Case 1: A New Chair in English: James Cappon and Literary Study at Queen’s


Yea, the Glaskie man hath got ahead of the Canadian, to the Canadian’s great disgust.

Charles G. D. Roberts to W. D. Whitehall, 30 September 1888

In 1888, Queen’s University took the bold step of advertising for a Chair in English —hitherto instruction in the discipline had been largely focused on language rather than literature and courses in English had been taught mainly by professors of History. Of the applications received, the strongest were from Charles G. D Roberts, a prominent Canadian poet and man of letters from the Maritimes, and James Cappon, a Glasgow-educated Scot specializing in contemporary European literature with a book on Victor Hugo and glowing letters of reference from John Caird, brother of leading philosopher Edward Caird.

In the end, Queen’s chose Cappon, whose background in the Philosophical Idealism then dominating the University must have had strong appeal. Still, the decision prompted Roberts to voice his frustration at the preference for British training to his friend W. D. Whitehall, “Yea, the Glaskie man hath got ahead of the Canadian, to the Canadian’s great disgust.”

Cappon transformed the study of English at the University, and in one of the ironies that abound in academic life, Cappon would make his reputation in part through his work on the poetry of his competitor. As the Tecumseh Press reprint of Cappon’s Roberts and the Influences of his Time (1905; 1975) notes, “James Cappon was the first serious critic to examine the work of Charles G. D. Roberts and Bliss Carman. He wrote with unusual insight and a rigorous sense of literary value.”

James Cappon also became an important figure in the administrative history of Queen’s: he was appointed the first Dean of Arts in 1906, serving in this role until his retirement in 1919, at which time Frederick Varley was commissioned to paint the portrait featured on the poster for this exhibit.

Description of Case 1
This retrospective begins with the story of James Cappon, a Scot who was rather controversially appointed as the first Chair of English over the leading Canadian candidate for the position, the writer and scholar Sir Charles G.D. Roberts. Cappon would go on to become the first Dean of Arts and one of Robert Charles Wallace’s “Great Men of Queen’s”—an administrator who played a key role in the development of Extension Learning in the 1920s, and in championing the role of the Humanities as the foundation of a university education. He would also write the first important critical studies of Roberts and his contemporary, Bliss Carman, and teach the first course devoted entirely to Canadian literature at Queen’s in 1915.