- E.J. Pratt: Letters ed. by Elizabeth Popham and David G. Pitt
New letter collections are fairly rare these days and getting rarer. I do not suppose the student of Canadian literature has many more volumes like E.J. Pratt: Letters to look forward to, and she will have to find other ways of getting to know her writers in their own terms, outside their literary works. Edited and introduced by Elizabeth Popham and David Pitt, this last volume in the Collected Works of E.J. Pratt series is a valuable addition to the still-growing collection of primary research materials required for the serious study of Canadian modernism. For those of us specifically interested in Pratt as a [End Page 126] poet and as a public figure of no small importance during a crucial period of English Canadian cultural development, the book is welcome indeed.
Building from the substantial number of letters collected by David Pitt during his research for his two volumes of the Pratt biography, editors Popham and Pitt eventually expanded that collection to nearly 1,200 bits of correspondence, a significant portion of which makes its way into this hefty 700-page volume. (For the completist, omitted letters and notes can be found in an addendum online.) Given the sheer size of the volume, most readers will dip in and out of the collection according to their needs and interests rather than wade through the whole book. However, for those interested in tracing the full biographical trajectory of the letters, the volume is neatly and logically organized by way of chronological sections, beginning as early as 1903 when Pratt was a novice teacher in Moreton's Harbour, Newfoundland, and ending in 1964 shortly before his death. In an appendix, the editors have also included a small batch of letters written on Pratt's behalf by his wife, Viola, when he was too ill to do so, and by her to close friends thanking them for their condolences after Pratt's passing. (A letter from Viola to Earl Birney is especially touching and gives us a sense of the depth of her support for her husband's art.)
A book that is most likely to be used as an occasional reference text, as I suggested above, needs a good index. Fortunately, the index here is exhaustive – no mentioned text, person, or organization seems to have been missed – and I was able to track specific subjects through dozens of letters. Other parts of the editorial apparatus are just as thorough: references and contexts are generously explained by way of detailed footnotes, sources are outlined in full, and a biographical chronology allows the reader to check a given letter against important dates and events in Pratt's life. Despite some inattention to detail (Brian Trehearne's name is misspelled not once, but twice, though the editors are wise to quote him), the introduction usefully places Pratt's correspondence in the context of his family life, his thirty-three years as a professor at the University of Toronto's Victoria College, and his literary career, which, though begun late, resulted in an impressive record of achievement. Along with materials related to other works in the Pratt series, an online supplement to the Pratt letters can be accessed at www.trentu/pratt. While neither pretty nor particularly user friendly, these online resources are nevertheless impressive in terms of their scope.
The collection is well put together; the editors ought to be proud of their work. It is harder to guess what impression the letters themselves are likely to leave on a reader. Personally, I did not care much for the hobnobbing old-boys-club figure who starts to come across in the mid- and late career letters. Needless to say, the value of Pratt's contribution to the development of Canadian literature and its institutions – whether we consider his mastery of the documentary long poem, his founding and editorship of Canadian Poetry Magazine, or his involvement in countless publishing initiatives (including, [End Page 127] not uncontroversially, the...