George Frederick Clarke

George Frederick Clarke with granddaughter Mary BernardPhoto: Mary Bernard, The Last Romantic
George Frederick Clarke with granddaughter Mary Bernard
Photo: Mary Bernard, The Last Romantic

Dr. George Frederick Clarke (author, historian, dentist, amateur archaeologist) was born in Woodstock, NB, in 1883 and died in 1974 in the same town. He was one of five children to parents Abram Edwin Clarke and Maria Lucy (Harris) Clarke. The family at times struggled financially, and Clarke was not thoroughly educated as a child (Bernard 4, 7). However, he discovered early in his life that writing was his passion. By the age of eight he had begun writing and at age twelve he would write short stories and cliff-hangers for a boys’ story club. This interest continued well into his adult life. Clarke’s body of work includes thirteen novels, dozens of short stories (not all published or even finished), scholarly articles, and several books for young readers. His best-known books are Six Salmon Rivers and Another (1960), Song of the Reel (1963), and The Ghost of Nackawick Portage (2015). The latter is a collection of forty-one of Clarke’s short stories written and published in magazines between 1908 and 1938.

To begin his career, Clarke worked as an assistant to local dentist Dr. Kirkpatrick. When Dr. Kirkpatrick sold his practice to Clarke, the younger man finally had the opportunity to attend a dental college. It was during this time at college in Philadelphia that Clarke met and soon married Mary Schubert. The pair moved back to Woodstock following Clarke’s graduation. They had three children between 1915 and 1927. Clarke eventually retired from dentistry in 1953 to focus solely on writing. His importance was such that the Clarke family house, at 814 Main Street, Woodstock, was formally recognized as one of Canada’s historic places on 27 October 1978. It was nicknamed the “Crow’s Nest” by the family and is a rare example of Regency architecture in New Brunswick. The house is still a provincial landmark and in good condition today.

Another of Clarke’s interests included archaeology, which he pursued at an advanced amateur level even though he was never officially certified. In his lifetime, he amassed an astonishing collection of approximately 2,700 archaeological artifacts, the majority coming from west-central New Brunswick. Recognizing his contributions to the province’s archaeology and history, UNB awarded Clarke an honorary doctorate in 1968. In 2007, the Clarke family donated the collection to UNB and it is today known as The George Frederick Clarke Artifact Collection. The university also established the George Frederick Clarke Archaeological Teaching Laboratory in 2011, commemorating Clarke’s work and contributions to provincial heritage.

Clarke’s books continue to be in print and he continues to have a loyal readership, partially due to the work of his granddaughter, Mary Bernard, who has compiled many of his short stories into collections. Bernard also wrote the only biography of Clarke, titled The Last Romantic: The Life of George Frederick Clarke, Master Storyteller of New Brunswick. Some of Clarke’s works had not been published at all before Bernard’s editorial efforts. Much of his work is geared toward young readers, such as the collections of Jimmy-Why and David Cameron, works that had not received much critical literary attention until recently. An article from the Bugle-Observer in July 2018 talks about Clarke’s young-adult fiction and the need to celebrate his works for their “extensive knowledge and understanding of the geography and history of the area” (Grant). His stories and poems written for an adult audience have received more attention. In an article in the Saint John Telegraph-Journal in October 1968, Alden Nowlan comments, not uncritically, that “as a writer, [Clarke] has virtually ignored 20th Century developments in prose and poetry. His own writing has a 19th Century quality that has kept it from receiving wide acceptance by literary critics.” Other of his works have been better received, such as Song of the Reel, published in 1963. In her comprehensive biography of Clarke’s life, Mary Bernard relays the praise of an unknown newspaper, explaining that “the book was reviewed enthusiastically; ‘Dr. Clarke has done it again’ was the theme. He was ‘the dean of New Brunswick prose writers,’ his new book ‘a major event in the literary life’ of the province” (330).

