Desmond Pacey

Desmond PaceyPhoto: The Ryerson Press Archive 1862–1970
Desmond Pacey
Photo: The Ryerson Press Archive 1862–1970

William Cyril Desmond Pacey (writer, critic, administrator, and educator) was born 1 May 1917 in Dunedin, New Zealand. A prolific writer and dedicated administrator, Pacey emerged as a pioneer in Canadian literary history and criticism at a time of changing attitudes in the study of literature in Canada.

Pacey was the son of William and Mary Pacey. After his father was killed in the First World War, he and his mother emigrated to England. There, Pacey entered the Magnus Grammar School in Newark in 1928. In 1931, he and his mother moved to Glenford Station, Ontario, where his mother remarried. Pacey entered Caledonia High School the same year and graduated in 1934. He received three entrance scholarships to the University of Toronto, in addition to the first Carter Scholarship for Wentworth County, Ontario. The following year, he enrolled at Victoria College, University of Toronto, where he studied philosophy, English, and history. There, he was also a member and president of the University Soccer Club, served as editor of Acta Victoriana, and acted as speaker of the debating parliament. It is at the University of Toronto that he met Roy Daniells, who would later become a close friend and collaborator. Pacey received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1938 with first class honours in philosophy and English.

Pacey went on to attend Trinity College at Cambridge University on a Massey fellowship and received his doctorate in English literature in 1941. He wrote his dissertation on “The Reception and Influence of French Realist Fiction in Victorian England.” Pacey’s years at Cambridge were formative of his devotion to the study of Canadian literature. His paper entitled “At Last—A Canadian Literature,” published in the December 1938 issue of the Cambridge Review, is an early exemplar of his belief that Canada was beginning to produce literature worthy of academic study and criticism:

the average Englishman, and even a great number of those who are well above the average in literary erudition, seems to be quite unaware that Canada is either able or anxious to produce anything other than wheat. Let me hasten to assure him that the desire is of long standing, and it is now in great likelihood of being fulfilled. (146)

In 1939, Pacey married Mary E. Carson. The couple had seven children: Philip, Mary Ann, Patricia, Peter, Margaret, Michael, and Penelope. Pacey began his career in education as a professor of English at Brandon College, Manitoba, one year prior to graduating from Cambridge. After spending one year as executive officer and editor of the Wartime Information Board, he left Brandon College and became professor and head of the department of English at the University of New Brunswick (UNB).

At UNB, Pacey devoted himself to the study of English literature in Canada. Recognizing the need for biographical and critical sources in Canadian literary studies, he published Frederick Philip Grove (1945), a critical biography of the prominent German-Canadian translator and author. However, it was with the publication of Creative Writing in Canada: A Short History of English-Canadian Literature (1952; rev. 1961) that Pacey established himself as a major force in Canadian literary criticism.

Creative Writing in Canada was the first sustained critical effort in decades to present a history of Canadian literature in English. Though it received some criticism for its failure to encompass all major literary figures, it was generally received as a decisive work in the development of the history of English literature in Canada. Rather than attempting to produce a catalogue of every major figure in Canadian literature, Pacey judiciously selected those authors who exemplify each period of Canadian literature, then submitted those writers to sober qualitative assessment. It is important to note that Pacey did not overlook the extent to which emerging Canadian writers were contributing to Canada’s literary landscape: he dedicates the final three chapters of Creative Writing in Canada to an examination of Canadian poetry and prose from the 1920s to the 1950s.

Perceptible throughout Creative Writing particularly, and Pacey’s criticism generally, is a marked concern with the social significance of the literature in question. For instance, in the introduction to Creative Writing in Canada, he defends the distinctiveness of Canadian culture, arguing that “Canadian art as a whole, and more particularly Canadian literature, has a distinctive conception of man’s lot on earth, a conception engendered by the peculiar features of the Canadian terrain” (2). For Pacey, then, Canada maintains a cultural and literary distinctiveness not only through its continual response to the social and political environment, but also by virtue of its unique geographical landscape. Perhaps most important is Pacey’s conviction that the Canadian literature examined in Creative Writing in Canada, if not considered among the great literatures of the world, is at least worthy of respect and thoughtful criticism. The fact that it remained the standard history of Canadian literature for succeeding generations is a testament to the role Creative Writing in Canada played in developing a consciousness of this country’s literary heritage.

While Creative Writing in Canada is perhaps Pacey’s most memorable and influential critical text, his later works are no less significant. In Ten Canadian Poets: A Group of Biographical and Critical Essays (1958), Pacey presents a “more leisurely study” of poetry in Canada through a close examination of ten representative Canadian poets. The collection demonstrates Pacey’s emphasis on biographical and cultural contexts in the critical treatment of literary works. In addition, Pacey both co-edited and contributed to the monumental work Literary History of Canada (1965) along with Carl F. Klinck, Roy Daniells, Northrop Frye, Alfred G. Bailey, and Claude Bissell. Other important critical works published by Pacey include Ethel Wilson (1968) and Essays in Canadian Criticism (1969), a collection of Pacey’s essays from 1938 to 1968. Pacey also edited A Book of Canadian Stories (1947, 1950, 1961, 1967), Our Literary Heritage: An Anthology of Literature in English (1967), Frederick Philip Grove: Critical Views of Canadian Writers (1970), Selections from Major Canadian Writers (1974), and The Letters of Frederick Philip Grove (published posthumously in 1976).

