Once an internationally celebrated novelist, then forgotten, an unknown named Morley Callaghan is a literary discovery—again

Barbara Moon December 3 1960


Once an internationally celebrated novelist, then forgotten, an unknown named Morley Callaghan is a literary discovery—again

Barbara Moon December 3 1960


Once an internationally celebrated novelist, then forgotten, an unknown named Morley Callaghan is a literary discovery—again

Barbara Moon

THREE YKARS AGO, passing through Toronto on his way to Stratford. Ont., Edmund Wilson — the elder statesman ot literary criticism in the U. S. — lunched with an old acquaintance. Morley Callaghan. As they parted Callaghan presented him with a copy of his eighth novel. The Loved and the Lost.

Wilson went home, read it and wrote Callaghan that it was “extraordinary.” He said it was “one ot the high points of contemporary American literature.” He said, "it ought to be read wherever the English language is spoken.” He wanted to know when the book would be out: "It'll cause a big stir," he said.

Callaghan had to tell him the book had been out for six years and had been a flop.

For the last twenty-three of this thirty-five years as a practising author. Callaghan has been dogged by a maddening combination of indifference from the public at large, absent-mindedness amounting at times to amnesia on the part of the literary world, and occasional critical transports that, like Wilson s, were too intramural to do him much good.

Then, twelve weeks ago. Callaghan's ninth novel was published. Called The Many Colored Coat, it is an expansion and reworking of a novella. The Man in the Coat, that won a Maclean’s novel award and appeared complete in the magazine’s April 16. 1955, issue. It is the story of a Montreal publicrelations man who insists that society pause to acknowledge his innocence of a crime it has mentally chalked up to him.

This time Edmund Wilson read the book as soon as it appeared. and phoned Callaghan long distance when he d finished to say it. too, was “extraordinary,” and he couldn't make up his mind w'hich he liked better, the new one or The Loved and the Lost. He also said he was embarking on a major appreciation of all Callaghan’s work for a late fall issue of The New Yorker. A similar essay by Wilson in the early Forties was enough to revive the fashion for Evelyn Waugh, a neglectec English novelist. “The Wilson piece might do the trick.” says Callaghan with superstitious caution.

But even beforehand there are advertisements of a voguein-the-making for Callaghan, ft has something to do, of course, with the instant warm reception of the book by serious literary figures. For example, Albert Kazin, the most widely respected of the regular New York critics, called it “a remarkable performance.” Erskine Caldwell wrote the publishers, Coward-McCann. to say, “This is perhaps (Callaghan’s) finest achievement."

It also has something to do with a kind of glamor that mysteriously begins to attach itself to a man, so that people in the smart circles start talking about him. In Callaghan’s case, memories are stirring of a fame he won in the Twenties and early Thirties as “the most discussed writer in America.” So Budd Schulberg, writing about William Saroyan's career, suddenly remembers that Callaghan, along with Ernest Hemingway, was a style-setter in the short-story field in the Thirties. The intimations of a new chic are catching. So Ingrid Bergman's recent biographer finds it worthwhile to mention that the Swedish star had met and been admired by Callaghan in Toronto. And in New York a firm of hardboiled fame brokers. Celebrity Service Incorporated (supplier of glamor gossip to columnists, indexer of stars who will do cold-cream endorsements, purveyor of guests for interview shows) bets that Callaghan is getting hot, the week his book is launched, and names him Celebrity of the Day. The only other Canadians the outfit has ever found worthy were Wayne and Shuster.

When Callaghan first heard about


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“He’s chosen to be that cultural freak, a serious author writing books about Canadians”

his selection, all he said, warily, was, "What'll it cost me?”

All it cost him was enough time out from a New York trip for a couple of radio interviews. But Callaghan’s search for the hidden catch in any turn of for-

tune is. by now, chronic. "I have lived a life of humiliation,” he explains blandly.

At fifty-seven, Callaghan is a lonely, stubborn, outspoken, cranky, charming, wistful, pot-bellied boyo. He is some of these things by nature, for he is second-

generation Irish, and some by circumstance. for he has chosen to be that cultural freak, a serious, practising Canadian author trying to make a living in Toronto, where he was born, by writing books and stories about Canadians.

It has, he insists, rarely been a precarious life. Callaghan claims he has done “better than anyone suspects” from his writing. There was, indeed, one period of three years, at the beginning of World War II, when he wrote nothing at all and had to borrow on his insurance.

Many Callaghan admirers consider, though, that an even more melancholy stretch came later in the Forties when he turned out sports pieces for New World, a short-lived Canadian imitation of Life. Characteristically, Callaghan doesn't agree. "At least, I was allowed to write what I wanted without interference,” he says. At about this time, too, the CBC began hiring him regularly as a panel chairman, panelist and a commentator on such shows as Citizens’ Forum. Fighting Words and Audio. (The suggestion that Canadians know him best as a TV personality infuriates him: "It would be a sad reflection on the intelligence of this country if those stories of mine were allowed to fade away and be lost in a little yacking from a TV screen,” he says.)

