Nothing contrived, nothing evaded: Kildare Dobbs, 1923-2013

April 2, 2013 by · 1 Comment 

kildare_dobbs_et_al“I do not invite misery by thinking about the end at the beginning, and complaining because the end is always lamentably the same. … A saying of Jesus, preserved in the Muslim tradition and written over the great gate of the deserted city of Fatehpur Sikri, strikes me with the force of a revelation, ‘Life is a bridge; build no houses but pass over.'” So wrote Kildare Dobbs, the respected Canadian poet, memoirist, travel writer, and editor, in his 2005 book Running the Rapids: A Writer’s Life. For Dobbs, the end he refused to complain about occurred on Monday, at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. Dobbs succumbed to kidney failure and congestive heart failure at the age of eighty-nine.

Born in Meerut, India, and educated in Ireland and England, Dobbs came to Canada as a schoolteacher in 1952. By 1953, he had been hired as an editor at the Macmillan Company of Canada, under legendary publisher John Gray. While at Macmillan, Dobbs worked with such canonical writers as Sinclair Ross, Morley Callaghan, and James Reaney.

In 1955, Dobbs championed a young writer named Adele Wiseman, whose first novel, The Sacrifice, would go on to win a Governor General’s Literary Award and become a Canadian classic. In her book, The Literary Legacy of the Macmillan Company of Canada: Making Books and Mapping Culture, Ryerson University English professor Ruth Panofsky writes that “Dobbs was among Wiseman’s finest readers.” Panofsky quotes the reader’s report Dobbs wrote about The Sacrifice for Macmillan: “Its richness and complexity defy reduction to a mere summary of outstanding events. If it is slow in starting it is all firmly realised and the characterization is flawless. Nothing is contrived, nothing evaded, but its seriousness doesn’t at all preclude humour and (in a good deal of it) there is a masterly restrained irony.”

In The Perilous Trade: Book Publishing in Canada 1946–2006, Roy MacSkimming points out that Dobbs also went to bat for Sheila Watson, although her novel, The Double Hook, was deemed too strange for Macmillan; it ended up at McClelland & Stewart where it remains in print to this day.

Calling Dobbs “one of the more renowned editors to serve Macmillan throughout its history,” Panofsky goes on to write, “The literary works discovered and advanced by Dobbs became inextricably linked with Macmillan’s house identity, and his regard for excellence reinforced, in no small measure, Macmillan’s profile as one of Canada’s premier literary publishers.”

After leaving Macmillan, Dobbs went on to co-found, with Robert Weaver, the Tamarack Review, and served as managing editor at Saturday Night and books editor at the Toronto Star. An obituary that appears in the latter paper quotes Dobbs’ former colleague George Fetherling as saying, “He had a cosmopolitanism that wasn’t too common in those days.”

An accomplished writer and poet himself, Dobbs won a Governor General’s Literary Award for his 1962 memoir, Running to Paradise, and was invested into the Order of Canada as recently as this past January. (Because Dobbs was too ill to travel to Ottawa, Governor General David Johnston went to Dobbs’s Toronto residence to present him with the medal – a clear indication not only of Dobbs’s importance, but of the esteem in which he was held.)

As a poet and editor, Dobbs had a keen ear and a sensitivity for technique. In the preface to his 2010 collection, Casanova in Venice, Dobbs writes: “Contemporary poetry, especially in North America, tends to be in free verse. That is, it takes a form in which the words are arranged on the page to look like metrical verse. This makes it more difficult to succeed at, except for the rare poets with well-tuned ears. Unluckily, free verse is also vulnerable to fraud.”

Dobbs’s couplets at the close of Casanova in Venice could serve as a fitting summation of his literary approach: “Listen to what the Muses sing, / nothing is lost – or everything! / Our words, for better or for worse, / resound throughout the universe.”