Case 4: A Tradition of Creative Writing: Creating Canadian Literature at Queen’s
For four days in July, 1955, a hundred or so writers, editors, critics and publishers met at Queen’s University for what soon became famous as “The Kingston Conference,” though its official title was “The Writer, His Media and the Public”.
The event took place at a decisive moment in Canadian cultural history. The report of the Massey Commission, which accurately predicted the great arts boom destined to last part-way through the 1970s, was still fresh in people’s minds. One of the Massey recommendations — creation of the Canada Council — was about to be implemented. CBC television had just begun. British influence in Canadian cultural life was fading quickly and the American influence that was to supplant it had not yet become threatening. To the delegates attending the Kingston Conference — people as far apart as the critic William Arthur Deacon, who was ancient even then, and Leonard Cohen, only 21 at the time — the future was of course unclear. But they appeared to sense that they were standing on a threshold. It must have seemed that anything was possible.
Douglas Fetherling, Kingston Whig Standard 9 Jan. 1988
George Whalley: Criticism and Creativity
The proceedings of “The Writer, His Media, and The Public” were published as The Canadian Writers’ Conference, 1955 and edited by George Whalley, a near legendary figure in the history of the Department of English. Born in Kingston July 25th 1915, Whalley pursued a life that reads like a bildungsroman pushing the limits of probability. A Rhodes scholar who studied at Oxford (1936-40) where he was also rowed as Oriel College Captain of Boats, Whalley declined an invitation to join an expedition to the Antarctic in 1940, instead enlisting in the Royal Navy. He was a crew member in the British fleet’s hunt to sink the German battleship “Bismark” and a member of Royal Navy Admiralty’s Intelligence Division helping to design and test equipment for Allied landings in Sicily and Normandy. After the war he completed his PhD (thesis on Samuel Taylor Coleridge) from King’s College, London, and joined the Department of English at Queen’s in 1950. A stellar academic (he was appointed Cappon Professor in 1962 in recognition of his scholarship), Whalley twice served as Head of the Department (1962-67 and 1977-80).
Whalley’s service to Canadian literature extends beyond his editing of the 1955 conference proceedings. A creative writer himself, he published Poems: 1939-1944 which was followed by a second volume of poetry No Man is an Island in 1948. He was also the author of a biography of the Arctic explorer John Hornby (1880-1927), a text that would later become central to Elizabeth Hay’s novel Late Nights on Air, winner of the 2007 Giller Prize.
He is also linked to one of the best-known writers to have graduated from the Department: Michael Ondaatje.