Knight goes digital
August 13th, 2014
We have it on good authority that eminent B.C. historian Rolf Knight has gone modern with a new YouTube channel that stuffed with slideshows from a writing and teaching career as an anthropologist that has taken him around the world. The latest addition features images from BC, Nigeria, Europe and South America, to accompany his latest book, Voyage Through the Past Century. Thomas Ian McLeod has posted an appreciation of Knight’s class book about Vancouver’s transit system, Along the No. 20 Line, in which McLeod recounts a 6-month trek along the old No. 20 streetcar line in Vancouver. It features a number of cool photos of Knight’s old haunts in their current incarnations, including the part of town that McLeod dubs “the NDP Shaughnessy.”
The link is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ywW6aRLC0VU
—Rolf Knight was a brave and little-heralded historian and a steadfast enemy of the notion that there exists such a phenomenon as the common man. Born in 1936, the son of an itinerant cook, Knight grew up in B.C. logging camps, gained his M.A. in anthropology at UBC in 1962, and a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1968.Knight’s career path changed when he collaborated with his Berlin-born mother in A Very Ordinary Life (1974)to trace her difficult life from Germany to goldpanning in Lillooet and on to a succession of upcoast logging camps. After its release, Knight left his teaching job at SFU, disaffected by the narrowness of his fellow academics and the ignorance of his students. Knight drove a taxi in Vancouver, simultaneously producing a string of books that dignify, and show the complexity of, the so-called working class.Knight’s writing often bristles with impatience at shallow or conventional attitudes. “One of the great misconceptions of native Indian history in B.C.,” he wrote in 1978, “is the vision of a golden past age. In this view, indigenous societies on the North Pacific coast existed in a veritable Garden of Eden where ready-smoked salmon flanks launched themselves, glittering, from the streams into trenches of salalberry and oolichan sauce, where a superabundance of foods was always and everywhere available with the merest of effort; a veritable land of Cockaigne. In such accounts, wars and raids were mainly rough games for prestige, slaves were not really slaves, chiefs were the servants of their people, all necessities were shared, and settlements were rife with co-operation and equity. Spiritualism and traditions reigned supreme and almost everyone was part of one big family. . . . Popular conceptions generally disregard or gloss over considerable evidence of suffering, hardships, and oppression between and within the indigenous Indian societies. While this is not a justification for the varied inequities which followed in the wake of European settlement, it should remind us that native Indian societies did not witness a fall from natural grace at the arrival of Europeans.”Rolf Knight also wrote or co-authored Work Camps and Company Towns in Canada and the United States (1975), A Man of Our Times: A Life-History of a Japanese-Canadian Fisherman (1976), Stump Ranch Chronicles and Other Narratives (1977), Indians at Work: An Informal History of Native Indian Labour in British Columbia 1858–1930 (1978), Along the No. 20 Line: Reminiscences of the Vancouver Waterfront (1980), Traces of Magma: An Annotated Bibliography of Left Literature (1983), Voyage Through the Mid-Century (1988) and Homer Stevens: A Life in Fishing (1992). Here follows a review of Knight’s most recent book.
Rolf Knight’s engaging autobiography Voyage Through the Past Century (New Star $24) is a much-improved version of an earlier privately published memoir that dignifies Knight’s lifelong political disaffection by curbing his penchant for rants. It goes a long way to validate Knight’s inclusion in Alan Twigg’s survey of B.C. literature, The Essentials, 150 Great B.C. Books and Authors.
Knight can be deemed an “essential” in B.C. letters because he has been the province’s foremost working class intellectual author. Renouncing cozy university life, Knight has produced ten important but seldom-heralded books, including his classic Indians at Work, the first study to assert and document the integral and widespread role of First Nations’ labour in B.C.
There’s still fire in his belly. “Whereas Canada once seemed capable of maintaining an independent stance in the world,” he proclaims, “since the end of the Trudeau era our nation has progressively become a Quisling-led bum boy to the Americans.