There are relatively few critical treatments of Pacey’s work and no sustained effort to analyze or assess his criticism. However, critics of Pacey agree on a few points. The criticism most frequently levelled against Pacey is that he consistently biases realism in fiction and modernism in poetry (Blodgett 99; Cogswell 237; Grundy 404; Hopwood 58). Other perspectives on Pacey’s work are often conflicting and varied. In spite of Pacey’s dedicated critical interest in the work of young Canadian poets, he has been accused of valuing too highly “sophistication and form” in literature, and expressing an uneasiness toward unconventional and experimental verse (Hopwood 59; King 68). In his review of Creative Writing in The Fiddlehead, Eli Mandel notes a tendency in Pacey’s work to privilege biography over critical analysis (63). H.P. Grundy also alleges that Pacey’s attempt to define Canada’s distinct literary and cultural identity amounts to a “generalization that will not bear close scrutiny” (404). Finally, Philip Kokotailo observes what he sees as contradiction at the heart of Pacey’s treatment of Canadian poetry: “while in theory Pacey follows Smith, Sutherland, and Frye by idealizing a harmonized or synthesized form of national unity, in practice he reinscribes regional diversity as the leading characteristic of English-Canadian poetry” (2).

The Fredericton poets Bliss Carman and Charles G.D. Roberts were subjects of special interest and importance to Pacey throughout his career. In 1955 he edited The Selected Poems of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts, 18601943, and, in 1974, he published a second edition, The Selected Poems of Charles G.D. Roberts. Pacey subsequently received a grant from the Canada Council to publish scholarly editions of both the collected letters and the collected poems of Roberts, but due to illness toward the end of his life, he was unable to complete those projects. However, Pacey was recognized for his invaluable research in the introductions to The Collected Letters of Charles G.D. Roberts (1989) and The Collected Poems of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts: A Critical Edition (1985).

In addition to writing numerous articles and books on the history and criticism of literature in Canada, Pacey authored a number of creative works. In 1952, he published two collections of verse for children: The Cow With the Musical Moo and Other Verses for Children and Hippity Hobo and the Bee and Other Verses for Children. The Cat, the Cow, and the Kangaroo: The Collected Children's Verse of Desmond Pacey (1967) brought together the two previous collections, along with seventeen new stories in verse. Pacey also published two other collections of short stories, The Picnic and Other Stories (1958) and Waken, Lords and Ladies Gay: The Selected Short Stories of Desmond Pacey (1974), both of which met with moderate success.

As an educator, Pacey inspired his students to pursue subjects in Canadian literature. He also supported young writers through his personal encouragement and his critical attention to their emerging talent. Always eager to help young writers gain access to a readership, he even lent his office out to the editors of the student literary magazine Urchin so that they could prepare it for printing. Pacey served as associate editor and chaired the editorial board for The Fiddlehead, and he wrote over eighty reviews of books, films, and plays for numerous journals and literary magazines. He was also an important reviewer for Brunswick Press. However, his active involvement in the contemporary literary community was not limited to Fredericton. He maintained a correspondence with various Canadian poets including Miriam Waddington, Dorothy Livesay, and, perhaps most importantly, Irving Layton, with whom he became close friends. The Layton-Pacey correspondence was compiled by Pacey’s son, Michael, as a part of his doctoral studies at the University of British Columbia.

Pacey’s career as an administrator was as prolific and ambitious as his literary career. At UNB, he helped establish the first PhD program in English and Canadian literature outside of the University of Toronto; at that time, Roy Daniells was doing the same at the University of British Columbia, and both programs effectively curbed the University of Toronto’s hegemony over higher education in Canada. Pacey generally worked to further expand graduate studies at UNB as dean of graduate studies from 1960 to 1970. From 1964 to 1966, he served as secretary to the Canadian Association of Graduate Schools and subsequently served as the association’s president from 1966 to 1968. Pacey became the vice-president academic of UNB in 1970 and served as acting president from 1972 to 1973.

Pacey was also actively involved in committees and boards outside UNB. He was a member of the academic panel for the Canada Council from 1967 to 1970 and a member of the board of directors of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada in 1973. In 1974, he chaired the Association of Atlantic Universities’ Committee of Academic Vice-Presidents; that same year, he also chaired the AUCC Status of Women Committee.

Over the course of his career, Pacey received numerous awards and honours for his contribution to Canadian literature and academia. In 1955, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and he received the Lorne Pierce Medal from the Royal Society of Canada in 1972 for his distinguished contribution to Canadian literary history and criticism. From 1962 to 1963, he served as the Canada Council Senior Research Fellow at Cambridge University. In 1973, he received an honorary Doctorate of Literature from Mount Allison University, as well as an honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University of New Brunswick.

