One Heart, One Way - Alden Nowlan: A Writer’s Life
Reviewed: June 10, 2007
By: Gregory M. Cook
Publisher: Pottersfield Press
367 pages, $0.00
Alden Nowlan grew
up in poverty in rural Nova Scotia, and ended his formal schooling after just
four years. Raised in an environment where reading, writing and storytelling
were looked on an unmanly pursuits, Nowlan nevertheless developed a passion for
literature and words, and would grow up to make his living from them, one way
At 17, after years
of working in manual labour jobs that he hated, he faked a resume and was hired
as news editor of the Hartland
Observer in 1952. He spent the rest of his life making a living though
journalism, as well as ghost writing speeches for New Brunswick Premier Richard
Hatfield, and making a life through writing poetry, plays and fiction.
twenty-four books and three plays in a span of twenty-seven years, and was
eventually able to make a living almost exclusively through his writing, a rare
thing for a poet. In 1967 he received working grants from both the Canada
Council for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation and went on to win the 1968
Governor General’s Award for Poetry.
From 1968 to his
death in 1983 he was writer in residence at the University of new Brunswick.
While Nowlan seems
to have been recognized in the United States, where a lot of his poems appeared
in magazines, before he achieved similar fame in Canada, he was at the spiritual
center of a group of younger Maritime writers, which included David Richard
Adams and Gregory M. Cook, the author of this affectionate biography.
I began reading
this book in the winter, while Cook was still writer in residence in Berton
House, and found that I read it in chunks, divided more or less into the four
sections that Cook used: the Village, the Small Town, the City the Capital.
These are reflective of the four places - Stanley, Hartland, St. John and
Fredericton - that were the geography of Nowlan’s life.
In so far as that
is possible, Cook lets Nowlan speak for himself, quoting extensively from his
letters and his published work. Since a great deal of the latter had to do with
Nowlan’s interpretation, even when distanced by changes of names and places, of
his own life, this approach makes a lot of sense. Nowlan triumphed over his
humble beginnings, but he struggled with feelings of inadequacy, while
outwardly celebrating his status as a self-made and self-educated man. While he
was settled into a happy marriage and raised an adopted son of whom he was very
proud, Nowlan was a problem drinker and could be a mean drunk. He was fortunate
to have a core group of friends who loved him and were forgiving.
Several of Nowlan’s
short stories and poems are common items in English class anthologies from
grades 7 through 12, and I was long ago inspired to look at more of his work,
partly because of that and partly because we share some relatives and geography
in Hants County and Kings County in Nova Scotia. A cousin of his was a
relative/border in the house where I grew up. That I spent a large part of my
youth with my “nose in a book” was something my grandfather, whose house it
was, never could understand.
Cook’s work gave me
a real sense of what the man must have been like. I’m looking forward to his
next project, the biography of Ernest Buckler that he was working on while he