Thursday, May 22, 2014

By Martin Friedland, CC, QC, James M. Tory professor of law emeritus and former dean of law

In 1913, at age 34, [W.P.M.] Kennedy moved to Canada, taking up a position teaching modern history and English literature at St. Francis Xavier College, a Roman Catholic college in Nova Scotia. Some years earlier, perhaps during his stay at the Mirfield monastery, Kennedy had turned to Catholicism. His application to the Nova Scotia college was supported by his former teachers at Trinity College Dublin, including a form reference letter, dated 1901, by the then eminent Shakespearean scholar Edward Dowden (who is mentioned – unfavourably – in James Joyce’s Ulysses, perhaps because Dowden refused to give Joyce a favourable reference for a position). Kennedy, it will be recalled, had received numerous prizes, including the Shakespeare Prize, while at Trinity. The two boy’s colleges Kennedy had taught at before coming to Canada stressed that Kennedy was a good teacher and a strict disciplinarian.

The following year, 1914, he was invited to join the faculty at St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto, where he taught English literature for the next eight years. His son Gilbert believes his father first came to Toronto during the summer of 1914 because he would talk about canoeing during that summer near Hudson’s Bay with a friend and when they emerged from the wilderness discovered that war had been declared. Why he stayed at St. F.X. for only one year is also not clear. His friend, Father Edmund McCorkell, who taught with him at St. Michael’s and later became the head of St. Michael’s College, stated in an oral interview in 1974: “I don’t know what happened down there…but McNeil, the Archbishop [of Toronto, who earlier had been the rector at St Francis Xavier], who was influential down there…got him to come up here and got Father Carr to take him on the staff.” The rector of St. F. X. was happy to see him go, writing to a college benefactor the following year that Kennedy had “a loose screw in his mechanism.” The vice rector was equally uncomplimentary, telling a contact at Oxford who was helping to find Kennedy’s replacement: “For Heaven’s sake try and get us a decent sober man with a level head.” In the same letter the vice-rector writes: “I wish you would try and find out through the Jesuits who this W.M. Kennedy is…I understand he was once a Jesuit novice. He says he studied History at Oxford for a time.” The St. F.X. files do not contain a letter of application from Kennedy. In a glowing report of an interview in the student newspaper in October 1913 (“Mr. Kennedy has won nothing but golden opinions from his students.”) Kennedy is reported to have said that he “studied history under…the late Prof Stubbs, Oxford,” presumably after graduating from Trinity College. If so, it could not have been for long because Stubbs became ill in November 1900 and died in April 1901.

“The little college in the little town could not contain Kennedy. He was too hot to handle; if the girls in the St. Barnard residence were not scandalized, the Roman Catholic authorities of the college were. He was unloaded onto St. Michael’s College.”

It seems likely that Kennedy had not planned on leaving St. F.X., because a few months before he left, the vice-rector told a friend that Kennedy and another person were “hard at work on a 600 page History of the Catholic Church in Nova Scotia.”

One curious fact about Kennedy’s stay in Nova Scotia is that the book he published in 1914, which was written at St F. X., is dedicated to “S.J.C.” and the dedication is dated October 12, 1913. Gilbert Kennedy states that in 1968 he met a priest that had been in one of W.P.M. Kennedy’s classes in 1913-14, who told him that S.J.C. was a fellow student, Sarah Josephine Cameron, one of the very few women in the class. According to Frere Kennedy [a younger son and, like Gilbert, a law school graduate], Gilbert remembers the priest asking Gilbert whether his father had married Sarah Cameron. That is all we know, except that Sarah’s uncle was Bishop Cameron, a former rector of the college. The year after Kennedy left, Ms. Cameron became an editor of the college paper and published three articles, all of which would have interested Kennedy, one on the British Empire, one on Byron, and one on “conversation”. There was obviously some sort of close relationship between the two or the dedication would not have been made, but whether it was more than an intellectual bonding or perhaps simply research assistance is not known. Ms. Cameron, who graduated in 1916 with a number of prizes, became a teacher in Saskatchewan, never married, and died in 1990. Historian P.B. Waite, who does not mention Ms. Cameron, put it this way in his book on Larry Mackenzie, who later worked under Kennedy at the University of Toronto: “The little college in the little town could not contain Kennedy. He was too hot to handle; if the girls in the St. Barnard residence were not scandalized, the Roman Catholic authorities of the college were. He was unloaded onto St. Michael’s College.”

In spite of leaving St. F.X. after only one year in curious circumstances, Kennedy took the unusual step in 1915 of asking the rector of St. F. X. – the person who wrote one of the previously mentioned letters – if the college would grant him an honorary doctorate. “I write to ask you if St. F.X. could see its way to confer on me causa honoris an LL.D. for my work on Tudor History.” He adds that “His Grace the Archbishop will visit Washington in February and will propose me there for an honorary D. Lit.” The rector replied that he had discussed the matter with some of the faculty and believed that “a resolution in favor of granting you an LL.D. would not carry at a Faculty meeting.”

McCorkell, who had been ordained as a priest in 1916, came to St. Michael’s the following year to teach some of Kennedy’s English courses. McCorkell states in his oral interview that Kennedy “really was a very effective teacher, very brilliant, and he was quite a tonic here, and gave the place [a lift] in the way of scholarship and general interest.” McCorkell “liked him personally a lot and I think we all did.” But he added: “It was hard to discover his true background. He boasted about so many things that [people] figured that he had to have lived a hundred years to do all the things that he said he did.” R.C.B. Risk’s assessment is that Kennedy was “inclined to exaggerate.” That is certainly my conclusion as well. Still, like McCorkell, in spite of Kennedy’s exaggeration and self-promotion, I believe that if I had known him, I would also have “liked him personally a lot.”