Ralph Connor/The Rev. Dr. Charles W. Gordon: The Role of Archives in the Memorialization of a Canadian Literary and Theological Giant
By John Richthammer
[Note: This is the archival version. A corrected and updated version of this article is also available.]
The history of literary estates is filled with such what-might-have-been: what might have been destroyed, what might have been preserved, what might have been distorted or inked over.
Writing under the pen name Ralph Connor, Winnipeg Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Dr. Charles William Gordon became the most popular and best-selling novelist of the early twentieth century. Five million copies of his 30 novels were sold worldwide. To the world, “Ralph Connor” was a literary giant. To Winnipeg citizenry, Charles W. Gordon was a beloved minister and a long-time Moderator of the Presbyterian Church. During the First World War, he was a high-profile chaplain in the Canadian Army. His activities as a labour dispute negotiator and social justice crusader on the prairies are well-documented.
Gordon’s extensive fonds (25.25 linear feet) are at the University of Manitoba Archives. In addition to this anchor collection, other archival material on Gordon exists in repositories across the country, while numerous books depict various facets of the life of this remarkable man. What is absent from any scholarship on the life of Charles W. Gordon is a consideration of how he may have viewed his own public memory. Did Gordon exhibit even a passing interest in his posthumous reputation and to what extent might such interest have been? Is there actual evidence which clearly suggests whether he exhibited or maintained an interest in or concern about the perpetuation of his historical memory or legacy to the world? Did he articulate any possible concern over what specifically would become of his papers and, if so, how did he make known his concerns? Do the various sources bear any such testimony?
The fact that, in the last year of his life and under the heavy strain of illness, he wrote a lengthy autobiography would seem an obvious sign that Gordon, especially at the end of his life, was concerned with his own memorialization. Then again, perhaps the memoirs were not a sign. Was he prodded to write his memoirs because of his fame as a celebrated novelist and preacher, or did he write the autobiography solely for family, fans, or remuneration? Are his feelings toward memorialization evident in the work? What do his last will and testament and estate probate records tell us about Gordon’s wishes for final disposition of his papers? Does he even include them in his testamentary instructions? Since he was memorialized in myriad ways by various groups and in worldwide media, were calls for the preservation of Gordon’s papers ever articulated?
What conclusions may be drawn from the fact that between 1969 and 1994 the Gordon collection was donated by the family to the University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections (as it was then known)? Where had they languished in the decades following Gordon’s death? What of the archiving sensibilities of the Gordon family? Is it apparent or not that the papers ever fell victim to ‘souvenirization’ by family members or collectors? If it is likely the papers were not denuded or censored, was any material added? Moreover, were the papers neglected, separated, ignored, protected or treasured? What of the role of archives? Was the donation of the Gordon papers an afterthought, a means of disposal of unwanted paper bulk in a family member’s basement? Did the archives approach family members, or did they contact the archives? Conversely, if archival donation was seriously considered by the family, why did the acquisition take so long, and why was the University of Manitoba Archives the repository of choice to the family? By examining Gordon’s voluminous papers, his lengthy published autobiography Postscript to Adventure: The Autobiography of Ralph Connor, the probate records of the Gordon estate, and the University of Manitoba Archives’ administrative files on the acquisition of the Gordon fonds, it is plausible that these questions will find their answers.
In order to glean an understanding of the significance of the Gordon papers, it is essential to review the extraordinary life and multiple careers of Charles William Gordon. Born at Indian Lands, Glengarry County, Canada West, on September 13, 1860, Gordon was the fourth son of Mary Robertson and the Rev. Daniel Gordon. Scottish-born Daniel became a missionary of the Free Church of Scotland in Canada in 1853. Gordon’s mother, Mary, who had also emigrated from Scotland, complimented her husband in keen intelligence. In fact, her intellectual breadth and academic accomplishments were significantly acknowledged when, at the age of only 22, she was asked (although she declined) to become principal of her alma mater, Mount Holyoke Ladies’ Seminary.
Charles Gordon was educated at universities in Toronto and Edinburgh, and after teaching for a short period of time, was ordained in 1890 as a Presbyterian minister. For the first three years of his ministry, Gordon served in the district of Banff, Alberta, area until moving to Winnipeg to become minister at St. Stephen’s Broadway Church.
The sunrise on Gordon’s literary life and celebrity began in 1897. In order to raise funds for and public awareness of church-related endeavours, Gordon published a series of short stories based on his experiences in mission work in the Canadian West. The stories appeared as serials in a church publication. Their warm critical reception propelled Gordon to continue his developing passion for writing. He consistently wrote under the pseudonym “Ralph Connor.” His 1899 book The Sky Pilot was a best-seller, as was The Prospector (1904), and The Foreigner (a novel of intrigue set in the north end of Winnipeg). These novels, and subsequent works, firmly established Gordon as a Canadian author of note. Paul Rutherford, in paying homage to Gordon’s literary gifts, popular appeal, and critical acclaim, suggests that any success English-Canadian writers enjoyed came first from critical success in Britain and the United States:
A number of English-Canadian authors like Charles Gordon (writing as Ralph Connor), Gilbert Parker, Stephen Leacock, and Margaret Saunders won large Canadian audiences, and some international fame by writing moralistic adventures, historical romances, humour and animal stories. Their reputation in Britain and the United States was the first evidence of a successful adaptation by a group of Canadians to the tastes of anglophone readers elsewhere.
Gordon’s fictional works, which were so successful during the latter nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century, are imbued with characters which today may be seen as stereotypical representations of good and evil in pioneering settings. Church and community leaders presided over these tales in which good ultimately triumphed over evil. As historian Gerald Friesen noted in The Canadian Prairies: A History, Connor’s novels
… told the stories of western missionaries, doctors, and Mounted Policemen — good-hearted and manly men — who confronted the rough life of the bush camps and mine towns. Naturally, the good guys won victories for the temperance movement and the church.
