BORN: 1903, Toronto, Canada
DIED: 1990, Toronto, Canada
GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction, drama
They Shall Inherit the Earth (1935)
The Loved and the Lost (1951)
Morley Callaghan's Stories (1959)
The Many Colored Coat (1960)
Close to the Sun Again (1977)
Morley Callaghan was one of Canada's most distinguished writers. He was unquestionably the first to have
established a major international reputation, which he started building in the late 1920s in the little magazines of Paris and the slick monthlies of New York, where his first short stories appeared. A brief participant in the Lost Generation scene in Paris during the late 1920s, Callaghan returned home to Toronto, where he continued a productive writing life.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Middle-Class Upbringing in Toronto Morley Edward Callaghan was born in Toronto on February 22, 1903. The second of two sons of Thomas and Mary Dewan Callaghan, Roman Catholics of Irish descent, he was named after John Morley, biographer of Edmund Burke. He was raised in a middle-class home where there was much music and discussion of literature. He began writing early, and while attending Riverdale Collegiate, the young Callaghan had his first feature article published in the Star Weekly. At St. Michael's College, University of Toronto, Callaghan read constantly, continued to write nonfiction, and began experimenting with fiction. In 1923 he joined the staff of the Toronto Star.
Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and the Lost Generation Callaghan met Ernest Hemingway at the Toronto Star. Hemingway, who had been a European correspondent for the paper and spent much of his time in Paris, was back briefly in Toronto writing from the newsroom. The two reporters became friends and often would go to the Star library to chat and exchange the short stories they wrote in their spare time. Callaghan's writing also gained the attention of F. Scott Fitzgerald, another American writer living in Paris. After successfully publishing his first novel and first short-story collection with the help of Fitzgerald's editor, Callaghan married his college sweetheart, Loretto Florence Dee, in 1929 and the two sailed to Paris for their honeymoon.
Callaghan spent time with both Hemingway and Fitzgerald while in Paris, and in so doing became associated with the Lost Generation—a term popularized by Hemingway for a group of American writers who lived in self-imposed exile, primarily in Paris, in the years following World War I. These writers were considered “lost” because of the disillusionment experienced during and after the war.
The relationship between Callaghan and Hemingway soured after a boxing match between the two, in which Callaghan knocked down his older and larger opponent. Fitzgerald, who served as timekeeper for the match, tried to cover for Hemingway, saying as time-keeper he had mistakenly let the round go overtime, unfairly tiring Hemingway. The experience strained the friendship between Callaghan and Hemingway. And perhaps worse, it fixed Callaghan in the minds of many as a marginalized member of the Lost Generation. In many books on that era and in much that has been written on Callaghan since then, the boxing incident gets much more discussion than Callaghan's writing, which is either dealt with superficially or overlooked. Tiring of the Paris scene, Callaghan returned home in the fall of 1929.
War and a Fiction Dry Spell Although he was involved in other projects, Callaghan wrote little fiction from 1938 to 1947. He has called this “the dark period of my life.” The author traced his initial lack of productivity to a numbness triggered by the spread of World War II in Europe. His break from novel and short-story writing was also helped along by a flirtation with the theater. In 1938 he was asked by New York Theatre Guild producer Lawrence Langner to write a stage play from his 1935 novel They Shall Inherit the Earth. The result was Turn Again Home. He wrote a second play that year, Just Ask for George, and both plays were optioned for Broadway. Neither was produced because of a lack of financial backing and the unavailability of key actors. They were not staged until a decade later.
Award-Winning Work In the early 1950s, Callaghan began appearing on television as a panelist on the show Fighting Words, moderated by influential theater critic Nathan Cohen. One benefit to this work was the travel it afforded to other Canadian cities, where Callaghan constantly looked for material for his fiction. He found it in Montreal, using Canada's most exotic and wide-open city as the backdrop for The Loved and the Lost. The book, exploring the then explosive topic of relations between whites and blacks, is one of Callaghan's best books. It sold over five hundred thousand copies in paperback alone and was adapted as a musical for Broadway. It also won Canada's Governor General's Award for fiction in 1951, the first of several major awards he was to receive.
