Having a fondness for dramatic symbolism, Pauline Johnson named the collected edition of her poems Flint and Feather, explaining:
Flint suggests the Red Man’s weapons of war; it is
the arrow tip, the heart-quality of mine own people;
let it therefore apply to those poems that touch upon
Indian life and love. The lyrical verse herein is as a
“Skyward floating feather,
Sailing on summer air.”
And yet that feather may be the eagle plume that
the head of a warrior chief; so both flint and feather bear
the hall-mark of my Mohawk blood.
Flint and feather are also fairly representative of two contrasting traits within Johnson herself. While her nature may not have been exactly flinty, she was pragmatic enough to be hard-nosed when it came to making choices that might further her career. If she felt it necessary, she would compromise, or dissemble, or exploit her mixed heritage and feminine charm. And who could blame her? As a poet and entertainer, she was competing in a field where she had to overcome prejudice against her background and resistance to her gender. At the same time, she was inherently romantic, in love with the past and revelling in the present. Hers was a blithe spirit, endowed with an imagination that took flight with flair and fervour. That side of her personality could soar like a “Skyward floating feather.”
Throughout her career, Pauline Johnson tried to keep the year of her birth secret. “I have been so long on the stage that I have a woman’s and particularly an actress’s aversion to my years being general knowledge,” she wrote to an acquaintance in 1912 during her final illness. “When I slip away to the Happy Hunting Grounds, which I so often long to enter, the public may have my age to play with as it will have many other personal matters concerning me, but I shall be beyond the hurt of having my innermost sacred affairs in the newspapers....”1 Although she went to her grave still denying the date, it was already general knowledge that she was born at Chiefswood on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Canada West, on 10 March 1861.
What the public got wrong was the widespread notion that she was an “Indian Princess.” Being the daughter of a pine tree (not hereditary) chief of the Six Nations Confederacy did not give her the native equivalent of royal status. Furthermore, although she was legally an Indian, she was technically a half-breed (a term she loathed) because her mother was a white woman. Even her father, George Johnson, known as Chief Onwanonsyshon (“he who has the great mansion”), was not a full-blooded Indian. His lineage reveals at least one white ancestor, possibly more.
Pauline Johnson’s first known Indian forebear is Mary Tekahionwake from the Mohawk Valley of what is now New York State. Already the mother of a daughter, she gave birth to a son Jacob in 1758, but the identity of the father can no longer be traced. Shortly afterwards, taking her children with her, she travelled to a festival on the Niagara Peninsula, which was attended by Sir William Johnson, the Irish-born Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the northern district of the American colonies. During the festivities, when Mary wished to have her infant son given a Christian baptism, the Anglican priest asked what surname should be used. Sir William stepped forward, granting permission for the young Tekahionwake to be christened Jacob Johnson. Sir William was named the boy’s godfather, but allegations that the roisterous superintendent sired a prodigious number of illegitimate children fueled the speculation that he might in fact have been the father of Jacob Johnson, Pauline’s great-grandfather.
As a young man, Jacob Johnson fought on the British side during the American Revolutionary War. In the late 1780s, he was among the Mohawks and other Iroquois who fled with Joseph Brant to Upper Canada, settling along the Grand River on a tract of land that had been granted to them for their loyalty to the crown. It is not known whom or when he married, but his son John, the future grandfather of Pauline Johnson, was born on the Johnson settlement, near present-day Brantford, on 14 December 1792.
John Johnson became better known as “Smoke” Johnson, a simplified translation of Sakayanwaraton, his Mohawk name, meaning “the haze that rises from the ground on an autumn morning and vanishes as the day advances.” During the war of 1812, although he was only twenty, he distinguished himself at the battles of Lundy’s Lane, Stoney Creek and Queenston Heights, and later gained lasting notoriety for his part in the burning of Buffalo, New York, on 13 December 1813. The British officials, impressed by his wartime patriotism and his fluent command of English, pressured for him to be made a chief to act as an intermediary between their government and the Six Nations Council. Since by custom he could never become one of the hereditary chiefs, not being descended from a founding family of the Confederacy, the problem was solved by giving him the status of pine tree chief, a non-hereditary title. With his gift for oratory, he soon became the Speaker of the Council, a position he held for forty years. Known as “the Mohawk warbler” for his eloquence, he was a born performer like his granddaughter Pauline two generations later. His wife, Helen Martin, had one important distinction her husband lacked: she was descended from one of the Confederacy’s founding families. However, she never acknowledged that her mother was a white woman of Dutch descent, who had been captured at the age of thirteen and adopted into the family of a Mohawk chief.
