Young Hugh MacLennan

I’ve been reading Elspeth Cameron’s 1981 biography on Hugh MacLennan and it seems like he had a terrible childhood at the hands of an overly ambitious, deeply insecure, taskmaster of a father.

Like John Stuart Mill, Hugh MacLennan and his sister Frances were ruthlessly schooled by their father, Sam, in order to compensate for the elder MacLennan’s deep feelings of academic failure and narcissism. Both MacLennan children were rigorously schooled in the Western classical tradition throughout their youth and sure enough, one of the MacLennan children succeeded, won awards in the classics at Dalhousie University, and by chance also won a Rhodes Scholarship. But these laurels came at the expense of health and happiness.

While Frances succeeded at Dalhousie, she had a mental breakdown after she was rejected from a masters program at the University of Toronto, which was then seen as just an unremarkable but decent school where the lesser colonial graduates of Oxbridge would take up their posts of spreading “civilization.”

Meanwhile in England, young Hugh MacLennan couldn’t cope with the rigors of studying at Oxford or with the best and brightest across the British Empire. He had a mental breakdown or a series of them and only managed to acquit himself of a third class degree, which was like a C+. And it was on those pathetic grades, but moreso through the connections of his father, that MacLennan was accepted into the PhD program at Princeton, though with the proviso that he was not allowed to be a teaching assistant. And as an another sign of how things have changed since then, Hugh MacLennan deeply resented his acceptance at Princeton.