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#142 Gordon Elliott

March 09th, 2016

LOCATION: Simon Fraser Unversity, Burnaby.

When Simon Fraser University opened in 1965, the only B.C.-born member of the English faculty was Gordon Elliott. Other charter faculty members of the department included Ralph Maud, Jerry Zaslove, John Mills, Fred Candelaria, Stanley Cooperman, Geoff Molyneux and Dale Sullivan. With the arrival of Robin Blaser on the faculty in 1966, American influences were increasingly stressed. But as an editor and as a friend, Gordon Elliott played an integral, behind-the-scenes role in the career of Margaret Laurence in much the same way that UBC’s Ira Dilworth had served as the primary literary influence on Emily Carr.


Gordon Elliott was at UBC when Watson Thomson, an old friend of Margaret Laurence’s husband, introduced Margaret Laurence to him. She was a struggling writer raising two young children in Vancouver. In late 1957 the manuscript for her first novel This Side Jordan had been rejected and her husband Jack was hospitalized due to infections following surgery for kidney stones. The Laurences needed money. Gordon Elliott offered her a job marking essays.

Margaret Laurence's Vancouver home.

Margaret Laurence’s Vancouver home.

“At UBC nobody wanted anything to do with the new people,” he said. “One of the new people was Margaret Laurence. She worked with me for five years. I typed her first manuscript. Halfway through, I wrote to Jack McClelland, and I said, ‘I’ve run across a manuscript that I think you should see. You should get in touch with this woman Margaret Laurence.’ I was involved in most of her books, except the very last ones. I liked her very much. I admired her as a person, and as a writer. She had guts to the very end.”

When Margaret Laurence finished making her revisions for This Side Jordan in the spring of 1959, she gave the manuscript to Gordon Elliott. He retyped a clean copy for her and mailed it to Jack McClelland, accompanied by a letter, whereupon Margaret Laurence’s career as a novelist was underway.

Deeply British Columbian, Gordon Raymond Elliott was born at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver on April 19, 1920, and was raised in Vancouver, Squamish, Williams Lake and Revelstoke. According to an obituary in the Globe & Mail, “In WW ll he served as a Lancaster navigator in the RCAF, and after spending two years in Shaughnessy Hospital recovering from wounds, graduated with a MA in history from UBC. He went on to earn a second Master’s from Harvard, only to return to UBC to teach English.”

As one of the inaugural professors at Simon Fraser University when it opened in 1965, he served for many years as a judge for the Eatons B.C. Book Award, the precursor of the B.C. Book Prizes. He also edited many books such as Klondike Cattle Drive: The Journal of Norman Lee (Mitchell Press, 1968), which recalls Lee’s attempt to drive 200 cattle over 1,500 miles of rough terrain to Dawson City and the Klondike. Elliott’s behind-the-scenes presence in B.C. writing and publishing spans more than 50 years.

“The first editing job I did was for R.E. Watters, for the B.C. Centennial Anthology,” recalls Elliott. “I did research and editing for him. At the same time I was doing research and editing for Margaret Ormsby [for her British Columbia: A History (1958)]. When those jobs were finished, I had nowhere to go. Suddenly the department of English asked me to teach engineers and foresters how to write a sentence. I concluded that to write you have to have brains. You have to have ideas. You have to have knowledge. And I realized very soon that I didn’t have that skill. I had the ability to see if something should be edited. I don’t pretend to have any great skill, or a great mind, but I can see where other people are falling down in their written expression.”

Gordon Elliott

Gordon Elliott

Elliott was greatly influenced by Reginald Eyre Watters. “Watters came here in 1957, as a teacher at UBC. He’d been teaching in the States somewhere. He came here to teach Canadian literature. Who’d ever heard of Canadian Literature? If the literature’s not American, or it’s not English, there’s no such thing. We didn’t have a flag until around 1962, so how could you be interested in any Canadian writing? Watters changed that with his Checklist of Canadian Literature.

“I was in Watters’ class during my first year of university. I was maybe 30 years old. I walked into class one day, late. I’d been out drinking with my friends. Classes in those days were only fifty minutes long. I showed up for the last ten minutes. Watters said, ‘Class dismissed. All except that man who came in late.’ He came up to me and said, ‘What do you mean coming to my class this late?’ I answered, ‘I figure you always have something to say. That’s why I came for the last ten minutes.’ He hadn’t thought of it that way. He invited me to his house for a cup of tea. I ended up doing several books with him.”

Gordon Raymond Elliott retired as Professor Emeritus in 1985. A lover of good food and wine, and good company, he was long active in the B.C. Historical Society and much-valued as an editor. He died in Vancouver on December 14, 2006. He was the son of Raymond Elliott, who died in 1962, and Margaret (nee Mellish) Elliott, who died in 1988. Following his death, in accordance with his wishes, a party was held at St. George’s Senior School Campus, 4175 West 29th Ave., on Saturday, January 6 at 2 pm.

