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Ancestry

Fred Cogswell’s maternal grandfather was Frederick Walter Leblanc, originally from Moncton. Little is known about his early life, except that he went to the United States as a boy, anglicized his surname to White, and was educated by the family that adopted him. He came back to New Brunswick as a veterinarian, quickly earning the reputation as a clever and fun-loving bachelor. Especially adept at the horse track, he had a dark side, drugs and other stimulants being rather easy for animal doctors to procure. As well known to the ladies as to the local constabulary, he was Kent County’s most notorious bachelor.

His soon-to-be wife (Cogswell’s maternal grandmother) was Marie Elizabeth Girouard from Bouctouche, the first Acadian woman in the province to receive a university degree (Music). Marie was the daughter of Gilbert Anselme Girouard, whose ancestors had come to New Brunswick from Poitou in the late 1640s. Gilbert “le Petite” Girouard was elected MP in 1878 and 1882 in the riding of Kent. Only the second Acadian to sit in the federal house, he became a favourite of John A. MacDonald. A great champion of French-language education and the preservation of Acadian heritage, Gilbert was one of the original organizers of the First National Convention in July 1881 in Memramcook, an event that attracted 5000 Acadians from around the world and set the foundation for the political emergence of the Acadian people.

Despite their high standing in Acadian New Brunswick, however, Fred Cogswell’s maternal grandparents lived in exile from the eastern part of the province because of the circumstances of their union. On her wedding night, with the guests arrived and the turkeys slaughtered, Cogswell’s grandmother snubbed her intended betrothed and ran off with the aforementioned Fred White, whose superior Harvard education and questionable morals, it was said, had duped her. The couple fled to Rivière-du-Loup, where Fred Cogswell’s mother Florence Ann was born in 1900. Despite two visits from the Bouctouche priest (Marie’s uncle) to bring the couple back, they eventually moved to Bath, New Brunswick to continue their family. Six of their seven children were born in Carleton County, Marie forever after known to her Kent County relatives as the Girouard girl who ran off with the man she loved rather than the man she was supposed to marry.

Providence smiled then frowned on the couple. Shortly after their youngest child was born, Fred White drowned while crossing thin ice with a team of horses. (“Drowned” was the official story, believed for many years. What in fact happened was that he staged the accident to cover an affair he was having with another woman. He set up home with that other woman in Bathurst, where he practiced as a veterinarian until he died.) To feed her abandoned family of seven, Marie taught music in the schools, but times were tough, a factor in her eventually agreeing to the marriage of her teenaged daughter Florence Ann to a Baptist bachelor of thirty-four named Walter Scott Cogswell. The marriage of Fred Cogswell’s parents took place in Centreville, New Brunswick on 01 November 1916, a year before Fred Cogswell was born (08 November 1917). Christened Frederick William Cogswell, he would be the eldest of three children.

Fred Cogswell’s paternal line was equally colourful. Descended from the Saxons of Essex in the 12th century, the Cogswells (named after Sir John de Coggeshall, 1302-1361, knighted by King Edward III in 1337) were wool merchants with vast flocks and acreages. After succeeding in business, John Cogswell, his wife, and their eight children emigrated to America in 1635, as much for its business opportunities as for the religious freedoms it promised (the Cogswells were Puritans). On 23 May 1635, they set sail from Bristol for the New World on the Angel Gabriel, the ship made famous by Sir Francis Drake. Shipwrecked off the coast of Maine on 15 August, they made it to safety near Pemaquid, Maine, eventually settling east of Boston in Ipswich, Massachusetts, a town of Saxons that welcomed them with generous land grants. Over the next two centuries the Cogswells grew to become a prominent New England family, some of their descendents directly involved in the Salem witch trials, others more politically inclined (the Cogswells were involved in founding the Library of Congress, for example). One line of the family moved to New Brunswick in the 1760s to occupy lands of the recently expelled Acadians. They settled in an area of Carleton County known as Cogswell Settlement. The Cogswell farm that Fred knew was registered in 1810 and is still worked today (2012) by Fred’s youngest brother, John, twenty-two years his junior, and John’s two daughters.

