A Compelling Voice
A review of David Adams Richards of the Miramichi: A Biographical Introduction, by Tony Tremblay
It never ceases to amaze me how often academics overlook this country’s major writers.
Consider the facts: in the past 37 years, David Adams Richards has published more than a dozen novels, several works of non-fiction, a handful of plays and two collections of short stories. He has won the Giller Prize, two Gemini awards for screenwriting and a Governor General’s Award for fiction as well as one for non-fiction, which only a handful of writers have managed to achieve. And yet, despite Richards’s long list of literary accomplishments and cultural contributions, Tony Tremblay’s David Adams Richards of the Miramichi: A Biographical Introduction is the first full-length study ever to be published on the author.
To be fair, over the past few decades critics have been writing essays about Richards’s work, as well as the odd chapter on him in studies about Atlantic Canadian literature. But the publication of a book-length critical study, solely devoted to the work of one author and put out by a major academic publisher, is a signal that Richards has finally moved from the margins of academic discourse to a place at the table of Canada’s literary icons. It is a book that is long overdue, and I am glad Tremblay wrote it. He has published widely in the areas of modern Canadian and Atlantic Canadian literature, and currently holds a Canada Research Chair in New Brunswick Studies at St. Thomas University in Fredericton. He also edited a collection of essays on Richards’s work, recently published by Guernica Editions. And Tremblay comes from the Miramichi, as Richards does.
What immediately strikes the reader about Tremblay’s book is its subtitle: “A Biographical Introduction.” As Tremblay explains in his preface, this study is by no means an exhaustive look at the author’s life; instead, he has chosen to focus his attention on the period that begins before Richards’s birth and ends with the awarding of his first Governor General’s Literary Award in 1988 for Nights Below Station Street. The rationale? “A living subject is too impermanent a figure to warrant a summative biography … [And since] no other critical book on Richards exists, a study of foundations seemed as essential as arriving at preliminary interpretations.” And who knows? Maybe Tremblay has already begun work on Volume II—after all, this is still a “publish or perish” environment for academics.
Interwoven with biographical details are Tremblay’s critical discussions of Richards’s publications, as well as demonstrations of how fictional events and characters in Richards’s work correspond to real-life events experienced or witnessed by the author. In other words, David Adams Richards of the Miramichi is meant to function both as a work of literary criticism and as a preliminary biography. To his credit, Tremblay’s dual treatment does not make the material any less accessible; it only means that his book will be more or less rewarding depending on the type of reader.
Tremblay’s narrative is entertaining and full of interesting insights—particularly with regards to Richards’s formative years in the Miramichi. It begins with a sense of Richards’s cultural and historical roots in this labour-class region of north-eastern New Brunswick that by the 19th century had attracted a considerable share of immigrants and industry, as well as ethnic tensions between Irish Protestants and Catholics. But the Miramichi also had its share of storytellers, as well as Max Aitken—Lord Beaverbrook—whose “support of cultural and historical projects [in the area] would have a strong impact on the creative life of the community in the 1950s and 1960s, which were Richards’s formative years.” Added to this is Richards’s grandmother Janie, who, Tremblay notes, was “one of Canada’s first female motion picture pioneers.” Her husband had died when the children were very young, so she managed the Newcastle Opera House and the Royal Theatre as well as the Empress Theatre by herself, a daunting task for “an Irish Catholic woman in a pinched town of Protestant businessmen.”
Born in 1950, Richards was the third of six children. His father, Bill, had left the area as a young man to work for the Royal Bank, but returned to the Miramichi after serving in the Second World War to help manage the family business and to start his own family. His mother, Margaret, was a Scots Presbyterian whose family had been shocked that she had chosen to marry a Catholic. She fell when she was seven months pregnant with David, so he was born prematurely and with partial lameness due to hemorrhaging. As Tremblay neatly summarizes, the future author “grew up surrounded by Catholicism in a predominantly Protestant community, yet because of his family’s public profile in business, his mother’s early Presbyterianism (which made her marriage ‘mixed’ among the cradle Catholics), and a disability that to him was pronounced, he was hardly sheltered by the protective benevolence of town, family, or church. Rather, living in a town where divisions were neatly homogenized, his unorthodox circumstances pushed him to the margins.”
Richards’s adolescence was in keeping with the turbulent times of the 1960s. He hung around with like-minded boys who grew their hair long and rode motorbikes—“a small group of Byronic colourful characters” as Tremblay describes them. They also rebelled at school; Richards, who was good at history and English, did not fare as well in other subjects and was expelled more than once. But he did manage to graduate, helped mostly by two of his English teachers, who encouraged him to write; one of his teachers even helped him gain admission at St. Thomas University in Fredericton. It was also during this period that he met his first serious girlfriend and future wife, Peggy. Although Richards never succeeded in gaining enough credits to graduate, Tremblay demonstrates that his years at St. Thomas were crucial to his formation as a writer.
The remainder of the biography charts Richards’s progress from fledgling writer to successful novelist. Tremblay offers readers a compelling argument that demonstrates not only how driven Richards was to become a great writer, but also how often he sought out literary mentors and models that would help him perfect his craft. I had always known about Richards’s relationship to the Russian realists, particularly his fondness for Dostoevsky, but never knew that one of his early influences was Charles Dickens. I also enjoyed learning about Richards’s relationship with the Ice House Gang, a weekly meeting of Fredericton writers at the University of New Brunswick. Tremblay argues that Richards’s first reading of his poetry at the Ice House marked a turning point for the young writer: the group constructively pointed out that “he had potential but his work seemed derivative, perhaps because he had made a wrong choice of genre. They felt that his impulse for narrative, coupled with his innate sense of rhythm, was better suited to fiction.” Richards took the advice, and was soon attracting attention for his work as well as becoming a regular at the Ice House meetings.
