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Frederick Philip Grove, 1871-1948

by Ross Mitchell MD

Manitoba Pageant, Autumn 1964, Volume 10, Number 1

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

When in 1912, Dr. Robert Fletcher, Deputy Minister of Education, looked up from his desk in the Legislative Building in Winnipeg he saw a very tall, lank man, with fair hair and blue eyes, clad in overalls. Apologizing for the overalls, Frederick Philip Grove sought advice about employment as a teacher.

He had been born in Russia when his parents were on their way to their home in Sweden. His paternal grandfather had come from England to Sweden, married there and made a comfortable fortune selling pines to Baltic merchants. His son married a Scottish lady with a fortune in her own right. There were eight daughters and one son but the parents had become estranged and separated after the birth of Frederick. The artistic mother exhausted her fortune in travelling extensively through Europe with her son but this way of life gave him little formal education save for a year in a gymnasium at Hamburg and another year at the University of Paris where he became acquainted with several young writers, notably Andre Gade, and was so interested in archaeology that he dreamed of becoming a professor of that subject.

He looked forward to completing his studies in Paris, but at the age of twenty, while in Toronto he learned that his father had died leaving no estate. His mother had died earlier. The young man put his hand to whatever offered, even dish-washing in a Toronto restaurant, and for eighteen years drifted through the western States and Canada working chiefly as a farm hand during the summer and fall, then writing in some hide out during the winter. His ambition was to find a spot, preferably in Manitoba's Pembina Hills where he could write his impressions of America. One day while waiting in the railway station at Fargo, he was reading "Fleurs du Mal" by Baudelaire. A young priest from St. Boniface happened to notice the French poetry and talked to Grove who told him of his ambitions. Learning of Grove's educational background, the priest suggested that he seek a position as teacher in Manitoba and gave him a letter to Dr. Fletcher.

Finding that Grove was at home in German the Deputy Minister suggested a Mennonite school, then vacant at Haskett near the North Dakota border. Further, he said that at the expiration of a year's teaching Grove should enter Normal School which would fit him to become principal. Grove followed the advice which enabled him to become a writer in Manitoba, the province which appealed so greatly to him.

He became principal, and a very good one, of the large school at Winkler. There he was attracted to one of the elementary teachers, Catherine Wiens, and they were married in 1914 when Grove was forty. The following year while Grove was teaching Mathematics at Virden, their daughter Phyllis May was born. Unfortunately Grove had an attack of pneumonia and pleurisy which seriously affected his health and prevented him from writing. To mend the family fortunes and to give her husband an opportunity to continue writing - though as yet no publisher had accepted his manuscripts - his wife accepted a position as teacher of a one-room school thirty-four miles north of Gladstone where he had become principal of the high school. At each weekend he drove out to see his dear ones.

"And there on the porch, stood the tall, young, smiling woman, and at her knee the fairest-haired girl in all the world."

His first published book, and by many critics acclaimed as his greatest, Over Prairie Trails is a record of seven of these trips, each reflecting a different aspect of nature at varying seasons of the year. In Manitoba after his wanderings he had found his spiritual home.

"The things that are unobtrusive and differentiated by shadings only - grey in grey above all - like our northern woods, like our sparrows, our wolves, they held a more compelling attraction than orgies of colour and screams of sound. So I came home to the north."

Meanwhile his manuscripts continued to be returned by the publishers. One day an unnamed man who knew something of the trade looked at the manuscripts, written by hand on both sides of the paper, and told Grove that the publishers rejected them on sight. Grove bought a typewriter, learned to use it and resubmitted his writings. In 1920 McClelland and Stewart of Toronto wrote that they had accepted Over Prairie Trails. His joy was dampened when another letter informed him that the time did not seem ripe for publication, but in 1922 the book appeared and was well received. In that year he acquired the B.A. degree from the University of Manitoba, as an extra mural student. Professor A. L. Phelps, Dr. Watson Kirkconnell and Principal J. H. Riddell of Wesley College were impressed with his writings and gave him their support.