Pauline Johnson’s father was the second oldest of the seven children of John “Smoke” Johnson and Helen Martin. Born on 10 October 1816, he was christened George in honour of King George III under whose banner his father and grandfather had gone to battle. Educated at Brantford, he proved to have a good ear for languages, becoming fluent in English and French as well as Mohawk, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca and Tuscarora. At the age of twenty-two, he was hired as an interpreter by the Reverend Adam Elliott, the Church of England’s missionary to the Grand River Indians. Besides being a gifted linguist, he had grown into a handsome, well-groomed man with cultured tastes and personal charm. When Elliott married Eliza Howells in 1839, George Johnson fitted easily into their household, not as a servant but as a member of the family.
Six years later, the family was joined by Mrs. Elliott’s youngest sister, Emily Howells. This serious newcomer with beautiful, deep-set eyes was only twenty-one, but already as prim and proper as the proverbial old maid. No one could have predicted that in the not-too-distant future she would be rash enough to marry George Johnson. However, if we can accept Pauline’s account, the meeting of her father and mother was practically love at first sight on the part of Emily:
.... She had not expected to see anything like this self-poised, scrupulously-dressed, fine-featured, dark stripling. She thought all Indians wore savage-looking clothes, had fierce eyes and stern, set mouths. This boy’s eyes were narrow and shrewd, but warm and kindly, his lips were like a Cupid’s bow, his hands were narrower, smaller than her own, but the firmness of those slim fingers, the power in those small palms, as he helped her from the carriage, remained with her through all the years to come. That evening at supper she noted his table deportment; it was correct in every detail. He ate leisurely, silently, gracefully; his knife and fork never clattered, his elbows were never in evidence, he made use of the right plates, spoons, forks, knives; he bore an ease, an unconsciousness of manner that amazed her.2
Upon the death of George Johnson’s maternal uncle, Chief Henry Martin, the question of his replacement on the Council became a hot issue. As a clan mother, Helen Martin Johnson had the right to appoint his successor. Her choice of her son George did not sit well with some of the other chiefs for several reasons. To begin with, since his father was already on the Council, it would put too much influence in the hands of one family. Furthermore, as an interpreter, George was in the employ of the British government and liable to a conflict of interest. Besides, chiefs from other tribes felt challenged by an articulate young Mohawk like George, who had a gift for drawing attention to himself. In the end, the dissenters were no match for the stubbornness of Helen Johnson. She got her way, and George joined the Council.
We return now to Pauline Johnson’s imaginative recreation of events:
[Emily] never forgot the first time she saw [George]
robed in the full costume of his office.... [A]s he stood
beside his veteran father, ready to take his place
among the chiefs of the Grand Council, she saw revealed
another phase of his life and character; she saw that he was
destined to be a man among men, and for the first time she
realized that [he] had grown a little beyond her, perhaps a
little above her.... He, tawny-skinned, lithe, straight as an
arrow, the royal blood of generations of chiefs and warriors
pulsing through his arteries.3
Johnson emphasizes that Emily Howells did not marry beneath herself when she became the wife of George Johnson on 27 August 1853. Yet, in the words of Shakespeare, “The lady doth protest too much methinks.” Being obsessively defensive of her Mohawk ancestry, she does not give enough credit to the Howells side of her heritage with its predominantly Welsh origin. Its beginnings were humble, one traceable ancestor being a blacksmith; but, by the middle of the eighteenth century, the family began rising to a higher station in British life.
Among the upwardly mobile Howells were Johnson’s maternal great-grandfather, Thomas Howells (1739-1821), and his brother William, who left Radnorshire in Wales to practice the fine art of clock and watchmaking in London. It was there that Thomas met Susanna Beasley whom he married on 5 September 1772. The first of their twelve children was born in London the following May. Within a year, however, Thomas moved back to Wales, settling in the market town of Hay-on-Wye in the shadow of the famous Black Mountains. Building a mill, he began the manufacture of what the English wool merchants called Welsh flannels. By the 1790s, he owned three mills and had become a rich man. Although a Quaker by conviction, he possessed a Celtic temperament to which his colourful great-granddaughter might have attributed some of her personal “flint and feather” if she had been less partial to her Mohawk genes. Unlike some of Thomas’ descendants, she never claimed to have inherited a love of literature from Susanna, his Engish wife.