Imperial adventure fiction, Gordon’s beloved writing genre, was firmly embedded into early twentieth century psyche, and he became the most successful practitioner of this genre in the world. However, he often did not write for months, then, at the prodding of his publisher, would experience great paroxysms of creativity. This struggle to complete manuscripts promptly dogged Gordon much of his life. Historian William L. Morton, in his epic work, Manitoba: A History, notes that Gordon’s fame developed rapidly, a situation which no Canadian author had previously enjoyed:
Gordon had achieved a reputation as a novelist with the publication of Black Rock and The Man From Glengarry, novels of some feeling and characterization. Thereafter there flowed from his pen a series of novels descriptive of western Canadian life, which were widely read and translated into many languages. They served the need for some description of the land to which thousands were flocking; they discussed Canadian life in that tone of manly Christian endeavour which Canadians then found satisfying because it did fill a gap between the roughness of the frontier and the pieties of the home.
Vast social changes have occurred since Gordon’s lifetime, hence the works of “Ralph Connor” have often been criticized for existing under canopies of over-sentimentalization and melodramatic, romanticized stereotypes. Friesen explained that some critics have missed or ignored entirely the underlying importance of the context of time and place in which these novels were written and became wildly successful:
To modern readers his characters seem stereotyped and his plots contrived but, at the time, the prairie settings were revelations. The novels discussed the development of individuals and the development of society — a Christian and western Canadian society — in a manner that was believable and exciting … they suggested that the prairie west was a place where any individual could begin again and, with a little honest effort, could succeed. Connor built this image of the west upon a series of comparisons between the new land and other societies: it was a society close to nature, not urban; it was young, not old; it was free, not bound by convention. The prairie west, indeed, could re-create the individual just as it improved upon the social order … at the turn of the century, country life was associated with images of purity and productiveness.
Much of Gordon’s early subject matter came from the stories his parents told, and from his own youth in Glengarry County, Ontario, where several of his novels, including Glengarry School Days (1902), were set. The greatest influence on Gordon — after his parents — was his beloved mentor, Dr. James Robertson, whose biography he wrote in 1908. As Presbyterian superintendent of western Canadian missions, Robertson was not only Gordon’s superior but also a cherished friend.
In 1899, Gordon had married Helen Skinner King, the university-educated daughter of the Rev. John Mark King, first principal of Manitoba College (now the University of Winnipeg). Their eldest child, John King, was born the following year in Winnipeg; the births of six daughters followed.
Gordon served in France as a chaplain with the Cameron Highlanders in the Canadian Army during the First World War. Upon demobilization, he embarked upon a speaking tour of the United States to promote American participation in the war effort. As Terrence Craig observed, “His novels then and afterward were broader in scope and setting, more bluntly didactic in applying theology to modern society, and less popular than his westerns.”
Upon returning to Winnipeg from the speaking tour, Gordon was appointed chair of the Manitoba Council of Industry for four years following the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. He also became well-known for his tangible assistance in mediating many notable, protracted labour disputes.
In 1921 he became Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Canada and was instrumental in the process of forming the United Church of Canada in 1925.
Gordon initially had had no plan to write an autobiography. However, at the prolonged period of urging of family and friends, he began work on an autobiographical manuscript. The project was completed just prior to Gordon’s entering Misericordia Hospital for an intestinal operation. He died suddenly, shortly after the operation, and his autobiography, Postscript to Adventure: The Autobiography of Ralph Connor was published posthumously by the New York firm of Farrar & Rinehart, Inc., in the following year, 1938.
Charles and Helen Gordon’s son, John King Gordon, followed in his father’s footsteps by likewise becoming noted for much more than his ministry. King Gordon earned degrees from the University of Manitoba, Oxford University, and the Union Theological Seminary. He taught theology for several years before leaving that career to devote more time to his increasingly socialistic, debate-provoking views. Eventually King was a founding member of the Fellowship for a Christian Social Order, of the League for Social Reconstruction, and of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). His work in social reform led him to a position at the United Nations in New York City. He remained there for the rest of his working life, serving in top-level positions in Korea, the Middle East and the Congo. For many years he was a professor of international relations at the universities of Ottawa and Alberta, served as chair of CUSO, and advised the International Development Research Centre. King Gordon was one of the executors of his father’s estate and unofficially appointed himself custodian of his father’s literary works. Since his mother and sisters were not much concerned with the then-unpublished autobiography, King took charge and worked tirelessly on preparing his father’s manuscript for the New York publishers. The introduction King wrote for the autobiography is obviously a tender gesture from an admiring son. The younger Gordon recalled his father’s modesty and hesitancy in consenting to write a memoir:
It had taken a great deal of persuasion to get him launched on the reminiscences of his life … for all of his 76 years he lived as a young man. There had been no break in the adventure of his life … As I have indicated, he was averse to writing his ‘Memoirs.’ The book, if written at all, would be simply a running account of incidents and personalities that had played some part in his life.
Gordon’s autobiography neither mentioned his last years nor his wishes for disposition of any papers remaining from his literary career. It is a plausible surmise that Gordon viewed his extensive autobiography, destined for publication, as evidence enough of his religious life and literary career, as well as an ample record of his private life. Gordon may well have felt that through this autobiography he was leaving behind something of himself as Charles Gordon, the man, while Ralph Connor, the writer, had produced celebrated novels which would live on whether or not they were mentioned in his last wishes. Gordon’s autobiography was his way of using his extensive collection of papers for one last purpose, or so he may have thought. Consequently, after having drawn heavily upon his papers for the autobiography, it is probable that Gordon felt that his papers had little or no future use. How erroneous such an assumption would have been.
Charles William Gordon died at age 77 at the Misericordia Hospital in Winnipeg on Hallowe’en Day, 1937. Oddly, he and his brother, Dr. H.F. Gordon, died less than 24 hours apart. Charles Gordon’s brief will, signed eight years earlier, in 1929, is written in the hand of Roland Fairbairn McWilliams, his lawyer, friend, and future Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba. It was common practice at that time for wills to be typewritten, so the fact that Gordon’s will is written in McWilliams’s inelegant, tiny, and nearly illegible handwriting is a puzzle. The simple document was witnessed by McWilliams’s wife, Margaret Stovel McWilliams, one of Manitoba’s most celebrated feminists, and Gordon family friend and bookkeeper, Nettie Love.
This is the Last Will and Testament of me, Charles William Gordon, of the City of Winnipeg, Minister of the Gospel, made and declared this 29th day of August, A.D. 1929.
