, back in Germany, pulled himself up by his bootstraps by becoming a well-known writer and (to this day) an enormously influential translator with many of the works he translated from English or French still in print. This astounding feat Grove repeated on a much larger scale in Canada, his chosen country, after the usual, very recognisable “American” pattern and—driven in times of war and uneasy peace by the twin spectres of renewed poverty and social ostracism—in a similar, sometimes overly self-assertive manner.

Soft-spoken and mild-mannered Grove was not. These are the attributes of the sheltered and well-to-do, perhaps the Mr. Brownlows of Dickensian fame. Those having by force of necessity to claw their way up the social ladder, the Oliver Twists of this world, rarely are. Creating himself anew in Canada at the age of thirty-five, Grove was not content with remaining a teacher, his first career in rural Manitoba, but aimed at resuming fully his career as a writer, an editor, a mediator of World Literature, and a translator. He was notably successful in this in both Manitoba and Ontario, more successful, in fact, than in his old life but for a similarly short period of hardly more than a decade. He was driven to use all means at his disposal to succeed. He had, as he reiterated time and again in his writings about himself and in his correspondence, no time to lose. Recurrences of psychosomatically induced illnesses were brought upon him by his permanent condition of overwork and made him think that his life expectancy might be short. Due to the Germanophobic atmosphere generated in Canada by both world wars and strongly in evidence in the inter-war period, Grove’s original inclination to change his name and begin a new life in Canada was reinforced by political circumstances unanticipated and beyond his control. The assumption of a different identity and the creation of a new and usable past, probably initially meant to keep him, an enemy alien, out of trouble with the authorities, also influenced his role as a writer when he succeeded in finding his writerly voice again, this time in English. Paradoxically, the experienced European man-of-letters after the Great War had to shore up the fictitious identity he had begun to make up for himself by pretending to be a novice writer, inexperienced in the world of book publishing. This was a wise move although he could not have foreseen the particular strictures attendant upon the Canadian market that would soon dog him. He had to make himself over into an English-language writer who had never before been published in spite of having, during the previous two or three decades, supposedly produced the several manuscripts he was now, in the 1920s, offering to his Canadian editors. This not only served to explain the pre-modernist style of his books but the time supposedly needed for the creation of the several books he was holding in readiness. Nobody seems to have suspected Grove’s truly Balzacian writerly furor in pouring out book after book in just a few years’ time. Grove had to make himself appear as that rare person, the learned (working) man with a cosmopolitan background seemingly unused to preparing his manuscripts with a typewriter, instead submitting his astonishing texts in tiny, almost illegible longhand on both sides of the pages of a school scribbler, and then reversing the booklet and writing in the spaces left between the lines, creating, as it were, something of a palimpsest. No wonder his academic friends and mentors felt they had discovered an uncut diamond. No wonder as well when the truth about Grove’s background came out a quarter of a century after his death, his friends and sponsors felt duped—as if he had intentionally set out to deceive them. He had merely cast himself in a role that circumstances forced him to keep on playing, although those who wanted to see often enough noted the chinks and cracks in his autobiographical armour.

Children of Gladstone, some of whom would become acquainted with F. P. Grove when he became principal of their school, marched down town streets in commemoration of Empire Day, 23 May 1915.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Gladstone - 3, N1258.

The uneasy feeling that the public had been deceived certainly is a major, although not the only, reason for the marked falling-off in Grove’s reputation after the discovery of his German past. Influential academics and writers like A. L. Phelps and Watson Kirkconnell, the critics W. A. Deacon and Desmond Pacey, and the journalist and poet Thomas Saunders, his staunch supporters, either did not, like Kirkconnell, Pacey and Phelps, long outlive the momentous discovery of their protégé’s identity, or their judgments were now strongly influenced by D. O. Spettigue’s 1972 - 1973 findings about their friend. These, in addition to a number of valuable and incontrovertible facts about the author’s life, contained much speculation and hearsay about a possibly still un-revealed criminal past which provided a less than shaky ground for those who wanted to continue championing Grove on the basis of his considerable achievements. At this point, there remained uncertainty about what else might turn up.

Much did turn up in the following decades, but the literary climate in Canada, too, was changing, and it helped to cast a pall over Grove’s once solid-seeming reputation. The Canadian literature movement of the late 1950s to the 1970s attempted to renew Canadian literature by, among other things, cutting the ties to some of its history and jumping squarely into an international—post-modern and gender-oriented—present. All of a sudden Grove seemed old fashioned. Perhaps it was felt one could do without such a difficult, even to a degree, un-Canadian subject. On the other hand, with four of Grove’s books present since 1957 in McClelland & Stewart’s New Canadian Library—a collection meant to establish a canon and used primarily for educational reading—the overwhelming presence of a sober, slow, and serious writer like Grove certainly was, for the younger, revolutionary generation of writers who began publishing in the sixties and seventies, like the dead hand of a past best forgotten. If the initial sensation of the discovery of Grove’s identity produced a short burst of renewed reader and critical interest in the author, this was coterminous with a remodelling of the concept of “CanLit.” Margaret Atwood’s almost single-handed rewriting of the Canadian literary tradition from a feminist and post-new-critical perspective that helped to cut it short.

