William Arthur Deacon (1890-1977) was one of the most powerful and influential writers/editors in Canada from 1922-1961. He could make or break authors’ careers. And he did.
Born in Pembroke on 6 April 1890, the son of William Henry Deacon, a lawyer, and Sarah Ann Davies, daughter of a printer. His father died when he was very young. His mother moved in with her parents.
Deacon studied law at Stanstead College, but while there, two things happened that changed his intended career path, both literary readings, and each inspiring to Deacon. And then in 1905, he read his own first paper to the college literary society and from that moment, never lost the desire to write– or get a reaction from an audience.
In 1907, Deacon entered Victoria College in Toronto, where he met E.J. Pratt, and wrote for the campus magazine, of which Viola Whitney (future Mrs. E.J. Pratt) was the editor. He also met another life-long friend in Arthur L. Phelps, who went on to become Canada’s foremost culture critic. But Victoria College wasn’t working for Deacon, and he left during his second year.
Deacon drifted through various jobs until finally deciding to marry Gladys Coon of Weston, Ontario, and return to Dauphin, Manitoba, where he could article in law. Later in life, Deacon would look back on these years as ‘the ten lost years’ of his life, given to the law career he ended up not pursuing.
Around 1916 Deacon and Gladys discovered theosophy, and eventually founded Winnipeg’s second lodge. Deacon felt theosophy and Methodism converged nicely in their teaching responsibilities.
He truly believed that the printed word could change the world. He held as axiomatic the belief that Canadians were a vital and dynamic people who would require, demand, and produce a correspondingly dynamic literature. He came to see himself as herald, prophet, preacher, and custodian of that literature.Clara Thomas and John Lennox. William Arthur Deacon: a Canadian literary life. (1982)
He found law boring and frustrating; theosophy convinced him that he was destined to write.
In 1921, the Manitoba Free Press employed Deacon as a contributing editor to their newly established monthly literary and book review section. They called him their ‘Honorary Literary Editor.’ This was novel; up until 1921 Canadian newspapers didn’t care about books. Only about a dozen printed book reviews.
Deacon submitted book reviews and editorials to The New York Times, The Stairway, the New York Evening Post, and The National Pictorial, to name a few.
He helped found the Winnipeg branch of the Canadian Authors’ Association.
But his big break came in 1922 when he joined Saturday Night magazine and achieved his dream of becoming ‘the first full-time, professional book reviewer that Canada had ever seen.’
It also coincided with the end of his marriage to Gladys. In 1918 he met fellow theosophist, Mrs. Sally Townsend Syme, and the two believed they were destined for each other, despite both already being married. They continued to correspond with each other until 1922 when Sally joined Deacon in Toronto.
After Deacon moved to Toronto, he and Sally became frequent guests at his friends’ cottages in Bobcaygeon. Phelps was the first to establish a cottage there, followed by Pratt in 1921. Finally, in 1925, in $400 instalments, Deacon acquired his own Bobcaygeon land, and by 1928 had built a cabin on it.
Phelps helped Deacon make connections in their literary circles. He helped Deacon get the job with Saturday Night magazine. He introduced Deacon to Lorne Pierce of Ryerson Publishing, who then picked up Deacon’s books, Pens and Pirates and Peter McArthur. Phelps took Deacon to the Arts and Letters Club, bringing him to a wider literary network.
Deacon gave up his Bobcaygeon cottage by 1932, when he heard about the Canadian Institute on Economics and Politics held annually at Geneva Park, Lake Couchiching, and began spending summer vacations at Wilson’s Point, Orillia, merely four miles from Geneva Park– he gave up the Bobcaygeon cottage to continue to pursue his belief that he could change the world.
Deacon was now professionally placed where he could make or break an author’s career.
His friend, Arthur Phelps wrote to him: “I’ve backed three horses, Deacon, Pratt, and Grove. Place ’em in Canadian Literature, will you?” (William Arthur Deacon, page 67)
His reviews of Pratt’s work was favourable.
