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The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks

Robertson Davies

  The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks

  ROBERTSON DAVIES (1913–1995) was born and raised in Ontario, and was educated at a variety of schools, including Upper Canada College, Queen’s University, and Balliol College, Oxford. He had three successive careers: as an actor with the Old Vic Company in England; as publisher of the Peterborough Examiner; and as university professor and first Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto, from which he retired in 1981 with the title of Master Emeritus.

  He was one of Canada’s most distinguished men of letters, with several volumes of plays and collections of essays, speeches, and belles lettres to his credit. As a novelist, he gained worldwide fame for his three trilogies: The Salterton Trilogy, The Deptford Trilogy, and The Cornish Trilogy, and for later novels Murther & Walking Spirits and The Cunning Man.

  His career was marked by many honours: He was the first Canadian to be made an Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he was a Companion of the Order of Canada, and he received honorary degrees from twenty-six American, Canadian, and British universities.

  By Robertson Davies




  Leaven of Malice

  A Mixture of Frailties


  Fifth Business

  The Manticore

  World of Wonders


  The Rebel Angels

  What’s Bred in the Bone

  The Lyre of Orpheus

  Murther & Walking Spirits

  The Cunning Man


  High Spirits


  The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks

  The Table Talk of Samuel Marchbanks

  Samuel Marchbanks’ Almanack

  The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks


  One Half of Robertson Davies

  The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies

  The Merry Heart

  Happy Alchemy

  Selected Works on the Art of Writing

  Selected Works on the Pleasures of Reading


  A Voice from the Attic


  Selected Plays

  The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks

  New Canadian Library electronic edition, 2015

  Copyright © 1985 Robertson Davies

  All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review.

  First published in Canada by Irwin Publishing in 1985

  First published in the U.S. and Great Britain by Viking in 1985

  All rights reserved.

  e-ISBN: 978-0-7710-2774-1

  Cover Design by Lisa Jager

  Cover image: (typewriter) CSA Plastock/Creative RF/Getty Images

  Electronic edition published in Canada by New Canadian Library, an imprint of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, a Penguin Random House Company, Toronto, in 2015.

  McClelland & Stewart with colophon is a registered trademark.

  Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication available upon request.




  About the Author

  Other Books by This Author

  Title Page



  The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks

  The Table Talk of Samuel Marchbanks

  Marchbank’s Garland



  THERE CAN BE no doubt that Samuel Marchbanks is one of the choice and master spirits of this age. If there were such a volume as Who Really Ought To Be Who his entry would require several pages. The author of the Diary, the Table Talk and the never-sufficiently-to-be-praised Garland has probably said more on a wider variety of topics than any other philosopher of the past forty years, and it has been the happy inspiration of the publisher to bring out these three books in a single volume.

  It was clear, however, that some editorial work was needed. Who, under the age of forty-five, can say with accuracy what a coal-fired furnace was, or what people meant when they spoke of “sending telegrams”? It is not that Marchbanks is trapped in a past age; he is for all time. But inevitably in our sadly rushing world there have been social changes that need to be clarified for recent generations. The question was: who should edit Marchbanks?

  When I was approached, I accepted with alacrity. I would, I promised, equip the works of Marchbanks with what is called “a scholarly apparatus,” meaning that I would iron out all the difficulties, correct any errors of fact that might have crept into the original versions, explain the significance of any names that might be unfamiliar to modern readers, and generally act as a gentle headwaiter to Marchbanks’ splendid banquet.

  It proved not to be as easy as I thought. Although he is the most accessible of philosophers, economists, political theorists and littérateurs for his readers, Marchbanks presents special problems for his editor, and I had not realized how much our long friendship and close physical resemblance—though I am substantially the smaller—would complicate an apparently straightforward editorial task.

  MARCHBANKS IS ONE of the last of a breed of Canadians whose racial strains and mental habits derive from those Loyalists who came north to this country after the American Revolution of 1776. They were a cantankerous, resolute breed, superficially loyal to old manners and old trains of thought, but in fact determinedly individualistic. To think of Marchbanks himself as a Tory is absurd. He said to me, not long ago: “Canada at present has three political parties whom I think of as Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail. Flopsy and Mopsy are devoted to the banks and the industries; Cottontail claims to speak for the Workers, by which it seems to mean unionized persons intent on working the shortest negotiable hours for the highest negotiable rates of pay; as a man who has for forty-five years worked hours definable only by As Long As It Takes, and for the kind of pay available to literary men, I feel no kinship with Cottontail. Politically I am the leader and entire membership of the Marchbanks Humanist Party to which, in forty-five years, I have not attracted a single adherent. Why this should be so I cannot guess, but it makes me grieve for my country.”

