William Alfred Bauer
William ("Bill") Alfred Bauer (professor, poet, and writer) was born on 10 May 1932 in Portland, Maine and died in Fredericton, NB on 12 June 2010. Bauer relocated to New Brunswick on a whim in 1965, and it was these surroundings that became the inspiration for his written works. His poetry and prose evoke a love of people, characters, and place, particularly within a Maritime context.
Though born in Portland, Maine to Alfred and Virginia Bauer, William spent his childhood in the city of Auburn. His mother, an avid reader, instilled an early love of literature in him. Bauer especially enjoyed the works of Mark Twain. He also enjoyed the company of dogs, having them around him in youth and adulthood.
As a child, he attended Lakestreet School, Webster Grammar School, and Edward Little High School. He later attended Amherst College in Massachusetts, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology. He then attended Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut for his Master of Arts and teaching degrees. It was there that he met his future wife, Nancy, a student of a nearby all-girls college. The two were set up on a blind date in 1953, and were married three years later.
William and Nancy moved to Texas in 1956, where he served for a brief time in the US Air Force as an airman administering psychological testing. He remained part of the reserves after being discharged in 1958. From Texas he returned to Connecticut, where he taught high school in the town of Woodbury until 1961. It was during this time that Nancy gave birth to their first son, Ernest, born in 1960.
Nancy eventually convinced her husband to return to school for a PhD. He did so in 1961 at the University of North Carolina. In 1965, the Bauer family, at this point numbering four with the birth of their second child Grace in 1963, decided to move north.
Bauer had been to Canada during family visits to Montreal; however, he had never been to New Brunswick. Despite this, he felt an inexplicable draw to the place, holding “romantic notions” about it (Interview with author). On a whim, he decided to investigate teaching positions in the province. A call to the University of New Brunswick resulted in Bauer’s application for the position of professor of 18th-Century Literature; he was the first to fill the position in eight years. Though Bauer initially planned to stay for only a year or two, he and Nancy rapidly came to view New Brunswick as an “exotic and wonderful land” (Interview with author). A third and final child, John, came into the family in 1966, at which point their roots became firmly planted in New Brunswick soil.
Bauer got his start writing when he joined a Tuesday night group, where members would share literary creations. His light-hearted, humorous poetry quickly gained popularity, and though publication had been the last thing on his mind, he was urged to submit his works. Frequently published in a variety of literary magazines and journals over the next decade, particularly The Fiddlehead, Bauer’s first book of poetry – Cornet Music for Plupy Shute – was published by New Brunswick Poetry Chapbooks in 1968. A notable ability of Bauer that quickly presented itself was his use of characters as a means of describing place. His ability to focus in on the minute details of a character to enliven locale would lead to the creation of his most beloved subject: a roadside merchant named Everett Coogler. Coogler was first presented in poetry to the Tuesday night group, who immediately encouraged Bauer to write more about him. First published in the Canada First anthology for new Canadian poets, the Coogler poems would later find their own collection in 1971 with the publication of Everett Coogler. Characterized by frankness and a unique quirkiness, the humour of the Coogler poems comes from their focus on mundane statements, observations, and events from Coogler’s life, and it is here that Bauer best showcases the humour that peppers his other works. In “Everett Coogler Takes a Survey,” Coogler claims that “all kinds” show up at his roadside vegetable stand, immediately identifying them not as people, but as wares:
And squash. (10-16)
The poem abruptly ends here; the list is the punch line. All of the Coogler poems follow this single-joke structure, with the entire poem building up towards a punch line consisting of the final two or three lines.
In 1978, The Terrible Word was published. It is in this collection that Bauer’s love of New Brunswick emerges; the poetry in it deals very much with place, often painting intimate portraits of locales both ambiguous (“Uncle Sim Recalls”) and specifically New Brunswick (“Woods”).
Bauer’s next published work was prose. A Family Album (1979) contains six short stories, four of which were completely new at the time of publication. Despite being fictional accounts, the stories all have the distinct feel of direct experience, paralleling Bauer’s unique poetic talent for detail and characterization. Four years later, his third and final collection, Unsnarling String, was released. The first section contains the complete Everett Coogler poems; the second, a series of character-based poems dealing with seemingly mundane personalities from all walks of life, from an elderly man to a hospital visitor to a truant officer. The final section, from which the collection gets its name, consists of a series of poems dealing with a snarled string that represents character, its unsnarling addressing the understanding of other people.