P. Hjartarson’s and D. O. Spettigue’s publications regarding the fate and new American identity of Grove’s former German wife Else, whom he seems to have abandoned in Kentucky before going to Canada, again produced some new interest in Grove. Else Greve married again and metamorphosed into the New York artist Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Unfortunately for Grove, the very subjective and fragmented papers of Baroness Elsa as a “Dada artist” in New York, furthered by the renewed vogue for feminist and gender-oriented studies of the 1990s, began to cast Grove’s achievements far into the background due to subsequent comparative criticism of the couple as artists from the vantage point of the mid-1980s to the early years of the third millennium. This criticism tended to emphasize Elsa’s modernity and artistic extremism over Grove’s alleged conservatism and stolidity (I. Gammel, Baroness Elsa, p. 151).

Now that the roles had been—somewhat unfairly, it appears—distributed, it was tempting to speculate even further than had been the case after Spettigue’s discovery of Grove’s German roots. In 1989, Canadian poet-critic Stephen Scobie drew the erstwhile couple together in a fictional encounter in Greenwich Village (Scobie, “Felix Paul Greve”). More realistically, perhaps, influential poet-critic and novelist Robert Kroetsch linked Grove’s European and New World careers in an intriguing poem of post-modern cast, identifying Grove’s riding over prairie trails with his writing about them, and the trace he left in literature. By then, Grove and the Baroness had become the stuff of fiction, lifting them out of the realms of probable literary history. On the other hand, both Robert Kroetsch and Rudy Wiebe, among contemporary fellow novelists, appear to recognize Grove’s close ties with world literature for what they were and what this meant for Canadian literature after his original background had become clear. Grove was not a stolid writer somewhat belatedly emulating such outdated European period styles as Realism and Naturalism. Rather, his own European writings in those styles showed him to have been a small but constitutive part of those movements. In Canada, he was the living tie, the then only bridge between European literary internationalism and the still somewhat parochial Canadian literary landscape before Morley Callaghan was rumoured to have broken bread with American High Modernists in Paris, establishing an indirect link, however tenuous, of his own at a later date than Grove.

All of the above said, it is imperative to (re-)contextualize F. P. Grove in order to achieve a better understanding of this centrally important author as a Canadian and international literary phenomenon of a high order. It needs to be remembered, first of all, that in his beginnings he was only one of a handful of Canadian authors to have started their Canadian writing careers out of Manitoba shortly before and after the First World War. Ernest Thompson Seton, having settled in Carberry, Manitoba, was the first to use the prairie landscape and its human and animal inhabitants to stock the emotional and mental arsenal which went into his writings and into the heads and hearts of countless children in Canada and the world over. Robert J. C. Stead, the son of Manitoba homesteaders originally from Ontario, published realistic novels of life on the prairies between 1924 and 1926.

Gladstone School

Postcard of Gladstone School, circa 1910, where F. P. Grove would teach in 1916.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Gladstone - Schools - 1.

Nellie McClung, from Manitou, Manitoba, graduated from the same Normal School in Winnipeg to become a teacher as Tena Grove did, the writer’s Canadian wife. McClung and her family had walked from Ontario to Manitoba, homesteading and hewing out a new life in the prairie province. Laura Goodman Salverson’s family arrived on a flatboat on the Red River before trekking to the Icelandic settlements on Lake Winnipeg. Her vividly remembered Confessions of an Immigrant’s Daughter (1939) wonderfully evokes the spartanic life of immigrants in an alien world on the Manitoba prairie. Martha Ostenso was a Manitoba teacher before becoming the author of Wild Geese (1925). If Thompson Seton became the advocate of wildlife and roughing-it-in-the-bush-exercises for young scouts, urging the conservation of the prairie, and if McClung as a writer fought for women’s suffrage and the cause of temperance, then Grove, here resembling Salverson and Thompson Seton, became the advocate and teacher of immigrants and the herald of the indigenous landscape, the prairie in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

The writing of Sinclair Ross of Saskatchewan who has been said to have “defined the Canadian genre of prairie realism” in his novel As For Me and My House (1941) and to have “influenced in some way nearly every writer from the Canadian prairies” had its natural foundation in F. P. Grove’s series of books in which he pioneered “prairie realism” of serious literary pretensions: Over Prairie Trails, The Turn of the Year, Settlers of the Marsh, Our Daily Bread, The Yoke of Life, Fruits of the Earth. If many of Grove’s close observations of nature in Over Prairie Trails and The Turn of the Year seem reminiscent of Thompson Seton’s achievement in Wild Animals I have Known (1898), then—as has often been said—the masterly and closely observed nature studies in Over Prairie Trails make him something of a Canadian Henry David Thoreau, the Thoreau of Cape Cod and The Maine Woods, to be sure, while his own obsessive recordings of his health, state of mind and economic situation—his Thoreauvian ‘chapter’ “Where I lived and what I lived for”—to me contain vivid traces of the similarly narcissistic keeper of daily records in Walden. Grove’s close and intuitive relationship with his horses Peter and Dan, the observation of a wolf, the minute studies of plant life and the extreme manifestations of the weather may be read as grown-up versions of Thompson Seton’s Molly and Rag and Cottontail, Woolly or Redruff. There was continuity in theme and development into advanced non-juvenile narrative.