Johnson’s maternal grandfather, Henry Charles Howells (1784-1854), the second youngest of Thomas’ children, did not enter either the jewellery or flannels trade, as some of his older brothers had done, but found work as a tinsmith in London. When he married there, on 22 September 1805 at the age of twenty-one, he was excluded from the Society of Friends because his wife, Mary Best, was an Anglican. Nevertheless, he retained the rigidity of his Quaker upbringing, which made him a strict disciplinarian at home and in the schools he later operated in Bristol. Before her death in 1828, Mary bore him thirteen children, the youngest being Emily, born 21 January 1824. Two years later, Henry re-married, this time to a Quaker, and fathered another six children, but he seems to have been a harsh parent to all his family. Nor were Mary Best’s children shown any affection by their stepmother. This treatment turned Emily into an introverted, insecure child, who, according to her daughter Pauline, remained “abnormally sensitive.” 4
The next year after their father’s second marriage, the three youngest girls of his first family, Maria, Eliza and Emily, were sent off to boarding school in Southampton, undoubtedly much to their stepmother’s satisfaction. However, they were soon to be reunited, unhappily from her perspective as well as theirs. In 1832, the three girls were packed off straight from school to the docks at Bristol to join the family on a long and trying voyage to New York. Upon landing, they set off for Ohio where Howells established a couple of schools before moving to Pennyslyvania and finally to New Jersey. He had not been long in America before he became a staunch abolitionist, helping runaway slaves escape to Canada, a mission of mercy in apparent contrast to his alleged cruelty towards his children. “He was a man of vast peculiarities, prejudices and extreme ideas,” writes Pauline, who imagines his character from her mother’s stories, “—a man of contraditions so glaring that even his own children never understood him.”5 However, for a man purportedly not close to his offspring, he was surrounded by a lot of them over the years. When his second wife died in 1842, he married the maid servant, who had accompanied them from England, and produced another five children—which gave him a total of twenty-four in all.
The grandfather Pauline Johnson describes as a tyrant died seven years before she was born. Her only knowledge of him came from her mother, who undoubtedly had painful memories of a father who was unloving and may have been indefensibly severe. Yet, it must be kept in mind that Pauline was prone to exaggeration and was also embittered by the hostility of some of the Howells to the Mohawk connection. In telling the story of her mother’s life for Mother’s Magazine (articles which were later reprinted in The Moccasin Maker) she insists: “I have supplied nothing through imagination, nor have I heightened the coloring of her unusual experiences.”6 Upon comparing her version with the known facts, however, a researcher soon realizes that she frequently rearranges truth for effect. Whether or not Emily Howell’s childhood was as dreadful as her daughter pictures it, she grew up having the skills and good manners required of a nineteenth-century lady and was encouraged in her love of literature and music.
Emily’s engagement to a Mohawk chief not only horrified some of the Howells, but was met with resistance from the groom’s parents, particularly his mother, the redoubtable Helen Martin. The wedding plans were delayed, but the deaths in quick succession of Emily’s sister and children from scarlet fever and tuberculosis eventually made marriage necessary. By the moral standards of the day, it was highly improper for a single female to be living in a household consisting only of two unattached males. Fortunately, Helen Martin was reconciled with her son and his wife after the arrival of her first grandchild, Henry Beverly Johnson (always known by his middle name), who was born at the rectory on 18 July 1854. By then, she was resigned to the fact that none of George’s descendants could ever become hereditary chiefs. A daughter, christened Helen Charlotte Eliza, but always called either Eva or Evelyn (she preferred the latter), was born on 22 September 1856, also at the rectory.
Meanwhile, George Johnson had bought two hundred acres of Reserve land located between the Grand River and the road to Brantford. Clearing a site near the river, he oversaw the building of Chiefswood, a backwoods mansion that would have graced any street in town. Among the unusual features of this colonial-style stucture with its stucco finish were two front entrances, one looking across the river to greet visitors from the main Indian settlement, the other facing in the opposite direction to welcome guests from the whiteman’s town. In practice, however, the riverside entrance became the only front door and the vestibule on the opposite side was used for storage. Five chimneys rising from the roof bore evidence of the fireplaces that heated all the main rooms. Inside, the furnishings included walnut panelling, an elegant staircase, rich carpeting, and imported wallpaper. Dominating the parlour was a splendid rosewood piano for Emily to play her husband’s favourite songs like “Oft in the Stilly Night.” In short, this was a Victorian home built for comfortable family living and gracious entertaining. None of their Mohawk kin lived in such a grand style—nor some of the Howells for that matter.
