Historicist: Empire State of Mind
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Historicist: Empire State of Mind

Struggling writers from the University Of Toronto to the Big Apple.

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Photo of Fifth Avenue on Sunday, New York City, 1898, from the {a href="http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/id?801628"}NYPL Digital Gallery{/a}.

At the turn of the twentieth century, three young Canadians from the University of Toronto moved to New York to pursue literary careers that had seemed impossible at home. The attic apartment shared by the three—Arthur Stringer, Harvey J. O’Higgins, and Arthur E. McFarlane—was located in a rundown brownstone at 140 Fifth Avenue, between West Eighteenth and West Nineteenth.

Flouret’s, a French restaurant popular with Canadians, was close by; and the attic was directly above the New York office of John Lane publishing, which released books by Bliss Carman and other Canadian poets. Naturalist and Torontonian Ernest Seton Thompson had a studio in the same building.

Thus, Nick Mount writes, in When Canadian Literature Moved to New York (University of Toronto Press, 2005), the three found themselves at the centre of the Canadian literary expatriate community.

Although the flat was shabby and reflected the poverty of the three struggling writers, it was a gathering place where Canadian authors, poets, and journalists shared insights and ideas over food and drink.

There were so many Canadian writers in New York, Mount quotes Stringer as writing, that “New Yorkers have an idea that you can’t throw a snowball in Canada without hitting a poet. When a New York editor has all the poetry he wants he hangs out a sign, ‘No Canadians Admitted.’ In the same way, when he runs short of verse, he swings out a placard with a red mitten on it.”

Each of the three would eventually find success in letters. O’Higgins and McFarlane wrote short stories before turning to investigative journalism. And Stringer won fame as the best-selling author of pulp adventures and melodramas. Their journey to and short-term residence in the Fifth Avenue apartment provides an illuminating glimpse at New York’s community of Canadian expatriates.

Photo of University College, ca. 1885-1889, from the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1478, Item 40.

Born in February 1874, Arthur Stringer grew up in Chatham and, after his mother died, London. In 1892, he enrolled at University College at the University of Toronto where, to the neglect of his formal course of study, he took an active part in student life. In sports, his spirited play at rugby football earned him “The Zulu” as a nickname. He was elected secretary of his class, and took part in the famous student strike of 1895. But, having been encouraged in literary pursuits as a child by his paternal grandmother, Stringer relished the broader horizons and opportunities for involvement in literary affairs at college. In college, as in his small-town high school, he read voraciously—Wordsworth, Keats, Browning, and others—and shared his poetic insights in poems, short stories, and literary criticism published in the weekly student paper, The Varsity, of which he eventually became associate editor.

In December 1892, Stringer’s poem “Indian Summer” was published in Goldwin Smith’s The Week, Canada’s only literary publication of note at the time. Two more Stringer poems followed in The Week by March 1893, and he was summoned by Smith for a face-to-face meeting to encourage the budding poet to pursue a career in letters.

In short time, he accumulated enough poetry for his first volume of verse, Watchers of Twilight (1894). In Arthur Stringer: Son of the North (The Ryerson Press, 1941), biographer Victor Lauriston judged that “in common with all youthful poetry, [the first volume] was still experimental and largely derivative.” It was soon followed by Pauline and Other Poems (1895) and Epigrams (1896), all released by T.H. Warren, a publisher he’d befriended in London, Ontario.

Although his prose also appeared in Saturday Night and Canadian Magazine in his student days, he seemed destined for a career as a poet. And while Stringer would claim throughout his life that more than anything he wanted to be a poet, he understood early the perils of that career path. “You can’t bring up a family on iambic pentameter,” Lauriston quotes him as wistfully observing. And, after a brief sojourn at Oxford University and travels in Europe in 1895–1896, Stringer took a job on a Saginaw, Quebec, railway to make ends meet. (Photo at left: portrait of Arthur Stringer from The Year Book of Canadian Art, 1913 [J.M. Dent & Sons Limited].)

It was there in the fall of 1897 that the future president of the Toronto Star, Joseph Atkinson, recruited Stringer to write everything from news stories to obituaries at the Montreal Herald. Just a year later, he was lured to New York City with an offer to work for the American Press Association, what Mount describes in his book as a syndicate that rewrote and tailored short stories and news articles from European publications for the American market.

“[N]o man can live by praise alone,” Stringer later wrote to explain his motives and those of other expatriate Canadian writers in New York in the Montreal Herald (March 2, 1901). “The young Canadian dreamer who grows up under the blue skies of his Dominion is going to have a hard road to travel if he thinks he can prance his Pegasus between Montreal and Toronto, and pay for oats and horse-shoes when the travelling is over.”

