Steffler, John (Earl)

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STEFFLER, John (Earl)

Nationality: Canadian. Born: Toronto, Ontario, 13 November 1947. Education: University of Toronto, Ontario, 1967-71, B.A. in English 1971; University of Guelph, Ontario, 1972-74, M.A. in English 1974. Family: Married Shawn O'Hagan, 1970; one daughter and one son. Career: Since 1975 professor of English, Sir Wilfred Grenfell College, Memorial University of Newfoundland. Awards: Canada Council Arts grant, 1988, 1993; Newfoundland Arts Council Artist of the Year award, 1992; Smith Books/ Books in Canada First Novel award, 1993; Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction award, 1993; Joseph S. Stauffer prize, 1993. Member: League of Canadian Poets. Agent: Susan Schulman Literary Agency, 454 West 44th St., New York, New York 10036, USA. Address: Department of English, Sir Wilfred Grenfell College, Corner Brook, Newfoundland A2H 6P9, Canada.



The Afterlife of George Cartwright. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1992; New York, Holt, 1993.

That Night We Were Ravenous. Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1998.


An Explanation of Yellow. Ottawa, Borealis Press, 1980.

The Grey Islands. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1985.

The Wreckage of Play. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1988.


Flights of Magic (for children). Victoria, Press Porcepic, 1987.


Critical Studies:

"The Writings of John Steffler" by James Harrison, Brick, 45, Winter 1993.

John Steffler comments:

I am essentially a poet. All my writing begins with immediate experience, the stuff of time and space. Without planning to, I find myself writing about the interaction of people and nature, people and landscape, the character of place. In the same way, I'm interested in how the past influences the present, how we live in a flow of time, a choir of ghosts. I am not interested in obeying the restrictions of traditional genres. My novel is part history, part fantasy, part poetry. We should feel free inside a work of literature. I like the pull of "What happens next?" in a story. I also like the pull of invention and surprise in the way a work is constructed.

* * *

John Steffler's first novel, The Afterlife of George Cartwright, comes out of the directions mapped by his considerable achievements in poetry and The Grey Islands, a diary mixture of poetry and prose describing a summer spent alone on a tiny island off the northeast shore of Newfoundland. In his early work, he demonstrated a mixture of preoccupation with the search for the inner self, a quiet center, and considerations of the effects of place on strangers, largely his own migration from Ontario to rugged Newfoundland. Quietly brilliant, The Afterlife of George Cartwright emerges from his reading of the real George Cartwright's 1792 journal and interleaves Steffler's fascination with Newfoundland-Labradorthe land and its historywith his concerns about personal destiny.

Cartwright, part of whose life was spent in the British army in Germany and India, wrote a journal of fact until December 1779 and then made up the later entries (which cover time when he was not actually in the Labrador he is describing) while barracks master of the Nottingham militia. Steffler is equally free with fact, mixing entries from the journal with entries of his own making and surrounding the journal with a richly imagined world of the Cartwright family and Britain, Germany, India, and Labrador. The whole is framed by the device of imagining Cartwright living on after his death, alone except for his hunting hawk and his horse as he wanders the English countryside and sometimes lets wandering omnibuses drive right through his hearty ghost (a ghost who enjoys decent cooking). The most extensive portion of the novel deals with Cartwright's creation of several settlements in Labrador and his sorrow when his Inuit mistress and her party die of smallpox after he has taken them to England. Cartwright was ever eager to learn in Labrador, survived the extreme challenges of that bleak yet sensational coast, and was among the first to befriend the native peoples. But his methods were often brutal, and through Mrs. Selby, Cartwright's housekeeper-mistress, Steffler introduces ideas about the blind rapacity of the colonial enterprise.

Besides the richly pictured eighteenth-century world of city and wilderness colony, the true center of this novel is the paradoxes surrounding Cartwright. Steffler pictures a man frozen in the amber of his era, unable to grasp the implications of fault in the greedy struggle for furs and timber. He is the imperfect traveler who brings all his values with him to impose upon an alien world and who freely treats its people as exhibits when he brings them to England. There is a wonderful heady mixture of distaste and admiration for Cartwright, and to make the mixture even more potent the George Cartwright of the Afterlife is no more aware of the paradoxes than the living one was.

The Afterlife of George Cartwright is a first novel of both promise and distinctive achievement. Like fellow poets Michael Ondaajte and Jane Urquhart before him, Steffler has chosen fiction to anatomize the Canadian past, which makes it luminous and at the same time raises paradoxes of power and personal morality that reflect sharply on the present.

Peter Brigg