Chiefswood was completed in time for the young couple’s third child, Allen Wawanosh Johnson, to be born there on 21 July 1858. Emily Pauline Johnson, the fourth child, destined to be the last, was born nearly four years later. Having the same first name as her mother, this second daughter was always called by her middle name (sometimes shortened to “Paul” by her siblings and friends) to avoid confusion. Her father, who idolized Napoleon Bonaparte, chose “Pauline” in honour of his hero’s sister. The other children had narrowly missed being named after the Bonapartes. Beverly was nicknamed “Boney” as a compromise when his mother strenuously objected to him being christened Napoleon Bonaparte. Their older daughter would have been named Josephine had her father got his way. Allen was nicknamed “Kleber” after one of Bonaparte’s generals. Except for Allen’s middle name (chosen at the request of Chief Wawanosh, an Ojibwa), none of the children was given an Indian name. In truth, there was not much in their upbringing that differed from that of children from genteel English families of modestly substantial means.
The regimen of “proper” conduct imposed by Emily Johnson was as strict, though less tyrannical, as her own father’s standards of discipline had been. Good manners were de rigueur and one’s behaviour must never have any plebian taint of commonness. Since there were usually three servants, the children were required to perform only those household tasks she considered to be character-building for the type of gentry she was training them to become. George Johnson, often being away on official business, was content to leave this day-to-day rearing of the children to his wife, having full confidence in her perception of the best of two worlds. Pauline claims that her mother, “English though she was, made it her life service to inspire, foster and elaborate within these children the pride of race, the value of that copper-tinted skin which they all displayed.”7 However, what Emily stressed was the romantic white view of the Indians as portrayed in Longfellow’s Hiawatha of which Pauline memorized long passages.
The young Johnsons’ ties with the Reserve were limited, especially after the death of Helen Johnson. They mixed very little with the native children, and none of them learned to speak the Mohawk language. Nor were they particularly comfortable in the company of their white counterparts. Part of the problem was the shyness they had all inherited from their mother. “We learned from her,” Pauline recalled later, “to disguise our wretched bashfulness with a peculiar, cold reserve, that made our schoolfellows call us ‘stuck up,’ and our neighbours’ children mock us as ‘proudy.’ ”8
Starting with an English governess in an upstairs classroom at Chiefswood, the formal education of the Johnson children widened their social difference from their contemporaries on the Reserve. Beverly continued his studies at the Mohawk Institute, an Indian residential school in Brantford, probably because Chief Johnson wanted to set an example for native families, but the boy found the atmosphere intolerable and remained unhappy until he was enrolled at Hellmuth Collegiate, London, Ontario, where (to his mother’s gratification) he mixed with the sons of the local élite. At the same time, with equally satisfactory results, Evelyn was sent to the Hellmuth Ladies’ College, also in London. Allen, in turn, was sent to the Mohawk Institute, but being more rebellious than Beverly, ran away to stay with his grandfather, Smoke Johnson. Afterwards, he attended the Collegiate Institute in Brantford, boarding with his uncle, Dr. Thomas Best Howells, one of the few family members who remained on speaking terms with the Johnsons.
It was almost inevitable that Pauline, being the baby of the family and less robust than the others, would be the most pampered of the Johnson children. Happily, she was too sweet-tempered to become a spoiled brat. Inheriting her mother’s luminous grey eyes and curly brown hair along with a piquant trace of her father’s colouring, she was a lovable little beauty. Always a lively chatterbox at home, and naturally gregarious, she would blossom socially once she shook off the reserve imposed by her mother. Her early education was haphazard: reading, writing (and not enough arithmetic!) taught by a governess; two unprofitable years at a small school on the Reserve; and three years of unsupervised study at home. What always mattered most was the poetry her mother read to her instead of nursery rhymes until she was able to read it on her own. By the time she was fourteen, she was steeped in the verse of Milton, Scott, the English romantics, Longfellow, Tennyson and Browning.
Two years at the Brantford Collegiate Institute, when she was between the ages of fourteen and sixteen, helped Pauline shed the prim mask that concealed her true nature. Spending week-nights in town in a boarding house taught her how to mix with strangers. At school, she soon excelled in English and history, but never in mathematics—unlike her sister and her brothers, who later mistook her trouble with figures and finances for reckless extravagance. She had her first taste of being in the limelight when she became the star performer in the school’s plays and recitations. Above all, she was making friends with girls of her own age and interests, girls from families of whom her mother approved.