Following the sale of his apartment in April of 2007, in accordance with his specific instructions for his estate, various scholarships were created or enhanced to benefit students. Funds were added to benefit existing awards at UBC including the Margaret A Ormsby Scholarship, the N.I.T.E.P. Scholarship (for First Nations students studying to become teachers), the Dorothy Blakey Smith Prize, and the Dr Gilbert Norman Tucker Prize. A new UBC scholarship fund called the Dr Gilbert Norman Tucker Scholarship was also generated.

A major beneficiary in his will was the Union Gospel Mission. Friends and admirers separately donated monies to create an annual scholarship in his name at the Williams Lake High School to benefit a Grade 12 student heading for higher education in Vancouver or Victoria. [Cheques can be sent to Jeannette Gobolos, Williams Lake Secondary School, 640 Carson Drive, Williams Lake, BC V2G 1T3.] Margaret Horsfield organized the publication of a booklet of memories, anecdotes and stories in Gordon Elliot’s honour [c/o 1908 Estevan Road, Nanaimo BC V9S 3Z1].

Gordon Elliot’s ashes were buried alongside his mother’s at Ocean View Cemetery in Burnaby.


Barkerville, Quesnel and the Cariboo Gold Rush. Douglas & McIntyre, 1978.
Quesnel, Commercial Centre of the Cariboo Gold Rush. Cariboo Historical Society, Quesnel Branch, 1958.

Guide to the Neighbourhood Pubs of the Lower Mainland (1983)

Pick of the Neighbourhood Pubs of B.C. (1986)


Slavery Among the Indians of North America (Victoria: Victoria College, 1966) by Julia P. Averkieva; editor and translator, Gordon R. Elliot. Originally published as Rabstvo u Indietsev Severnoi Ameriki (Moscow, 1941).

The Klondike Cattle Drive: The Journal of Norman Lee (1960)

Pemberton: The History of a Settlement. Frances Decker, Margaret Fougberg, Mary Ronayne; consultant and editor, Gordon R. Elliot (Pemberton Pioneer Women, 1977)

Memories of the Chemainus Valley: A History of People. Compiled by Lillian Gustafson (Chemainus Valley Historical Society, 1978


“I can’t write. I’m too goddamned self-conscious.”

“There was no literary climate in the Vancouver in the 1950s and 60s. We’ve come an unbelievably long way.”

“Malcolm Lowry was a pain in the ass. He was so desperately being the Englishman out here, to show us how it’s done.”

“It was a dark and stormy night. That’s the only time you can use ‘it’ without an antecedent.”

“I liked Margaret Laurence. She had guts to the very end.”

A Chronology
Funeral gathering info

Gordon Raymond Elliott:

• Born April 19, 1920 in Vancouver, only son of Raymond and Margaret (nee Mellish) Elliott
• Lived in Pemberton in early childhood
• 1926 moved to Williams Lake where his father operated a butcher’s shop.
• 1937 moved to Revelstoke where his parents ran an auto court and Gordon finished high school.
• 1939 came to Vancouver where he held various jobs including one at the Strand Theatre
• 1942 joined the Canadian Army following the attack in Pearl Harbour
• 1943 transferred to the RCAF
• 1944-45 served in the RCAF as a navigator on Lancaster bombers
• 1946-47 spent two years in Shaughnessy Hospital receiving extensive treatment for shoulder injuries received in a wartime plane crash
• 1947-54 attended UBC, receiving both his BA and his MA in history
• For a period in the early 1950s, he returned to Williams Lake where he taught school
• 1955-57 attended Harvard University earning a second Masters in History
• 1957- 65 taught in the Eng


Margaret Laurence as a student

lish Department at UBC. During this time he encouraged novelist Margaret Laurence to publish her first books.
• In 1965 he became a charter member of faculty in the Department of English at the newly opened Simon Fraser University teaching courses in Canadian Literature there until 1985 when he retired as Professor Emeritus.
• In his retirement he traveled widely in Canada, Europe and Asia. When not traveling, he continued entertaining a host of friends and visitors in his West End apartment.

from Noreen Shanahan

Special to The Globe and Mail

TORONTO — Professor Gordon Elliott was to Margaret Laurence what Ira Dilworth was to Emily Carr: A steady, persuasive literary editor guiding the writer towards excellence.

It was a 1950s literary match made in heaven. Ms. Laurence’s first novel, This Side Jordan, had just been rejected and Prof. Elliott, who was then teaching at the University of British Columbia, recognized a gleam of brilliance and stepped in to help. Realizing she was financially strapped, he offered the young writer a job marking English essays and then typed her revised manuscript. Halfway through, he wrote to his publisher friend, Jack McClelland, and urged him to get in touch with his new protégé. In his 1997 biography of Margaret Laurence, author James King credited Prof. Elliott with effectively launching her career and helping introduce generations of readers to the charms and challenges of fictional Manawaka, Man.