Clarke’s importance to New Brunswick includes both his literary and archaeological contributions. Some of his main interests included history, prehistoric Maliseet artifacts, the customs and rights of modern Maliseet people, and the lives of the Acadians. He was close to Tappan Adney, also from Woodstock, who was an artist, photographer, and writer. Adney spent a lot of time studying the ways of the Maliseet and wrote books (including detailed drawings) about how to build a birch-bark canoe and other aspects of woodcraft. Not coincidentally, Clarke wrote an article in 1961 about the influence of the birch-bark canoe on Canadian history. Though he wrote about many things, however, his preferred subjects were animals, lumbermen, and river drivers. In her preface to The Ghost of Nackawick Portage, Bernard notes that “Tappan Adney was responsible for his change in direction, for it was probably Adney who urged him to write about what he knew best: the lives of ordinary New Brunswickers” (iii).

Clarke’s literary voice is a mixture of Loyalist themes and Romantic influences. His strong attachment to his homeland and his natural surroundings is present throughout his work. This preoccupation with history and place is especially evident in his poems, which treat landscape as inheritance. “I Must Have Hills to Climb,” from the chapbook The Saint John and Other Poems, showcases his Romantic tendencies:

I have a hill to climb High, but not too high
To hear the constant murmur of the stream
I am made clean again:
All sordid passions fled,
And all my thoughts are peaceful as the night. (7-19)

One of Clarke’s primary literary concerns is the need to be immersed in and understand nature. His children’s books treat this subject, as does his poetry. He was interested not only in the connection between humans and nature, but also in the spiritual role nature played in the lives of New Brunswickers.

Clarke passed away in Woodstock in October 1974 after suffering a stroke. He is buried in the Woodstock Anglican Cemetery with his wife.

Katherine McKee, Fall 2018
St. Thomas University

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Clarke, George Frederick. The Adventures of Jimmy-Why. Fredericton: Brunswick Press, 1959.

---. The Best One Thing. London: Mills & Boon, 1926.

---. “The Birch-Bark Canoe: Its Influence on Canadian History.” New Brunswick Historical Society Bulletin 16 (1961): 48-60.

---. Chris in Canada. London: Blackie and Son, 1925.

---. David Cameron’s Adventures. London: Blackie and Son, 1950.

---. Expulsion of the Acadians: The True Story (Documented). Fredericton: Brunswick Press, 1955.

---. Forest Stories. London: Collins, 1934.

---. The Ghost of Nackawick Portage: The Collected Short Stories of George Frederick Clarke. Ed. Mary Bernard. Woodstock: Chapel Street Editions, 2015.

---. Jimmy-Why & Noël Polchies: Their Adventures in the Great Woods: The Jimmy-Why Stories Complete in One Volume. Ed. Mary Bernard. Woodstock: Chapel Street Editions, 2016.

---. The Magic Road. London: Mills & Boon, 1925.

---. Noël and Jimmy-Why. Fredericton: Brunswick Press, 1959.

---. Return to Acadia. Fredericton: Brunswick Press, 1952.

---. The Saint John and Other Poems. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1933.

---. Six Salmon Rivers and Another. Fredericton: Brunswick Press, 1960.

---. Someone Before Us: Our Maritime Indians. Fredericton: Brunswick Press, 1968.

---. Song of the Reel. Fredericton: Brunswick Press, 1963.

---. Thetis Saxon. London: Mills & Boon, 1927.

---. Too Small a World: The Story of Acadia. Fredericton: Brunswick Press, 1958.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Bernard, Mary. The Last Romantic: The Life of George Frederick Clarke, Master Storyteller of New Brunswick. Woodstock: Chapel Street Editions, 2015.

Cusack, Ruby M. “Dr. George Frederick Clarke’s Too Small a World.” Genealogical Sources and Books of New Brunswick, Canada. 2004. Ruby M. Cusack. 29 June 2020

“The Dr. George Frederick Clarke House.” Canada’s Historic Places. Parks Canada. 29 June 2020

“The George Frederick Clarke Archaeological Teaching Laboratory.” Department of Anthropology, Faculty of Arts. U of New Brunswick. 29 June 2020

Grant, Robin. “N.B. Author’s ‘Gripping Tales of Survival’ to be Celebrated.” Bugle-Observer Online [Woodstock] 19 July 2018.

Nowlan, Alden. “Alden Nowlan Reports: Dr. Clarke Follows N.B. Indian Trails.” The Telegraph-Journal [Saint John] 5 Oct. 1968.