David Peter Thomas

Master & Madman, Peter Thomas and Nicholas TracyPhoto: macleans.ca
Master & Madman, Peter Thomas and Nicholas Tracy
Photo: macleans.ca

David Peter Thomas was born 30 June 1939 in Manchester, England, and died 20 July 2007 in St. Andrews, New Brunswick. Even though he was born in Manchester, Thomas considered himself Welsh, as both his parents, David Edgar and Hannah Melvina, were born in Wales. His father was initially a coal miner, then a professional rugby player, and finally a steel worker during the war. Thomas’ mother was a stay-at-home parent (Helen Thomas, Personal interview).

Thomas attended elementary school in Manchester, England. At the age of eleven, his family moved to South Wales, where he attended Pontardawe Grammar School. Thomas earned a bachelor and master’s degree in English literature at the University of Wales in Cardiff. He then taught and played rugby in Dudley, UK, for a year, and moved on to teach at Truro High School in Cornwall, UK, from 1963 to 1965. It was at Truro High School that Thomas met his future wife, Helen, who also taught at the school. In 1966, Thomas and his wife immigrated to the United States, where he received his PhD from New York State University in Binghamton. From New York, the couple moved to Vancouver before they settled in Fredericton, NB, in the fall of 1968. From 1968 until his retirement in 1997, Thomas worked at the University of New Brunswick as an English professor. In 2000, he moved to St. Andrews with his wife, and lived there until his death in 2007.

Thomas was influenced by two novelists: Saul Bellow and Anthony Powell. He enjoyed reading political biographies and especially Powell’s twelve-volume sequence A Dance to the Music of Time.

Thomas published numerous works in various genres including poetry, plays, short stories, novels, book reviews, bibliographies, articles, and editorials. He believed that Strangers From a Secret Land: The Voyages of the Brig Albion and the Founding of the First Welsh Settlements in Canada (1986) was his greatest achievement (H. Thomas, Personal interview). The work examines the various contexts for the settlers’ departure from Wales in 1819 and their ensuing struggles in a new land. This book was nominated for the Governor General’s Award in 1987, and won the Welsh Arts Council’s Annual Award for a work of non-fiction, as well as the Canadian Historical Association Regional History Award. In a review of the work, John Mannion states that Thomas:

makes clear at the outset that the book is more for the general reader than for professional or specialist historians. A Welshman himself, he also warns that “no attempt has been made to divorce the teller from the tale” [xi]. The book is weaker as a consequence. It is subjective and romantic, sometimes speculative, fanciful, anecdotal, and digressive. Yet it emerges with scholarly merit. (530)

As a realist, Thomas writes the narrative in first person based on his own experiences and research. It is evident in his writing that he is passionate about learning Welsh history and about shaping the Welsh identity, and as a result shapes his own.

Thomas’ realist style is also evident in his poetry. In his major poem, “A Cure for All Diseases,” he encourages acceptance of struggle by linking life and disease. The only way to escape diseases is to die; to live, therefore, one must cope with struggle. In The Trailing Cord he focuses this view on the pain, journey, and exile of being in a new country. Fellow poet M. Travis Lane describes Thomas’ poetic voice as “too intelligent, too honest, and in these virtues lies the strength and interest of his poems. He is honest not only about yearned-for Wales but also about the poetic speaker, an honesty which singles him out in this generation of personal, subjective poetry” (105). Lane explains that even though the predominant themes of his poems are exile and homesickness, Thomas is not making a negative statement about Canada, but about how he yearns for his homeland; The Trailing Cord is thus the metaphoric umbilical cord that connects him to Wales.

Thomas’ work centers on two major concerns. The first involves the tensions of alienation, displacement, and journey as a result of immigration, as seen in The Trailing Cord.

Thomas was passionate about revealing these experiences and challenges, believing them to have shaped his own persona. Strangers From a Secret Land details these struggles. As importantly, it was through this work that Thomas was introduced to the historic character of Anthony Lockwood, a crucial figure who assisted the Welsh in settling in New Brunswick. Master & Madman: The Surprising Rise and Disastrous Fall of the Honorable Anthony Lockwood is a direct result of Thomas’ curiosity about and love for this man, and of his interest in people’s journeys. A colleague said of Thomas: “This enthusiasm bore many books and fuelled his energies as a publisher. I believe that Peter had a particular fascination for the misunderstood—for those who don't/didn't fit neatly into society—and a great compassion for their complicated lives” (Julie Scriver, Personal interview).