In New Brunswick, the Cogswells of Cogswell Settlement were Baptist farmers. Fred’s father, Walter Scott, was the youngest son of William and Elizabeth Cogswell. William had been married and widowed three times, so when Walter arrived his father had not only slowed considerably but was also set firmly in his ways. Walter was an equally conservative, sometimes quarrelsome, man with flaming red hair and freckles who had been a military-school runaway, the regimentation of training too stifling for his farm-boy personality. Like his father, he was steadfastly opposed to new technologies, so when J.B. McNair’s Liberal programme of rural electrification came to New Brunswick in the 1940s he adamantly refused to consider it, arguing with Florence that it was an occultish, rather-Catholic indulgence that would bring ill repute to the community. In similar fashion, he also refused to own a tractor, preferring to work his farm with his beloved horses long after his potato-exporting neighbour, the now-famous A.D. McCain, had made the switch. His decline began with just that kind of stubbornness: another recalcitrant refusal to put up an electric fence to separate his livestock from the sprawling potato fields of the McCain brothers. One day his prized herd of Holstein cattle broke through his flimsy wire barrier and wandered into the nearby McCain field, where potato shoots had just been sprayed with insecticide. After gorging on the new potato leaves, the entire herd died, a loss that Walter would never make up. His son Fred would have lifetime memories of his father and local farmers trying to revive the slowly dying cows. The wages of such a life repelled a young Fred Cogswell just as powerfully as its struggles impressed the older poet. And it had the same impact on his siblings, who forever after refused to grow anything for the McCains.

An older Fred Cogswell also remembered the bookishness and music of his father, which were the only indulgences in a life of hard labour. But the bookishness was often an excuse for retreating into glumness, as Walter, unlike Florence, had little use for conversation or the rituals of rural socializing. Rather, when company came over, or when his grown children would arrive with their own offspring, Walter would escape to the parlour with his Bible or Farmer’s Almanac while others shared the news in the kitchen. As adults, Fred and his siblings would sit next to Walter in the parlour reading silently, their reticence an accepted part of the personality of what Fred would describe as “the stunted strong” (“New Brunswick” 16).[1] Indeed, much of the rustic personality recorded in Cogswell’s first collection came directly from home, even if its character traits were attributed to others.

Fred was aware of his mother’s Acadian ancestry when growing up; however, in deference to his father, who, like other Carleton County Conservatives politicized (to denigrate) the French language, he never investigated that part of his background until after his father’s death. Nevertheless, French was a powerful undercurrent in his life: Florence’s mother was a frequent visitor, and in all likelihood mother and daughter spoke French in the home, making Acadian French Cogswell’s maternal language. As well, French-speaking cousins (Allains and Cormiers) often stopped in Centreville from Massachusetts on their summer trips to Bouctouche for family gatherings. But they did so quietly, for the little New Brunswick town of Centreville was also (incredibly) the base of the Ku Klux Klan in Canada in the 1920s and 30s. The Klan publicly denounced the French and Roman Catholics in the province, and burned crosses to prove the seriousness of their opposition to anything that threatened their nativist Anglo Saxon Protestantism (the hooded Klansmen sang “Onward Christian Soldiers” during these cross burnings). During the 1935 provincial election, the KKK circulated anonymous flyers urging New Brunswickers not to vote for Allison Dysart, a Catholic, for “If Dysart is elected,” they said, “Rome will rule” (Provincial Archives). Perhaps because of this campaign of terror in her own community, Florence rarely admitted to being French or Catholic, accepting instead the Anglo Saxon evangelism that she had married into (her granddaughters, Fred’s daughters, didn’t know she was Catholic, or that they had a large Acadian family in Bouctouche, until after her death). The ironies of those sorts of silences and denials, and the limitations they placed on provincial autonomy and identity formation, are still typical of the peculiar sociology of New Brunswick.

Cogswell’s later commitment to literary translation is therefore found in both his lineage and the tensions within it. Writ larger, his commitments to New Brunswick are rooted in competing antagonisms: a love of place tempered by an exasperation with its parochialisms, both of which emerge fully in his first collection of poems, The Stunted Strong (1954).

 

Next: Childhood, Schooling, and Military Service


[1] The practice of reading the life and motives of a writer through his creations should always be carefully considered. Cogswell’s case is no exception. He followed in a tradition of confessional poetry, but he also used poetry for imaginative transport. So, in good New England fashion, he both told the truth and told it slant. As he aged, however, he became much more candid about his literary subterfuge, actually inviting critics to examine his verse for turns of mind. The poem “Since Any Life” is instructive in this regard: “Since any life is lived in sections, / Look not upon his deeds to find / True mirrors of a poet’s mind, / His poems, though, give good reflections” (109). In using his work to understand his thought, I have followed his invitation.