“The provision of oil and other resources, the emergence of unchecked free trade, the provision of Canadian soldiers for American adventures abroad have become almost automatic for Canadian governments.
“We are evolving into an unchecked free-enterprise state with potentially devastating consequences for ordinary people in Canada.”
Born in Vancouver in 1936, the son of an itinerant cook, Knight grew up in B.C. logging camps, mining camps and East Vancouver. He later engaged in bouts of wanderlust, including a first-time love affair in Nigeria in 1957-’58 with a local woman who spoke Yoruba, Hausa and Lagos pidgin English. She was eighteen; he was twenty-one.
Knight gained his M.A. in anthropology at UBC in 1962, and a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1968. His career path changed when he collaborated with his Berlin-born mother for A Very Ordinary Life (1974), tracing her difficult life from Germany to goldpanning in Lillooet and hardscrabble work in camps. After its release, Knight left his university teaching career, repulsed by the narrowness of his fellow academics and the ignorance of his students.
While his wife held down a steady job at SFU (not mentioned), Knight grudgingly drove a MacLure’s taxi in Vancouver, simultaneously producing a string of books that show the complexity of working class people, particularly migrants workers like his father and mother.
“In retrospect,” he concludes, “it would seem that writing was the single endeavor which I ever found to be truly fulfilling and through which I ever contributed anything worthwhile.
“Finally, I have not fundamentally changed what I believed about the world and the forces in it. I am still a socialist and will remain so regardless of the worldwide defeats, treachery and retreats imposed by the forces of reaction to it. So be it.”
Rolf Knight’s mother Phyllis was musical, adamantly anti-militaristic and disliked cooking. She had worked since age thirteen in Berlin, surviving famine and “a plague of nearly medieval proportions during the end of the First World War.”
Knight reveals much less about his labourer and camp cook father, Ali, an immigrant migrant worker. “During the half dozen years after the end of the war,” he writes, “my parents were in a pretty constant state of dispute with each other.”
Knight’s parents stayed together for forty years in a marriage that “rested on a loyalty built up through the many difficulties they’d gone through together. Respect and loyalty are emotions at least as strong as love.”
Not prone to self-revelation, Knight mentions, in just one sentence, that he watched his father’s last wrestling match at Exhibition Gardens when his father was forty-eight years of age. No context, no details. The narrative realm is more sociological than psychological.
At age fourteen, Rolf Knight got his first job as a mess boy and baggage handler on a small coastal passenger-freight boat, Gulf Wing, by faking his age. At fifteen, he worked for a BC Forest Service crew in Kamloops building some of the first roadside campsites in B.C.
“I took pride in doing what so many men before me had done,” he writes. “… I felt the migratory workers were to be emulated. It may be hard to believe about an alienated sixteen-year-old boy but that pride was a source of strength. Today, I understand somewhat better that it was making a virtue of a necessity.”
Although he appreciated attending Britannia High School in East Vancouver because it lacked rah-rah school spirit, he was largely self-educated at the Carnegie Library on Hastings where he could read novels by John Steinbeck, or teach himself about Mexican history, the Spanish Civil War, the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World) and socialism.
In 1952, at sixteen, American border officials stymied his efforts to reach Mexico. He reached the border town of Nogales but returned to Kitimat. In 1953, he took buses across the northern U.S. to board one of the oldest passenger ships sailing to Europe, buying a dormitory class ticket from Quebec City to Bremerhaven.
“Dormitory class was far preferable to traveling by luxury liner,” he recalls, “because of the better class of people one met on the Arosa Kulm.”
Seeing the decimation of Berlin, almost ten years after the war ended, was a rite of passage. Too shy to ask a girl on a date, he describes himself as “a bumptious seventeen-year-old Canadian without any particular purpose or official connections and speaking an ungrammatical German with a Berlin dialect I was trying to accentuate.”
He flew to New York and bussed back to Vancouver. Two weeks later, at eighteen, he was on a skeleton crew reopening the La Joie construction camp at Bridge River where, by the 1950s, only the Bralorne and Pioneer mines remained. In late 1954 he left Bridge River to attend the University of British Columbia when less than five per cent of working class children went to college.