Perhaps F. P. Grove should be seen to have played, for Canadian writers after him, a role similar to that of Susanna Moodie for Margaret Atwood in her single-handed definition of a female Canadian tradition in several of her works from “The Journals of Susanna Moodie” to Alias Grace. I hold that Grove should be apprehended in his formative role as a founding figure, an immigrant marking a Canadian writerly beginning, incorporating it, becoming its most important earliest twentieth-century icon. Aritha van Herk recently pointed out that Nellie McClung on the basis of her autobiographical writings in Clearing in the West (1935) might be regarded as a fitting icon of Canadian literary beginnings on a literary and cultural level. This is certainly even more true of Frederick Philip Grove who produced a huge literary canvas, first roughing it in the marshes of Manitoba and then attempting to squire it in the cleared fields of southern Ontario, all the time helping to put Canada on the literary map of the world—as a confirmed Canadian from inside Canada, an immigrant bent on imaginatively creating the archetypical Canadian experience of beginning again, unafraid, undaunted.

Suppose I went out on the road once more, leaving wife and child? Suppose I merged myself once more in the life which is that of the unemployed—for mankind as such is unemployed so long as a fraction of it is—I could see myself sitting by the roadside, jotting down thoughts or imaginations that have come to me. I should taste once more the triumph of creation, the utter triumph of the pangs of birth; and I should grow inwardly as nothing can make a man grow except the vicarious living of scores of other lives (F. P. Grove, In Search of Myself: p. 457).

The Selected Published Works of Frederick Philip Grove

Over Prairie Trails. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1922.

The Turn of the Year. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1923.

Settlers of the Marsh. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1925.

“Camping in Manitoba.” Winnipeg Tribune Magazine, 20 November 1926, p. 12.

“North of Fifty-Three. Part 1.” Winnipeg Tribune Magazine, 27 November 1926, p. 12.

“Captain Harper’s Last Voyage.” Part 2 of “North of Fifty-Three.” Winnipeg Tribune Magazine, 4 December 1926, p. 12.

“Lost.” Winnipeg Tribune Magazine, 11 December 1926, p. 12.

“A Christmas in the Canadian Bush.” Winnipeg Tribune Magazine, 18 December 1926, p. 12.

“Hobos.” Excerpt from A Search for America. Winnipeg Tribune Magazine, 19 March 1927, p. 12.

“Lazybones.” Winnipeg Tribune Magazine, 2 April 1927, p. 12.

Rpt. Queen’s Quarterly 1944, vol. 51 pp. 162 - 173.

“Prairie Character Studies: The Immigrant.” Winnipeg Tribune Magazine, 5 February 1927, p. 12.

A Search for America: The Odyssey of an Immigrant. Ottawa: Graphic, 1927; New York-London-Montreal: Louis Carrier, 1928.

Our Daily Bread. Toronto: Macmillan, 1928.

It Needs to Be Said. Toronto: Macmillan, 1929.

The Yoke of Life. Toronto and New York: Macmillan, 1930.

“The Flat Prairie.” Dalhousie Review, 1931–1932, vol. 11, pp. 213-216.

“Apologia pro vita et opere suo.” Canadian Forum, 1931, vol. 11, pp. 420-422.

“A Treatise on J. W. Crow” (Collection Klaus Martens).

“Snow.” Queen’s Quarterly, 1932, vol. 39 pp. 99-110.

Rpt. Canadian Short Stories. ed. Robert Weaver. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1960.

Rpt. A Book of Canadian Stories. ed. Desmond Pacey. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1962.

Fruits of the Earth. 1933. Afterword by Rudy Wiebe. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1992.

Two Generations: A Story of Present-Day Ontario. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1939.

“The Adventure of Leonard Broadus.” The Canadian Boy, 1940, pp. 14-25.

Rpt. Grove Special Double Issue. Ed. Mary Rubio. Canadian Children’s Literature, 1982, vol. 27–28, pp. 5-126.

The Master of the Mill. Toronto: Macmillan, 1940.

In Search of Myself. Toronto: Macmillan, 1946; Toronto: McClelland and Stewart-New Canadian Library, 1974.

Consider Her Ways. Toronto: Macmillan, 1947.

A Search for America. 1927. School ed., abridged by J. F. Swayze. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1947.

Tales from the Margin: The Selected Short Stories of Frederick Philip Grove. ed. Desmond Pacey. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1971.

The Letters of Frederick Philip Grove. ed. Desmond Pacey and J. C. Mahanti. With Notes and an Introduction by Desmond Pacey. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976.

“An Edition of Selected Unpublished Essays and Lectures by Frederick Philip Grove and his Theory of Art.” ed. Henry Makow. Dissertation, University of Toronto, 1982.

A Dirge for My Daughter. Poems. Selected and edited by Klaus Martens. Würzburg: Königshausen and Neumann, 2006.

Page revised: 8 June 2014

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