Hemingway's Ghost Besides having to face mixed reviews for A Passion in Rome (1961), Callaghan also had to deal with the ghost of Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway's July 1961 suicide led to many journalists' discovery that Callaghan had been an early friend of his. Editors and reporters began calling him for his memories of the early days with Hemingway. Callaghan eventually tired of it all, especially the reporters' rehashing of the unfortunate boxing match. He decided to set the record straight with his 1963 book That Summer in Paris: Memories of Tangled Friendships with Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Some Others.
Despite advancing years, Callaghan kept up a steady writing pace. In 1974 Winter was published. A Fine and Private Place appeared the following year. While Callaghan's short stories had not been in the major slick magazines for many years, his work began turning up during the 1970s in Exile, a small Canadian literary quarterly. Exile became his laboratory, running excerpts from his works in progress. One such piece was a forerunner to the novel Close to the Sun Again, published in 1977. The Toronto Globe and Mail named it “the best Canadian novel” of the year.
In 1984, after fifty-five years of marriage, Callaghan's wife, Loretto, died. In 1985, the Canadian publishing house of Lester & Orpen Dennys, in conjunction with Exile Editions, brought out a short-story collection titled The Lost and Found Stories of Morley Callaghan. After outliving most of his contemporaries, he suffered a brief period of illness and died on August 25, 1990.
Works in Literary Context
“Writing had to do with the right relationship between the words and thing or person being described,” Callaghan once said. “The words should be as transparent as glass.” Writing in a direct, unadorned language from a nonjudgmental point of view, Callaghan often dealt with the struggle of flawed but noble individuals to make it in a hostile or indifferent world. His stories concern the problems of people in the mainstream. As he wrote in the introduction to Morley Callaghan's Stories, they are
the problems of “many kinds of people …, [though] I neglected those of the very, very rich.” He wryly added, “I have a story that begins, ‘Once upon a time there were two millionaires,' but I haven't finished it yet.”
Biblical Themes Many of the locales of Callaghan's stories are Canadian, but the themes are not. Instead, the themes are universal or common to North America, a choice Callaghan consistently made in his refusal to become a generically Canadian writer. Rich in symbolism and irony, Callaghan's fiction especially explored biblical themes. They Shall Inherit the Earth borrows from the stories of Cain and Abel and the prodigal son. The Many Colored Coat tells a secular story of the duplicity of corporate life and modern values but makes consistent references to Joseph and his coat of many colors, a young man who models the scapegoating and subsequent forgiving of his accusers expressed by Callaghan's protagonist. Rich with messages of redemption and salvation, these themes offer added significance to several of the writer's works.
Influences Callaghan's work with religious themes in the 1930s takes influence from a contemporary, the French philosopher Jacques Maritain, whom Callaghan knew in 1933. He was also influenced by American and European writers, including, as he recalled in his 1963 memoir, “[Fyodor] Dostoyevsky, Joseph Conrad, Sinclair Lewis, [Gustave] Flaubert; The Dial, The Adelphi, the old Smart Set, edited by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan; Katherine Mansfield, D. H. Lawrence …, everything.”
Works in Critical Context
Some critics have likened Callaghan's style to Ivan Turgenev's or Anton Chekhov's, and others have compared his approach to Hemingway's. Scholar Brandon Conron notes the difference: “Moral rather than physical courage is [Callaghan's] concern.” He is an author who has steadfastly gone his own independent way, leaving others to contend with the passing literary fads. Publisher Thomas McCormack of St. Martin's Press conceded in a 1978 interview that Callaghan may suffer for not being plugged into the latest vogue, “but he is part of the spinal literature of the twentieth century that people will remember.”
The Many Colored Coat (1960) This book, like so many of Callaghan's, divided the critics, including those in his own country. Canadian Literature editor George Woodcock found that the novel is too long and that it “hovers uneasily between sharpness of caricature and the flabbiness of sentimental pseudo-realism.” Canadian novelist Hugh MacLennan contended that the work is “over most people's heads, and possibly mine, also….To me this is a deeply disturbing, rather wonderful and hard-to-comprehend novel.” Renowned critic Edmund Wilson, however, examined the responses to Callaghan's novels and wondered “whether the primary reason for the current underestimation of Morley Callaghan may not be simply a general incapacity—apparently shared by his compatriots—for believing that a writer whose works may be mentioned without absurdity in association with Chekhov's and Turgenev's can possibly be functioning in Toronto.”
