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Meet Our Keynote Speaker: Margaret Mackey

Here is the third in our series featuring the L.M. Montgomery and Reading Keynote Speakers. You’ve already met Dr. Elizabeth Epperly and Dr. Catherine Sheldrick Ross. Today, LMMI’s Visiting Scholar, Dr. Emily Woster, interviews Dr. Margaret Mackey, Professor Emerita in the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Alberta. Her work on her own early literacies and texts culminated in the publication of One Child Reading: My Auto-Bibliography(University of Alberta Press, 2016), recently named as the Scholarly and Academic Book of the Year for 2017 by the Book Publishers Association of Alberta.  In 2017 she was also honoured by the Children's Literature Association with the Anne Devereux Jordan Award for lasting contributions in scholarship and service.

 

Emily Woster (EW):So I have some questions about your work and a few more “fun” Montgomery questions. 

Margaret Mackey (MM):People [at the conference] should have badges “I’m with Emily.” You could go around and count the ones that say “I’m with Pat.”

EW:Like Team Gilbert or something like that?

MM: Right!

EW:We’ve talked a little at past conferences about how people can’t resist telling their “Montgomery origin story” As in, how they found her, how they found Anne. It just seems to come up naturally. Which is an interesting phenomenon.

MM:It is. And the fact that people can remember. I can remember when I first came across Anne, but I don’t remember coming across Little Womenexcept very vaguely.

EW:Little Womenis just part of your consciousness, then?

MM:Well, it [reading Anne] was an event. I was sick, and my father gave me this book and said “I think this will help you pass the day and I think you’ll find it interesting.” So I remember consciously thinking at the end of the day as I finished the book in floods of tears that Thornton W. Burgessis never going to be the same again.Which [turned out to be] true. I 100% remember thinking that; that’s not something I’m sort of retro-adding to the story.

EW:Which is actually a good segue into my first question, since your most recent work is One Child Reading: My Auto-Bibliography, in which you (re)trace your own reading history and its“full, embodied” implications. What inspired to undertake such an ambitious, giant, personal project? 

MM:I didn’t quite see it being so giant when I started. What I foresaw was that I was going to write something about half the size of what it is now and then have to cut it because the publishers wouldn’t accept anything so big. So, I was very fortunate to come across the University of Alberta Press, who were completely open-minded about the size of it. I’ve never been treated like that by a publisher before; they always want you to fit the standard number of pages and that sort of thing.

When I started, my motivation was that I had been doing years and years of work with readers other than myself. And I thought there are things that I am not able to find out from talking to readers no matter how forthcoming they are and no matter how keen to help they are. There are just things they can’t tell me --not that they won’t tell me-- they can’t. So I wondered if it would be interesting to look at reading from the other direction, from the inside out. I didn’t want to just write a memoir. I just finished reading Bookworm by Lucy Mangan, which is a memoir of reading, and it’s a very interesting one. But I didn’t want to just do that. I wanted to interrogate the stuff they way I did when working with other readers. Early on, I decided the way to do that was to go back to the materials. So that it would be a materials study not a life study. And that’s why it’s called an “autobibliography” and not an “autobiography.” It’s the *listing* as far as I could do it of materials I had with me as the sort of organizing centre of it. In that sense it is literally “egocentric.”Only I could make that list.

EW:I once used the word “autobibliography” in mydissertationto describe the catalog of reading and reading experiences “distributed throughout [Montgomery’s] canon,” including allusions in her novels and discussions of books in her journals and letters. Woster argued that Montgomery’s “relationship to text could be called ‘autobibliography,’ wherein a writer filters the self (auto) through books and reading (biblio) in order to write (graphy) her life.” Does your definition of “auto-bibliography” work in the same way? Or is your work “filtering” things differently? I know your end result wasn’t a journal as Montgomery’s, but it was a work about yourself. 

MM:I think my assessment of it all the way through --and it surprised me a little bit because I was dubious about how personal it was going to be-- is that it doesn’t actually feel all that personal. There are one or two stories in there that are extremely personal, but for the most part my feeling about it is that rather than “personal” it is “particular.” And so, the virtues of working through the filter of one person’s reading by the person who knows the important aspects after all these years. The virtue of that is that it is so specific., and so you can see “this book” next to “that book.” But it doesn’t feel like a story about me in many important ways; it is a story about the “stuff.” Whereas with Montgomery, especially in her journals, I think it is a “story about me.”

