|Honorary Degree Recipient, Dr. Edel, October 23, 1983 (Photograph Collection, A-7998)|
Convocation date: October 23, 1983
Discipline / contribution: literature ; literary criticism
Citation / biographical information:
Mr. Chancellor, on behalf of the Council and Senate, I present to you Dr. Leon Edel.Degree received: Doctor of Literature
Leon Edel, the son of Russian Immigrants, was born in Pittsburgh in 1907, and moved to Saskatchewan in 1910, where his father opened a store in Jansen. Several years later, the family moved to Yorkton, and in the ten formative years that followed, Leon attended elementary and secondary school, and worked during the summers as a copy boy for the Yorkton paper. As well, he reported the social and personal events of the town, watching those who got on and off the various trains, and in this way began a .long/association with journalism.
When Leon was sixteen years old, the Edel family moved to Montreal, and Leon entered McGill University, majoring in English literature. Here his interest in modern fiction and poetry brought him into contact with what was to become one of the most dynamic and influential forces in Canadian literary history. This was the Montreal Group of poets, notably F.R. Scott, who later become one of Canada's foremost legal minds and constitutional experts, A.J.M. Smith, editor of The Oxford Book of Canadian Verse, and A.M. Klein and John Glassco. In addition to founding the literary periodical the McGill Fortnightly, this band of scholars and poets were the first in Canada publically to examine the writings of such significant contemporary figures as W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, and T.S. Eliot.
Graduating in 1928 with a Master's degree, Leon sailed for Paris on a Province of Quebec scholarship, and for the next four years worked as a journalist, writing for the New York Tribune, the Montreal Star, and the Canadian Forum. At the same time, he attended lectures at the Sorbonne, from which he was awarded the docteur-es-lettres degree in 1932. According to the custom of that university, Leon wrote two dissertations, both on the American writer Henry James.
Returning to the United States, and finding that the degree did not guarantee the teaching position he wanted, Leon continued to work as a journalist and to pursue what was to become a life-long interest in James. Following two years in London and Paris in the nineteen thirties on a Guggenheim Fellowship and several more years in the armed services in the nineteen forties, he began to publish prolifically. Two massive collections, “The Ghostly Tales of Henry James” and “The Complete Plays of Henry James,” appeared to widespread acclaim in 1949, and they established Leon as the pre-eminent expert on James in the world. In 1951 he began his five-volume biography of James, a task to which he devoted twenty years and which earned him a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize.
In addition to this definitive work, Leon has written or edited more than thirty books. The diversity of his interests is indicated in a brief selection of the titles: “The Future of the Novel,” “The Psychological Novel,” “Literary Biography,” “The Stuff of Sleep” and “Dreams: Experiments in Literary Psychology,” “Henry D. Thoreau,” and “Willa Gather: A Critical Biography.” In these books, and in numerous articles, he has made an especially distinguished contribution to our understanding of the art of biography and of psychological fiction.
Beginning in 1950, Leon began a series of academic appointments, first as Visiting Professor at New York University, Visiting Professor of Criticism at Indiana University, Henry James Professor of English and American Letters at New York University, and Citizen's Professor of English at the University of Hawaii. At present, he is living in Hawaii, tenaciously avoiding anything resembling retirement, travelling widely, lecturing, editing the papers of the eminent American critic Edmund Wilson, and writing his own memoirs.
The University of Saskatchewan cannot, of course, claim any part in the education of Leon Edel. But his reference to himself as "almost a native son", with his roots on the prairies, suggests that his Saskatchewan years have left their mark on him. The boy who watched the cultural mosaic of Ukrainians, Czechs, Germans, Mennonites, and Doukhobors tie up their carts at his father's store, who ran the icy mile from home to Victoria School, whose father, in the absence of a town library, brought books back from Winnipeg on the overnight train, and who saw his milkman disappear one day later to perish on a foreign battlefield, became the biographer with a special sensitivity to what shapes the human personality.
The boy who knew the silence and solitude and freedom that this land offers became the man who wrote so acutely of Thoreau's search for spiritual calm and of Gather's recreation of the prairie milieu. Edward McCourt has written: "When a Saskatchewan man shakes off the dust of the province from his person and departs for far-off places where the air is warm and the wind is quiet and there are hills and trees and water on every side, he finds himself, more often than not, still bound in spirit to that great and strange and savage land that shaped him." Perhaps it is not merely self-indulgent to think that something of that spirit remained with Leon as he achieved the distinction for which we honour him today.
Mr. Chancellor, I present to you . Leon Edel and ask that you will confer on him the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.
Degree presented by: Robert Calder
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