“I became enthralled by the university,” he writes. “For three years I just about lived in the bowels of the library.”
In retrospect, Knight now sees how much The Fearful Fifties—as the independent newspaperman I.F. Stone once dubbed that decade—had infused even remote UBC as another bastion for Cold War scholarship. Knight’s retrospective commentaries about universities in general frequently give rise some of his most insightful and lively writing.
“It was an era of systematically fostered, epidemic Babbitry.”
He supported himself with menial jobs, including a stint the old BC Sugar Refinery factory on Powell Street (“It turned out to be the worst, the most mindless and exhausting bull labour I ever did in my life. The plant was straight out of the nineteenth century.”) and a job at Western Fish Oil, a fish processing plant beside LaPointe Pier (“The worst task was emptying out the five-gallon tins of half-rotted dogfish livers….”).
As a Vancouver Parks Board labourer he helped pack rocks for a new seawall being built around Stanley Park. All these jobs provided incentive for Knight to apply for an exchange student scholarship from the World University Service in 1957—to study in Nigeria. The Bight of Benin couldn’t be much worse than the Rogers Sugar factory, even if he had to pay his own fare there and back.
Knight’s 40-page memoir of life and first love in tropical West Africa, long before Nigeria became the most powerful nation in that continent, is shrewd, compelling and surprisingly free of self-glorification. His two-year relationship with the beautiful Bisi Archer lasted until the day he left Nigeria with malaria. With typical reserve, he comments, “Bisi stayed with me the last week and brought me out to the airport to see me off. A very emotional scene. But we didn’t maintain contact, and I don’t even know how her life played out.”
More labouring jobs ensued, this time in Fort St. John and the Peace River country, as well as a torrid love affair in California. He met beatniks and hitchhiked into Mexico, then shuffled back and forth between Berkeley and UBC where eminence gris anthropologist Cyril Belshaw told Knight he was unfit to pursue a Ph.D.
In the spring of 1961 Knight made his first visit to Chicago where he participated in a small and cautious peace demonstration. Several hundred protestors were threatened with violence and vilified. “It was the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a lynch mob,” he writes.
With his new love, Mary, he took up residence in a decaying black tenement district in Southside Chicago. “By the time I had lived in Nigeria for four months I knew scads of people,” he writes. “But I never truly got to know anyone who was part of the Southside.”
Knight undertook his first real anthropological field work in two Cree communities east of James Bay for the National Museum of Canada between the spring of 1961 and the fall of 1962. He later worked for the Department of National Affairs studying a so-called “model village” built for an Ojibwa band on Wunnimin Lake in northwestern Ontario. All of which led him to pursue his doctorate at Columbia University.
In 1962, Rolf Knight loved New York. It proved to be the easiest place to make friends he had ever lived in. It was also, in his eyes, “the Rome of our age, the booming, festering, smug, corrupt, cosmopolitan heart of the greatest imperial power in the world.”
It helped that he fell in love, twice. First there was Jane, a native Manhattanite, in her late thirties, with two children. She was a fellow anthropology student at Columbia, the most fulfilling university he has known. “All major American universities have sinister elements,” he writes. “So do most Canadian ones.” But the air was electric with the rise of Black Power and the civil rights movement. Change was afoot, along with a rising tide of Bohemianism.
And then there was Vivian, a “red diaper baby,” someone reared with Jewish Communist beliefs. Their five-year relationship further broadened Knight’s political education, far beyond the realms of Cyril Belshaw’s UBC cloister, acquainting him with pogroms in Ukraine and Yiddish history.
By the summer of 1967, Knight was marching with three hundred thousand people from Central Park to the U.N. Plaza. Busloads of the NYPD Tactical Police were waiting. Disorganized, the peace protestors were easily clubbed and dispersed. “It was so humiliating,” he recalls, “not the physical confrontation, but the fear of tackling the police.”