On the other hand he has fanatically refused any offers of jobs that he considered corrupting. When Going My Way — a lovable film about a lovable Irish priest played by Bing Crosby — was about to be released, someone in Hollywood was inspired to suggest that a matching novel would be good promotion. Since Callaghan was Irish and a Roman Catholic he was obviously, it was decided, the man for the job. He laughed savagely in their faces.

He’s spurned jobs and honors

Indeed Callaghan has always fought any commitment that might corrupt his talent or his viewpoint. In The Varsity Story, a nostalgic fictional appreciation of the University of Toronto, published in 1948, Callaghan wrote of an undergraduate, Tom Lane, who wanted to be a writer. One of his mentors proposed that he try for a Rhodes Scholarship but Lane refused, saying, “All a writer has, if he is any good, is his own eyes and his own ears. Maybe I’m afraid of being seduced by the grandeurs and beauties of Oxford. ... I see things the way I do because I grew up around here. ... If I keep it I’ll at least be trying to look at the world in my own way.”

Callaghan himself, as an undergraduate, vetoed a similar proposal that he try for a Rhodes Scholarship; he has since turned down the offer of a staff job with The New Yorker, the editorship of Saturday Night, and an honorary LLD. He belongs to no clubs and espouses no political party. He claims to be an “unorthodox” Roman Catholic: “I can name dozens of saints I could dislike.”

In fact he is so determined to be uninfluenced that when he moderated a radio discussion about Canadian writing, a couple of years ago, and the panelists insisted on planning the discussion ahead of time, Callaghan waited till they were on the air and then deliberately tore up their outline.

He is therefore unfailingly disgusted at the suggestion that his work is reminiscent of Hemingway’s. Farly in his career his publishers — at that time Scribner’s — described him in their promotion as a second Ernest Hemingway. Critics can’t seem to stop making the comparison, and he bitterly resents the label: “Anybody ought to see that my view of life is not

Hemingway’s view of life.” Though both writers pioneered a version of a stripped, laconic style, Callaghan's subjects are metaphysical while Hemingway has simply w'ritten all his life about bloodshed and courage.

Living in Canada has undoubtedly made it easier for Callaghan to remain an original, to keep seeing life in his own way. But the penalty has been isolation.

"The artist in Canada is kind of a pathetic figure,” Callaghan said not long ago, pulling earnestly on his pipe. “I have very few writer friends. And everybody else works.” Callaghan and his w'ife, Loretto, live in the Rosedale district of Toronto in an old twelve-roomed house that used to be a boarding-house. Thenelder son, Michael, a newspaperman, has his own apartment in the city, though Callaghan says he seems to spend half his time at home; their younger son, Barry, a postgraduate student at the University of Toronto, still lives with his parents. Callaghan’s work is often done late at night, on an old portable at a narrow desk in his study. In the daytime he walks a lot, trudging the downtown streets by himself, with his head down and his hands clasped behind him. "You can never go out of an afternoon in Toronto and sit anywhere,” he says. "F.veryone’s busy.”

There used to be places to sit in Paris, where he spent a short, fine season in the Twenties, drinking and debating in Left Bank cafés with his friends and equals, men like Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

I hen, w ith the 1929 crash, everybody went home. "You’d see people moving off, and you’d still be sitting there,” Callaghan recalls. "It was time to go home.” For a while, more recently, there were places to sit in Montreal and Callaghan would go dowm and drink with the newspapermen and admire the pretty girls and see hockey games. "Then." he says sorrowfully, "people sort of weren't there any more. It’s like an eddy of wind in the streets, whirling people together for a while and then blowing them somewhere else.”

"It’s a terrible thing to be isolated,” he adds.

And for all his pains, the Canadian public has administered a notable series of snubs.

His first short story, A Girl with Ambition, was published while he was still an undergraduate at St. Michael’s College in Toronto. A Toronto critic said, "It has no plot. It has no climax. It’s no good.”

His first novel. Strange Fugitive, written w hile he was still studying law at Osgoode Hall, w'as a Hop in Canada. He had used the chronicle of a Toronto bootlegger to examine the itch to be a conqueror; he was promptly accused of “libeling a whole city." One dealer simply returned his quota to the publisher saying the style w'as not for him.

His fourth novel. Such Is My Beloved, considered the consequences, in a mundane Toronto parish, of cleaving to the principle of Christian love. His hero was a priest who tried to redeem two prostitutes, so the book was called "offensive to Roman Catholics.” Callaghan had actually hammered out the theme in discussions with Jacques Maritain. the leading lay theologian of the Roman Catholic church. In fact he dedicated the book, “To those times with M. in the winter of 1933.” I he Montreal Star’s critic, Samuel Morgan-Powell. therefore devoted part of his review' to suggesting that M’s identity was obvious, since one of the prostitutes was named Midge.