Bauer taught at UNB throughout his publishing years. He taught in many areas, including Shakespeare, Canadian and Maritime Literature, and Creative Writing. As a creative writing teacher, his students were luminaries like Wayne Johnston (The Colony of Unrequited Dreams) and Kwame Dawes (Gomer’s Song). He retired from UNB in 1994.
Bauer’s work has seen limited critical exposure outside of New Brunswick; however, within this sphere, his poems and stories have received generally positive reviews. These have typically focussed on his sense of humour (Barbour 166; MacDonald 167) and his abilities with characterization, which critics recognize as his “greatest strength” (MacDonald 167). Negative reviews are less unified in their criticisms. Bohun criticizes Bauer’s poetic approach and structure as being “uniform, workmanlike and uninteresting,” claiming that it lacks “complexity of thought and inventiveness of expression” (106). Hancock criticizes what he sees as a “stuffy academic tone” (15). Seiler notes, somewhat uncharacteristically, that while Bauer’s work “produces as much frustration as it does delight,” it also is “quite unsuited to the production of crisp images” and carries with it a “self-indulgen[ce]” that “eventually…wears thin” (192). Still, Bauer’s strengths of “content and style” have been critically championed far more often than his weaknesses have been identified (Macmillan 49).
Though his works have not been critically acclaimed outside the province, their importance to New Brunswick literature is undeniable. The places and people he writes about paint a vivid picture of the wonderful peculiarities of local character. Bauer’s claim that the Coogler character is an amalgam of New Brunswick and Maine speaks volumes: the character, with his earnest, down-to-earth attitude, his peddling of rural wares (vegetables) in the midst of the fast-paced urban environment of a highway, is a personification of the East Coast as Bauer views it. Readers interested in a portrait of our province and what it has to say to those from elsewhere are well advised to read Bauer’s work.
Eric Kortschak, Spring 2010
St. Thomas University
Bibliography of Primary Sources
Bauer, William. Cornet Music for Plupy Shute. New Brunswick Poetry Chapbook 4. Fredericton, NB: New Brunswick Poetry Chapbooks, 1968.
---. Everett Coogler. New Brunswick Chapbooks 15. Fredericton, NB: New Brunswick Poetry Chapbooks, 1971.
---. “Everett Coogler Takes a Survey.” Unsnarling String. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1983. 11.
---. A Family Album. Ottawa: Oberon Press, 1979.
---. Personal Interview. 6 Mar. 2010.
---. The Terrible Word. Fiddlehead Poetry Books 243. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1978.
---. Unsnarling String. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1983.
Bibliography of Secondary Sources
Barbour, Douglas. “Canadian Poetry Chronicle VII.” Rev. of New West Coast, ed. Fred Candelaria, et. al. Dalhousie Review 59.1 (1979): 154-75.
Bohun, S. V. Rev. of The Terrible Word, by William Bauer. Canadian Book Review Annual, 1978. Ed. Dean Tudor, Nancy Tudor, and Linda Biesenthal. Toronto: PMA Books, 1979. 106.
Hancock, Geoff. “Flash, Fuzz, and Fizzle.” Rev. of A Pyramid of Time, by Abraham Boyarksy, A Family Album, by William Bauer, and The Visitors Have All Returned, by Marilyn Bowering. Books in Canada 9.3 (1980): 14-15.
MacDonald, Roger. Rev. of A Family Album, by William Bauer. Canadian Book Review Annual, 1979. Ed. Dean Tudor, Nancy Tudor, and Kathy Vanderlinden. Toronto: PMA Books, 1980. 167.
MacMillan, Carrie. Rev. of A Family Album, by William Bauer. Quill and Quire 45.8 (1979): 49.
Oliver, Michael Brian. “Tantramar–and Saint John and Fredericton–Revisited.” Rev. of When A Girl Looks Down, by Kay Smith, Against Perspective, by Fred Cogswell, All This Night Long, by Roberts Gibbs, The Terrible Word, by William Bauer, and Stilt Jack, by John Thompson. The Fiddlehead 122 (1979): 115-24.
Seiler, Robert M. Rev. of Unsnarling String, by William Bauer. Canadian Book Review Annual, 1983. Ed. Dean Tudor and Ann Tudor. Toronto: Simon & Pierre, 1984. 192.
“William Bauer.” The Canadian Literature Archive. U of Manitoba CanLit. 12 Apr. 2010