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Universities of New Brunswick and Edinburgh

Less than a month after he returned, Cogswell enrolled at UNB. He was one of approximately 350 students to enroll that fall, most of whom were veterans. UNB President Milton F. Gregg, V.C., a decorated military man who was a strong advocate for veterans’ education, accepted Cogswell’s Normal School credentials and placed him on a fast track to a BA. With his peers, he took classes in designated overflow spaces such as the university chapel and a converted army H-hut temporarily erected between the Old Arts Building and the Lady Beaverbrook Residence. He also roomed in overflow space: an old military barracks on the Fredericton Exhibition grounds known as Alexander College, a former Basic Training Centre. Fellow classmate Vernon Mullen, also a veteran (RCAF and prisoner of war), recalls how unusual the 1945 freshman class was: “we were different, older and more serious about education than students just out of high school, unafraid to express our opinions and determined to win the peace, in addition to the war we had just helped to finish successfully” (27).[3] Like other veterans, Cogswell became caught up in the “determined and healthy optimism” of the time (Galloway 210), eager to move beyond the stagnation of his previous life in evangelical New Brunswick. He took full advantage of the programmes available to defray his education costs. He received a monthly veteran’s allowance, which was increased substantially when his wife and daughter arrived, and a tuition subsidy calculated on the basis of time served. In his case, roughly one month of tuition for every month in service, which completely covered a four-year degree. (With scholarships, Cogswell was able to study full time for almost eight years, moving from a BA [1949, UNB] to a PhD [1952, Edinburgh]. His progress was rapid because of his aptitudes and eagerness for study, but also because he was fully funded, thus unburdened of having to work to pay tuition costs.)

In his years at UNB, he benefitted considerably from Desmond Pacey’s attempt to unseat some of the authority of A.S.P. Woodhouse, one of Canada’s leading literary scholars in the 1940s and 50s. The University of Toronto, where Woodhouse taught, was the only institution in the country to issue doctoral degrees – and Woodhouse was the English Department czar, which made him, de facto, the czar of English Studies in Canada. Woodhouse had attended University College, Toronto and done graduate work at Harvard, bringing back the ivy-league ideals and some of the graft of the American system. Pacey and his contemporary Roy Daniells disliked Woodhouse’s attempts to centralize advanced studies in Toronto, and they especially disapproved of the professional favours he dispensed. The more Woodhouse liked you, the closer your appointment would be to Toronto. If you ran afoul of him, as Pacey and Daniells had when all three taught at the University of Manitoba (Brandon College), the farther from Toronto you’d have to settle to pursue your career. By starting doctoral programmes in English and Canadian Literature at the universities of New Brunswick and British Columbia, Pacey and Daniells directly challenged Woodhouse’s authority and his colonial conception of English Studies (he was a Milton scholar, convinced that 16th-, 17th-, and 18th-century British literature was exactly what Canadian students needed). When Cogswell arrived at UNB in 1945, Pacey had been there a year and was eager to recruit students to his rather avant-garde republican vision. Cogswell was one of the first, completing an MA under Pacey in 1950 on the Canadian novel from Confederation to WWI. The thesis anticipated – and, according to Cogswell, contributed a good deal to – Pacey’s own historical survey of Canadian literature in Creative Writing in Canada (1952).

Cogswell also took classes at UNB from Alfred G. Bailey,[4] the brilliant poet-historian who had co-founded the Bliss Carman Society in 1940 and The Fiddlehead in 1945, both writers’ workshops in their early years. Cogswell took as many of his courses as allowed, also joining the small group of approximately ten poets who met regularly at Bailey’s home to read their work. It was at those meetings that Cogswell met Elizabeth Brewster, Margaret Cunningham, Donald Gammon, Frances Firth, and Lyndon Peebles. As a poetry workshop, The Fiddlehead distributed the mimeographed work of its members in a closed setting. Attendance at the meetings was contingent on having something to read, which meant that Cogswell had to start writing in earnest and developing his own sense of a literary criticism; that is, of what worked in poetry and didn’t. His experience at UNB from 1945-50 therefore intersected with the post-war ferment that had gripped Canada and New Brunswick. UNB was rapidly expanding (Cogswell’s freshman class outnumbered students in the upper three years combined), curricula were changing to reflect increasingly nationalist concerns, and the large student body of activist veterans was instigating for broad social change.