New York City, home of hundreds of publishing houses and magazines, gave Stringer and other Canadians their only chance at a literary career. Canada, in the 1890s, on the other hand, had fewer magazines of merit, and had few publishing houses interested in home-grown product instead of British or American reprints. As “a land that is willing to pay money for whiskey, but wants its literature free”—as one commentator put it in Canadian Magazine in 1899—the Canadian environment did not encourage literary careers.

While writing for the syndicate, Stringer also sold poetry, short stories, and journalism to Atlantic Monthly and Ainslee’s Magazine. A series of observational articles on city children was collected as The Loom of Destiny (1899), his first volume of prose. It was a modest success and fired his ambition for more rewarding work.

When Arthur E. McFarlane and Harvey J. O’Higgins arrived in town and the three decided to move into the attic of the run-down brownstone in the late summer of 1900, Stringer was emboldened to quit the syndicate and forge out as a freelancer.

Photo of Fifth Avenue near Thirty-First Street, New York City, 1903, from the {a href="http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/id?801648"}NYPL Digital Gallery{/a}.

Born in London, O’Higgins attended the University of Toronto but left without taking a degree in 1897 to work on the Toronto Star, and contribute to Canadian Magazine and Saturday Night.

McFarlane had grown up just outside of Toronto in Islington, and also attended the University of Toronto. He tried to work as a writer in Canada, but found that even when publishers used his material, they rarely paid him.

There were many lean months as the three worked to establish themselves as freelancers, as Lauriston described. In a flat decorated with burlap curtains, they slept on surplus cots from the Spanish-American War, and subsisted off oatmeal and tomato soup, and whatever nearly spoiled food could be acquired at a discount. At one low point, McFarlane had to pawn his best suit.

The daily newspapers and tabloids provided the most ready market for these aspiring writers, and they eagerly provided lightweight observations of city life and other special articles to be used as filler in the Commercial Advertiser, the Evening Post, and the World. But all three also submitted verse and prose to higher-brow (and better paying) magazines like Harper’s, Century, and Scribner’s as often as they could.

At first, such literary aspirations brought only rejection letters with which, Lauriston writes, “the trio gradually papered the walls of the studio….They even came to glory in the completeness of their collection: so much so that, hearing of a newly-launched English periodical in Shanghai, they promptly dispatched a manuscript to the Far East in order to secure its coveted rejection.”

Freelancing was a tough row and even the most successful of the Canadians in New York City, Bliss Carman, later admitted to Stringer that in his best year, he made only $800. (Photo at right: portrait of Bliss Carman, no date, from the NYPL Digital Gallery.)

Making it through the lean times, each of the three found his niche. Calling upon contacts in the fire department he’d made as a journalist, O’Higgins wrote colourful short stories about Irish firefighters in New York City for Scribner’s, Everybody’s, and Collier’s, eventually collected into The Smoke-Eaters (1905) and Old Clinkers (1909). His other short stories about New York’s Lower East Side earned him the title of “prose laureate of the commonplace man.”

McFarlane produced, for an audience of boys, articles on deep-sea diving for Youth’s Companion which combined adventurous tales with authentic instructional details.

For his part, Stringer wrote a series of crime and adventure stories, controversial at the time for their sympathetic depiction of the criminal underworld, collected as The Wire Tappers (1906). His tales were so rich with authentic details that it was said the NYPD used them for training purposes. During his time in the attic, Stringer wrote The Silver Poppy (1903), his first novel and a fictionalized reminiscence of the expatriate literary scene in New York City.

Stringer, like the others, was deeply influenced by the city he inhabited. “He hobnobbed as comfortably with Bowery bums, West Side gangsters and Harlem slum kids,” McKenzie Porter wrote in Maclean’s February 9, 1963, “as he did with Oxford professors, European aristocrats and the landed gentry of Canada.”

As shabby as it may have been, the Fifth Avenue attic became a regular hangout for Canadians in New York City. Charles G.D. Roberts from New Brunswick and his brothers were regular visitors. So was Carman, the Robertses’ cousin and regarded by one commentator as the “chief” of the city’s “flourishing Canadian artistic colony.” Columbia University history lecturer and future presidential advisor—and former University of Toronto student—James T. Shotwell was also a frequent guest. They were joined by non-Canadian litterateurs like English poet Richard La Gallienne and the young head of the New York office of John Lane publishing, Mitchell Kennerley, whose office was just downstairs. (Portrait of Charles G.D. Roberts, no date, from the NYPL Digital Gallery.)

In the attic, they shared new work, discussed trends, and traded ideas over milk punch and other cocktails—the ingredients for which Stringer could also procure whether rich or poor. Those expat Canadians already established in New York helped new arrivals get published, passing along contacts of editors at magazines, and warning of which publications were slow with payment.