Before returning to Canada in 1968, Knight specialized in Latin America anthropology for his doctoral work, making two field trips to a sugarcane workers’ hamlet in the Cauca Valley of southern Colombia. He spent nine months in a semitropical highland valley of the Andes, leading to a 30-page account—from Columbia to Colombia—that rivals his Nigerian memoir for depth.
Rolf Knight successfully defended his dissertation in the spring of 1968, landing his first teaching job at the University of Manitoba at age thirty-two. Winnipeg was uninspiring but hugely significant. It was where he met his wife, Carol, who had grown up on a northern Manitoba farm. Like George Woodcock’s wife, Ingeborg, who sternly told her husband NOT to write about her in his memoirs, the much younger Carol forbade Knight from describing their still-surviving marriage in Voyage Through the Past Century.
Instead, Knight gives us two stanzas.
Oh you can give marriage a whirl
If you’ve got some cash in your purse.
But don’t marry no one but a Prairie girl
‘Cuz no matter what happens she’s seen worse.
Carol has been the most important person in Rolf Knight’s life ever since they met. After Knight turned his back on lucrative teaching jobs at both Simon Fraser University and University of Toronto, leaving U. of T. in 1977, it was Carol who helped him do much of the typesetting and layout for his first six books with New Star.
For a while Knight had a well-paying job as a member of an Air Canada ground crew; then he had two short-lived stabs at working on trollers. By 1979 he was back driving cab for MacLure’s for four years, four days a week, working long hours for low pay. “I wasn’t driving cab to learn anything,” he writes, “I just couldn’t find any other work.”
Knight’s autobiography contains a ten-page recollection of how and why professors were purged from the allegedly radical Political Science, Sociology and Anthropology department at SFU in 1970, but he devotes only six pages to “the single endeavor which I ever found to be truly fulfilling and through which I ever contributed anything worthwhile”—his literary output.
We can only conjecture as to why someone who so obviously takes himself very seriously as a social commentator, as an anthropologist, and as an advocate for socialism, gives his considerable contributions to B.C. literature short shrift. Does lack of recognition for his writing somehow validate his worth? Does he thrive on gnarly obscurity?
In addition to his mother’s story, Rolf Knight also wrote or co-authored Work Camps and Company Towns in Canada and the United States (1975), A Man of Our Times: A Life-History of a Japanese-Canadian Fisherman (1976), Stump Ranch Chronicles and Other Narratives (1977), Along the No. 20 Line: Reminiscences of the Vancouver Waterfront (1980), Traces of Magma: An Annotated Bibliography of Left Literature (1983), Voyage Through the Mid-Century (1988) and Homer Stevens: A Life in Fishing (1992).
A Very Ordinary Life went through three printings and sold some eight thousand copies. He approached twenty-seven publishers with the manuscript before he brought it to Barb Coward and Steve Garrod at New Star, from which he did not receive royalties (according to his account).
Stump Ranch Chronicles similarly tells the survival stories of ranchers Arnt Arntzen and Eve Koeppen; and A Man of Our Times recollects the life of an eighty-nine-year-old Issei fisherman, union organizer and newspaper editor, Ryuichi Yoshida. His Studs Terkel-like Along the No. 20 Line contains reminiscences of the Vancouver industrial waterfront in the late 1940s.
Indians at Work is backed by 800 citations from 300 sources, but it didn’t receive any reviews from Canadian history journals. Even more remarkable was Knight’s bibliographic survey of left wing novels from around the world, (the unfortunately titled) Traces of Magma, which contains annotated references to three thousand books by fifteen hundred writers from ninety countries. Again, hardly anybody noticed. Even socialists couldn’t care less.
Knight self-published his massive survey of leftist novels with his own imprint, Draegerman Books. That term Draegerman refers rescue teams which went underground to bring out the living and the dead after mining disasters. Any discerning reader of Knight’s uneven but fascinating Voyage Through the Past: A Memoir will hope some literary draegermen will now rescue Rolf Knight from the bowels of cantankerous obscurity, according him the respect and credit he deserves.
by Alan Twigg