  Readers of the pages that follow will have no trouble in guessing why Marchbanks has no followers. He is a man of fiercely disputatious character and has few friends. Of these few I am the longest in duration and the most humble and submissive in nature. For these reasons—because I can put up with him—the publishers have asked me to edit Marchbanks, and I have consented. The result is in your hand.

  I approached my task with misgiving. Marchbanks is an impetuous and inveterately inaccurate writer; correcting his innumerable errors and explaining his slapdash references and half-baked assumptions has been a tough job, even for one experienced in editorial work. Throughout his life Marchbanks has earned his living as a journalist and he has all the romantic disdain for fact that distinguishes his kind. He writes at full speed, never pausing for reflection or using one word when he can think of two. He is lucky to have me for an editor. But am I lucky to have him as a subject? Can you ask?

  He is a man deeply resentful of criticism or restraint of any kind. If he needs a fact to support his argument, and cannot immediately find one, he makes it up. But—and this is what has made my tas
k a burden—it is hard to be sure when he has given rein to his imagination. Time and again I have found his most improbable assertions strongly rooted in fact. The magpie mind reflected in his work is crammed with oddities which he can support by reference to some out-of-the-way book nobody else would think of reading, or some tattered yellow newspaper clipping that shows him to be right. He is an editor’s nightmare.

  Nevertheless, I have done the job. The Notes I have added to Marchbanks’ text extend its interest very considerably. We editors are not the pallid hacks that Marchbanks thinks us.

  WHEN MY WORK was nearly completed I decided to approach Marchbanks himself, and discuss the project with him. This in itself is unscholarly. When you are preparing a critical edition of a man’s work—a man who is not safely dead—it is unprofessional and dangerous to let him have any say in what you are doing, because he will want to put a finger in the pie. What you have made tidy, he will want to mess up. Nevertheless, knowing Marchbanks as I do, I was aware how dangerous it would be to let this book appear in print without his knowledge.

  Perhaps I allowed vanity to guide me. I greatly admired that film Dinner With André, and I hoped I might provoke something similar, along the lines of A Drink With Marchbanks.

  I sought him out, therefore. As I knew I would, I found him at five o’clock in the afternoon of a February day at one of his favourite ports of call, a tavern called The Crank and Schizoid, close by the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry in the city of Toronto. Marchbanks likes to go there to eavesdrop on the professional gossip of the psychiatrists who frequent the place when their work-day (nine fifty-minute hours) is over. “Nothing leaks like a full shrink,” Marchbanks has often said, and he picks up a lot of information in the pub about persons highly placed in government and business. There he was, in a dark corner, and before him on the table was a glass of his favourite tipple, a lukewarm gin-and-acid-rain.

  “You do not surprise me in the least,” he said, when I explained my visit. “I knew this would happen, and I knew the publishers would ask you to do the job. Not, as you presumptuously suppose, because of your reputation as a scholar, but because of the deep sympathy that has so long existed between us. You recall the old Victorian melodrama of The Corsican Brothers? No, of course you don’t. You never know anything that is of real significance. In that play the brothers are united by a psychic bond, in spite of superficial differences of character. When one of them is kicked by an enemy, the other is unable to sit down for several days: if the other is attracted by a woman, the first is moved—he knows not why—to send her a bouquet of flowers. You and I are like that, Davies. We are The Canadian Brothers. You, the academic, pussyfooting brother and I the dashing, romantic brother. It is as simple as that.”

  I yearned to contradict him with passion. But no—I recognized the justice of what he had said. I did not glory in it, but I acknowledged it.

  “Well—yes, Sam,” I said; “I suppose that’s about the size of it. But need you rub it in?”

  “Who’s rubbing anything in?” he demanded. Facts are facts, and psychological facts are indisputable. But reflect: you and I, between us, have lived a remarkable, fully-realized life. I free and you trammelled. I clear-eyed and you blinkered by commonplace opinions. I intolerant of popular nonsense and you hoodwinked by everything you hear from politicians and self-styled experts. I daring to call my soul my own, and you yielding squatter’s rights in your soul to anybody who can brow-beat you. Singly, what are we? I have been called insufferable, and you are widely known to be self-destructively tolerant. But put us together, and what have you? Man, as Hamlet described him—noble in reason, infinite in faculty—the beauty of the world—the paragon of animals! We need one another, you and I. I can’t say I like it, but I am prepared to put up with it.”

  “Are you saying that you are my alter ego?” said I, astonished at this generosity.

  “No, I am not. I detest the term alter ego; it suggests some dreadful non-cholesterol cooking substance. We are, each to the other a Doppelgänger, if you know the term.”