It was under these conditions that Cogswell emerged as a committed socialist, though he had been reading Harold Laski since he arrived in the UK, and his Taoist leanings certainly readied him for alternatives to the social Darwinism of militant North American capitalism. Moreover, as historian Ian McKay reminds us, “the soldiers who fought in the Second World War formed the most solidly left-wing cohort in Canadian history” (Rebels 45). Cogswell qualified that slightly by adding that “exposure to European ideas had to a great degree ended, among the veterans, the kind of political naïveté which had previously characterized Canadian student life” (qtd. in Galloway 210). The CCF, then, fitted both Cogswell’s sympathies and his intellectual trajectory – not to mention his sense of the growing inevitability of the people’s rise (he keenly followed and championed the post-war election of Britain’s Labour Party). He helped with the bi-monthly provincial CCF paper, True Democracy, which was assembled and printed by Wolfe Press on Brunswick Street (Fredericton). He attended meetings regularly; he wrote speeches for national secretary David Lewis, who visited New Brunswick; and he even served as Provincial Secretary. In addition, he ghost-wrote information segments that were broadcast free of charge on CBC’s “Provincial Affairs.” Cogswell knew that access to print and radio were crucial to public education, especially to rebut the untruths about socialism that sitting Liberal governments in New Brunswick had so carefully and successfully seeded. Given his literary inclinations and training, Cogswell must have felt aligned with Michael Whalen, Martin Butler, and other late nineteen-century writers who had been at the forefront of the Miramichi and Fredericton Socialist Leagues in the province. As the left-leaning son of a farmer, he would also have been well informed about Moses Coady’s work through the Antigonish Movement to establish fishing and farming cooperatives in Nova Scotia. (He would learn later from soon-to-be colleague Harold Hatheway that “junior professors at the University of New Brunswick were ‘in danger of persecution if they became too active’ in providing education in socialism” [qtd. in Lewey 28]).

Most famously, Cogswell became involved in a late-1947 incident in Fredericton that was reported by the UNB paper The Brunswickan and later picked up and circulated nationally by the Canadian University Press. The incident occurred when a black forestry student at UNB (another World War Two veteran) was denied service by local barbers. Vernon Mullen, then Editor-in-Chief of The Brunswickan, as well as a vocal CCF organizer, published a special supplement to the paper descrying the affair. Mullen’s editorial accused four Fredericton barbershops of “unchristian racial discrimination.” It said further: “The same fine citizens of Fredericton who contribute large sums to ‘Christianize’ the poor ‘heathen,’ who are considered to be solid pillars of our churches, but who refuse to sit in a barber’s chair after a Negro has had his hair cut there, are no more Christians in the true sense of the word than the ‘heathen’ they want to convert” (qtd. in Mullen 34-5). The next month (January 1948),[5] The Brunswickan carried Cogswell’s well-known poem satirizing Fredericton’s purity:

“Ode to Fredericton”

White are your housetops, white too the vaulted elms
That make your stately streets long aisles of prayer,
And white your thirteen spires that point to God
Who reigns afar in pure and whiter air,
And white the dome of your democracy –
The snow has pitied you and made you fair,
O snow-washed city of cold, white Christians,
So white you will not cut a black man’s hair. (35)

Cogswell’s “public” involvement in the CCF affected his future, as it did the futures of other young idealists in a political environment that was decidedly and timidly centrist in New Brunswick – and, it must be remembered, sympathetic to the radical message of the KKK. At the request of A.G. Bailey, and on the strength of his undergraduate record (he won the Bliss Carman Medal in 1946 and ’47, and the prestigious Douglas Gold Medal in 1949), he applied and was short-listed for a Rhodes scholarship. At the start of the mandatory interview in Saint John in 1950, he was asked when he was going to change his politics. When he stumbled and then became defensive about his answer, the interview abruptly ended, one of the shortest (he was later told) ever conducted. When it was announced that fellow UNB student Gérard La Forest won the award, Cogswell called to congratulate him. Both knew each other as upper Saint John River Valley boys, La Forest from Grand Falls. La Forest explained on the phone that his Liberalism had been the focus of genial discussion during the interview, which to Cogswell made perfect sense, for Liberalism had become dynastic in New Brunswick. That bit of political gerrymandering, however, meant that Cogswell had to settle for an IODE scholarship, going to Edinburgh for a doctorate instead of Oxford. Cogswell concluded that Liberal Premier J.B. McNair, himself an Oxford man and Rhodes scholar, would not tolerate a CCFer at his beloved university. (Cogswell later irritated McNair in editorials that denounced the Liberal claim that the CCF party was communist and, as such, would confiscate private property and family farms. As the son of a farmer, Cogswell’s denunciation of this scaremongering carried some weight in the province.)

