Alice Munro at 90: A Personal Tribute
J.R. (Tim) Struthers
University of Guelph
1. “What Are You Writing Now?”
For four years from 2016 to 2020 I worked ardently on preparing two massive companion volumes, each containing twenty contributions, in honour of Alice Munro, the pair published under the titles Alice Munro Country and Alice Munro Everlasting by Guernica Editions of Toronto in the Spring of 2020 and including three items of my own. First, a new bibliography of 401 items (that number merrily chosen by way of an allusion to the major highway that runs through Alice Munro’s and my home region of Southwestern Ontario): a bibliography meant to draw attention to a range of existing cultural and critical sources, including various studies of the short story, that I consider beneficial for understanding Munro, meant to document important past research on Munro not only in North America but also throughout Europe, and meant to facilitate further research on Munro. Second, a previously unpublished interview by me with Munro. And, third, a new detailed critical essay on Alice Munro’s novella “Powers” – thereby bringing the total number of scholarly pieces about Munro that I’ve produced in the past eight years, while continuing to teach full-time at the University of Guelph, to ten. Including a revised version, expanded from an original twenty typed pages by some forty-five typed pages, of my essay “Alice Munro and the American South,” first published in 1975, as was an essay of mine discussing Munro’s künstlerroman, what I think a publisher would now very possibly call her novel-in-stories rather than her novel, Lives of Girls and Women, in the context of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: these two essays, by good fortune for me, representing the first two scholarly articles, I claim, in the history of Munro criticism. And here we are now in 2021, with Alice Munro the enthusiastically celebrated winner in 2013 of the Nobel Prize in Literature and the author, as I record in the bibliography “Book by Book,” of 148 collected stories to be found in fourteen books of new work published over a forty-five-year span from Dance of the Happy Shades in 1968 to Dear Life in 2012. And now, too, on Saturday 10 July 2021, with Alice Munro celebrating her 90th birthday. A very happy birthday to you, Alice! You and your work are greatly cherished.
“What are you writing now?” the gifted fiction writer and editor and critic John Metcalf asked me, probably when I phoned him on 12 November 2019 to wish him a happy 81st birthday, some months after John had read and responded very favourably to a near-final draft of the essay of mine on Munro’s novella “Powers” now published in Alice Munro Everlasting – a question that I came to appreciate as the highest compliment John had ever, or could ever, give me. Thinking of me not as a university teacher, not as the publisher of Red Kite Press which issued two of his books, not as a co-editor with him of Canadian Classics: An Anthology of Stories and of the short story theory collection How Stories Mean, or more recently of Clark Blaise’s Selected Essays, not as an interviewer or as a bibliographer, but as a writer.
“What are you writing now?”
What did I have left to say about Alice Munro, the first Canadian writer, the first short story writer, and only the thirteenth woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature? Perhaps that on the very morning which marked the 455th anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare, I awoke joyfully from a dream of meeting her for the first time in many years – Alice now in old age yet continuing to look so radiant. I had been wondering what I could possibly write about her and thinking that I would like to adapt a line deeply entrenched in my mind but remaining just out of reach: a line beginning with a question something like “What could I say about…?” From Shakespeare, perhaps? – I considered. Then, just as I arrived downstairs to prepare breakfast, I remembered the source. Alice Munro, of course. It’s the thought that goes through the mind of the actress Rose in the last sentence of the final, title story of Who Do You Think You Are? – a book to which, now forty years ago, I had devoted a chapter of my Ph.D. dissertation on the Canadian story cycle. Rose has seen a story in her hometown newspaper reporting the death in middle age of her childhood schoolmate, the mimic Ralph Gillespie, and responds, “What could she say about herself and Ralph Gillespie, except that she felt his life, close, closer than the lives of men she’d loved, one slot over from her own?” I cannot think of a declaration more fitting to describe the feelings of so many remarkable readers about the ever-mesmerizing work of Alice Munro.
“What are you writing now?”
This, “Alice Munro at 90: A Personal Tribute.”
2. The Only Voice
It is important for us, even on such an occasion as this very special birthday that invites us to focus our attention so very deservedly on one extraordinary writer’s accomplishments, to take account of, to celebrate, as Alice Munro would, I believe, have us do, all those other writers comprising the rich and diverse traditions of writing – past, present, and future – that flow into and next to and onward from her own work. Writing, first, in every genre, right here in short story writer Alice Munro’s and poet/playwright James Reaney’s and critic Catherine Sheldrick Ross’s and my own region of Souwesto. And, second, the short story, throughout Canada. And of course beyond these, all regional writing and short story writing worldwide. And yet reading an Alice Munro story is such a uniquely and absolutely energizing, humbling, transcendent experience. It is also an extremely intimate experience. And in that process – to adapt the phrase that Frank O’Connor made famous in his classic study of the short story – her voice becomes for so many of us, reading her in, it astonishes me to think how many different languages, “the only voice.” That has held true for me in many ways, decade after decade now for a full forty-five years, however powerfully various contemporaries of Munro’s, predecessors of her, and others following her have gotten into my mind and blood.
