Daily Archives: July 24, 2012

‘The Autobiography of John Galt’ by John Galt

1833, 2 volumes

John Galt published this autobiography in 1833, some six years before his death in 1839 at the age of sixty.  It starts off with a number of early memories: falling into the fire at his grandmother’s house and causing his cousin’s legs to be scalded by the kettle; watching lilies grow, and seeing a postcard of Niagara Falls.  In a more carefully constructed memoir, he could have used these early memories as organizing devices because illness, the Romantic view of the sublime and nature, and the settlement of immigrants in Canada emerge as major themes of his life. However, apart from a mention of Niagara Falls later in the book, he does not do so and the book trails off near the end into a vindication of his work with the Canada Company and a list of his literary, cultural and (to a lesser extent) scientific contributions.   These are prodigious, if somewhat arcane today, as his entry in the Canadian Dictionary of Biography attests.

Although he only lived in Canada for four years, it takes up a large section of his autobiography, much of which is spent explanation of his actions and the injustice of his dismissal from the Canada Company, a company established originally to purchase the Clergy Reserves dotted throughout the new Canadian frontier lands, but which swapped these lands for a huge tract of land at Lake Huron purchased for a uniform 3 shillings and sixpence per acre.   Such land companies (seen also in the Van Diemens Land Company and Australian Agricultural Company) were part of the debate over immigration, crown land, ‘wastelands’ and Wakefieldianism of the time.  This section was my main reason for reading the book, interested in Upper Canada as I am, so imagine my consternation when the version I was reading had an editor’s footnote that a number of rather boring letters about his conflict with the Governor there had been omitted because they weren’t very interesting!  However, I’ve since found another version of the autobiography, and perhaps the editor was right.

A sizeable proportion of the book is also devoted to his literary work, largely influenced by his time in Europe doing the Grand Tour, hanging out with Byron and acting like an early-nineteenth century gentleman should act.  He does describe his methodology of “theoretical history” which underpinned his writing of Bogle Corbet, whereby he fictionalized factual material.  But there’s lots of impenetrable poetry, and further sallies into the literary debates of the day, much of which eluded my understanding.  It’s very much an autobiography of the head rather than the heart, and very much a work of its time.  If, in some sort of hackneyed time machine scenario, I were to meet him today, I think I’d be rather intimidated and wary of him. I would very much be aware as L.P Hartley famously said “The past is a different country; they do things differently there.”

Availability: Available online at Google Books and Internet Archive- downloadable as epub and pdf.  How grateful I am that I’m writing my thesis now and not 20 years ago. I’d be holed up in some Rare Books Room, if indeed I was even able to locate a copy of this book here.

Read because: The friend of my thesis topic is my friend too.  Mind you, he’d be my BFF (best friend forever) if he’d been a bit more forthcoming.  As it is, I read it for slightly thesis-oriented curiosity value.