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 or another.
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.
He produced 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 was here.