I give, devise and bequeath all my estate real and personal of whatsoever kind to my dear wife Helen Skinner Gordon upon the following trusts:
To use the income from my estate for the maintenance and education of herself and our children in such manner as she shall think proper to use as much of the principal as she may from time to time think necessary for the said purposes.
To divide the principal remaining at her death amongst our children in such manner and proportions as she may think best which disposition may be made either by writing during her lifetime or by her Last Will and Testament and with power to advance such amounts on account of such disposition to any of the children as she may think
The will is short on detail and specifics. Gordon does not seem to have deliberated to any great extent on the disposition of his estate. He listed no particular material bequest, preferring to leave the decision to his executors, with any final decision resting with his wife, Helen. There is no mention whatsoever in the will of Gordon’s papers, and he appointed neither a biographer nor a literary executor. Any reason why this internationally-renowned literary celebrity took no special notice of his papers in his will is a mystery, but a mystery upon which speculation is not impossible.
Gordon was known for his modesty, and perhaps it was that characteristic which prevented him from mentioning his papers in his will. As well, it is conceivable that he simply did not recognize the historical value of his papers. He possibly thought that other than for his family, there would be no interest in them. A significant sign of Gordon’s modesty appeared in the first line of his will. He described his occupation as “minister of the gospel,” with no mention made of the fact that he earned the majority of his living by authoring internationally-celebrated novels.
Although Gordon did not specifically mention his papers in his will, he included the following clause:
In the event of my wife not having made any disposition, the residue of my estate remaining after her death shall be divided equally among the children then surviving after taking into account any sums which may have been advanced on principal to any of the children. If any of our children should have predeceased my wife leaving a child or children, such child or children shall then share of my estate which their parent would have inherited.
The “residue” of the estate included possessions such as literary and personal papers. His daughter Ruth and son King retained them along with any other inherited possessions. Since Gordon did not mention his literary work in his will, there was, of course, no time restriction or embargo placed upon them, and the family ultimately never imposed any restrictions when they made the donation to the University of Manitoba.
Apart from his autobiography, Gordon appears not to have concerned himself much with his posthumous reputation nor did he write — either publicly or privately — of how he viewed himself or his papers. In his seminal monograph on literary estates, Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography, Ian Hamilton addressed two main analogies of the “flame” which is either kept or discarded by its creator: “flames have a double presence: there is the gem-like flame of art and there is the private bonfire, ‘the trustful guardian of secret matters.’” While there is well-documented evidence of Gordon’s legendary modesty, evidence also strongly suggests (and is borne out in the apparent completeness of his papers) that he was no “guardian of secret matters.” In an almost negligent way, Gordon shaped his posterity by an utter lack of interest in his own fame, public persona or (save for his 423-page published autobiography), his posthumous reputation. Gordon biographer John Lennox also notes a sincere modesty in his subject’s literary affairs, a reticence easily translated into Gordon’s deeply unequivocal, frustrating silence on how his executors (wife Helen, son King, and trusted friend and advisor, barrister McWilliams) should administer his literary or clerical posterity. It would seem that Gordon, the popular novelist, had neither desire nor pretension by which to contemplate his posthumous literary legacy.
The Papers’ Trail
Two folders of non-public administrative files at the University of Manitoba Archives contain correspondence, notes taken by the university archivist during conversations with some of Gordon’s children, agreements (including deeds of gift), studies, and reports. The files contain the most complete information extant relating to the custodial history of the Gordon papers. While no documentation in the administrative files reveals definitively this history from Gordon’s own death until that of his wife Helen in Winnipeg on March 17, 1961, it is obvious, from family correspondence with archival personnel on the matter, that Mrs. Gordon herself retained custody of the majority of the papers. This certainty is corroborated by the fact that Gordon’s will stipulated that Mrs. Gordon was to inherit the entire estate and, should she make her own will at a future date, that she should then leave any residual property to their children or the children’s survivors. A few short years after Gordon’s death, straitened financial circumstances forced Helen Gordon to move from the evocative family mansion at 54 Westgate at Armstrong Point in Winnipeg. Throughout her later years, she lived with her daughter, Ruth Gordon, in the Wolseley area of Winnipeg. Mrs. Gordon apparently died intestate, so the clause in her husband’s will would still have been effective, and the “residue” of the estate remaining at her death would have been distributed to surviving children. However, the bulk of the papers remained with Ruth who assumed (incorrectly, as it was learned) that any papers left in the former Gordon home on Westgate were destroyed or lost through damage when the house was unoccupied and deteriorating for many years. Apart from the obvious bulk of material kept by Ruth Gordon in her home, several boxes of Charles Gordon’s papers and ephemera were retained by King Gordon and his sisters in their homes across Canada and the United States. King Gordon was not the only Gordon scion who retained an enduring interest in the perpetuation of their father’s life and work. Administrative correspondence at the University of Manitoba Archives indicates the fervent interest King’s six sisters shared in seeing the Gordon papers preserved.
Just as Charles and Helen Gordon were accomplished and distinguished, so too were their children. For example, Ruth Gordon was an accomplished dancer of national reputation, Mary Robertson Carver was a well-known community worker, Lois Isobel Gordon earned a Master of Social Work, worked for the Children’s Aid Society in Toronto and served as a captain in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps, Margaret Helen (Marjorie) Smart worked for the British High Commissioner’s Office in Ottawa and Washington, was vice-consul for Canada in New York, and was the first principal of St. Hilda’s, a new women’s college at the University of Melbourne in Australia. Gretta Brown was a Winnipeg child care activist, and the youngest, Alison Cox, also lived and worked in Winnipeg.