  “Aha,” said I, pleased to be on familiar ground, “then it might be said that, in Jungian terms, I am the real man, and you are my Shadow.” I was delighted to have found a point of view from which I could write a really satisfactory introduction to this book. But—

  “Intolerable presumption,” shouted Marchbanks, thumping the table so loudly that several psychiatrists looked round. “I am the reality, the essential man, free, proud and undeluded by the hokum of the modern world; you are the Good Citizen, the Taxpayer, the Homebody, the Dupe and Donkey of Democracy, the creature who goes through life chained and blindfolded, to sink at last in his taxed coffin into his taxed grave, leaving his Reality—his Money, such as it is—to be devoured by the hyenas of the State. You move me to Biblical obloquy: I spurn you with my foot, I spew you out of my mouth, I blow you out of my nose, I—”

  “Shut up, Sam,” I begged; “people are looking!”

  Indeed they were. The barkeeper was muttering, “Keep it down, eh, you guys.”

  “Of course people are looking,” said Marchbanks. “In this country people always look in amazement when anyone is moved by passion or simply by righteous indignation. For you to suggest that I am your Shadow—therein scholarly impertinence has surely found its masterpiece.”

  “Then consider it this way,” said I; “let us call ourselves two sides of a coin.”

  “Very well,” said he; “let the coin be a Canadian five-cent piece. I am the recto side, bearing the Royal Countenance and the inscription, “Ruler By God’s Grace”—the side that speaks of nobility of spirit and continuance of great traditions: you are the verso side, bearing the image of the beaver, symbolic of the Canadian Citizen—a dowdy rodent, most valuable to his country when skinned. That will do nicely.”

  I sighed. “You are so contradictory, Sam,” I said. “You declare yourself to be the head of a one-man splinter party. What does that make you, if not an anarchist? Yet now you are equating yourself with royalty.”

  “Well, what about it?” said he. “I see no contradiction. Of course I am an anarchist. What is an anarchist but a defier of settled power, a protester against all rule, a detector of flaws in every system, an element in society necessary if we are not to be trampled under the feet of a few hundred people who have won a TV popularity contest they call an election, and their masters and hidden manipulators—the Civil Service? Royalty, on the other hand, is the single check left in a democratic state against factions and gangs and the puppets they call their leaders. When, in my anguish as an overburdened citizen, I fling myself at the foot of the Throne, I am appealing to the one person in the realm whose destiny, like my own, is determined by a power no government can reach. I am Marchbanks, by the Grace of God.”

  “I still don’t see where anarchy comes in,” said I.

  “Oh, you are always whining for explanations! Have you no intuitive understanding of great issues? Can’t you see that it is rules and laws that make most of the social problems? Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail are all competing to devise systems of law to make us perfect citizens of a perfect state. They cannot grasp that morality and freedom are interwined. Have you never read the manifesto of the Marchbanks Humanist Party?

  How does it begin?—

  The more taboos and prohibitions there are in the world

  The poorer the people will be.

  The more sharp weapons the people have

  The more troubled the state will be.

  The more cunning and skill man possesses

  The more vicious things will appear.

  The more laws and orders are made prominent

  The more thieves and robbers there will be.

  And who wrote that, do you suppose?”

  “You, I imagine.”

  “No, you don’t imagine. That’s what’s wrong with you, and your kind; you don’t, and can’t imagine. Those words were written by the Chinese sage Lao Tzu in the sixth century B.C
. And upon those principles, understood in modern terms, rests the program—or I had better call it a non-program—of my Humanist Party.”

  SIGHING, I CALLED the bartender and ordered another large double straight malt. This encounter was going to be even worse than I had supposed.

  “Let’s talk about your life,” I said. “Readers of our selection will expect some information about your life. Come on, Sam; were you really born in a place called Skunk’s Misery?”

  “To doubt it is to doubt geography,” said he. “You will find it only on the largest maps, but if you enquire of the right people, in the right place, they will tell you where it is. The old homestead has sunk rather far into the swamp, I understand, but some relics of it are still there. The weekly paper, The Skunk’s Misery Trombone, on which I learned my craft; the barbershop where as a boy I had my ten-cent haircut, with the barber’s stomach, warm and maternal, lolled over me like a duvet. You behold in me the descendant—unworthy perhaps, but probably not—of pioneers and Loyalists. I am a WASP, and nothing of the derision that is nowadays directed at that ethnic group touches me.”

  “But a WASP is a White Anglo-Saxon; you are always blowing about the purity of your Celtic descent.”

  “You surely don’t suggest that I describe myself as a WC, do you? That would simply be playing into the hands of my detractors. No, no; for those loose thinkers who have no conception of a Celt, I must appear as a WASP.”

  “Very well,” said I, “but was there nothing picturesque about your childhood. Surely you come from a broken home?”

  “Not a crack to be found in it anywhere,” said he. “I toast my entire family and ancestry in this glass of gin-and-acid-rain, and if we are to go on talking you had better order me another.”

  I motioned to the bartender. “Not coming from a broken home is rather a poor start for a Canadian writer. Perhaps you were a battered child? No? Well, we must do the best we can. Tell me that you endured crippling poverty.”