And same for Grove. When Grove’s book, Settlers of the Marsh, became the subject of a book ban and the author poise to go bankrupt, Phelps asked Deacon to find speaking engagements for Grove in Toronto. Two years later, Deacon sent Grove on a speaking tour across the country, using his contacts with the Canadian Club and the publicity department for the Canadian National Railway.
Grove is just one example of a Deacon-made career. But not all authors got the white glove treatment.
Deacon had a particular problem with Lucy Maud Montgomery. Jealousy, likely. His books sold only a few hundred copies, while hers were being translated and sold around the world. In his essay on Canadian literature in his book, Poteen, he says, “As for the ‘girls’ sugary stories begun with Anne of Green Gables... Canadian fiction was to go no lower.” He had a set idea of what Canadian literature should be and Montgomery was not it.
Lucy Maud Montgomery received a similarly misogynist response when she was running for the executive of the Toronto Branch. Montgomery’s biographer Mary Henley Rubio notes that “The Canadian Authors Association had been very important to Maud after [her] move to Toronto. The CAA was a lifeline, in fact, that pulled her out of her personal stress at home” (p. 529). On April 8, 1938, however, at an election for a new executive, Montgomery was pushed out by Deacon. She writes in her journal: “The election of a new executive was held and I was elbowed out. It is not worthwhile going into details. Deacon had it all planned very astutely and things went exactly as he had foreseen. I atChristopher M. Doody. “A Union of the inkpot: the Canadian Authors’ Association, 1921-1960.” 2016.
once withdrew my name from the list of candidates” [Mary Henley Rubino, Lucy Maud Montgomery: the gift of wings. 2008. p. 530]. …. If this is the treatment received by authors of their stature, one can only imagine the treatment accorded to amateur writers in the association
Deacon was completely dedicated to his non-commercial, literary and democratic principles.
He played a primary role in the establishment of the Governor General’s Awards for Literature and had influence over the judges and titles selected. His friend E.J. Pratt won three times. His friend Fredrick Philip Grove won once. E.K. Brown, another of the Bobcaygeon Boys’ visitors, won once. Arthur R.M. Lower, who was Arthur L. Phelps’s biographer, won a couple times. Laura Salverson, who corresponded with Deacon for years, won once. His personal friend Stephen Leacock won in 1937. Bertram Booker, Franklin Davey McDowell– the list goes on of Deacon’s friends who took home Canada’s top literary prize.
Deacon loved leadership and the feeling of power to influence events; he also loved to be seen to be leading.
He recruited his friends to write book reviews, including his wife writing as Sally Townsend, E.J. Pratt, Viola Pratt, Arthur Phelps and many others.
His review philosophy was solid and many of today’s reviewers could stand to learn a thing or two:
But NEVER put on a [heading] which will keep readers from reading your article. The chief function of man may be to glorify God; but the chief function and aim of a writer is to get himself read. Put on a [heading] which will entice your reader, rouse his curiosity, tempt him to plunge into the text below. Don’t drive him away by proclaiming that the whole thing is a bore. You break that gently to him later.William Arthur Deacon, page 220.
In 1967, Sally was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. She passed away two years later. Deacon was unable to do any serious writing after Sally’s illness, even withdrawing his centennial grant application. Over the next years, he suffered small strokes until he passed away in August 1977.
Saturday Night (1922-1928)
Toronto Mail and Empire (1928-1936)
The Globe and Mail (1936-1961)
Pens and Pirates (1923)
Poteen and other essays (1926)
The Four Jameses (1927)
My Vision of Canada (1933)
William Arthur Deacon: a Canadian literary life. Clara Thomas and John Lennox. University of Toronto Press. 1982.
E.J. Pratt: the truant years. David Pitt.
photo source of Deacon and Pratt family: Trent University:
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