The placement of the Charles William Gordon (Ralph Connor) Collection at the University of Manitoba Archives is due in large part to the extraordinarily archivally-minded efforts expended by a devoted fan of the novelist. Gordon D. McLeod, a teacher at St. John’s-Ravenscourt School in Winnipeg, had chosen the works of Charles Gordon as the subject of his doctoral dissertation. He then went searching for primary source material. He recorded that his first thought was a question: Did Gordon leave any papers, and where were they? In 1968 McLeod met Ruth Gordon, who welcomed him into her home and showed him some of the manuscripts and other papers she had stored haphazardly in various places in the house. He soon recognized the historical value, as well as the depth and breadth, of the papers. With Ruth’s blessing, McLeod set out to find a suitable archival repository for them. Without McLeod’s forthright, determined intervention, the papers might never have been preserved as an archival collection and might have become fragmented, or destroyed altogether. However, approximately three decades earlier, an attempt to obtain manuscript material was possibly the first recorded interest in Gordon’s papers after his death. He had died just over two months earlier when, in January, 1938, William Barbour of the Fleming H. Revell Company, a publishing firm in New York City, wrote to Helen Gordon:
It has occurred to us that possibly you may have found incomplete or completed manuscripts among Dr. Gordon’s papers: and if there is any material — particularly in fiction form — … I hope that you will write us at your convenience.
There is no record of Mrs. Gordon’s response to this rather flippant, untimely letter, although it is annotated on the top left corner with the date “May 24,” which may be indicative of the date on which a reply was written or sent. Hence, it is not known whether or not Mrs. Gordon found the ill-timed letter to be an affront; as a greedy attempt by that publisher to continue to capitalize on Gordon’s writing. From the extent of the papers as they were later collected, it may be deduced that she did not send any manuscripts, either partial or complete, to the Fleming H. Revell Company.
Gordon McLeod, in his bibliography to the Gordon manuscripts, recounted the events of his discovery of the papers:
I became interested in finding whether the working notes and manuscripts of Connor’s novels were in existence. After correspondence with Ralph Connor’s son, King Gordon, I found that if there were any manuscripts they would be in the possession of Connor’s daughter, Miss Ruth Gordon, of Winnipeg. At first it seemed there might be no manuscripts at all. Miss Gordon pointed out to me that when she and her mother moved from Westgate many of the papers had been thrown out. Secondly she remarked that her father had not saved in an organized way his manuscripts and finally that while in storage in the basement of her home on Wolseley Avenue some had been damaged by the  flood.
However after searching though trunks etc. Miss Gordon did find the manuscripts and papers which I describe below [in a bibliographical essay]. She feels that these are all the manuscripts of Connor that exist. I suggest, therefore, that these papers should be preserved here at the University of Manitoba in the city in which most of them were written and that they be made available for research.
McLeod prepared his bibliography to help entice The University of Manitoba, and in particular, the Elizabeth Dafoe Library and the University’s English Department, into accepting for permanent retention the manuscripts, notebooks, sermons, and correspondence of Gordon. McLeod approached Dr. Doris B. Saunders, professor and head of the English Department. In a May 4, 1968 letter to her, McLeod outlined the process by which he wished to see the papers made accessible to researchers:
If the papers are acquired by the University they should be catalogued and placed in the proper sequence. This would require considerable work as I feel that the notations on parts of the manuscripts placed by a secretary are probably incorrect and also because many of the manuscripts are fragments of chapters, some of which have not been published in that form. Whether or not this work were to have any bearing on my Ph.D. [dissertation] I would be willing to work on the papers this summer if the University were interested in my doing so. I, of course, feel strongly that the papers of Prairie writers should be preserved here at the University of Manitoba. I have no understanding of the financial value of these papers but I feel that they have considerable literary value and certainly great historical value in the field of Fiction of the Canadian West.
Following nearly one year of meetings and correspondence among McLeod, various University officials, and Ruth and King Gordon, the papers were accepted into Dafoe Library. It would be nearly ten years before a formal University Archives was established and the papers actually became available to researchers. The choice of a permanent home for Gordon’s papers was a unanimous one among his children during the initial placement discussions in 1968 and 1969. Not only had their mother Helen been an early graduate (one of the first women, in fact) of the University of Manitoba, but all seven Gordon children were graduates of the University of Manitoba in their birthplace of Winnipeg. During the celebration held at the University’s Elizabeth Dafoe Library to welcome the initial accession of Gordon papers, the Gordon siblings told those present, including journalists, that the University of Manitoba was, to them, the most logical and appropriate repository. Furthermore, they noted that their father had received an Honourary Doctorate from the University, then headed (as Chancellor) by his dear friend John Wesley Dafoe, editor of the Manitoba Free Press.
Dr. Richard E. Bennett, a noted Mormon scholar, gained a reputation for building an impressive collection of literary papers during his more than 20 years as Head of what was then known as the Department of Archives & Special Collections at The University of Manitoba. During Bennett’s tenure, the Gordon collection was expanded greatly as Gordon’s children, then senior citizens, surrendered boxes of archival material as it came to light. In one particular accrual, Bennett was startled to find extensive and incredibly detailed personal correspondence reflecting the wide variety of friendships Gordon shared with people from all walks of life. The breadth of personal correspondence ranged from ardent fans to long-time friends whose names remain world-famous today. Among them, American presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Warren Harding, Canadian Prime Ministers Sir Mackenzie Bowell, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, and Sir Robert Borden, along with Governors-General of Canada The Duke of Argyle and Lord Tweedsmuir (John Buchan), the wife of a former governor-general, Lady Ishbel Aberdeen, and Salvation Army founder Catherine Booth-Clibborn. Bennett worked conscientiously to effect a harmonious relationship between the University of Manitoba Archives and the Gordon family, a relationship the evidence of which is borne out by nearly 20 years of genial, voluminous correspondence.
Memorializing a Literary Giant
The first posthumous memorials to Gordon came immediately upon his death, in the form of obituaries, eulogies, and tributes from the news media around the world. The obituaries and editorials which lamented Gordon’s death appeared not only in large North American newspapers such as the New York Times, but also further afield in locations such as the British Isles, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Australia and Eastern Europe. Added to Gordon’s own papers were thick packages containing obituaries sent to his widow from friends and admirers across the globe. It is likely Helen Gordon collected and filed these personally. Word of Gordon’s death was also flashed in newsreels and broadcast by radio form across the continents, and hundreds of letters of condolence flooded in from every conceivable sender. The family was completely overwhelmed, and it took them most of the following year to respond to the avalanche of sympathy. A randomly chosen example of a condolence letter addressed to Mrs. Gordon is one from a representative of the Ingersoll Cream Cheese Co. Limited, dated November 30, 1937, and annotated as answered on January 11 :
I have hesitated writing you for a time to extend to you on behalf of my Wife and Daughter and myself, and I am sure of your Husband’s many friends in Ingersoll our very deep sympathy at the passing of one of Canada’s most loyal and able Sons…. I fear words are feeble in trying to express to you all that he meant to us — his jolly manner, his innate kindliness and thoughtfulness of others, the charm he lent to everything he was connected with and the memory that he has left behind. We loved him dearly and will not forget, and hope we all may reflect somewhat his many fine qualifications and characteristics that had such a wide influence with everyone he contacted.
