Inventing Tom Thomson: From Biographical Fictions to Fictional Autobiographies and Reproductions

by Sherrill Grace
ISBN: 0773527524

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A Review of: Inventing Tom Thomson: From Biographical Fictions to Fictional Autobiographies and Reproductions
by Cynthia Sugars

Canadian poet Earle Birney is famous for having said that Canadians are haunted by a "lack of ghosts." I wonder. This line has provoked no end of speculation, and is certainly meant to be understood metaphorically. And yet, there is something very resonant about the idea of a haunting that both is and is not one. Admittedly, this was Birney's way of nudging his 1960s contemporaries out of their cultural and intellectual somnambulance. It also points to the notorious Canadian identity crisis which persists in dogging cultural debate in Canada today. Notwithstanding the fact that Canada has proven to be haunted by a plethora of national ghosts, from John Franklin to Louis Riel to Thomas D'Arcy McGee to the infamous Donnellys, it may be true that Canadians have long been searching for a nationally resonant (and resident) phantom who would satisfy two needs: the gratifyingly frisson effect that we demand of a ghost, the sort of thing that makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck; and a link with those things that have become fixed in Canadian iconography, namely images of the wilderness and northern landscape, which in turn give Canadians a vicarious sense of history and belonging. Paradoxically, being haunted may be what makes one feel most at home.
Sherrill Grace's Inventing Tom Thomson, a book-length study of what we might call the "afterlife" of Tom Thomson, suggests that Thomson has come to play just this role in the Canadian psyche. Tom Thomson, Grace concludes, "is our collective story, our communal autobiography." He is manly, he is artistic, he lived at ease with the landscape (until his death, that is). He is at once the prototype of the Canadian voyageur, while also an honorary aboriginal. He is both spiritual guide and cultural nationalist. He is our ticket into the land of self-invention, our route out of Birney's dilemma. Thomson is everything to everyone. And, best of all, he is Canadian.
Grace's investigation into the "invention" of Tom Thomson is a compelling tour not only into the making of a cultural phenomenon, but into the myth of Canada itself. Just as Thomson himself has been mythologized, so has he come to function as a symbol of "Canadian-ness." We are haunted, Grace is saying, but precisely because we want to be. The evidence for this lies in the accumulating mythology that has built up around the artist, and it is these inventions that are Grace's focus in this study. From the various biographical treatments of Thomson, which have become increasingly obsessed with the man's death, to the poetic and fictional reinventions, to the numerous depictions of Thomson in the visual arts (painting, photography, sculpture, and film), Grace's account of the "inventions" is exhaustive. No-one, she argues, is able to approach Thomson objectively; every reinvention of Thomson is in part a projection of the inventor; every biography an autobiography. Thomson satisfies our need "for closure, for answers, for meaning, for validation." He "focuses both the fear and the desire experienced by many generations of Euro-Canadians and by new immigrants as they search for a place to call home." In other words, he embodies our fear of not belonging (our "lack of ghosts") and our desire to belong (our longing for ghosts).
Thomson, of course, is famous as one of Canada's foremost, revolutionary landscape painters. Part of the circle of the Group of Seven (before they existed as a group, as such), he would likely have been a founding member of the Group had he not died, suddenly, in 1917 under mysterious circumstances. Indeed, were it not for his paintings we would not be interested in Tom Thomson. Lots of people die in wilderness accidents; they don't all become national icons. However, Grace agilely turns this on its head. Were it not for the death-and more explicitly, the body-we would, alas, not be (quite) as interested in the man's work. As Grace ironically observes, Thomson's "chief legacy is his mysterious death," since "the art will always be subsumed by the cult of the man." It is our grisly, voyeuristic impulse that has really contributed to the Thomson legend. We refuse to lay his corpse to rest.
