This Week in History


“The Father of Canadian Literature”

For the week of Monday January 10, 2011

On January 10, 1860, Charles G. D. Roberts was born in Douglas, New Brunswick. Today, he is remembered as a Canadian literary giant whose passionate poetry, imaginative fiction and engaging non-fiction inspired a generation of writers.

Roberts as a young man
© D. M. R. Bentley, Ph. D., Canadian Poetry Press, University of Western Ontario
Growing up near Sackville, New Brunswick, Roberts enjoyed exploring the nearby Tantramar Marshes, a setting that influenced many of his nature poems and stories. In his teenage years, Roberts moved to Fredericton and attended the Collegiate School where he was introduced to classical and modern literature by influential headmaster George Parkin. He completed his education at the University of New Brunswick where he received his Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees in 1879 and 1881, respectively.

By this time, Roberts was already a promising writer after a collection of his poetry, Orion and Other Poems, was published in 1880. This work inspired three other young poets: Bliss Carman, Archibald Lampman and Duncan Campbell Scott. Roberts and his three colleagues, who were all born around the time of Canada’s birth, soon became known as the “Confederation Poets.” As such, Roberts was praised for being among the first English-Canadian writers after Confederation to write poems about distinctly Canadian settings and themes.

A collection of Roberts’ animal stories first published in 1933
© Mills Research Collections Book Collection, William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections, McMaster University Library, Hamilton Canada, CP 00312
Between 1880 and 1897, Roberts gradually focused his writing on works of prose, which commanded a higher price than poetry. His attempts included moderately successful works of historical fiction and non-fiction such as the textbook History of Canada (1897). However, Roberts did not truly succeed as a prose writer until after he moved to New York City in 1897. There, Roberts had a major breakthrough when, along with Ernest Thompson Seton (1898), he popularized the modern animal story. Roberts’ first book devoted to this type of story, The Kindred of the Wild (1902), was a pioneering work in this genre.

From 1907 to 1925, Roberts lived in Europe and when he returned to Canada in 1926, he was celebrated as one of the country’s most respected authors. Multiple awards soon followed as Roberts was the first recipient of the Lorne Pierce medal for literature in 1926 and was knighted in 1935. Roberts did not rest on his laurels, but continued to write until his death in 1943.

For his pioneering contributions to Canadian literature, Charles G. D. Roberts was designated a National Historic Person in 1945. Sir George Parkin (1938) and fellow writers Ernest Thompson Seton (1995) Bliss Carman (1945), Francis Joseph Sherman (1945), Duncan Campbell Scott (1948), and Archibald Lampman (1920) are also national historic persons.

To learn more about the Confederation Poets, please read the This Week in History story Archibald Lampman: Lyricist of the Earth or visit the Canadian Poetry Archives.

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