The prospect of spending two years in Edinburgh was not unpleasant, for Cogswell had developed great affection for Scotland during the war years. The stay also enabled Margaret to renew contact with her Irish family, with whom she wanted to share her two daughters (Kathleen Mary, younger sister to Carmen, was born in Fredericton in 1949). The project he began was a biographical study of the Scottish sociological novelist John Galt (1779-1839), who had written the first complete biography of Byron, and who had lived briefly in Ontario as Secretary of the Canada Company, a British land development agency founded to bring settlement to Upper Canada.[6] But when Cogswell found sources unreliable and primary materials scarce, he switched to an examination of the idea of America in Romantic poetry, conducting the kind of broader survey of literary ideas that would come to characterize his critical method.

By the start of the 1952 academic year, he had accepted a job at UNB with an annual salary of  $3100, conditional on students being able to understand his speech. He was one of four members of the English Department in an Arts faculty that had less than fifty students. Cogswell and David Galloway split the freshman and sophomore class, also teaching service courses to larger numbers of engineering and forestry students. Desmond Pacey and Alec Lucas, who later went to McGill, were the other members of the department.

Despite the excitements of an expanding university, a young family, and a new career in a growing city, Cogswell stayed rooted in his rural milieu. He worked on the family farm every summer, and on the lucrative Carleton County highway projects during election years. He got most of the produce and meat his Fredericton family ate from the East Centreville farm. In exchange, he assisted with the haying in August, the planting in spring, and the harvest in fall, leading what his colleagues around him considered a double life. (One of those colleagues observed that he walked like a farmer between his furrows, eyes always cast down and pace always slow and methodical.) His students never knew what those colleagues did: that Cogswell saw himself essentially as a farm boy with an academic appointment, one who, at times, used words to free himself “from the logic of [his] father’s farm” (“A Mental Journey” 60), and, at other times, wished that “if I could I would be / Farmer, pull weeds, use hoe for tongue instead” (“Memory” 23). Such was Cogswell’s life, expressed by the poet as “two lives [lived] ambidextrously” (“Memory” 22).

That farm boy stayed at UNB for his entire career, retiring as Professor in 1983. In those thirty-one years he won the respect of students, colleagues, and writers from across the country. But to locals, he was known as the preoccupied professor who walked home for lunch every day to Reid Street, about ten minutes west of the university. With his pipe in his pocket, he would often be seen with smoldering pants, his attention to the poem in his head overriding the more pressing concerns around him. At other times, he’d wander as far west as Odell Park, oblivious to where he should be. Then he’d be seen running back to meet the class that had started without him. This was the father his daughters saw: a man driven by heavy demands who was always composing, always working on something in his head. Margaret, as his daughters came to understand, was the figure who grounded and shielded him: grounded him from his penchant for overwork and shielded him from the academic quarrels that put “cause above adversity” (“How Can I Say” 43).


Next: The Fiddlehead and Fiddlehead Poetry Books

[3] I am indebted to UNB Professor David Frank for bringing Mr. Mullen’s book to my attention.

[4] The Cogswell/Bailey connection is an interesting one. As Bailey’s star student, Cogswell was invited to office meetings as a prelude to being invited to join the Bliss Carman Society. At one of those office meetings, student and teacher were fascinated to discover that their first New World ancestors had been on the same ship (the Angel Gabriel) that had been shipwrecked off the coast of Maine in 1635.

[5] “Ode to Fredericton” was reprinted ten years later in the Canadian edition of Time.

[6] The study of Galt would form the basis of a later research grant Cogswell received in 1959 from the Nuffield Foundation.