Sometimes, Pauline’s school friends would be invited to Chiefswood to spend the weekend, the most frequent visitor being Jean Morton, a pretty little brunette, who was as lively and fun loving as Pauline herself. Often they would be mingling with friends of Evelyn and the Johnson boys, who also brought guests home to enjoy the celebrated hospitality of Chiefswood with its formal dinners and evenings of music and parlour entertainments. Beverly, considered the handsomest young man in Canada by some of his admirers, was a talented pianist, capable of playing Beethoven as well as the latest popular tunes. While Allen was not as handsome, he was more popular with the ladies because he danced divinely and was less shy than his brother. There was a similar difference between Evelyn and her sister, the latter being much more of an extrovert. In this youthful company, Pauline liked to play the role of an Indian maiden, but it was an attention-getting stunt more than a serious expression of racial affinity.Other than a certain portion of her ancestry, which legally made her one of them, she had little in common with Indian maidens.
Adults, as well as young people, were eager visitors to Chiefswood, relishing the social cachet of an invitation to the same home that feted Governors-General and similar dignitaries. One frequent visitor, Horatio Hale, the distinguished ethnologist, who took a special interest in the Six Nations Reserve, wrote: “The attractions of the place and of the household brought many visitors, who all came away delighted with a reception in which Indian hospitality had combined with English courtesy and refinement to make the guests feel themselves pleasantly at home.”9 Homer Watson, the Canadian artist whom Oscar Wilde later dubbed the Constable of Canada, visited with three friends in 1879. “The Chief and his cultured wife made us welcome,” he recalled. “Pauline and her sister sang duets, and then Pauline, a slight, striking-looking young girl, recited some of her verses, which showed much talent.”10
One of the poems Pauline recited for Watson and his companions may have been “My Little Jean” (addressed to her cherished Jean Morton), which was written around the time of their visit. Her reliance upon standard “poetic” diction from the past is evident in these opening stanzas (out of eight):
Mine is the fate to watch the evening star,
In yonder dome,
Descending slowly thro’ the cobweb bar
That girts the twilight mysteries afar—
Above your home.
Mine is the fate to turn toward the west
When falls the dew,
When dips the sun beyond the woodland crest
At vesper hour, I think, my loved and best,
Alone of you.
Lines such as these evidently struck Watson as very creditable work for a girl of eighteen. It is also quite likely that Pauline’s engaging delivery made them seem more impressive than they appear on paper. She would be able to beguile an audience in the same way all her life.
Although she had been writing verses since childhood, including flowery rhymes in her friends’ autograph books, “My Little Jean” is the earliest of Johnson’s poems to appear in print. She submitted it first to Douglas Reville (future husband of Jean Morton) at the Brantford Courier. He recommended that it be sent instead to Gems of Poetry, a New York magazine, which would give it a wider readership.11 His advice turned out to be fortuitous. Not only did the magazine accept “My Little Jean,” but it published four more of her poems over the next two years: “The Rift” (under the pseudonym of Margaret Rox), “Rover,” “Iris to Floretta,” and “The Sea Queen.” Gracefully written, but sentimental and sometimes bathetic, they reflect nothing of her Indian background. Even “Iris to Floretta,” addressed to Flo Maracle, one of her few Mohawk chums (who later became a schoolteacher and married Allen Johnson in 1907), is simply a girlish tribute with no overtones of race. “The Rift” refers to a break in the clouds that symbolizes the promise of consolation for someone whose heart has been hurt. “Rover” is a tear-jerker about a seventeen-year-old girl whose dying thought is for the dog who has been her “best-loved friend.” “The Sea Queen” is a first mate’s little daughter, who babbles in baby talk and captures the hearts of the crew. Shortly after the publication of “The Sea Queen,” Gems of Poetry folded, forcing Johnson to look to other markets.
The first of her poems with an Indian theme did not appear until after she moved away from the Reserve and the sanctuary of Chiefswood. These drastic changes in her life were brought about by the death of her father shortly before her twenty-third birthday. His health had been undermined by a series of vicious physical attacks by liquor traders whose traffic with the Indians he had tried to prevent. Being no longer a robust man, he was unable to recover from a severe chill he caught one winter evening while riding home in a rainstorm. Less than a week later, on 19 February 1884, he died, leaving his wife and daughters in difficult straits. His sons were trying to make their way in the white man’s world, Beverly with Mutual Life Insurance in Montreal and Allen as a cashier for a warehouse in Hamilton, but neither was well enough established to assist his widowed mother and unmarried sisters substantially. Emily Johnson, having no ties to the Reserve and being unable to maintain Chiefswood, rented the property to a farmer and moved with her daughters into a modest house in Brantford.