In a way, Ms. Laurence represented vindication for Prof. Elliott. As a student at UBC, he had been greatly influenced by author and academic R.E. Watters, who had introduced him to the secret riches of Canadian literature.

“Who’d ever heard of Canadian literature?” Prof. Elliott once said. “If the literature’s not American, or it’s not English, there’s no such thing. We didn’t even have a flag until around 1964.”

In 1962, Prof. Watters published A Checklist of Canadian Literature, a book that moved the genre well beyond the first page. Prof. Elliott had worked as his research assistant on the project and got to air his opinions about which authors should be included and which should be dropped.

An impassioned defender of Can Lit during a time when Canadian writers were not considered worthy, Prof. Elliott was a crusty, irascible and exacting teacher, said Daryl Wakeman, a former student.

“Sometimes a nasty glance in your direction felt like a thousand lashes. Or he’d parade you in front of the class as though you had a dunce cap on your head,” said Mr. Wakeman. “But in his demanding style, he was also a supportive teacher and editor.”

Gordon Raymond Elliott was a British Columbian, through and through. Other than brief jaunts to distant shores, he never really left the province. He spent his earliest years in Pemberton and in Williams Lake. His father, Raymond, was a nearly illiterate butcher and his mother Margaret (née Mellish) was a schoolteacher and a devotee of the public library who encouraged her only son’s voracious appetite for books.

In 1937, the family moved to Revelstoke, B.C., and it was there that young Gordon finished high school, having read his way through all the book shelves in town. He was well on his way toward a search for Canadian literary content when the Second World War interrupted his studies.

Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941, he joined the Canadian army and was soon transferred to the RCAF. He served as a navigator on Lancaster bombers based at an airfield in England and was seriously hurt in the crash of a plane in 1945. He was sent home to Vancouver where he spent two years in a body cast in hospital. Once released, he attended UBC and graduated with a master’s in history in 1954.

After a brief period of teaching in Williams Lake, B.C., Prof. Elliott decided to go back to school and went to Harvard University. He graduated in 1957 with a second master’s in history and went home to join the faculty at UBC, where he soon began making his mark on Canadian literature as a teacher, editor and writer.

In 1965, he was hired by the newly created Simon Fraser University to confront the abyss that was Canadian literature at that time. Part of his job was to choose a curriculum.

“After we had accepted courses in Chaucer and Shakespeare and Tudors and Romantics and the English novel, a sensitive American quietly reminded us we had not made room for American literature,” he once wrote in describing the process. “He was right, but an arrogant Englishman then not-so-quietly countered by saying that no real American literature existed and that American writing is merely a poor relation of English literature . . . The nationalistic Yankee shot him down in a shower of stars and stripes. He at last capitulated.

“He unfortunately went on to add that there was certainly no such thing as Canadian literature, that Canadian writing was merely a poor relation of American writing and we were already aware of what he really thought of American writing.”

Mr. Wakeman, who studied at SFU, said Prof. Elliott described his predicament as having a “hungry Russian bear to the north, the Asiatic dragon to the west, the British lion to the east and the American eagle to the south. What’s a poor little beaver to do?’ ”

In his typically grumpy style, he attended an academic conference in Kingston in 1974 and challenged a generation of Canadian literary criticism on 19th-century novels, saying standard texts such as those published by the New Canadian Library were abridged, bowdlerized and unreliable. His colleague, Professor Kris Paulson, said the confrontation led to the establishment of the Centre for Editing Early Canadian Texts, a group of scholars who produced and authorized original texts of at least six Canadian 19th-century novels. The centre was responsible for reprinting such classics as Susannah Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush and The History of Emily Montague by Frances Brooke, frequently called the first Canadian novel.

Interestingly, Prof. Elliott believed Canadian authors could express Canadian points of view only while living in the landscape. “Malcolm Lowry, Brian Moore and Arthur Hailey are perhaps fine writers,” he said, “but they are not Canadian writers. And Malcolm Lowry was a pain in the ass.”

Over the years, Prof. Elliott edited hundreds of Canadian texts including British Columbia: A History by Margaret Ormsby (1958); Pemberton: The History of Settlement (1977). He also wrote Barkerville, Quesnel and the Cariboo Gold Rush (1978), Guide to the Neighbourhood Pubs of the Lower Mainland (1983), and Pick of the Neighbourhood Pubs of B.C. (1986).

After 30 years spent teaching Canadian literature, Prof. Elliott retired from SFU as professor emeritus in 1985. Still on the lookout for excellence, he became a judge on the annual B.C. Book Awards and travelled widely, notably in Greece. Stuffing his pockets with The Odyssey, he followed Odysseus’s path along the Aegean Sea, making frequent stops along the way for a flagon of wine.

Gordon Raymond Elliott was born in Pemberton, B.C., on April 19, 1920. He died in Vancouver on Dec. 14, 2006. He had no survivors but leaves a number of families who considered him a central figure in their lives. He left the bulk of his estate to a variety of universities, and a scholarship in his name has been established at Williams Lake Secondary School.

— February, 2007

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