Apart from his papers at the University of Manitoba, Gordon is memorialized in myriad ways around the world. Perhaps the second memorial (apart from eulogies and paper tributes) was the simple marker placed by his grieving family on Gordon’s grave in Old Kildonan Presbyterian Cemetery in Winnipeg. Today it also contains the names of several of the children.
Gordon also left an extensive array of newspaper and magazine articles written about him and his activities in all spheres. He was a journalist’s dream interview. While it is apparent through his modesty that Gordon did not court the press, it nevertheless sought him out on a regular basis for more than three decades. His affable nature, and undisputed accomplishments as a popular novelist, clergyman, and social reformer of international repute, along with his pithy, astute comments, made for colourful copy which spanned the globe. What remains is a worldwide trail of his quotes and activities in articles in innumerable newspapers and magazines. It is not known if any voice recording exists elsewhere in the world; none appear to be extant in Canadian archives.
Gordon’s legacy as a writer continues not only in his books, articles and papers, but also in his descendants. His son, King, wrote a great deal of the policy still used in a numerous United Nations policies and edicts. King’s son, Charles, and daughter, Alison, are prominent Canadian writers and commentators. Charles, author of several books, writes for the Ottawa Citizen and Maclean’s magazine, while Alison has long been in radio and television for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, is a sportswriter for the Toronto Star, author of several books on sports, and a mystery novelist.
Gordon’s seven children, now all deceased, made numerous sentimental journeys for the purpose of perpetuating their father’s memory. Perhaps the earliest public commemoration took place in 1959 when a plaque was unveiled at St. Elmo, Ontario, near Gordon’s birthplace of Indian Lands. King Gordon attended, as did his sister Lois, his son Charles Gordon, Jr., and his aunt, the sister of novelist Gordon. The Ontario Archaeological and Historic Sites Board, in conjunction with the Glengarry Historical Society, had arranged for the plaque to be placed near Gordon’s birthplace.
In Winnipeg, Gordon is most famously represented by his stately mansion at 54 Westgate. Gordon, who at one time was estimated to be worth nearly one million dollars, left an estate of only $8,732.87. While he was serving overseas in the First World War, Gordon’s friend and lawyer, R.M. Thomson, invested the former’s money unwisely. Gordon returned from overseas to learn that his wealth was reduced to nearly nothing. Gordon spent the rest of his life writing and giving speeches in order to pay off debt. Soon after his death, Helen Gordon and daughters were forced by embarrassing financial circumstances to vacate their treasured home when it was seized by the City of Winnipeg for tax arrears. It stood vacant for some years before being rescued from destruction by The University Women’s Club, which continues to operate from 54 Westgate. Gordon-King Memorial United Church, a large worship centre located at 127 Cobourg Avenue in Winnipeg, was named in honour of Gordon, and his father-in-law, John Mark King.
There are revealers and there are concealers. The agents of reticence have no truck with the agents of disclosure. Privacy is sacred, the public has a right to know. Thus, depending on your point of view, or the nature of your personal involvement … the executor is either a secretive parasite or a protector of imperilled decencies.
While Gordon’s papers include nothing salacious or particularly titillating, the absence of such data does not necessarily imply that any such material ever existed. Gordon was foremost a family man and “minister of the gospel.” There are no erotic letters to his wife, no skeletons ardently awaiting release from secret-laden archival closets. Nothing of the sort exists in the papers because, doubtless, no such letters were written and no such skeletons existed.
Gordon himself or the Gordon family were unlikely to censor, suppress, expunge, or otherwise cull from his papers. There is, at least, no evidence to support any such suggestion. In fact, various documents in the University of Manitoba Archives’ non-public administrative files reveal that the papers are remarkably well-sequenced by dates and events in Gordon’s life. A thorough investigation of the processed collection itself confirms and corroborates the statements made in the administrative files. Any minor culling was, according to the finding aid to the collection, done by Maura Pennington and Susan Bellay, history graduate students who processed the papers under the supervision of Dr. Richard Bennett. Unmarked or unannotated items such as blank envelopes and paper or other non-archival items were discarded at the time of processing. While Gordon’s voluminous personal, literary and other professional papers are intact, his photograph collection is not. Only seven slim folders of photographs are extant in the Gordon papers; several of the folders only contain three to five still images. For example, the collection does not include any photographs of Gordon’s wife, children, parents, or siblings. The existence of Gordon photographs in both the Archives of Manitoba and the Library and Archives of Canada leads to the assumption that the photograph collection was fragmented and scattered, whereas the textual collection ultimately came together in the University of Manitoba Archives.
Gordon himself left no particular instructions and quite likely gave little if any thought as to what future importance to history his papers might have. From the lack of planning for his papers’ disposal — other than to empower executors dear to him — it is evident that Gordon harboured no desire for self-mythologization. His published works are — undeniably — a form of immortality. Perhaps more important to him was his immortality in the religious or spiritual sense. Apart from his autobiography, it is appropriate to speculate that Gordon, who fervently devoted his life’s work to spreading the gospel of God, would have hoped for a place in heaven and therefore would not have concerned himself with achieving posthumous memorialization. Gordon would have believed that a person’s earthly life is only temporary, to be followed by perpetual life in heaven, and thus that the need to leave behind archival records would be moot. On official documents, such as First World War service records and his will, Gordon consistently described his occupation as “minister of the gospel.”
Despite Gordon’s disinterest in his posthumous reputation, the actions of his children, and people such as teacher-historian Gordon McLeod and archivist Richard Bennett in rescuing the papers from years of neglect and potential future destruction, are the very backbone of the archival enterprise. In ushering Gordon’s papers safely into archives, they easily fit the description of “keepers of the flame,” a phrase coined by Ian Hamilton. Gordon’s own contribution to his posthumous memorialization was obviously his autobiography and novels. However, his family’s donation — over a period of more than 20 years — of papers to the University of Manitoba Archives reflects what Hamilton termed the “changing notions of posterity.” The Gordons realized the archival, historical and research value of their father’s papers, as did Gordon MacLeod, as did officials of the University of Manitoba over the years, and as did the scholars who then and now study the papers which have been designated “Cultural Property to Canada.” The “notion” of posterity has, thankfully for history, shifted from Gordon’s intended audience of family and friends, to an ever-increasing community of researchers worldwide.
The salvaging of literary papers from destructive quagmires is the modern “notion of posterity” which caused Hamilton to exhort that “In the meantime, no one should burn anything, however he or she might feel about what the lost loved one ‘really would have wished.’” As evidenced by statements made in their correspondence with the University of Manitoba, the Gordons well knew that their father was uninterested in self-aggrandizement. While his correspondence reveals that he was touched by the honours accorded him for decades, he was inherently unassuming and retiring to the point that he had to be continuously, relentlessly prodded to keep writing by his publisher, George Doran, who invariably was sorely frustrated by the lateness of Gordon’s manuscripts. The family knew their patriarch would not have cared much for fuss, but they also knew how moved he would have been to know that his papers would comprise one of the most complete and most significant collections left by an early Canadian novelist. Correspondence between the University of Manitoba Archives and the family repeatedly indicates that Charles Gordon would have been surprised to learn just how extensively his work would be subjected to posthumous academic inspection. As King Gordon told those gathered at a well-publicized ceremony to mark the initial donation of manuscripts in August 1969, “I’m sure my mother and father would have been very happy to see the papers of my father placed here.”
Friesen further noted that “Ralph Connor gave immortality to the image of a cultivated utopia in the prairie west … and caught the imagination of a generation.” Although Gordon himself left no instructions for the disposition of his professional and personal papers, the papers themselves have honoured him. Richard Bennett, former head of the University of Manitoba Archives, stated in 1990 that the Gordon papers are among the most studied of all collections in the Archives’ care. Despite the fact that the processing of various boxes and envelopes of archival material took more than two decades to comprise the collection as it is today, the work of archivists is largely complete, and that of historians only just begun. This is ample testimony to the spirit of Charles William Gordon, one of the most famous authors in the world in his day, but also a man of such modesty that he would have been astonished to know of the joint Herculean efforts of a devoted amateur sleuth, university officials, archivists, and his own aged children.
Ian Hamilton, Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography. (London, GB, 1992): 1
Keith Wilson, Charles William Gordon: Manitobans in Profile (Winnipeg, 1981), John Lennox, Charles W. Gordon (“Ralph Connor”) and his Works (Toronto, 1989), Terrence Craig, “Charles William Gordon,” in The Canadian Encyclopedia (2000), 990, and Gerald Friesen, The Canadian Prairies: A History (Toronto, 1984): 304.
MSS 56, PC 76, University of Manitoba Archives. There are no restrictions on access, however, researchers are expected to abide by the copyright laws of Canada.
See biographies by Wilson, Lennox, Craig, Ferre, Kurnarsky, and Smith.
Charles W. Gordon, Postscript to Adventure: The Autobiography of Ralph Connor (New York, 1938).
Gordon Collection non-public acquisition files (2) in the office of the Head, University of Manitoba Archives.
Last Will and Testament of Charles William Gordon (August 28, 1929) and Probate file (January 1938) in the Archives of Manitoba; Gordon Collection acquisition file.
Wilson; Lennox; Charley Gordon, “The Life and Political, Literary, and Religious Works of Charles Gordon and Ralph Connor.” (unpublished, n.d.).
Paul Rutherford, “Made in America: The Problem of Mass Culture in Canada,” in David H. Flaherty and Frank E. Manning (eds.), The Beaver Bites Back: American Popular Culture in Canada (Montreal, 1993): 263. Rutherford’s sources are Mary Vipond, “Best Sellers in English Canada, 1899-1918: An Overview,” Journal of Canadian Fiction 24 (1979): 108, and Robert Bothwell, Ian Drummond, and John English, Canada 1900-1945 (Toronto, 1987), 190-191.
Friesen, 303. A sterling example of Gordon’s staple types is the central character in Corporal Cameron of the North West Mounted Police: A Tale of the Macleod Trail (Toronto, 1912), 308.
William L. Morton, Manitoba: A History (Toronto, 1957): 415
Among critical studies of Gordon’s novels are J. Lee Thompson and John Herd Thompson, “Ralph Connor and the Canadian Identity,” Queen’s Quarterly 70, no. 2 (Summer 1972): 159-170, and F.W. Watt, “Western Myth — The World of Ralph Connor,” Canadian Literature 1 (Summer 1959): 26-36.
Friesen suggests that Gordon’s novels of the prairie west as pure and enriching rural existence advanced the thesis that “not only was rural life purer because it was closer to nature, but it was also, according to the physiocractic notion of wealth, the source of national prosperity” (Friesen, op. cit., 304). Friesen adds that Gordon himself alluded to this notion in an address to the Canadian Club of Toronto entitled, “The Future of Canada,” found in Addresses and Proceedings (1904-05): 148.
F.W. Watt, “Western Myth — The World of Ralph Connor,” Canadian Literature, 1, (1959): 26-28.
It has not been ascertained whether or not Dr. James Robertson was any relation of Gordon’s mother, Mary (née Robertson). For additional information on James Robertson, see Catherine Macdonald, “James Robertson and Presbyterian Church Extension in Manitoba and the North West, 1866-1902,” in Prairie Spirit: Perspectives on the Heritage of the United Church of Canada in the West, ed. Dennis L. Butcher et al. (Winnipeg, 1985).
For further information on Helen Skinner King Gordon, see Marjorie Gillies, “Dedication — Helen Gordon, 1876-1961,” in Extraordinary Ordinary Women: Manitoba Women & Their Stories (Winnipeg, 2000); J. King Gordon, “The World of Helen Gordon” (Winnipeg, 1961). Detailed information on the life of Helen’s father, the Rev. John Mark King is found in “Rev. John King Papers,” MSS 63, PC 82, University of Manitoba Archives, and in the Rev. Dr. Gordon Harland, “John Mark King: First Principal of Manitoba College,” in Prairie Spirit, above-cited.
J. Lee Thompson and John Herd Thompson, “Ralph Connor and the Canadian Identity,” Queen’s Quarterly 79 (1972).
Gordon’s extensive First World War service file, which contains attestation papers, theatres of service, demobilization documents, correspondence, medical and dental reports, is found in RG 150, Box 3644-20 at the Library and Archives of Canada; Craig, in The Canadian Encyclopedia (2000), 990.
Wilson; Lennox; Gordon, Postscript to Adventure.
Numerous article-length biographies have been published; a full-length treatment has not yet been published.
Introduction by J. King Gordon in Postscript to Adventure.
The Winnipeg Free Press and The Winnipeg Tribune obituaries and tributes to Gordon, November 1937.
John W. Holmes in The Canadian Encyclopedia (2000), 991.
Introduction by J. King Gordon in Postscript to Adventure.
Last Will and Testament of Gordon, August 28, 1929, 1-3.
Hamilton, Keepers of the Flame, foreword: viii.
Gordon Collection acquisition file, University of Manitoba Archives.
Winnipeg Free Press; Winnipeg Tribune, March 17, 1961, and correspondence between Ruth Gordon and Dr. Richard E. Bennett, 1990-1993.
Last Will and Testament of Gordon, 2.
Correspondence between Ruth Gordon and Bennett; Gillis, “Dedication — Helen Gordon,” in Extraordinary, Ordinary Women.
If Helen Gordon wrote a last will and testament, it was apparently not probated in the Probate Division, Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench. A thorough search of all relevant files at the Archives of Manitoba found no listing for a will of Helen Gordon.
Gordon D. McLeod, “The Connor Papers: A Bibliographical Report,” typescript, (University of Manitoba Archives, 1968), 4-6.
Correspondence between J. King Gordon, Ruth Gordon and Bennett, 1986-1989.
Biographical notes on Ruth Gordon may be found in Jack M. Bumsted, Dictionary of Manitoba Biography (Winnipeg, 2000).
Mary Gordon Carver was the first of the children of Charles and Helen Gordon to die.
“Ex-Winnipegger [Marjorie Gordon Smart] Heads College,” Winnipeg Free Press, January 25, 1964.
Biographical data on Gretta Gordon Brown is found in Extraordinary, Ordinary Women: 69-70.
Alison Gordon Cox’s son, Michael Gordon Cox, is Dean Emeritus of the Faculty of Architecture and Design at The University of Manitoba.
Correspondence between Gordon D. McLeod and The University of Manitoba, 1968-1969 (Gordon Collection acquisition file).
Correspondence from Fleming H. Revell Company, New York, to Helen Gordon, January 11, 1938.
McLeod, The Connor Papers, 4-5.
Correspondence from McLeod to Dr. Doris B. Saunders, Head, Department of English, The University of Manitoba, May 4, 1968. The late Dr. Saunders celebrated her 100th birthday in Winnipeg in 2001.
Correspondence from The University of Manitoba to Gordon family upon acceptance of the Gordon manuscript collection, 1968-1969.
The Department of Archives & Special Collections of the University of Manitoba (as it was then known) officially opened in 1978.
Correspondence between Ruth Gordon, King Gordon and Bennett, 1984-1988; The Bulletin, University of Manitoba, September 23, 1969.
Gordon correspondence, MSS 56, boxes 4-5.
Gordon obituaries, MSS 56, box 1.
Letters of condolence, MSS 56, boxes 4-5.
Ingersoll letter, November 30, 1937, boxes 4-5.
Archives of Old Kildonan Presbyterian Cemetery, Winnipeg; confirmed by examination of the monument on the Gordon family plot.
MSS 56 — finding aid, Appendix 1: 247-248.
Biographical notes on J. King Gordon are found in The Canadian Encyclopedia (2000), 991.
Alison Gordon’s biography appears in The Canadian Encyclopedia (2000), 990.
The Glengarry News, October 1, 1959, 1; Lois Gordon, the last surviving and longest-lived offspring of Charles and Helen Gordon, died in Winnipeg on June 18, 2003 at age 97.
Beth Paterson, “Ralph Connor and His Million-Dollar Sermons,” Maclean’s Magazine (November 15, 1952).
Probate records of the Estate of Gordon (Archives of Manitoba); Lennox; Wilson; “Club Cited for Effort on Connor House,” Winnipeg Tribune, February 18, 1976.
Hamilton, foreword: vii.
MSS 56 — finding aid: 8-11.
PC 76 — finding aid: fos. 1-7.
Library and Archives of Canada and Archives of Manitoba websites.
Hamilton, foreword: vii.
George H. Doran, Chronicles of Barrabas 1884-1934 (New York, 1935).
Winnipeg Free Press; Winnipeg Tribune, August 23, 1969.
MSS 56 — finding aid: 10-11.
B I B L I O G R A P H Y
PRIMARY SOURCES: ARCHIVAL
University of Manitoba Archives
Charles William Gordon (Ralph Connor) Manuscript Collection MSS 56, MSS SC 3, PC 76.
Bellay, Susan and Maura Taylor Pennington. For God, King, Pen & Country: The Papers of Charles William Gordon (1860-1937) (“Ralph Connor”) — A Research Tool. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba, 1990.
Gordon Collection non-public acquisition files (2), in office of the Head, University of Manitoba Archives.
McLeod, Gordon D. “The Connor Papers: A Bibliographical Report.” Winnipeg: typescript, Summer 1968, 18 pp.
Archives of Manitoba
Last Will and Testament (August 28, 1929) and Probate File (January 1938), Charles William Gordon, Probate Division, Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench [then the Surrogate Court of the Eastern Judicial District of the Province of Manitoba]
PRIMARY SOURCES: PUBLISHED
Gordon, Charles W. “The Future of Canada,” Addresses and Proceedings (1904-05). Toronto: Canadian Club of Toronto, 1905.
Connor, Ralph [C.W. Gordon]. Corporal Cameron of the North West Mounted Police: A Tale of the Macleod Trail. Toronto, 1912.
————. The Man From Glengarry: A Tale of the Ottawa. Toronto: The Westminster Company Limited, 1901.
Doran, George H. Chronicles of Barrabas 1884-1934. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1935.
Gordon, Charles W. Postscript to Adventure: The Autobiography of Ralph Connor. Introduction by J. King Gordon. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, Inc., 1938.
Gordon, Dr. J. King. “The World of Helen Gordon: King Gordon’s Speech to the University Women’s Club.” Winnipeg, 1961.
Books and Articles
Bothwell, Robert, Ian Drummond, and John English. Canada 1900-1945. Toronto: Macmillan, 1987.
Brown, Rev. E.K. “Review of Postscript to Adventure: The Autobiography of Ralph Connor.” The Canadian Historical Review 20 (June 1939).
Bulletin, The. “Why Ralph Connor’s Papers are Here.” The University of Manitoba (September 23, 1969).
Cruikshank, E.A. “The Study of History and the Interpretation of Documents,” in Proceedings and Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, 3rd series, vol. xv (1921), section 11: 1-13.
Cunnington, Bernice. “Ralph Connor.” Canadian Author & Bookman, vol. 48, no. 3 (Spring 1973), 15-16.
Eggleston, Wilfrid. The Frontier and Canadian Letters. Toronto: Ryerson, 1957.
Ferre, John P. A Social Gospel for Millions: The Religious Bestsellers of Charles Sheldon, Charles Gordon and Harold Bell Wright. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1988.
Friesen, Gerald Arnold. The Canadian Prairies: A History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984.
Gillies, Marjorie, “Dedication — Helen Gordon, 1876-1961,” and Muriel Smith, “Gretta [Gordon] Brown, 1903-1987 Child Care Activities,” in Colleen Armstrong (ed.), Extraordinary Ordinary Women: Manitoba Women & Their Stories. Winnipeg: Manitoba Clubs of the Canadian Federation of University Women, 2000.
Gordon, Charley. “The Life and Political, Literary, and Religious Works of Charles Gordon and Ralph Connor.” First draft of an English term paper, 18 pp. Located in MSS 56, Box 1, University of Manitoba Archives.
Hamilton, Ian. Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography. London: Hutchinson, 1992.
Harland, Rev. Dr. Gordon. “John Mark King: First Principal of Manitoba College,” in Dennis Butcher, Catherine Macdonald, Margaret McPherson, Raymond Smith, and McKibbin (Mac) Watts (eds.) Prairie Spirit: Perspectives on the Heritage of the United Church of Canada in the West. Winnipeg: The University of Manitoba Press, 1985.
Katynski, Liz. “Historic House Marks Anniversaries.” Winnipeg Free Press (June 16, 2004).
Kurnarsky, Larry and Murray Smith. Famous and Fascinating Manitobans. Winnipeg: FACE Publications, 1982.
Kundera, Milan. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, translated by M. H. Heim. Markham, ON: Penguin, 1986.
Lamb, Brian. Booknotes Life Stories: Notable Biographers on the People Who Shaped America. New York: Times Books/Random House, 1999.
Lennox, John. Charles W. Gordon (“Ralph Connor”) and his Works. Toronto: ECW Press, 1989.
Macdonald, Catherine. “James Robertson and Presbyterian Church Extension in Manitoba and the North West, 1866-1902,” in Prairie Spirit: Perspectives on the Heritage of the United Church of Canada in the West, ed. Dennis L. Butcher et al. Winnipeg: The University of Manitoba Press, 1985.
Marsh, James H. (ed.). The Canadian Encyclopedia, Year 2000 Edition. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1999.
Millar, Bill. “Unfinished Towers: The Social Vision of Charles W. Gordon.” Paper submitted to the Historical-Theological Division, Vancouver School of Theology, 1980. 79 pp. Located in Box 1, MSS 56, University of Manitoba Archives.
Morton, W. L. Manitoba: A History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1957.
Paterson, Beth. “Ralph Connor and His Million-Dollar Sermons.” Macleans Magazine (November 15, 1953).
Rogers, George C., Jr. “The Sacred Text: An Improbable Dream,” in Literary and Historical Editing, George L. Vogt and John Bush Jones (eds.). Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Libraries, 1981, 23-30.
Rutherford, Paul, “Made in America: The Problem of Mass Culture in Canada,” in David H. Flaherty and Frank E. Manning (eds.), The Beaver Bites Back: American Popular Culture in Canada. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993.
Thompson, J. Lee, and John H. Thompson. “Ralph Connor and the Canadian Identity.” Queen’s Quarterly 79 (Summer 1972).
Vipond, Mary, “Best Sellers in English Canada, 1899-1918: An Overview,” Journal of Canadian Fiction 24 (1979).
Watt, F.W. ‘Western Myth — The World of Ralph Connor,’ Canadian Literature 1 (1959): 26-36.
Watson, Patrick. The Canadians: Biographies of a Nation. Toronto: McArthur & Company, 2000.
Whiteway, Doug. “Richard Bennett: Underground But Not Subversive.” University of Manitoba Alumni Journal (Autumn 1979).
Wilson, Keith. Charles William Gordon. Manitobans in Profile. Winnipeg: Peguis Publishers, 1981.
Zinsser, William (ed.). Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
The Glengarry News, “Plaque to Memory of Ralph Connor Will Be Unveiled at St. Elmo, October 10th.” October 1, 1959, 1.
Winnipeg Free Press and Winnipeg Tribune. Various clippings related to the presentation of Charles W. Gordon’s papers to the University of Manitoba Archives, the dedication of plaques and the history of 54 Westgate, Winnipeg, Manitoba.
The Winnipeg Tribune. Various clippings related to the presentation of Charles W. Gordon’s papers to the University of Manitoba Archives.
Leclerc, Lionel A. “Ralph Connor, Canadian Novelist.” Unpublished M.A. Thesis, University of Montreal, 1962.
Wood, Edward H. “Ralph Connor and the Canadian West.” Unpublished M.A. Thesis, University of Saskatchewan, 1975.
Miscellanea Manitobiana, no. 4
URL = cybrary.uwinnipeg.ca/people/Dobson/Manitobiana/archive/004.html
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