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Callaghan's famous contemporaries include:
Clare Booth Luce (1903–1987): American editor, activist, and writer, she was also a high-profile socialite, a congresswoman with a Republican seat in the House of Representatives, and an ambassador to Italy.
Mary Norton (née Spenser) (1903–1992): British children's author known for several stories made into movies, including a series produced as the Disney movie Bed-knobs and Broomsticks (1971).
Maxwell Perkins (1884–1947): American journalist who worked as an editor at Charles Scribner's Sons and was responsible for the introduction of such writers as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and John Dos Passos.
Sylvia Beach (1887–1962): American owner of the famous Shakespeare and Company English-language bookshop in Paris through the 1920s and 1930s.
Maria Tallchief (1925–): Native American (Osage Nation) ballerina, she has performed at several venues, has had a number of pieces composed for her, and cofounded such ballet companies as the Chicago City Ballet.
Responses to Literature
- As Brandon Conron notes, Callaghan's short stories follow a “recognizable formula. They are all self-contained anecdotes. Their opening is usually a declarative statement that sets the stage for a drama that most frequently is psychological and involves little action. A problem is posed and, by description, dialogue, and internal monologue, the story moves with easy economy through a climax to an ending which may not resolve the dilemma but invariably leaves it haunting the reader's mind.” Write your own short story using Callaghan's formula. Make a declarative opening statement to set the stage. Give your character a problem to solve. Follow through with dialogue, monologue, and a climax. Decide whether to resolve or not resolve the issue.
- Look up the definitions for minimalism and realism—two terms often applied to Callaghan's
- writing. What characteristics does each style boast? What do you find striking about each style?
- Find a good working definition of allegory. Which of Callaghan's stories could be consider allegories?
- If you are working with a group who is reading Callaghan, have a discussion about the level of difficulty of his work. Share examples with others of where he seems to “go over” a reader's head. Discuss why you think such works are so difficult.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Further tribute to Callaghan's talents as a short-story writer is the fact that he had pieces in fourteen of Edward O'Brien's twenty-six annual anthologies, The Best Short Stories. Here are a few works by short-story writers who also took inspiration from the everyday around them and who also succeeded in making the same honor—being anthologized several times over:
“For Love of the Hills” (1912), a short story by Susan Glaspell. This story about a girl who feels that the city of Chicago has failed her was first printed in Little Masks by Frederick Stokes of New York.
“Girl” (1983), a short story by Jamaica Kincaid. This very short story, a kind of domestic girl mantra, was first published in At the Bottom of the River by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux of New York.
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (1955), a short story by Flannery O'Connor. This story of a family vacation gone dark was first published in the title by the same name by Harcourt in New York.
“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (1975), a short story by Ursula K. Le Guin. This story of the perfect community with the perfect scapegoat first appeared in The Wind's Twelve Quarters, published by Harper in New York.
“Soldier's Home” (1925), a short story by Ernest Hemingway. This short story about Harold Krebs, a soldier returning from war, was first published in In Our Time by Charles Scribner's Sons in New York.
Callaghan, Morley. That Summer in Paris: Memories of Tangled Friendships with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Some Others. New York: Random House, 1973.
Conron, Brandon. Morley Callaghan. Boston: Twayne, 1966.
Canadian Forum (March 1960). Unsigned review of Morley Callaghan's Stories.
Canadian Literature (Summer 1964). George Woodcock review of The Many Colored Coat. New Yorker, Edmund Wilson, “Morley Callaghan of Toronto.” 36 (November 26, 1960): 224–37.
The New York Review of Books, Norman Mailer, “Punching Papa,” review of That Summer in Paris. (February 1, 1953).
Twentieth Century Literature, “James T. Farrell: A Tribute.” 22 (February 1976): 26–27.
MacDonald, John. W. Strange Fugitive: in Honor of Morley Callaghan. Retrieved February 25, 2008, from http://strangefugitive.johnwmacdonald.com/.
Online Guide to Writing in Canada. Morley Callaghan 1903–1990. Retrieved February 14, 2008, from http://www.track0.com/ogwc/authors/callaghan_m.html.