Honorary degree citation - Alistair MacLeod*
By: Mary Di Michele, June 2004
Mr. Chancellor, I have the honour to present to you Mr. Alistair MacLeod, distinguished author.
Mr. MacLeod has been called one of the most important Canadian writers of the 20th Century. His unique voice is complemented by an extraordinary canon of work. Extraordinary in its modesty, sixteen short stories and one novel. But this small contingent of narratives has put him on the Modern Library's list of the 200 most important writers in the English language since 1950; it has found him international fame and garnered a host of awards.
Alistair MacLeod was born in North Battleford Saskatchewan in 1936. At the age often his family moved back to their farm on Cape Breton. The land and the people of Cape Breton became the source spring of his literary imagination later in life. Though he loved writing, he never took up the pen until he was nearly thirty. Instead, he obtained a teaching certificate from the Nova Scotia Teacher's College, a B.A. and a B.Ed from St. Francis Xavier University, an M.A. from the University of New Brunswick. During his university education he worked each summer in Cape Breton's famous coal mines. When he left the Maritimes it was to pursue a Ph.D. in 1968 from the University of Notre Dame. He taught at Indiana University until 1969 and became Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Windsor.
His first short story collection, "The Lost Salt Gift of Blood" appeared in 1976 to wide acclaim. This was followed ten years later by another volume of short stories entitled, "As Birds Bring Forth the Sun." These works garnered him so much critical attention that his first, and as of yet only, novel was anticipated with bated breath by the literary community. And when, “No Great Mischief” was published, it was praised as an instant masterpiece, winning him the IMPAC award, voted on by an international panel of judges. It also won Ontario's coveted "Trillium Prize."
Each of his works is painstakingly written to plan, one perfect sentence after one perfect sentence. Rarely does he go back for revisions. It is a very unique method, requiring detailed foresight, and a genuine commitment to message. When asked once if he ever let a character he created carry away the story in a new direction he said, "No! I wouldn't let them do it..." he tells his characters, "You do what I tell you or I'll kill you on page twelve."
His work deals with the struggles of families, Scottish families, living in Cape Breton. His characters confront and are overcome by personal struggles. The settings are haunting and the stories are often written in the first person. His love of words and their sounds, gives the reader the unique sense that the work should be spoken rather than read.
And this is the true force of his purpose. For Mr. MacLeod is a storyteller, plain and simple. He believes story telling pre dates literacy. That stories are the threads that bind culture and explore the depths of the human experience. He has immortalized Canadian Maritime life, the particular conditions of a particular people in a particular moment in time that transcends everything particular about it and talks of all people, everywhere, their struggles their loyalties, their loves and their illusions.
His work has found audiences everywhere. And it leaves the reader wishing for more. But perfection does not allow for proliferation. And each work is a master craft that can be read and re-read.
We honour Mr. MacLeod today for his extraordinary commitment to his craft. His work has become a very important part of Canada's literary canon.
Mr. Chancellor, on behalf of the Senate and the Board of Governors, it is my privilege and an honour to present to you Mr. Alistair MacLeod, so that you may confer upon him the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.