Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected


In early 1970 I decided I no longer wanted to be a full-time university teacher, or to complete a Ph.D. I was an instructor in the Department of English at the University of Guelph at the time. Although I’d published almost nothing, I wanted to try my hand at ‘literary journalism’: at writing for newspapers and magazines about things that mattered — books, education, politics, the media. My audience wouldn’t be other academics. I’d write for the ‘intelligent general reader’, a category that now seems quaint.

I bused to Toronto to see Robert Fulford, who was then the editor of Saturday Night and whose work as a literary journalist I had admired. I wondered if I could get a book to review. Not only did he offer me one — a collection of essays by sociologists and others entitled The Underside of Toronto — but three months later my piece became the lead review in the May 1970 issue of Saturday Night. The fact that the May issue didn’t appear until mid-June, and that I didn’t get paid — $100 — until late December, was of no consequence. At least not at the time. I was too excited to notice. Only later did it occur to me that writing for a magazine that didn’t appear on time because it couldn’t pay its printing bill, and that paid its writers poorly, and late, didn’t augur well for my career as a literary journalist. Certainly not as a paid literary journalist.

What was clear, though, was that if I didn’t depend on writing to help support my family, if I continued to teach part-time, there were a number of venues in Canada where I could do the kind of writing I wanted to. Within a year, I’d been hired as a part-time teacher at the Ontario College of Art (now the Ontario College of Art & Design) and I was appearing regularly in the literary (and other) pages of a number of newspapers and magazines. Many of them — Canadian Literature, The Canadian Forum, Jewish Dialog, Books in Canada and Take One for example — paid little or nothing.

I’d always been something of an autodidact, far better at pursuing my own interests rather than those imposed on me by teachers and institutions. My resistance to learning went up and my I.Q. dropped every time I became a student officially enrolled in a course. My almost pathological shyness in groups didn't help. (I was able to function much better in the classroom as a teacher than as a student.) Freelance writing seemed made for me. I could choose what I wanted to write about and do so at my own speed — slowly. Freelance writing, I soon discovered, was teaching me more about how to read and think and write than all the courses I’d ever taken.

Like others of my generation, born just before the Second World War, I thought of myself as an internationalist, more concerned with the world outside Canada’s borders than about the country I was living in. Lester Pearson’s Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 seemed a fitting tribute not only to the man but to Canada’s modest place in world affairs. The fact that Canada lived next door to the two most powerful forces in the world — the U.S. military and Hollywood — didn’t concern me at the time. The Vietnam War, the increasing influence of American multinationals, and a growing concern about the extent to which we were allowing American culture to dominate our television and movie screens, bookstores, magazine racks, and classrooms changed that. I became a cultural nationalist.

In his 1966 Massey Lectures on CBC radio, The Moral Ambiguity of America, the American social critic, Paul Goodman, wrote:

“You [Canadians] are not yet so wrongly committed as we. Your land is less despoiled, your cities are more manageable, you are not yet so sold on mass mis-education. You are not in the trap of militarism. A large minority of you are deeply skeptical of American methods and oppose the unquestioned extension of American power. Some of us Americans have always wistfully hoped that you Canadians would teach us a lesson or two, though, to be frank, you have usually let us down.”

That thought came to inform much of my writing.

This collection consists of twenty-two essays, written over the past three decades. I used two criteria in making the selections: Did the piece still work, at least for me? Did it say something I still thought worth saying? The essays I’ve chosen deal with books, television, magazines, politics, and academia. I’ve arranged them in the order in which they were published. The one exception is the previously unpublished essay, “The Sexist Science of Gordon Freeman.” Where appropriate, I’ve added brief introductions or postscripts to provide context. Here and there I’ve changed a word or two where the original seemed particularly clumsy. Occasionally, I’ve dropped sentences and even whole paragraphs if they seemed irrelevant or redundant or if the references seemed too dated or obscure. But I've made no substantive changes, nor have I tried to update these pieces.

I’ve wanted to bring together a collection of my essays for some time. Why? Vanity, I suppose, since the world hasn’t exactly been clamouring at my door. (I check regularly.) And truth to tell, I would have preferred that this collection appear in traditional book form. But there’s never been much of a market in Canada for previously published essays. Such collections rarely do well. And now that every book is expected to be its own ‘profit centre’, it’s even more difficult. Still, rather than tuck this collection away in a drawer where no one could see it, I decided to turn to this newer medium in the hope that some of these pieces might find new readers.

I’m grateful to my son, Ben, for his elegant design of this electronic book.

Morris Wolfe

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