3. Epic Questions
Here, before I proceed any further, I will interrupt myself to ask: Does not Alice Munro, by so profoundly and so magnificently developing, enlarging, freeing up the possibilities of the art form, the short story, that she practises, urge and perhaps compel those who would write about her work to imagine their own ways of developing, enlarging, freeing up the possibilities of the art form, the critical essay, that they practise? Indeed, could not certain critical essays, as I view stories by Alice Munro such as “Meneseteung,” be considered instances of the ‘brief epic’ form, involving epic subjects, epic tasks, epic catalogues, epic questions, and suchlike matters?
4. The Souwesto Renaissance
As I said at the outset, it is important for us, even on such an occasion as this that focusses so very deservedly on one extraordinary writer’s accomplishments, to take account of, to celebrate, as Alice Munro would, I believe, have us do, all those other writers comprising the rich and diverse traditions of writing – past, present, and future – that flow into and next to and onward from her own work. Writing, first, in every genre, right here in our own region of Souwesto. And, second, the short story, throughout Canada. And of course beyond these, all regional writing and short story writing worldwide. Thus it would not be inappropriate, I think, to cite the name of Alice Munro not as “the only voice” but as “one voice only" in at least two different and wide-ranging lists of, first, important Souwesto writers in every genre, and, second, important Canadian writers of the short story. Individuals mainly of Alice Munro’s generation whose writing, along with hers, has enriched – and to a very large extent defined – the imaginative lives of so many of us. Hence, if asked, first, to provide in, say, two paragraphs, a description of various highlights for me of Souwesto writing (and if permitted to give a nod to work in the visual arts and in music by other favourite Souwesto artists) I would offer this brief account…
Following earlier important Southwestern Ontario writers such as Queenston, Upper Canada born novelist, poet, and journalist John Richardson (1796-1852) and, later, Brantford, Canada West born novelist and journalist Sara Jeannette Duncan (1861-1922) and Six Nations Indian Reserve born poet, performer, and prose writer E. Pauline Johnson (1861-1913), there emerged in the early and middle twentieth century a number of significant Southwestern Ontario writers. These include: Ruscomb, Ontario born poet, short story writer, novelist, critic, and anthologist Raymond Knister (1899-1932), six of whose best stories were collected in Selected Stories of Raymond Knister (1972); Thamesville, Ontario born novelist, playwright, and journalist Robertson Davies (1913-1995), author of the set of novels, starting with Fifth Business (1970), known as The Deptford Trilogy; London, Ontario born George Elliott (1923-1996), author of four story cycles including The Kissing Man (1962) and Crazy Water Boys (1995). Another writer of special note is Cape Croker Indian Reserve born ethnologist, mythographer, essayist, and linguist Basil Johnston (1929-2015), author of Ojibway Heritage (1976) and other very significant works, among them his Anishinaube Thesaurus (2007), where readers interested in sources for the title of Munro’s story “Meneseteung” would be intrigued to find on the very first page the following English definition of the Ojibway words ministik and ministikoowun: “island(s) in or at the mouth of a river, usually formed by silt.” (Hence, as I have argued in an essay on the story published in The Windsor Review in 2014, “Menesteung” means “place of little islands.”) And also, of course, Sarnia, Ontario born, Point Edward, Ontario raised poet, novelist, and nonfiction writer Don Gutteridge (1937- ), author, amongst a great many titles, of the poem sequence A True History of Lambton County (1977).
