James Keith Chapman
James Keith Chapman was born 24 April 1919 in Gagetown, New Brunswick. He was raised in Gagetown during his early years with siblings Irene (Chapman) Savage and Charles Chapman. Chapman found success as a popular writer in his later years with his River Boy trilogy, a semi-autobiographical series of novels about growing up in rural New Brunswick. Chapman’s wife, Rhoda, worked with him to create illustrations for some of his books. Chapman passed away 13 October 1999 in Fredericton.
His early education began at the Gagetown Grammar School, then he moved to the Provincial Normal School in 1937. From 1940–46, he served in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was a Navigator and Instructor Flight Lieutenant during the Second World War, serving with a torpedo bomber squadron that saw a lot of action.
Upon returning to New Brunswick, he took advantage of the Veteran’s Education Program offered at the University of New Brunswick (UNB). He attended UNB from 1946–1950 and graduated with his BA in history and political science with honors. He continued at UNB and received his MA in 1952 while holding a Beaverbrook Scholarship for studies in the relations of Maine and New Brunswick. He then attended the University of London and obtained a PhD in British imperial history in 1954 after having been awarded a Beaverbrook Overseas Scholarship. During his time at UNB, Chapman was involved in local politics and was a member of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). Part of his work involved conducting radio broadcasts as a representative of the CCF.
In his professional career, Chapman was a professor in the History Department at UNB for thirty years (1954–1984). In 1984, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Mount Allison University and the next year, 1985, he was named Professor Emeritus at UNB. Chapman’s research focused on Sir Arthur Hamilton Gordon. His two books in the field were The Career of Arthur Hamilton Gordon: First Lord Stanmore 1829–1912 (1964) and A Political Correspondence of the Gladstone Era: The Letters of Lady Sophia Palmer and Sir Arthur Gordon, 1884–1889 (1971). Those books established his reputation within the field of British imperial history.
Chapman adamantly promoted creativity in the field of history, and sponsored two scholarships at UNB to that end. One scholarship was given in his own name for the use of creativity in the field of history. The other was given in memory of his wife, Rhoda, and was awarded to encourage further study in the field of art history.
During the post-Second World War era, Chapman took his place among writers such as Elizabeth Brewster, Allan Donaldson, and Robert Gibbs. Each of these writers had an interest in writing the New Brunswick they knew in the 1930s. Chapman, however, did not receive the same literary acclaim as his fellow writers.
Chapman’s home and education determined his choice of literary topics. The bulk of his writing focuses on either the history of the British Empire or the history of rural New Brunswick. In some of his writing he used the pen name Hamish Keith, especially when writing short stories for the magazine The Atlantic Advocate. It was only later in life that he turned to writing about growing up in rural New Brunswick. This is when the River Boy trilogy began.
The River Boy trilogy manages to capture the spirit of the landscape and the people of rural New Brunswick exceedingly well. This series draws on the memories of Chapman’s early life in Gagetown. He believed that it was important for people to write down their personal histories before places were gone forever.
In his first two installments, River Boy: Life Along the St. John (1980) and River Boy Returns (1983), Chapman reminisces about his childhood between the two world wars. He focuses on the small details that were a part of his everyday life. The stories of everyday people dominate these books, as do their intersections with his own life. He does not glorify these people but describes them as they are: doctors, church-goers, priests, and farmers. He is also unafraid of naming places and proudly claims his small town of Gagetown is important. By combining humour and fact, he gives life to rural New Brunswick.
The third book in the River Boy trilogy, River Boy at War (1985), follows him during his experience in the Royal Canadian Air Force. This book draws on log registers, photos, and squadron records. All three of these books were well-received by readers.
Kimberly Mertens, Spring 2010
St. Thomas University
Bibliography of Primary Sources
Chapman, J.K. The Career of Arthur Hamilton Gordon: First Lord Stanmore, 1829-1912. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1964.
---. Gagetown: As We Were. Queens County, NB: Queens County Historical Society & Museum Inc., 1987.
---. Hair from a Black Stallion’s Tail. Fredericton: J.K. Chapman, 1982.
---. “The Mid-Nineteenth Century Temperance Movement in New Brunswick and Maine.” The Canadian Historical Review 35.1 (1954): 43-60.
---. “A Political Correspondence of the Gladstone Era: The Letters of Lady Sophia Palmer and Sir Arthur Gordon, 1884-1889.” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. New Series. 61.2 (1971).
---. River Boy at War. Fredericton: Fiddlehead Poetry Books & Goose Lane Editions Ltd., 1985.
---. River Boy: Life Along the St. John. Fredericton: Brunswick P, 1980.
---. River Boy Returns. Fredericton: Brunswick P, 1983.
---. A Skein of Yarns. Fredericton: New Ireland P, 1990.
---. Where the Woodbine Twineth: A New River Boy Book. Fredericton: J.K. Chapman, 1998.
Keith, Hamish [J.K. Chapman]. “It Cast no Shadow.” The Atlantic Advocate (1976): 46-47.
Warwick, O.H. and Chapman, J.K. The Mount House on Mount Ararat Farm. Fredericton, NB: Queens County Historical Society & Museum Inc., 1989.
Bibliography of Secondary Sources
Bauchman, Rosemary. Rev. of River Boy at War, by J.K. Chapman. The Atlantic Provinces Book Review 13.1 (1986): 8.
Cogswell, Fred. “English Prose Writing in New Brunswick: World War I to the Present.” A Literary and Linguistic History of New Brunswick. Ed. Reavley Gair. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead Poetry Books & Goose Lane Editions Ltd., 1985. 229-44.
Cusak, Ruby. “Book on Gagetown Presents Walk Down Memory Lane.” New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal 14 June 2005: B1.
Faculty File of J.K. Chapman from the U of New Brunswick. Prepared, Jan. 1985. U of New Brunswick Archives.
Furber, Holden. Rev. of Career of Arthur Hamilton Gordon: First Lord Stanmore, 1829-1912, by J.K. Chapman. The Journal of Modern History 37.2 (1965): 258-259.
Hurst, Michael. Rev. of A Political Correspondence of the Gladstone Era: The Letters of Lady Sophia Palmer and Sir Arthur Gordon, 1884-1889, by J.K. Chapman. The Historical Journal 16.2 (1973): 442-444.
Nowlan, Michael O. “Likes to Give his Readers a Chuckle.” The Daily Gleaner [Fredericton] 26 Apr. 1999. B9.
Pilon, Ellen. Rev. of River Boy at War, by J.K. Chapman. Canadian Book Review Annual (1985): 46.