Meanwhile misfortunes continued. One evening as he was driving along a bush road, a wild dog rushed at his horse, seized it by the nose, hanging on for a second. The horse reared, lashed out with his feet, demolished the buggy and compelled Groves to jump for his life. Something snapped in his back. The following day his legs crumpled under him and left him helpless for a time. He was never to be completely free from the threat of invalidism.

As his wife's temporary certificate was about to expire Grove took the principalship of the Consolidated School at Eden during 1919-20, while his wife attended Normal School in Winnipeg and May stayed with her father.

Despite this, Grove enjoyed the most productive literary period of his life. Between October 1919 and June, 1920, he wrote or rewrote the better part of four books.

This was followed by a return of pain in his back and for months he was taken around to doctors and specialists. However the Groves secured positions in Eden School and a year later they accepted an even better position at Rapid City where Grove was principal of the high school and his wife held the same position in the public school. The year 1923 was his last year of teaching. His hearing had been lost in one ear in childhood, now he had to face an "ever mounting tide of deafness" and also he wished to devote his whole time to writing.

In the fall of 1924 Grove was invited to give a reading in Winnipeg of his work, The Settlers of the Marsh. In the audience was Lorne Pierce, a well known critic. After the reading Pierce requested Grove to let him see the manuscript and arranged to have breakfast with Grove. When they met next morning Pierce said "I had a very bad night, owing to that confounded book of yours". He had started to read and could not stop until he had completed the book.

In the following summer the book was published both in the United States and Canada. Its reception was most disappointing being wrong-fully labelled as obscene. It is true that the book was realistic but by modern standards, not harmful. Grove refused to be dismayed. He continued to send his manuscripts to publishers and in 1927, Graphic Publishers of Ottawa brought out A Search for America thirty years after it was first composed. It proved to be the most popular of his stories and won the Governor General's medal. Macmillan Company brought out his next novel Our Daily Bread the scene of which is laid in Saskatchewan.

Just as his prospects were improving the Groves received their cruellest blow when the light of their eyes, Phyllis May, was suddenly taken from them. She was buried in Rapid City cemetery and five years later he further expressed his grief in a long poem.

Graham Spry of Ottawa, who in 1927 was National Secretary of the Association Clubs, was impressed by A Search for America and arranged that Grove should address Canadian Clubs throughout Canada.

Following these tours the Groves moved to Eastern Canada. There he joined Graphic Publishers of Ottawa as editor and for a brief time the future looked rosy. However the Graphic Publishers failed. Grove bought a dairy farm at Simcoe. The depression came and he suffered a paralytic stroke. In 1946 the University of Manitoba conferred on him because of his eminence in literature the degree of Doctor of Letters (D.Litt.) in absentia. He died in 1948 in his seventy-sixth year and was buried as was his wish beside his beloved daughter at Rapid City where the Historic Sites Advisory Board of Manitoba has recently recommended the erection of a marker.

His published works include three volumes of essays, five novels, a book of poems. In spite of his many trials Frederick Philip lives in Canadian literature and will be remembered for his poetical descriptions of nature on the Canadian prairies.

In 1962 the library of the University of Manitoba purchased from Mrs. Grove a collection of Grove manuscripts and unpublished writings. These are housed in the rare book room off the library where they may be consulted by any one wishing to do research work on this controversial writer.

Wilfrid Eggleston wrote thus of him: "There was, perhaps, no flaw-less masterpiece among his seven novels, but in some of the fragmentary and truncated efforts there is more sheer power and vitality than in any of the polished minor successes of Canadian fiction. Time has a fashion of eroding the weaker materials away and leaving the peaks glinting in the sun."

Bibliography

Pacey, Desmond. Frederick Philip Grove, Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1945.

Eggleston, Wilfrid. Frederick Philip Grove, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1957.

Saunders, Thomas. "A Novelist as Poet: Frederick Philip Grove," Dalhousie Review, Vol. 43, No. 2.

Page revised: 18 July 2009

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