Each of the three Johnson women adjusted differently to the changes in the family’s cirsumstances. Emily donned her widow’s weeds with the melancholy conviction that the best part of her life was over. Practical Evelyn took a clerical job in the office of the Indian agent in Brantford, and became the chief breadwinner. Since they could no longer afford servants, Pauline helped her mother keep house, but she also kept active visiting friends, going to Hamilton to attend plays and concerts with Allen, performing with the Brantford amateur dramatic society, and working for Grace Church where she made a special friend of Michael Mackenzie, the rector’s son. At the same time, she began to dream that someday she might be able to support herself with her pen. Already, she was acquiring a local reputation as a promising “poetess.”
In the fall of 1884, the Buffalo Historical Society invited her and Evelyn to attend a special ceremony to mark the re-burial of Red Jacket, the renowned Senecan orator whose original gravesite lay in the path of new construction. Although “The Re-interment of Red Jacket,” the commemorative poem she wrote, was not read at the ceremony, it was later printed in the Transactions of the Buffalo Historical Society over the date of 9 October 1884. After paying tribute to Red Jacket as a “master mind” of her “waning nation,” she concludes:
And few today remain;
But copper-tinted face and smoldering fire
Of wilder life were left me by my sire
To be my proudest claim.
And so ere Indian Summer sweetly sleeps,
She beckons me where old Niagara leaps;
Superbly she extends her greeting hand,
And smiling speaks to her adopted land.
Saying, ‘O, rising nation of the West,
That occupies my land, so richly blest;
O, free, unfettered people that have come
To make America your rightful home,
Forgive the wrongs my children did to you,
And we , the red skins, will forgive you too;
To-day has seen your noblest action done,
The honoured re-entombment of my son.
What these line reveal about Johnson’s attitudes is more significant than their merit as poetry. Like Duncan Campbell Scott, she endorses the image of the Indians as a “waning nation,” but her perspective is more romantic. While Scott sees them as a disappearing (assimilated) people with a bizarre past, she emphasizes the former greatness of a now diminished race—a recurrent theme for her. Proudly, she claims physical and emotional characteristics, “left me by my sire,” when in reality her skin was paler than “copper-tinted” and her inner “smoldering fire” bore at least some resemblance to her mother’s repressed passions. Being a person of mixed blood, however, she chooses a conciliatory stance: let both sides forgive old atrocities, let bye-gones be bye-gones. While the poem is noteworthy for being the first in which she boasts of her aboriginal heritage, it is surprisingly trite in spite of her special interest in the subject. Curiously, as the future would prove, much of her “Indian” verse was not among her best work.
The favourable reception of her tribute to Red Jacket established Pauline Johnson as a local celebrity and led to a still bigger triumph two years later during one of Brantford’s shining moments. The unveiling of a statue of Joseph Brant in Victoria Park on 13 October 1886 drew the largest crowd the little city had ever seen. The Dufferin Rifles Band led a lengthy parade to the park where a special platform overflowed with local dignitaries and distinguished guests that included the Lieutenant-Governor (John Beverley Robinson, son of the “Family Compact” Robinson) and Major General Sir Frederick Middleton (an ironic inclusion, considering the fact that he had recently returned from putting down the Northwest rebellion). Present in the crowd was a contingent of Northwest Indians, “attired in fanciful garb”12 that set them apart from the Six Nations people, who dressed like their white counterparts. One of the highlights of the ceremony was an ode the memorial committee had commissoned from their homegrown “poetess,” who—just to make it even more appropriate!— was of Mohawk blood like Brant.