Mount does not mention women visitors, but later observers would note Stringer’s fondness for women—and their fondness for him. One woman described Stringer as “beautiful as Adonis, irresistible as Eros…a menace, that man!” So it stands to reason that the attic played host to its share of romantic dalliances.

Expatriate gathering places like this run-down apartment, boarding houses, the Canadian Club of New York, and an assortment of restaurants and cafes, Mount argues, helped the writers forge the first Canadian professional literary communities. There was nothing like that literary critical mass at the time in Toronto or Montreal.

Observers in Canada, at least initially, heralded the success of the expats, emphasizing the Canadian elements of their work. And the expats themselves emphasized that their work remained Canadian in character. O’Higgins composed a memoir, Don-A-Dreams (1906), about three Canadian university friends who relocated to New York with literary ambitions, and Stringer—whose two previous books had been enthusiastically received in Canada—wrote Lonely O’Malley (1905), a Tom Sawyer-ish take on growing up in a small Canadian town.

One commentator in the Canadian Magazine, for example, wrote of Stringer: “‘His work, no matter whereof he writes or sings, is fundamentally and characteristically Canadian.” Stringer’s poetry in particular reflected this. In “Northern Pines,” reprinted in Wilfred Campbell’s The Oxford Book of Canadian Verse (1913), Stringer described his melancholy upon seeing a pile of discarded Christmas trees on a New York street:

And far through the rain and the street-cries
My homesick heart goes forth
To the pine-clad hills of childhood,
To the dark and tender North.

And I see the glooming pine-lands,
And I thrill to the Northland cold,
Where the sunset falls in silence
On the hills of gloom and gold!

Photo of Fifth Avenue at Twenty-Third Street, New York City, ca. 1905, from the {a href="http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/id?708404F"}NYPL Digital Gallery{/a}.

Stringer, O’Higgins, and McFarlane left the brownstone in the early twentieth century, although the precise date is not clear. Mount indicates the departure had as much to do with the romantic maturation of the roommates as it did with the writers’ increasing success. O’Higgins married in 1901, and McFarlane did the same in 1904. Stringer, who had been successful enough to buy a farm in Cedar Springs, Ontario, on the north shore of Lake Erie by 1901, relocated there with his new wife, actress and model Jobyna Howland in 1903.

O’Higgins continued with his firemen, detective, and adventure stories for the next decade and then, discovering that reform-minded investigative journalism paid better, switched to probing investigations of political corruption and fraud.

McFarlane too shifted from juvenile-oriented fiction to muckraking journalism on topics like the danger of fire in the new age of skyscrapers. McFarlane continued to write on occasion for the rest of his life, but spent much of his remaining years editing publications for his friend Shotwell at the Carnegie Endowment’s Division of Economics and History.

Stringer would gain the most fame of the trio, churning out pulp tales of crime and espionage and novels on prairie life and Arctic adventure at a clip of almost one novel per year. Many were turned into films.

“I write my fiction as you do advertising copy—to make a living at it,” he unashamedly told an interviewer in 1940. “But I have tried to save enough of myself out of the hurly-burly to do the stuff that counts in the end.” His financial success suggested to some observers that he had compromised his art in the name of enjoying an expensive home, fancy cars, and high-living women. He was increasingly derided by Canadian critics as more of a businessman than an artist. (At right: portrait of Arthur Stringer from Victor Lauriston’s Arthur Stringer: Son of the North [The Ryerson Press, 1941].)

Stringer—who bounced from Cedar Springs to the New Jersey suburbs—would return to Toronto in the coming years to give lectures or readings at Convocation Hall, the Heliconian Society, and the Toronto Writers’ Club. But Globe critic William Arthur Deacon embodied the Canadian literary establishment’s growing derision when he opined: “Stringer was a helluva fellow but I could never forgive him for the trash he wrote.”

As the domestic Canadian literary scene had matured in the ensuing decades of the twentieth century, Mount argues, what was deemed to be Canadian literature was increasingly defined by whether a work contained “Canadian colour” rather than its critical or commercial success. Aside from having penned a few novels with Canadian settings, Stringer—who would become an American citizen in 1937—didn’t fit this bill. In time, he and his former flatmates, O’Higgins and McFarlane, and countless other expatriates would be effectively excised from the Canadian literary canon.

Other sources consulted: Greg Gatenby, Toronto: A Literary Guide (McArthur & Company, 1999); Clarence Karr, Authors and Audiences: Popular Canadian Fiction in the Early Twentieth Century (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000); Dumas Malone, ed., Dictionary Of American Biography Vol XIV (1935); and Barbara W. Meadowcroft, “Arthur Stringer As Man of Letters” (Ph.D. Dissertation, McGill University, 1983).