Pacey died on 4 July 1975 from cancer. At the time of his death, he was a leading figure in Canadian literature, and he continued to work as an administrator and write criticism until the final year of his life. In 1980, UNB launched its first annual W.C. Pacey Memorial Lecture. Fittingly, Northrop Frye, Canada’s greatest literary critic and a close friend of Pacey, was the guest lecturer.

Billy Johnson, Spring 2012
St. Thomas University

Bibliography of Selected Primary Sources

Pacey, Desmond. “Areas of Research in Canadian Literature.” University of Toronto Quarterly 23 (1953): 9-25.

---. “At Last—A Canadian Literature.” Cambridge Review 60 (1938): 146-7.

---, ed. A Book of Canadian Stories. Toronto: Ryerson, 1947.

---. Canadian Literature in English. Ed. A.L. McLeod. Powre Above Powres 4. Mysore: Centre for Commonwealth Literature and Research, U of Mysore, 1979.

---. The Cat, the Cow, and the Kangaroo: The Collected Children's Verse of Desmond Pacey. Illus. Mary Pacey. Fredericton, NB: Brunswick Press, 1968.

---. The Cow With the Musical Moo and Other Verses for Children. Illus. Milada Horejs and Karel Rohlicek. Beaver Book. Fredericton, NB: Brunswick Press, 1952.

---. Creative Writing in Canada: A Short History of English-Canadian Literature. Toronto: Ryerson, 1952.

---. “Curriculum Vitae.” Harriet Irving Library Special Collections & Archives. 12 Dec. 1995. U of New Brunswick. 2 Feb. 2012

---. Essays in Canadian Criticism, 1938–1968. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1969.

---. Ethel Wilson. Twayne's World Authors Series 33. New York: Twayne, 1967.

---. Frederick Philip Grove. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1970.

---. Hippity Hobo and the Bee and Other Verses for Children. Illus. Milada Horejs and Karel Rohlicek. Fredericton, NB: Brunswick Press, 1952.

---, ed. The Letters of Frederick Philip Grove. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1976.

---. “Literary Criticism in Canada.” University of Toronto Quarterly 19 (1950): 113-9.

---. Our Literary Heritage. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1967.

---. The Picnic and Other Stories. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1958.

---, ed. The Selected Poems of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts. Toronto: Ryerson, 1955.

---, ed. The Selected Poems of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1974.

---, ed. Selections from Major Canadian Writers: Poetry and Creative Prose in English. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1974.

---. “Summer’s Heat, and Winter’s Frigid Gales: The Effect of Canadian Climate upon Canadian Literature.” Proceedings and Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada 8 (1970): 3-23.

---. Ten Canadian Poets: A Group of Biographical and Critical Essays. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1958.

---. Waken, Lords and Ladies Gay: Selected Stories of Desmond Pacey. Ed. Frank M. Tierney. Canadian Short Stories Series. Ottawa: U of Ottawa P, 1974.

---. “The Young Writer and the Canadian Cultural Milieu.” Queen's Quarterly 69 (1962): 378-90.

Pacey, Desmond and Michael Pacey. Our Literary Heritage. 2nd ed. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1982.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

“Biographical Sketch.” Dr. William Cyril Desmond Pacey Fonds (MG L1). Harriet Irving Library Special Collections & Archives. 12 Dec. 1995. U of New Brunswick. 31 Jan. 2012

Blodgett, E.D. Five-Part Invention: A History of Literary History in Canada. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2003.

Cogswell, Fred. “Desmond Pacey (1 May 1917– 4 July 1975).” Canadian Writers, 1920–1959. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Ed. W.H. New. Detroit: Gale Research, 1989. 237-9.

Djwa, Sandra. Professing English: A Life of Roy Daniells. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2002.

Grundy, H.P. “Review: Creative Writing in Canada.” The Queen's Quarterly (1952): 404.

Hopwood, V.G. “Review of Creative Writing in Canada.” National Affairs July 1952: 58.

King, Carlyle. “Review: Creative Writing in Canada.” The Canadian Forum 32 (1952): 68.

Kokotailo, Philip. “Manifold Division: Desmond Pacey’s History of English-Canadian Poetry.” Studies in Canadian Literature 22.2 (1997): 1-27.

Mandel, Eli. “Ten Canadian Poets Reviewed.” Rev. of Ten Canadian Poets: A Group of Biographical and Critical Essays, by Desmond Pacey. The Fiddlehead (1952): 63-4.

Tierney, Frank M. “The Short Fiction of Desmond Pacey.” International Fiction Review 9 (1982): 3-16.

Tremblay, Tony. “Desmond Pacey: Reducing the Nation to Order.” The Fiddlehead Moment: Pioneering an Alternative Canadian Modernism in New Brunswick. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2019. 97-147.