Callaghan’s fifth novel. They Shall Inherit the Farth, was banned by the Toronto Public Libraries. When The Loved and the Lost was published, the Ottawa Citizen said, "the mountain has brought

forth a mouse.” To fill out the record, the Montreal Gazette has decided that The Many Colored Coat "should never have been written.”

In defense, Callaghan has become his own propagandist. He’s apt to say his first published work was "a very fine story.” He has written two plays that he describes as "brilliant." He remarks, "In my candid opinion I w'as the best writer in America in the Thirties.”

Callaghan also defends himself by scorning Canadian critics ("What critics?"), Toronto (“bourgeois”), Canadian

culture ("What culture?”) and Canadian provincialism ("All our opinions have to be imported from outside.”).

Actually. Canada never really imported the outside opinions of Callaghan. At home he was never so unstintingly admired as he w'as in international literary circles, in the beginning, nor was he later so thoroughly forgotten.

For. during a long fine season, Callaghan was bracketed with writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald as "the coming man” in serious fiction. At twenty-two he was selling short stories to the esoteric

little magazines published by expatriate Americans in Europe. When he w'as twenty-five Scribner’s called him “the new fiction star" and published Strange Fugitive. which made him $10.000 though it flopped in Canada. As a mustachioed bridegroom of twenty-six (he had married a petite, smooth-browed art student from Toronto) he was in Paris and hearing himself described as “the fashionable hardboiled novelist of 1929.” When he and a promising young U. S. writer, Robert McAlmon. crowded into an ancient pension lift with James Joyce. Joyce

said, “Think, of it. If the three of us should fall and be killed, what a loss to English literature!”

In the early Thirties he commuted between Toronto and Greenwich Village, where he drank with Thomas Wolfe and sold short stories to every high-class magazine in the U. S. When he brought out his second collection of short stories (and eighth book) in 1936, the New York Times said, "If there’s a better short-story writer in the world, we don’t know where he is.”

Then, from 1937 to I960, the world outside Canada virtually forgot him.

A Broadway producer, considering a Callaghan play, said, “But you’re an unknown writer.”

William Saroyan, encountering a Canadian war correspondent in wartime London, asked, “What ever became of Morley Callaghan?”

Callaghan’s agent, Don Congdon, trying to find a publisher for The Loved and the Lost, in 1951, was turned down by eight houses: “The younger editors had never heard of Callaghan,” he recalled recently.

The period of obscurity began with Callaghan’s flirtation with the theatre. A New York producer had suggested he convert one of his novels into a play. He got enthusiastic and wrote two more plays. Two of the three actually came very close to Broadway production before collapsing under casting and financial difficulties. Both were later produced in Toronto by the New Play Society.

In the meantime Callaghan had written eight stories in a row that didn’t sell. Then he stopped writing completely for three years. Beyond commenting that he was depressed by the war, he talks very little of this period. During it he made his debut on CBC radio, traveling across Canada as chairman of the program later known as Citizens’ Forum. He also went to sea in an RCN corvette, on assignment for the National Film Board, and when he began writing again his first book was one with a naval background. His agent couldn’t interest a publisher, however, and Callaghan recalled it for more work. It is still not completed.

Aside from The Varsity Story, and a boys’ book, both published in 1948, Callaghan produced no major work from

1937 till 1951, when The Loved and the Lost was published. “It was a great book,” he says firmly. He was genuinely bewildered when it sold a scant 1,650 copies in the U. S. After a year his New York publishers got their money out by unloading the book to Signet, a paperback series.

But an astonishing thing has happened in the eight years since then. In a 35-cent edition the book has quietly sold half a million copies. Others besides critic Edmund Wilson have belatedly discovered it. Recently a young New York intellectual picked up a second-hand copy in Greenwich Village and was so enchanted that, though he’d never heard of the author before, he tracked Callaghan down during a New York visit to get the book autographed. Another New Yorker, an advertising-agency employee at Young & Rubicam, fell in love with it and turned it into a musical, though he hasn’t as yet found a producer. It is this quiet kindling of awareness that has undoubtedly prepared the way for the new excitement about The Many Colored Coat — and Callaghan.

It is interesting to speculate about the effect of a best-seller on Callaghan, if it should come to pass, after the years of belittlement and isolation.

In the meantime he says wistfully that he would like to go to Rome for a while. He already has a following there: at least one of his books, in translation, has sold 45,000 copies in Italy, and there have been fine critical tributes in the press. Furthermore his next novel, which is almost completed, is to be called A Passion in Rome.

Callaghan went to Rome on a journalistic assignment two years ago, at the time of Pope Pius XII’s death. He was supposed to stay four days, but he stayed three weeks and got enthusiastic about the decorative Roman women and the intellectual ferment in the cafés along the Via Veneto. “It’s like the Montparnasse of the Twenties,” he told a friend excitedly when he got home.

But his life as a writer in Canada has apparently left some bruises. “I can't afford Rome,” he added sadly. “If I went I’d have to live in back alleys. And if you go to live in Rome you should be able to live in a palazzo.” if