Here are the "facts": Thomson died on a July day in 1917 in Canoe Lake, Algonquin Park, ostensibly having fallen out of his canoe and drowned. His canoe was found overturned and adrift the following day, though his body did not surface until 8 days later, when it appeared bloated almost beyond recognition. Tangled around his left ankle was a length of fishing line. On his temple (there are conflicting reports as to which one) was a sizeable gash. How did Tom Thomson die? This is the question that has plagued his biographers for decades, almost since the moment of his disappearance. Different theories vie for legitimacy: it was an accident, he committed suicide, he was murdered, he was killed accidentally. Grace spends some time on the biographical accounts provided by Blodwen Davies in the 1930s because it was Davies who first introduced in print the suspicious speculations surrounding Thomson's last hours, constructing Thomson's death as a murder mystery which subsequent biographers have been trying to prove or disprove: "Who met Tom Thomson on the stretch of grey lake, screened from all eyes, that July noon? Who was it struck him a blow across the right temple. . . . Who watched him crumple up and topple over the side of the canoe and sink slowly out of sight without a struggle?" It is not a far step from the physical corpse to the spectral one, the body that has come to haunt all subsequent renditions of Thomson.
Bring on the theories. There is William Little's 1970 The Tom Thomson Mystery which records Little's obsessive and grisly account of his exhumation of Thomson's grave at Canoe Lake. The motivation for this has its roots in the series of strange occurrences that followed Thomson's swift burial in the Canoe Lake cemetery in July 1917. Because the coroner could not be brought down to the lake in time (presumably since Thomson's body was already in an advanced state of decomposition), a doctor who happened to be on site (in fact, one of the people who discovered the body), conducted the autopsy and approved the burial. "Cause of death: Drowning," is Dr. Howland's conclusion on the death certificate, despite the fact that it later came out that Thomson had no water in his lungs. Shortly after, Thomson's family requested that the body be exhumed and buried in the family plot in Leith, Ontario. What followed was a bizarre night-time disinterment, during which the Huntsville undertaker, a Mr. Churchill, single-handedly dug up Thomson's casket, transferred his body into another container, and replaced the supposedly empty casket back into the grave. Ever since, rumours have circulated suggesting that Thomson's body was never actually removed from Canoe Lake, that the undertaker simply faked the whole thing, and given that Thomson's family never opened Churchill's casket, this remains a possibility (there have also been rumours that Thomson's friends had moved his body to another gravesite before the undertaker arrived). Enter William Little, a man with a mission. In 1956, Little devised what he describes as his "macabre plan" to open the grave at Canoe Lake. Together with some friends, Little did just that, only to discover a casket and corpse that bore a striking resemblance to Thomson's. Most incriminating of all, the corpse's skull revealed a hole in the region of the temple. Subsequent forensic examinations of the body determined that the corpse could not have been Thomson's since the body was identified as that of an aboriginal man. It is difficult not to suspect the ghost of Thomson himself hovering in the sidelines and having a bit of pesky fun with his followers here. It all sounds like an impish trick.
And yet, Little was not put off. He maintained that the body was indeed Thomson's (this will never be determined until the body in Leith is exhumed) and that Thomson's death was not an accident but rather a case of murder. In Little's account, Thomson had been in love with a woman named Winnifred Trainor, whose family owned a cabin on the lake. Speculation had it that Thomson and "Winnie" were due to be married that Fall, and further speculation suggests that Winnie was pregnant and was rushing Thomson into the marriage (hence the case for Thomson's possible suicide). It was also known that Thomson and a man named Martin Blecher, a cottager on the lake, had a mutual dislike for one another. In Little's account, Thomson and Blecher fought and Blecher either intentionally or inadvertently murdered the artist (explaining the wound on Thomson's temple) and tried to cover it up.
Both of these accounts, and many others in between, reveal a shift in the invention of Tom Thomson, "focusing attention . . . on his corpse instead of his corpus," and, as Grace points out, it is almost impossible not to get caught up in the swirl of innuendo and subterfuge that suffuses the case. Indeed, more recent "evidence" provided by Roy MacGregor suggests another version of Thomson's death. MacGregor was told by Daphne Crombie, a friend of Annie Fraser, both of whom were at Canoe Lake the year Thomson died, that Thomson was killed in a drunken argument with his friend Shannon Fraser, the proprietor of Mowat Lodge. The two men were arguing about a debt Fraser owed Thomson, and when Fraser struck his friend, Thomson fell down and hit his head on the fire grate. Together, Fraser and his wife, Annie, disposed of the body by weighting it down with fishing line and dropping it in the lake. Curiously, this is not the version that MacGregor chose to fictionalize in his novel about Thomson.
