Greatest Literature banner

Morley Callaghan

Critique • WorksVIEWS & QUOTES

missing graphicMORLEY CALLAGHAN, undated
Biographical details ▽ Biographical details △

Toronto, Canada, 1903

Toronto, Canada, 1990

Places lived
Toronto; Paris, France; Toronto, Canada


Novels, novellas, stories, memoirs, plays, journalism


Writing language

Greatest lists ▽ Greatest lists △

Morley Callaghan's Stories (1959)


• "A Sick Call" (1932)

• "Two Fishermen" (1934)

• "All the Years of Her Life" (1935)

Story Collections

Now That April's Here and Other Stories (1936)

Canadian Literature

Strange Fugitive (1928)

Such Is My Beloved (1934)

More Joy in Heaven (1950)

Morley Callaghan's Stories (1959)

The quiet questioner

Late in life Morley Callaghan was apparently concerned people would remember him for one minor achievement: the little Canadian had knocked down the macho Ernest Hemingway in a boxing match refereed by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Callaghan preferred to be known for his novels.

His lasting legacy however is his short stories. Along with the fact he knocked down Hemingway in a boxing match refereed by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

For as much as we appreciate he was the first Canadian author to rank among the modern greats, and as much as we can love the man's sincere Liberal mind and Catholic heart as revealed in his writing, we can't help but feel there is something old-fashioned about his longer writing. Something of the kindly raconteur does not quite go with the cut-and-thrust of modern novels. It exists in his short stories too but is constrained there by the form, compressed and made harder.

Callaghan never really learned the different rhythms and intensities of the longer form (until perhaps very late in his career, strangely), and his novels often read like long short stories.

Very good stories though.

And the short stories themselves are jewels. They usually focus on small, personal events: a young man caught shoplifting is bailed out by his mother, a boy's treasured baseball cap is stolen, two brothers compete for the love of a woman. And they are told in deceptively simple language. Reading one Callaghan story every night before going to bed will make you a better person.

So Canadian. It's a great irony that throughout most of his life, Callaghan's works were more highly regarded internationally than in Canada.

That famous summer in Paris

Callaghan was born, raised and educated in Toronto. He completed law school there, though he never practised. He became friends with Ernest Hemingway when they both worked at the Toronto Star in the 1920s and both aspired to be creative writers. After Hemingway moved to Paris and had some success, he helped Callaghan get his stories published. Callaghan and his wife subsequently spent a couple of years in Paris, mixing with the Hemingways, Fitzgeralds and Joyces, and making a name as one of the best story writers of the day.

He recalls these years in the memoir That Summer in Paris (1963), a book that makes a fitting companion piece to Hemingway's own Parisian memoir, A Moveable Feast, and includes the famous boxing match.

The novel Strange Fugitive (1928) made him at age 25 a prodigy. It was the first of nine of his books the revered publisher Scribner's put out in nine years and won him praise, especially from the great American critic Edmund Wilson, who became Callaghan's lifelong champion, comparing him to Anton Chekhov and Ivan Turgenev. Strange Fugitive however may be the least typical novel of his early years, written in a style closer to hard-boiled crime novels than his later intense books of conscience.

His first of several acclaimed story collections was A Native Argosy (1929), which also included two novellas, An Autumn Penitent and In His Own Country.

His most noted compilation though was probably Now That April's Here (1936), with stand-out stories including the title piece, "All the Years of Her Life", "A Sick Call" and "Two Fishermen".

Several other books followed but his most celebrated work was the triptych of novels in the mid-1930s, Such Is My Beloved (1934), They Shall Inherit the Earth (1935) and More Joy in Heaven (1937), which question conventional morality during the Great Depression. Callaghan's novels and stories of this time (and later) often expose the hypocrisy and injustices of society but they find answers in the individual heart rather than in social or political movements.

He published little fiction in the 1940s apart from two very odd novellas in 1948 : Luke Baldwin's Vow and The Varsity Story. The former is a story of a boy and a dog that became known as a children's classic.

The latter is ostensibly a fundraising effort for the University of Toronto, a fanciful tour of the university as it developed from 1924 to 1940. It follows an eccentric school official as he loses himself in a quest to discover the character of the U of T student, which is really the quest for the Canadian character. Apparently this book was well read all over North America, though I cannot imagine what readers unfamiliar with Toronto or Canada made of it.

Older, livelier and looser

Callaghan returned to conventional novelistic form with The Loved and the Lost in 1951. This novel about a white woman who flouts society by dating black men in Montreal's jazz community won the Governor General's Award, Canada's highest literary honour, and was called his masterpiece by some critics. But others found it simplistically liberal and contrived, and it has not worn well since the subject matter of racial mingling has become far less shocking.

Morley Callaghan's Stories (1959) collected 57 of his favourite short stories. A two-edition set came out in 1962. The Lost and Found Stories of Morley Callaghan (1985) gathered more stories that had been missing at the time of the earlier anthology.

It seemed as he grew older, Callaghan's writing got progressively livelier and looser. The denseness of his work of the 1930s, usually confined to a single protagonist facing highly personal moral dilemmas, gave way to more sprawling novels with multiple interacting characters.

His later work includes the novels The Many Colored Coat (1960, based on an earlier tale later published as The Man With the Coat), A Passion in Rome (1961), A Fine and Private Place (1975) and Close to the Sun Again (1977).

A Time for Judas (1983) is a popular retelling of the crucifixion story, challenging usual interpretations of the Biblical account.

Our Lady of the Snows (1985) returns to some familiar Callaghan settings, a neighbourhood in which the wealthy and the downtrodden mix and are both profoundly affected by a saintly prostitute. It's one of his most sharply written and provocative novels.

His last novel, A Wild Old Man on the Road (1988), is an interesting, if unsatisfying, work. It's told from the perspective of a young man in the late 1960s who meets his idol, an aging left-wing intellectual, who to the younger man's horror and confusion turns against everything he's stood for, taking on a religious quest. Is it a sell-out for popularity or is it genuine? We're never really sure what to think of it.

This is clearly the novel of a man near the end of his own life, who hasn't the time or patience to develop characters or themes fully but wants to get to the big statements while he has time. This makes it unsatisfying as a work in the Callaghan tradition, but it's still worth reading as a novel of big (if vague) ideas—and to get Callaghan's last word.

Then go back and re-read his earlier work. We could use his calm, probing voice today.

— Eric


Critique • WorksVIEWS & QUOTES