For reasons that are no longer clear, Johnson was not asked to read her ode in person. That task was given to William F. Cockshutt, a thirty-year-old Brantford businessman, who introduced the author with these remarks that sound slightly patronizing despite their gracious intent:
The lines that I am about to speak are from the pen of Miss E. Pauline Johnson; they are creditable alike to the young Indian poetess and the race for whom she speaks, and serve to prove that our Six Nations are capable of fine literary culture, and fully able to handle the pen as well as the sword. The spirit of loyalty and fidelity to Queen, country and nation are worthy of emulation by us all. They contain a fitting tribute to Brant who fought so nobly and sacrificed so much to prove allegiance to the British flag. Miss Johnson is the daughter of the late Chief G.M.H. Johnson and the granddaughter of the venerable warrior John Smoke Johnson, who was present a few weeks since when the corner stone of this momument was laid, but has since been transferred as a wearied hunter to that higher hunting ground from which no traveller returns. This ode is offered to the public as a souvenir of this day.13
At this point, Johnson was escorted to the stage, looking extremely fetching in a stylish fur-trimmed suit and hat. Seated next to Cockshutt, she listened demurely while he declaimed her lines and the assembly signified their approval with frequent outbursts of applause. “The lines are one series of noble thoughts and beautiful metaphors,” commented the Brantford Daily Courier the next day, using the following quotation as an illustration:
And as white clouds float hurriedly and high
Across the crimson of a sunset sky,
Although their depths are foamy as the snow,
Their beauty lies in their vermillion glow,
So Canada, thy plumes were hardly won
Without allegiance from thy Indian son,
Thy glories, like the cloud enhance their charm
With red reflections from the Mohawk’s arm.
Nothing had pleased the crowd more, however, than the mawkish, imperialistic sentiments of the conclusion:
Encircling us an arm both true and brave
Extends from far across the great Salt wave,
Though but a woman’s hand ‘tis firm and strong
Enough to guard us from all fear of wrong,
A hand on which all British subjects lean,
The loving hand of England’s Noble Queen.
More interesting than the foregoing memorial poems are several lyrics about unfulfilled love which appeared around this time. Being a petite five foot two, extremely pretty and vivacious, she attracted a flock of admirers with whom she flirted light-heartedly. However, if poems like “The Firs” and “Unguessed” are to be taken at face value, she did not escape unscathed from one of those romantic escapades. In fact, she is known to have worn one young man’s picture in a locket for the rest of her life. She never revealed his name and the secret was buried with her, but Charlotte Gray, one of her biographers, speculates that the lost lover may have been Michael Mackenzie.14 He was only a teenager when they became close companions, being fully five years younger than Pauline, but that kind of age difference would be the pattern for several of her future relationships.
Michael Mackenzie was no matinée idol—unlike Beverly Johnson—but his wholesome looks and sensitive expression made him a prepossessing young man. He was also highly intelligent, winning a couple of scholarships at Trinity University, Toronto. He and Pauline shared two consuming interests: a love of literature and a passion for canoeing. At Trinity, 1887, he won the prize for the best English poem and the best English essay. During the summers, he spent many of his leisure hours in a canoe on the Grand River. “There were several little rapids to be run, many charming pools for lunch or tea, and only one portage at the lower locks,” he wrote forty years later. “Of my companions on these trips, I recall especially ... Ed Bishop and Pauline Johnson.”15 Evelyn Johnson remembered one July excursion when Pauline and Michael paddled eighteen miles to stay overnight with friends in Onondaga.16
It is tempting to think that Johnson had Michael in mind when she wrote “Unguessed” containing this emotional stanza:
I wonder how you rest
So calmly when my breast
Is tortured by the efforts that I make
To strangle love and keep
His ensign from my cheek,
To still the passion in my heart just for our friendship’s
If this is a personal confession, it is surprisingly frank for someone who guarded her privacy as fiercely as Pauline Johnson. What is even more unusual is her decision to submit it to Saturday Night where it appeared in the issue of 16 June 1888. It was enough to set tongues wagging among her acquaintances—something she normally abhorred. Equally indiscreet is “Close By” (Saturday Night, 2 February 1889) with its opening declaration: “Once, many days ago, we almost held it/ The love we so desired....”
If young Mackenzie was ever in love with Johnson, he seems to have got over it without too much pining. Having graduated from Trinity in 1887, he left that summer to study mathematics at Selwyn College, Cambridge, England. Johnson’s poem “My English Letter” (Saturday Night, 17 March 1888) is evidence that he kept in touch at first; but, during a holiday in Ireland, he fell in love with Maud Niven, a young woman his own age, who took his mind off any Brantford ladies. He later married Maud and became a professor of mathematics and physics at his alma mater in Toronto, a position he held until his retirement in 1936.