Thomas’ second concern involves the natural world, which he explores through a love of salmon fishing and the New Brunswick wilderness. His passion for salmon fishing encouraged him to write Lost Land of Moses: The Age of Discovery on New Brunswick’s Salmon Rivers, a socioeconomic analysis of the history of fly fishing in New Brunswick. The book demonstrates the value he placed on the majestic New Brunswick rivers and appreciation of the abundant salmon population before commercialization intervened. In a review of the book, Terry McDonald says:

[Thomas] maintains a strong emphasis on what he regards as the predominant features of Anglo-Canadian ‘Society’ in the mid-nineteenth century, an obsessive interest in class and race. On the surface, what appears to be a rather quirky book on a specialist topic, is in fact an accurate and appealing account of the imposition of a new culture and a new economy upon an unspoiled region of North America. (399)

Peter Thomas is important to New Brunswick literary history because, after becoming editor of The Fiddlehead, he nurtured Fiddlehead Poetry Books, Fred Cogswell’s company, from what Scriver describes as “its cradle at the University of New Brunswick” into a successful publishing company (Personal interview). In founding Goose Lane Editions from Cogwsell’s company, Thomas branched into publishing, turning his efforts to a celebration of his adopted home. During the book launch of Master and Madman, a friend of his said:

When Peter became editor of the venerable magazine Fiddlehead, he stated his principles: “a more positive assertion of our Atlantic origin will be made—not by an arbitrary definition of proportion of content but by insuring that each Fiddlehead goes out with a distinct flavour of place, of the culture of Atlantic Canada.”[...] It has become one of the most important and successful publishers in the country. The poetry and fiction it has published has contributed hugely to our provincial literary heritage. (Bauer)

Thomas’ work is still being published posthumously. In March 2012, Goose Lane published Master and Madman: The Spectacular Rise and Disastrous Fall of the Honorable Anthony Lockwood, RN, a biography started by Thomas and finished by Nicholas Tracy after Thomas’ death. The book was published simultaneously by Seaforth in Britain.

Amy Ketch, Winter 2012
St. Thomas University

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Thomas, Peter. A Cure for All Diseases: Parts I & II. New Brunswick Chapbooks 8. Fredericton, NB: U of New Brunswick, 1969.

---. Early Poems. Kentville, NS: Gaspereau Press, 2007.

---. Fathers & Daughters. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1973.

---. Lost Land of Moses: The Age of Discovery on New Brunswick's Salmon Rivers. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions, 2001.

---. Richard Hughes. Cardiff: U of Wales P, 1973.

---. Robert Kroetsch. Studies in Canadian Literature 13. Vancouver, BC: Douglas & McIntyre, 1980.

---. Robert Kroetsch and His Works. Toronto, ON: ECW Press, 1989.

---. Strangers From a Secret Land: The Voyages of the Brig Albion and the Founding of the First Welsh Settlements in Canada. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1986.

---. The Trailing Cord. Llandybie: C. Davies, 1972.

---. The Welsher. Porter's Lake, NS: Pottersfield Press, 1987.

Thomas, Peter, and Nicholas Tracy. Master & Madman: The Surprising Rise and Disastrous Fall of the Honorable Anthony Lockwood, RN. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions, 2012.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Bauer, Nancy. Book launch for Master & Madman: The Surprising Rise and Disastrous Fall of the Honorable Anthony Lockwood, RN, by Peter Thomas. Legislative Library, Fredericton, NB. 2012.

Lane, M. Travis. “Love Without Lies: The Trailing Cord.” Rev. of The Trailing Cord, by Peter Thomas. Fiddlehead 99 (1973): 105-8.

Mannion, John. Rev. of Strangers From a Secret Land: The Voyages of the Brig Albion and the Founding of the First Welsh Settlements in Canada, by Peter Thomas. The American Historical Review 93.2 (1988): 530.

McDonald, Terry. Rev. of Lost Land of Moses: The Age of Discovery on New Brunswick's Salmon Rivers, by Peter Thomas. British Journal of Canadian Studies 16.2 (2003): 398-9.

“Peter Thomas 1939–2007.” Humphrey’s Funeral Home St. Stephen, NB. 4 Oct. 2012

Scriver, Julie. Telephone interview. 17 Oct. 2012.

Thomas, Helen. Telephone interview. 16 Oct. 2012.