Book Review”What is a life? Why was this life lived as it was?”James Reaney: A Short Biography [Archives:2005/846/Education]

May 30 2005

Reviewed by
Anil K Prasad
Ph.D, Associate Professor and Head,
Department of English, Faculty of Arts
Ibb University
[email protected]

P.A. Abraham, James Reaney: A Short Biography, Quortaba Printers, Sana'a, 2005, Paperback. ISBN 81-85233-24-9, Pp 163. Price: Not mentioned.

“Literature is the space in which questions about the personal identity are most provocatively articulated.” Biography ( in the case of a writer) is such a genre which deals with the personal identity of the “human subject” intersecting the form of a Kunstelerroman (“artist-novel”): remapping the growth of a writer or an artist “from childhood into the stage of maturity that signalizes the recognition the protagonist's artistic destiny and mastery of an artistic craft”. Professor Abraham 's biography of James Reaney is in this sense may profitably be read as a “recognition” of James Reaney's “artistic destiny in the form of a Kunstelerroman. Professor Abraham's portrayal of James Reneay's growth as a writer “in the rich historical and geographical context of Reaney's beloved Southwestern Ontario” (p 9) is admirable for at least two reasons: first, it reflects his interest like James Reaney, to borrow the phrase used by Margaret Atwood, in “the digging up of buried things” (p 9) and second, he keeps himself successfully out of the dangerous terrains of personal praise and superfluous details. For these reasons, Coral Ann Howells, professor of English and Canadian Literature at the University of Reading , Berkshire, England, has appropriately called Professor Abraham “an eminent Reaney scholar and archivist” (p 6).

In the very beginning, the book, besides establishing the ” archeological perspective implicit in any biographical exercise” (p 6) quotes as epigraphs from Reaney's books and articles emphasizing his ideas about childhood as a stage not “necessarily one of nostalgia and sentimentality” but of being “reborn” and the significance of the place for the survival in the industrialized communities with the “possibility of such humanizing and peaceful experiences”. James Reaney, obviously links childhood as the actual state of innocence and simplicity as survival gear in an industrial society and as an objective symbol for a part of man's existence. Reaney's childhood described in by Abraham reminds us of the childhood of D.H.Lawrence with all its incidents of “pain and ambition” (nostalgia too!) and ” the boy's ability to survive imaginatively with his wide reading till finally he escaped to high school and then to the University of Toronto” (p 7), as his destiny was awaiting him there, to be the cultural iconographer of his age.

Professor Abraham has suitably quoted Rosemary Sullivan in the preface that this biography of James Reany ” is not about secrets. It is a different kind of search” (p 13). It is the biographer's attempt to write the life of a person as a book and therefore this book must be rewritten by someone else who has the gift of knowing what to leave out as Abraham says, “Sometimes there is more significance in the omission than is what is recorded” (p 19). He is right when he says that Reaney's life is “compelling enough to deserve attention” (p 15). It is very interesting to note that for Reaney, his plays are “an oral and visual artistic experience” (p 16) and Reaney says “through the play-box you eventually see your whole life” (p 17). He looks at life “through the fresh imaginative eyes of a child” (p 19) Though greatly influenced by William Blake in whose poetry innocence is transformed into experience, whereas in Reaney's artistic vision ” we will be able to change this frightening world into a world of peace and happiness” ( Ibid.).

Chapter 1 is an account of the settlement of the Crerar family indicating the pains of being “exiles from our father's land” (p 21). And then the “growing pains” are evident in Chapter 2 from Reaney's collection of poems, Colours in the Dark. The farm life at Brocksden is again reminiscent of Lawrence's autobiographical novel, Sons and Lovers and Paul Morel's attachment to her mother. Reaney too is described as greatly attached to his mother, Elizabeth, (who was too like Lawrence's mother a school teacher) “as he grew older he would often walk over from home with his mother, or all alone to meet her there” (p 30) and whose “profound love [that] made it possible for him to survive' (p54). Abraham describes atmosphere of Reaney's ancestral home, his grandparents with power and cogency. Chapter 3 describes the father and the stepfather of Reaney as it begins: “Difficulties between fathers and sons were not uncommon in those days” (p 45). As a result, ” as Reaney grew older he missed a strong father” (p 51) who could provide him with a “role model” (p 36). “High school was for Reaney quite awful owing to the unbearable life he had at the farm and the constant nagging of his stepfather” (p 55).

However, Reaney after his marriage “became friend with his stepfather” (p 55), William Tugwell Cooke. A sensitive person as Reaney was, he realized later that “If he had not met William he might never have realized that men were not all like his father, so muted by melancholy and too gentle a person to be a farmer” (p 56). In Chapter 4, Abraham concentrates on Reaney's religious upbringing. His early religious rearing has been responsible for his “melodramatic vision” expressed through his Gothic dramas such as The Killdeer, The Sun and the Moon and Listen to the Wind ( p 62). Under the influence of Northrop Frye and Richard Stingle, Reaney develops a mature religious vision.

Chapters 5, 6, 7, and 8 are immensely fascinating accounts of Reaney's development and maturity as a writer and teacher both. Besides, they also throw significant light on the writer as an activist “who became more actively involved in the development of a Canadian identity” (p 122). These chapters, as rightly remarked by Coral Ann Howells in the foreword, are details of Reaney's “fascination” with history and myth and poetry and drama (pp 6-7).

Undeniably, of all these chapters the most interesting is Chapter 6: “Making of a Writer” which tells the reader about Reaney's interest in drama that “reaches back to his childhood experiences in school plays and to attendance at a performance of the Dramatic Society at the Stratford Normal School where his mother took her teacher training” (p 91) and the influence of Northrop Frye in “developing his creative imagination” (p 92). Abraham convincingly observes: James Reaney's original and experimental works give “Canada a name and a place in the history of world drama” (p 103). The inclusion of Reaney's personal correspondence with Abraham bestows on this “small book” the aura of authencity and appeal. It is also worth mentioning that this biography of James Reaney establishes him also as a lover of India . The very fact that he donated “his personal library to Gujarat University, Ahmadabad” (p 14) reflects his generosity. And the performance of his play Wacousta in Kathakali mode by Indian students in Trivendrum at the international conference of the Canadian Studies in 1996 shows Reaney's importance as a cultural iconographer of the present century who could ” produce a play like Wacousta! which negotiates the border crossing between countries, cultures and languages” (p 9).

“A big book”, said Callimachus, the Alexandrian poet, grammarian, and employee of the famous ancient library of Alexandria, “is a big misfortune”. And it seems Professor Abraham has followed the piece of advice offered by Dr Johnson in writing James Reaney: A Short Biography: “Books that you may old readily in your hand are the most useful after all”. In the “Acknowledgements”, Professor Abraham with his characteristic humility, calls Reaney's biography as “this small book”. But this small book is about a “big” writer and is valuable for both the students and the research scholars of James Reaney alike for it is not a shallow and sketchy life-sketch but a lucidly written, well-documented portrayal of a creative genius the reading of which will create in every reader profound echoes of answers emanating from an intense deep, to the searching questions invariably asked while writing a biography: ” “What is a life? Why was this life lived as it was?”(p 13).