Bring on the literary reinventions. From Margaret Atwood's poetic and fictional treatments of the Thomson legend, to Robert Kroetsch's "Meditation on Tom Thomson", to Roy Kiyooka's "letters purporting to be abt tom thomson," to Joyce Wieland's The Far Shore, to Roy MacGregor's Shorelines, to The Tragically Hip's "Three Pistols", the imaginative renditions of Tom Thomson invite the chicken-and-egg question of artistic and cognitive perception: "do we see what we invent because it is already there?" The same might be asked of the growing Thomson legend. As Grace puts it: "Although we are used to calling the being in a biography the biographer's subject or the person . . . whose life is set forth in the biography, and the being in a novel the hero or the main character, the line between the two (person/character) is almost impossible to fix." Is it possible, now, to "invent" a Thomson, whether in fiction or biography, that does not look back to the previous images? Is Thomson any more than a series of infinitely receding signs, a reproducible composite that we have learned to read as symbolic of national identity? Grace's final chapter, which charts her own autobiographical dance with the ghost of Tom Thomson, emphasizes her awareness of this fact: we can build on the Thomson story, but we can never step outside of it.
Thomson continues to be invented, and continues to serve a fetishistic symbolic function. We are entranced with the grisly details of his death/murder, yes. But it is more than this, and Grace does a superb job of probing the other roles that the "spectral body" of Thomson is seen to fulfill. Invoking Robert Kroetsch's well-known line about Canadian culture-"the fiction makes us real"-Grace explores the ways Thomson has come to embody the essence of "Canadian-ness", however elusive that essence might be. More specifically, she highlights the ways he has become mystically aligned with the Canadian north (specifically Algonquin Park), with which he is seen to have achieved some kind of metaphysical communion. In doing this, Grace is drawing upon her previous work in her 2002 study Canada and the Idea of North, and she admits that the Thomson phenomenon was too big to shrink into a chapter of that study. Aside from the dubious rhetoric that conflates Algonquin with the "North", a factor that Grace explores in her earlier study, and notwithstanding the erroneous designation of the central-Canadian landscape as symbolic of all of Canada, Thomson has somehow been made to transcend these obstacles in his ascension to the level of Canadian icon. Having communed with the land through his (albeit fairly contained) wilderness expeditions, and having interpreted it for us in his art, he was finally embraced by the landscape and corporeally subsumed into it. Because of this, and most certainly only after his death, he is perceived to be the stalwart "incarnation of the land," much like his famous image of the Jack Pine in his painting of that title. He is a model for Canadians because "he knew how to be one with . . . this northern place." Through him, and through his interpretations of our place, we can finally feel that we know where we are (to invoke Northrop Frye's famous interrogation of Canadian identity: "Where is here?"). Thomson has given us an imaginative map: we see Canada through the images in his paintings, and we see him through the image we have in turn constructed of Canada. This is certainly something that the Thomson industry of placemats, coffee mugs, key-chains, and other reproductions has turned to its advantage.
In the end, Grace suggests that it may not be possible to think Canada without thinking Tom Thomson. "Thomson may be gone and forgotten," she insists, "but we can no longer see the forests for his trees." In Thomson, "Canada pictures itself." More than that, it is expressly because of his absence that he can be manipulated to mean so much for so many. His death, we are told, "left a provocative gap in an individual and national auto/biography crying out for completion." This brings us back to our lack of ghosts, or to the tangible absence that a ghost, after all, is supposed to represent. Paradoxically, every ghost haunts by virtue of its lack of embodied presence. True to the pattern, it is Thomson's looming absence that has enabled him to achieve such substantial iconic proportions. His spirit, in communion with the landscape which "took him to herself at last," lingers on. Today, stories abound of ghostly sightings of Thomson paddling his canoe in the region of Canoe Lake. Having read this study, I would have to agree with Robert Stacey's sentiment, cited in one of the book's epigraphs: "Had [Thomson] not existed, he would have had to be invented." Bring on the body.

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