EW:Would you call One Child Reading “life writing,” or no?

MM:Um, [pause] yes and no. It’s neither a yes nor a no. If I had to commit to one or the other I would say “no.” ...this is just book writing. There’s very little of my actual life in there except that my parents were supportive, and we went on a lot of picnics, and we didn’t own a lot of books. But the texture of my daily life is not represented very often.

EW:In One Child Reading, you explain that your “life experiences and [your] fictions wove in and out of each other.” How do you think Montgomery’s works figured into that weaving? You discuss them more than once throughout your reading stories, so how does Montgomery figure into that reading?

MM:Oh, very prominently. I read and reread the books over and over again, especially once I got access to all of them because I think the only series that I read in order was Pat of Silver Bush and Mistress Pat. Everything else I read out of order, so that was extremely frustrating.

EW:Do you think there is something particular about Montgomery that invites rereading? She is so re-readable. Is there something about her work that invites that?

MM:You’re asking the wrong person because I reread everything. [Really?] Yes. I had to really, really detest a book not to read it more than once. For starters, my supply was not great. But it was more than that. I read so fast that I needed a second and preferably a third reading, and anything after that was indulgence. But I was more than happy to indulge myself on that. There may be qualities in Montgomery, but they were not distinguishable to me because I was busy rereading everything. I wouldn't be surprised if there are. 

EW:It’s something that comes up at the conference a lot, and at conferences concerning other authors “for young girls” like Laura Ingalls Wilder, that rereading is particularly powerful.

MM:Yes, there’s a very wholehearted commitment to those, and I have an excellent quote by a reader of Laura Ingalls Wilder saying “I was born in 1867, and maybe you were too. We were a girl called ‘Laura.’” 

EW:You discuss how much place and time influenced your reading of Emily’s Quest. “I am always the reader who first met this title as a homesick ten-year-old, and any theme of yearning is always going to be more plangent for me as a result.” You’ve also worked on embodiment andreading (see chapter 11) --how do you see the intersection of body-place-time and reading for child readers? For readers of Montgomery? How does all of that sort of interface?

MM:Well, one of the compelling things about the Montgomery reading for people like me is that she was just about the only Canadian author that I read, and so there was something very very significant in just being able to assume some things. Because I read almost everything [else] as an outsider, and Montgomery to a much greater degree I didn’t have to. Not that I shared all of Montgomery’s knowledge and assumptions, but quite a bit. That was disarming, I guess. It was relaxing. There were barriers I didn’t have to consider, and I might not have considered them consciously, but they were there and I knew it. 

EW:Were there other texts you were reading around that time that didn’t give you that sense of relaxation?

MM: Sure: everything else! Because it was all either American or British. 

EW:You mentioned Little Women, are there other adolescent/domestic fiction authors that maybe had a similar impact on you?

MM:Well the one that I talk about the most is The Moffats and the sequels, The Middle Moffat and Rufus M. They came as close as Montgomery did to representing myself to me as a reader, but for slightly different reasons. I mean, I love Little Women, and reread it a million times as well. 

You know, every time you turn around in an American fiction, it’s the damn Fourth of July again! I mean, really. Especially in the 1950s. American children just moved seamlessly from one Fourth of July to another, it felt like. They were always having fireworks and eating hot dogs and that sort of thing. We had nothing like that. Canada Day was very low key and even lower key in Newfoundland, where it was a day of mourning from the First World War. So, there was nothing comparable to that. It [those Fourths of July] was also like a badge of not belonging.

EW:When you read Rilla, in particular, did you feel more of that belonging? With its patriotic foundation?

MM:Rilla was really my first introduction to World War I in any substantial way. Except that I knew that it was haunting the place where I lived because on the 1st of July in 1916, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment was just decimated. More than decimated, it was wiped out. In a very small society, hardly anybody didn’t know somebody who had died in that one single day. So, I knew that, but I didn’t know any detail, and I learned a lot of that detail from reading Rilla of Ingleside.

I was a very naive reader when I read it first. And what was interesting is some years later, I remember I was sitting in my English 100 class and we had an anthology. By that point, I had done some WWI history in school, very much from a Newfoundland perspective, and my history teacher had been just, still, in a very live way, furious with Earl Hague, for the abominable way he sent men to be slaughtered. So I had had that experience, and I had read Rilla, and so I was sitting in the class, and I forget whether I was waiting for the lecture to begin or whether I was avoiding the lecture. But the impact was the same. I was looking through the anthology and I came across “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen. What Rilla of Ingleside and my Grade 11 history were, were the perfect repertoire to read that and understand it emotionally.