Tremblay also spends considerable time focusing on Richards’s complicated friendship with New Brunswick poet Alden Nowlan, a divisive figure among the Ice House Gang whose trouble with alcohol led Richards down a similar path, which Tremblay charts through several chapters in a telling but respectful manner. Tremblay offers readers a fascinating window into the small-town cultural politics of Fredericton, as well as the danger of befriending a much older writer. One striking anecdote involves the young Richards receiving a much-altered galley from Oberon Press for his first novel, The Coming of Winter, and looking to Nowlan for comfort. The elder poet’s response was less than gracious: “Oh, they changed a word, they changed a word. Oh my God, David, they changed a word.” The editing of The Coming of Winter also reveals Richards’s struggles with publishers outside the Maritimes to get them to understand his writing style, particularly in his early work. As Tremblay points out, Richards learned during his fight to restore the original manuscript that part of the reason for the edits was regional ignorance: “the assumptions underlying Oberon’s rewrite were not flaws in Macklem [the editor-in-chief] per se, but flaws in Upper Canada’s perception of who he was and who he was writing about.”
The narration of this editorial meeting is linked to what Tremblay argues is part of the reason for Richards’s historical marginalization: namely, his struggle for acceptance outside the Maritimes. At several points in the biography, Tremblay compares reviews and attitudes outside the region to those inside in order to demonstrate that early on in Richards’s career “expert readers were being dishonest about Canada’s regional differences; they were also betraying the bias of their own canonical education … Put simply, Richards’s realism did not reproduce their own assumptions.” Tremblay’s comparison of quoted reviews, for instance, for The Coming of Winter is particularly revealing, although by the publication of Lives of Short Duration this argument becomes less convincing.
For the hardened academic, this book includes a generous bibliography as well as a comprehensive index. Tremblay also intersperses biographical information with critical readings of Richards’s early poetry and fictional work, as well as references to works by Richards that fall outside the biographical scope of the book. Especially gratifying are those moments when Tremblay does not simply take Richards’s words at face value but, like any good scholar, investigates the truth behind the statement. One particular example of Tremblay’s literary detective work is when he expands on some of Richards’s declarations of influence, such as that of William Faulkner and the French Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel. Rather than sacrificing critical interest in favour of forcing the narrative forward, Tremblay takes the time to offer close textual readings of Richards’s works that convincingly illustrate the ways in which the author attempted to incorporate the ideas of Faulkner and Marcel into his own fiction.
There are times when the literary critic in Tremblay displaces the biographer. On the plus side, this adds a sense of authority and intellectual weight to the biography. However, the quoting is heavy at times, and at points the line between biography and critical analysis becomes blurred, thus causing the narrative to slip into the background—although thankfully not for long. Tremblay’s line of thought will also be tricky at times for non–specialists to follow if you are not familiar with the entirety of Richards’s oeuvre. Not that Tremblay should compromise his knowledge of Richards, but some readers will likely gloss over certain paragraphs if they have not read the work in question or studied it in an undergraduate literature course.
The other handicap in writing from a scholarly position is those moments when the prose becomes encoded with meanings that only a graduate student in literature or well-read PhD could follow. To take one example, consider the following sentence included in Tremblay’s discussion of Richards’s fourth novel, Road to the Stilt House: “It is tempting to follow Ian McKay’s lead in citing Bakhtin here (or at least Dostoevsky’s poetics, the ground for Bakhtin’s theorizing), for the ‘dialogic realism’ that McKay observes in Stilt House is indeed conflictual, anti-authoritarian, bifurcating rather than ego reinforcing, Mennippean in exposing populist opinion to sober examination, and corporeal in summoning the vernaculars of the lower orders.” To the trained scholar, this sentence is an example of accomplished prose; to the average reader, it is impenetrable academic-speak.
These minor criticisms aside, Tremblay’s book is accomplished and engaging, and a valuable resource for scholars interested in exploring Richards’s work. Which is not to say that Central Canadian and West Coast critics will not be tempted to dismiss Tremblay’s study quickly as a work of cultural nepotism. After all, Atlantic Canada’s scholarly and literary communities are small, and often find themselves—sometimes by cultural necessity—supporting each other at the local as well as provincial level. But to ignore Tremblay would in a sense reaffirm what Richards once declared was the main problem with reviewers outside the region: “[Central Canadian critics] overlook me … they overlook us all. They just don’t know where the country begins and where it ends.”
One wonders, though, what Tremblay had to lose had he continued his critical biography into Richards’s years in Saint John and subsequent move to Toronto (before his recent return to the Maritimes). His years in Saint John and Toronto yielded some of his best work, including For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down and his Giller Award–winning Mercy Among the Children. This period also marked the beginning of Richards’s foray into non-fiction, highlighted by his Governor General’s Award–winning Lines on the Water: A Fisherman’s Life on the Miramichi as well as Hockey Dreams, which he recently turned into a full-length stage play that is already enjoying success in Atlantic Canada. Of course, Tremblay will have a hard time keeping up with Richards should he attempt a second volume: Richards’s latest novel, Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul, has already been published by Doubleday.
Although Tony Tremblay’s “biographical introduction” is limited in scope, he succeeds in demonstrating that Richards is a complex and nuanced writer, and so its publication will no doubt help reinvigorate our study of and appreciation for Richards. As for myself, after having read Tremblay’s critical biography I am convinced that paying closer attention to Richards will not only enrich readers and critics alike—it is also the kind of cultural respect that Richards deserves.