This Week in History


An Uncommon Man, an Uncommon Mind

For the week of Monday February 12, 2007

On February 12, 1849, Edward William Thomson was born into a well-known Toronto family. His great-grandfather had been Scarborough Township’s first settler and his grandfather, a War of 1812 veteran, had once defeated William Lyon Mackenzie for the Ontario Liberal party leadership.

E. W. Thomson, (1849-1924)
© John W. Garvin, 1916, Canadian Poets

Edward, however, forged his own unique fame. While apprenticing for an uncle in Philadelphia, the 14-year-old met Abraham Lincoln, a heroic figure who inadvertently inspired the under-aged youth to enlist in the American army where he served during the Civil War, an escapade that, he later joked, earned him a $12 monthly pension.

Returning to Canada, he enlisted and fought against the Fenian Raiders at Ridgeway, Ontario (1866). He then accompanied Secretary of State Joseph Howe on his 1869 visit to the Red River settlement, where he remained for three years trying to make his fortune. Upon his return east, he studied engineering and then worked as a surveyor. Venturing across the rural back counties, the surveyor Thomson encountered many men of strong individuality and toughness. These Irish, Scot, French and English men of “gold over rough exteriors” would soon become his primary literary characters.

Privilege of the Limits. Sketch by C.W. Jefferys
© 1917, George H. Doran. Old Man Savarin and Other Stories
Thomson grew up alongside Quebec “Group of 1860” authors and English Canada’s “Confederation Poets.” He was a close friend of several authors including Archibald Lampman, whom he actively promoted as Canada’s best poet. Thomson wrote sparingly, devoting most of his efforts to his work (1878-91) with the Toronto Globe. After an editorial dispute, he ‘retired’ and moved to Boston as revising editor of the Youth’s Companion. In 1902 he again returned to Canada, this time as the Ottawa-based editor and special correspondent for the Boston Transcript, a position that gave him considerable influence over Canadian literature.

It is his poetry and novels that are his greatest legacy to Canadian heritage. Old Man Savarin and Other Stories, a collection of his short stories, is still studied today. One of the pioneers of the modern short story in Canada, he might well have become one of his generation’s best writers had he devoted his efforts to literature rather than journalism. However, as a journalist he helped broaden Canadians' appreciation of their literary culture; and, his realistic "Savarin" stories, which enjoyed a good critical reception, made a solid contribution to this genuine national literature.

Edward William Thomson – soldier, surveyor, author, poet, journalist – was designated a National Historic Person in 1938.


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