Together with Alice Munro, the most important Southwestern Ontario writer is the poet, short story writer, playwright, little magazine editor, and critic James Reaney (1926-2008), native of the Stratford, Ontario area, for the final forty-eight years of his life a resident of London, Ontario, long-time crusader for regionalism, and author, amongst a great many titles, of the epic trilogy of plays, beginning with Sticks & Stones (1975), entitled The Donnellys, about the nineteenth-century Irish-Canadian family of that name. As well, “Souwesto” is or was the birthplace and the imaginative “Home” – to echo the title of an Alice Munro story first published in 74: New Canadian Stories then rewritten for publication in her family memoir The View from Castle Rock (2006) – of a younger generation of fine writers. Among them: poet Penn Kemp, my first cousin and the first poet laureate for the City of London; short story writer and novelist Bonnie Burnard; critic and children’s author Catherine Sheldrick Ross; poet, journalist, nonfiction writer, and small press publisher Marty Gervais; playwright and essayist William Butt; fiction writer, nonfiction writer, and anthologist Douglas Glover; poet and nonfiction writer Christopher Dewdney; poet, nonfiction writer, and anthologist John B. Lee; poet and playwright Daniel David Moses; story writer and novelist Terry Griggs; poet and nonfiction writer John Terpstra, and novelist Nino Ricci. And, too, “Souwesto” is or was the birthplace and the imaginative “Home” of many distinguished visual artists, such as painters Jack Chambers, Tony Urquhart, Greg Curnoe, and Ron Shuebrook, along with many distinguished musicians such as Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and (culturally, at least) Robbie Robertson of The Band as well as singer/songwriters Winston George and Scott Merritt. Speaking in an interview with Graeme Gibson, Alice Munro declared of her own region and of its significance as a source of imaginative material for her fellow “Souwesto” artists: “I can think of several writers now who are working out of Southwestern Ontario. It is rich in possibilities in this way. I mean the part of the country I come from is absolutely Gothic. You can’t get it all down.”
5. The Canadian Renaissance
And second, my list of – I’ll start with thirty – recommended Canadian short story writers: “The Canadian Renaissance,” I like to term them…
Mavis Gallant, George Elliott, Norman Levine, Margaret Laurence, James Reaney, Hugh Hood, Alice Munro, Jane Rule, Leon Rooke, Rudy Wiebe, George Bowering, Carol Shields, Audrey Thomas, Elisabeth Harvor, Alistair MacLeod, Kent Thompson, Jack Hodgins, John Metcalf, Margaret Atwood, Clark Blaise, Raymond Fraser, Olive Senior, Ray Smith, Thomas King, Marianne Micros, Keath Fraser, Bronwen Wallace, Douglas Glover, Terry Griggs, Diane Schoemperlen …
And of course more.
Many many more.
Did I say we could cite Alice Munro in two key lists? I should have identified a third, even broader category. For Alice Munro stands amongst the greatest of world writers, I would argue, ever.
I’d like to finish with three quotations.
First, by Joseph Campbell, from Chapter 1, “Metaphor and Religious Mystery,” in his book Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor. I quote this passage because it strikes me as a perfect description of Alice Munro’s achievement and importance:
How, in the contemporary period, can we evoke the imagery that communicates the most profound and most richly developed sense of experiencing life? These images must point past themselves to that ultimate truth which must be told: that life does not have any one absolutely fixed meaning. These images must point past all meanings given, beyond all definitions and relationships, to that really ineffable mystery that is just the existence, the being of ourselves and of our world. If we give that mystery an exact meaning we diminish the experience of its real depth. But when a poet [or we might say a highly poetic short story writer] carries the mind into a context of meanings and then pitches it past those, one knows that marvelous rapture that comes from going past all categories of definition. Here we sense the function of metaphor that allows us to make a journey we could not otherwise make, past all categories of definition.
Second, by Wendell Berry, from his lecture “It All Turns on Affection,” in his book It All Turns on Affection: The Jefferson Lecture & Other Essays, a volume which I gave to my friend the painter, educator, and now-retired Ontario College of Art and Design President Ron Shuebrook at an event held in Guelph on Saturday evening 3 May 2014 to celebrate his 70th birthday back on 29 July 2013 and, most especially, to honour his life-long accomplishments, his inspiring creativity, his enduring friendship:
We do not have to live as if we are alone.
And last, essayed by me:
Whenever you hold an Alice Munro story in your hand or mind, you will not feel alone.
8. “What Are You Writing Now?”
Including this one, I’ve got five new essays on Alice Munro in the works.
Perhaps I could tantalize you by briefly outlining them …
No? There isn’t room to summarize even one more?
Some other time, then. I’ll look forward to the pleasure of your call.
Highly respected nationally and internationally by scholars and creative writers for his work as a small press publisher, editor, critic, interviewer, and bibliographer, J.R. (Tim) Struthers has edited some thirty volumes of theory, criticism, autobiography, stories, and poetry -- including works in honour of or by such important Canadian writers as Clark Blaise, George Elliott, Jack Hodgins, Hugh Hood, John Metcalf, Alice Munro, and James Reaney. The author in 1975 of the first two scholarly articles world-wide on Alice Munro, Tim has been publishing steadily and ardently on her stories for over 45 years. For Guernica Editions, he has prepared the companion volumes Clark Blaise: Essays on His Works and Clark Blaise: The Interviews (2016) and the companion volumes Alice Munro Country and Alice Munro Everlasting (2020). Tim Struthers has taught for 35 years in the School of English & Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph.