In the last few months, several people have asked me “Why are you studying George Whalley?” and/or “What is your connection with him?” The first question I’ve answered in many different ways, depending on the occasion. When I was invited to make a presentation to the Algoma University board of governors about my work and the website, www.georgewhalley.ca, I began my answer by reciting a litany of Whalley’s accomplishments. Then I paused for a moment and realized that I hadn’t understood what the person was asking. The inquiry was not aimed at Whalley, but at me. In effect, she wanted to know ”what made you choose him?”. Sometimes, the ”why are you studying …” implies the “what is your connection …”, though more often I hear the second question when I am speaking with someone over the phone and the person has not met me previously. The assumption is that I must be one of Whalley’s former students: one of those who revered him, was in the presence of the voice for which he was famous, and experienced his lectures and long silences. The moment usually causes some embarassment for both me and my interlocutor once I explain that I was not yet 8 years old when Whalley died on the 27th of May 1983.
One way of answering both questions is with a name: Brian Crick.
My introduction to Whalley came from Crick when I was an undergraduate student in his classes at Brock University in the late 1990s. He sometimes used phrases from Whalley’s writings, though I only realized that recently when I looked back at my notes from those years. In my third or fourth year, we began to talk about Whalley often. I remember Crick telling me about the occasions in the early 1980s when he and John Ferns visited with George and Elizabeth at Hartington, their home in the country north of Kingston. Crick and Ferns went to speak with Whalley because they were editing a selection of his essays and wished to know if Whalley thought well of their choices. Crick told me about Whalley’s record-setting and prize-winning rowing oars, which Whalley earned as the captain of a coxwainless IV at Oxford in the late 1930s during his days as a Rhodes scholar, that were hanging on the wall. I have never forgotten the story of the parrot – named Jacko, though I didn’t know that then – who ate lunch and dinner with them at the table on George’s shoulder. Sometime before I left Brock, Crick told me to read the book of Whalley’s essays. At the time, I didn’t understand them, but I knew the fault was mine and I would have to return to them again later. Around the same period I studied the history of literary criticism with Stella Slade and she allowed me to see a copy of a typescript of Whalley’s translation of Aristotle. This is the famous translation-in-progress that he distributed to his fourth-year literary criticism and graduate students in the 1970s. After wondering over it for a time, I returned it to her, not thinking that I should have made a copy. (A couple of months ago, Steve Lukits allowed me to borrow his copy to make one of my own.) Crick sent me off to Dalhousie to study with John Baxter. This was in 2000, just a few years after Baxter and Atherton edited Whalley’s translation, Aristotle’s Poetics, for McGill-Queen’s. My MA was on Leavis, but Baxter and I talked about Whalley. After a year off, I returned to Dalhousie to write a thesis on Conrad, but I repeatedly read Whalley’s essays. His ideas, especially his notion of heuristic thinking, are behind the whole introduction to my book on Conrad. And yet even then I didn’t have a thought of working on Whalley.
In 2009, Ian Robinson came over to England to give some lectures in Southern Ontario. Crick and I went to hear one on Dickens, Shakespeare, and tragedy. After a dinner with Robinson at a decent German restaurant in Dundas called the Schwaben Inn, we were driving home to St Catharines. The Conrad book had been published a few months before and we were talking about what I should do next. Crick said, why don’t you work on Whalley - go and look at his papers in the Queen’s University Archives. Well, off I went with my friend John Salciccioli. We looked in but a few of the boxes from the over 10m of shelf. I recall we spent much time reading Whalley’s letters home during the war. When I got back, I called Crick and said, you’re right – I’m going to work on Whalley.