Arthur Leonard Phelps (1887-1970) was born in Columbus, Ontario on 1 December 1887, and in his lifetime moved around, but for a number of years he had a Bobcaygeon cottage. His ‘chap-book’, “Bobcaygeon: a sketch of a little town,” was published in Lindsay in 1922. Through his editing work and hosting a CBC radio show, Phelps influenced the development of a Canadian identity and was well-known as a critic of Canadian culture.
Phelps studied at Victoria College at the University of Toronto, where he met fellow writer, E. J. Pratt, and they became life-long friends.
It’s not known exactly when Phelps moved to Bobcaygeon, but in 1907 Phelps was working as assistant pastor in Bobcaygon, where he made numerous friends. He was also manager of the Bobcaygeon hockey team.
Sometime within the next few years, he bought a cottage in Bobcaygeon and lived there permanently. The April 1919 edition of Canadian Bookman described Phelps as “permanently a denizen of Bobcaygeon, Ont., but his ministerial function in connection with the Methodist Church keeps him supplied with a temporary address, which happens just now to be Bath, Ont.”
On 18 September 1914, Phelps married Lila Irene Nicholls, daughter of Thomas Henry Nicholls, a farmer in Verulam township, and Margaret Staples. Phelps and Lila were wed in Peterborough, Ontario.
In 1921 Phelps accepted a professorship at the Wesley College at the University of Manitoba where he was head of the English department. A year later, he asked his friend, and fellow KL writer, Watson Kirkconnell to work with him. At first Kirkconnell refused because English wasn’t his field of study. He studied the Classics at university. But then he changed his mind and accepted the position. Together they were the entire English department, with Kirkconnell teaching anything Phelps didn’t want.
During this time, Phelps kept the cottage at Bobcaygeon and spent his summers there. (Kirkconnell, A Slice of Canada: memoirs (1967).)
A visitor to the Bobcaygeon cottage crew was friend and fellow writer, Fredrick Phillip Grove. Grove named his son Leonard after Phelps and made Phelps the boy’s godfather. (“Afterword: genesis of a boys’ book.” Mary Rubino, 1982)
While at Wesley College, Phelps started the English Club, a discussion group for senior students, one of whom was Margaret Laurence. (Later, Laurence would move to Lakefield and become Chancellor to Trent University.)
Phelps stayed at Wesley College until 1945. He was awarded Fellowship in 1967.
Starting around 1940, Phelps was a radio broadcaster for the CBC, serving as a culture critic, trying to define a cultural identity for Canada. It was around this time when Canada was trying to define its own cultural identity as separate from Britain and the U.S.
Phelps has been widely quoted for saying, “a Canadian is one who is increasingly aware of being American in the continental sense, without being American in the national sense.” (The quote is from an article he wrote for The Listener, a BBC magazine, titled, “A Canadian looks back on the Royal Visit,” published in the 46th volume on Thursday, November 15, 1951.)
In 1947, Phelps became an English professor at Queen’s University, and while in Kingston, he hosted a radio show.
Kingston Radio Rewind has a video clip of Arthur Phelps on their Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=419933333686408) and a look at the comments shows many fondly remember him.
In the summer of 1955, Phelps hosted a television program called “Cabbages and Kings.” Phelps moderated the panel discussion show from Vancouver. Participants and subjects included Northrop Frye on Canadians’ reading habits; CJOR newsman Jack Webster and lawyer Bill McConnell on television and radio; and McConnell, writer Roderick Haig-Brown, and Hugh Christie, warden of Oakville Prison Farm on crime and society.
Unfortunately, Phelps did not include the work of the iconic Lucy Maud Montgomery as significant to the culture and identity of Canada. At least not while she was alive to be included. Nine years after her death, Phelps included Montgomery in his book, Canadian Writers, listing her accomplishments alongside other writers as E.J. Pratt, Robert W. Service, Frederick Philip Grove, Archibald Lampman, Stephen Leacock and other notables. The first half of his Montgomery article discusses other “popular” fiction writers and their place in “respectable artistic achievement,” indeed, the entire issue with Montgomery’s work until now was that it was commercially successful and written for girls. In this article, Phelps admits he’d not read Montgomery’s work before and when he checked out four of her books from the library, he was reassured to find her work was still popular. Phelps finally gets around to writing about Montgomery and her work in the last two pages of the article.
Phelps missed the mark on the draw of Montgomery’s work, though. He called her writing old fashioned, sentimental, nostalgic, and said, “L.M. Montgomery’s stories have qualities of range and subtlety and fine comprehension which make them relatively worthy.” He said, “the Island, the sea, the people of the Island, come alive in the telling. All this came about because L.M. Montgomery knew her Island– its places, its people– and, with direct unpretentious simplicity, through her an, was able to communicate something of what she knew.” (Canadian Writers, 1951.)
But Montgomery does not remain commercially successful even today because of nostalgia or because she knew the Island and its people. She remains popular because she gave girls a hero in Anne. She remains popular because Anne showed girls that it was okay to be angry and to feel alone.
It’s unfortunate that the fight between “commercially successful” and “literarily relevant” remains today.
Phelps’s first wife, Lila died in 1965. Phelps remarried in 1968 to Margaret Duncan. The 1921 census shows Phelps and Lila living with his parents in the Toronto area. They didn’t have children at that time. His obituary mentions his daughter Ann, married to John David Hamilton. The University of Manitoba notes the Phelps fonds were donated by his granddaughters, Meg and Kate Hamilton in 1997.
After Phelps was diagnosed with cancer, he was allowed to continue his radio show from his sick bed. He passed away April 27, 1970 at his home at 47 Earl Street in Kingston and was buried in Bobcaygeon. (Globe & Mail, 29 April 1970 page 41.)
Bobcaygeon: a chap-book (1922)
The Poetry of Today. (1917)
This Canada: A series of broadcasts. (1940)
These United States: A series of broadcasts. (1941)
Community and culture. (1947)
Canadian Writers. (1951)
“Introduction” for Habitant Poems by William Henry Drummond (1961)
Another Bobcaygeon Chapbook, reprint 2016, combines Bobcaygeon: a chap-book (1922) and “Bobcaygeon” the poem (1919) and can be purchased here: https://conwaybooks.wordpress.com/2016/05/13/peterboriana-series/
There’s a wealth of Phelps’s work at Canada’s Library and Archives, particularly in the archived Film, Video and Sound collection.
In 1971, Arthur R. M. Lower published a brief biography of Phelps, “Arthur Leonard Phelps (1887-1970),” a chapter in the book, Proceedings of The Royal Society of Canada, series IV, volume IX, 1971, pages 94-96.
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