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A Tribute to George Woodcock

August 07th, 2012

George Woodcock is Canada’s leading Man of letters. Originally the term “Man of Letters” meant learned man; later it grew to mean a scholar and writer, link and later still a writer who, viagra sale as well as being a scholar and critic, was also proficient in a number of other genres, an author who could not reasonably be listed under only one heading.

Over the centuries only a small number of people have been called Men or Women of Letters largely because of lack of opportunity for such diversity. We must, however, give Samuel Johnson the title for being a poet, fiction writer, essayist, biographer and lexicographer. Oliver Goldsmith also deserves the title. If we do, indeed, think of the term as a title, as an honorific, then the number of candidates for the position dwindles and in the 20th century perhaps G.K. Chesterton is one of the few certainties, though his range is not as wide as that of George Woodcock who may, indeed, be the most fully qualified for the label of any writer in English.

This may seem a vast claim, but the headings for George Woodcock’s more than 120 books prove the point. Poetry, Plays, Memoirs and Letters, Literary Criticism, Essays, Art, History, Travel, Biography, Politics, Translations, Symposia, Anthologies, Scholarly Editions – all are represented, together with that immensely significant contribution to our sense of ourselves, the quarterly, Canadian Literature, which he helped to establish in 1959 and edited for 18 years.

A great many of George Woodcock’s books are essential reading; I would instance his work on George Orwell, William Godwin and Aphra Behn, and his many contributions to the exploration of Anarchism and to the study of Canadian history and Canadian writing. His industry is as astonishing as his humility; he has never turned away from a task because it lacked obvious importance but he has performed the most menial of writers’ tasks with the same enlightened efficiency as he has tackled the major challenges.

George Woodcock is a very great Man of Letters, and he is more than that. He is a National Treasure and in a properly constituted society his 80the birthday would have been celebrated with the issuing of a postage stamp, the striking of a medal, and a burst of cannon fire on Parliament Hill.

Essay Date: 1994

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