I had enough Latin to understand the last line “Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori.” I knew what it said [Latin phrase is from the Roman poet Horace: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”]. And my hair stood on end. It was such a repudiation of some of the things that I had taken for granted up to that point, courtesy of Montgomery and the history book authors, and my Grade 11 history teacher, that it was...noble to do this. And Owen said, “No, it isn’t. It’s a con.” And the sabotage of all this received orthodoxy that was in that one little poem...it just shook me. It shook me. 

So, when I think of Rilla of Ingleside,I think of it as kind of preparatory reading for the Wilfred Owen poem. Which is not fair to the book, but on the other hand, the combo, was one of the major literary experiences of my life because I was so staggered that it was actually possible to object. Not just be sad about it. You know “sad” was all I was given, and here was outrage. 

EW:You kind of need both. The Rilla and the Owen.

MM:That’s right. And the thing that Rilla does really well is the homefront. I don’t know of anything else like it, certainly not for World War I, but not for any wars. Most of it is much more Gone with the Wind, the sweeping drama... But again, Rilla is Canadian, so you get a different framing of it. 

EW:I have just a few other, little questions. What is your favorite LMM text, if you have one? You can define “favourite” however you’d like. 

MM:[pause] I think, on balance, the one that I like the best is actuallyJane of Lantern Hill. It’s shorter than some of them. But I just like how Jane gets on with things. She just can-do. She’s good and lively. It’s a much brisker book than any of the other ones I can think of...It has way, way less description.

EW:Was Jane your favorite as a child or is that more of your “looking back” favorite?

MM:You know that’s one of the reasons I hesitated, I don’t actually know. I mean in some ways, since it was the first one I read, Anne of Green Gables was my favorite. But I always really, really liked Jane. I think the pace was one of the reasons why I did. Because she [Montgomery] can get bogged down in ellipses and parentheses and you know whispering fairies and all that kind of stuff. And I never had any time for that; I always skipped that stuff. So Jane was refreshing because I didn’t have to skip. Very few sunsets and when there are, they are usually functional sunsets that are doing something useful. As opposed to Anne/Emily/Pat pause at the hilltop to look out over the landscape where a million purple clouds were turning green in the azure sky and all that. If there is one thing I really don’t like about all of those books it’s that stuff, there is just too much of it.  

…. I was very surprised to discover that Jane was written after Mistress Pat. I would have said that MP was a very late offering, but no, not really. I’ve never really paid a huge amount of attention to publication dates of books like that, but that surprised me. 

EW:Have you read anything recently that seems Montgomery-esque? Or has a similar flavour?

MM:That’s a very interesting question, but I don’t think I have an answer to it [yet]. Some years ago, I did a very interesting project looking at Elijah of Buxton alongside Anne of Green Gables, but that’s not because they had points in common, it was because they were written about the same time period and portrayed two such completely different versions of Canada that it was just mind-boggling. Even more so, when I discovered that there actually was a “Black Quarter” of Charlottetown that Montgomery never mentioned and possibly didn’t know about. 

EW:What do you most look forward to at the conference?

MM: I’m very keen to hear Catherine Ross….and I haven’t been to Prince Edward Island since 1962 so that will be illuminating.  

***

Dr. Mackey will be speaking on Friday, 22 June, on “L.M. Montgomery and the Shadow of an In-Dwelling Reader.”  

Abstract: 

Two insights into how we read provide a way to consider the impact of L.M. Montgomery’s writings on an individual reader. Louise Rosenblatt distinguishes between efferent reading (reading to take something away) and aesthetic reading (reading for the experience of dwelling in the text-created world). Sven Birkerts talks about the way that intense reading can seep into daily life, talking about the “shadow life” of reading that occurs when a story haunts our regular existence. As a child, I read Montgomery’s works both extensively and repeatedly. Without a doubt, I spent much solitary time inhabiting the shadow life that they generated in my own conscious and subliminal awareness. Montgomery’s heroines walked in my shoes, and I in theirs. I did not read the books to take away any improving information, but I was “occupied” by many of her ideas all the same. In this talk I will explore how Anne, Rilla, Emily, Pat, and Jane shadowed my own life, for good and ill, and expand from that personal perspective to consider the impact of intense and repetitive reading on the person who engages in it.