Although there is no record of any subsequent communication between Mackenzie and Johnson, Walter McRaye, writing in the late 1940s, tells of a recent fireside chat with “a gray haired gentleman” who “recalled the old days when [he and Johnson] were both young and sweethearts, and paddled on the Grand River.” McRaye does not name his companion, but it seems almost a certainty that he is Michael Mackenzie, aged eighty. “He spoke wistfully of this tender and bygone romance,” claims McRaye, identifying him simply as the person to whom Johnson addressed “Re-Voyage.”17 Published in the Independent (New York), 2 July 1891, four years before Mackenzie’s marriage to Maud Niven, the aforesaid lyric is full of longing, regret, and maybe wishful thinking:
What of the days when we two dreamed together?
Days marvellously fair,
As lightsome as a skyward floating feather
Sailing on summer air—
Summer, summer, that came drifting through
Fate’s hand to me, to you.
What of the days, my dear? I sometimes wonder
If you too wish this sky
Could be the blue we sailed so softly under,
In that sun-kissed July;
Sailed in the warm and yellow afternoon,
With hearts in touch and tune.
Have you no longing to re-live the dreaming,
Adrift in my canoe?
To watch my paddle blade all wet and gleaming
Cleaving the waters through?
To lie wind-blown and wave-caressed, until
Your restless pulse grows still?
Do you not long to listen to the purling
Of foam athwart the keel?
To hear the nearing rapids softly swirling
Among their stones, to feel
The boat’s unsteady tremor as it braves
The wild and snarling waves?
What need of question, what of your replying?
Oh! well I know that you
Would toss the world away to be but lying
Again in my canoe,
In listless indolence entranced and lost,
Wave-rocked, and passion tossed.
Ah me! my paddle failed me in the steering
Across love’s shoreless seas;
All reckless, I had ne’er a thought of fearing
Such dreary days as these,
When through the self-same rapids we dash by,
My lone canoe and I.
The theme of lost or unrequited love is too dominant in Pauline Johnson’s poetry to be dismissed as nothing more than an imitation of the sentimental fodder often found in popular magazines. Even though she may have been catering intentionally to a romantic readership, she was undoubtedly drawing upon her own feeling of unfulfillment. Caught between two worlds, her prospects for a satisfying relationship were not very favourable. Other than her aboriginal ancestry, she had almost nothing in common with any of the young men on the Reserve. Her male friends were all sons of white families, who expected them to marry into a social class that excluded “half-breeds.” Falling in love with one of these young men was almost certain to lead to the kind of disappointment she describes in her poems. Yet, it must be kept in mind that she had a propensity for over-dramatization, which makes it difficult to be sure that her emotional involvement was as deeply serious as it sounds.
It has not been established whether Johnson was the author of “Both Sides,”18 a poem she pasted into her scrapbook, but the act of saving it may be an indication in itself a fling with someone whose age fits that of Michael Mackenzie:
I’d been having a whacking flirtation
With a boy not twenty years old:
And although I am five years his senior,
That ugly fact need not be told.
I know that he literally worshipped
Me; and just to tell you the truth,
I rather enjoyed the outpouring
Of this wild first love of his youth.
How I liked my shy, innocent lover!
But—wretched young villain—I learned
That when chaffed by the fellows he called me
His ‘auntie’ when my back was turned.
I was desperately, madly, devotedly
In love with a woman so fair
That, as usual, I thought her an angel,
With halos encircling her hair.
She was older than I—but what of it?
Her age but enhanced her, for then
Was she not so unselfish, preferring
A boy to society men?
But one day I got over my ‘spasm,’
And out of love’s arms I soon slid
When I heard that, when chaffed by some women,
She called me a ‘snippy young kid.’
The irony is humourous, but likely less dégagé than Johnson sometimes felt—at least over one particular affair. Or so that secret picture kept in her locket might lead us to believe.
Between 1885 and 1889, following the demise of New York’s Gems of Poetry, Johnson was unable to break into any major American magazines, but she found a market for her verse closer to home, mainly in two Toronto periodicals: The Week (eleven poems) and Saturday Night (nineteen poems). In a relatively short time, her ouput was prolific enough to make her name familiar to a wider public. It caught the attention of William Douw Lighthall, a Montreal lawyer and littérateur, who included two of her poems in his important anthology, Songs of the Great Dominion, 1889. In a lengthy biographical note he calls Johnson “interesting on account of her race as well as her strong and cultured verse.”19 However, instead of selecting any of her “Indian” poems, he chose “In the Shadows,” which describes a canoe trip down a shaded stretch of the Grand River, and “At the Ferry,” also set on the Grand River.
A review of Songs of the Great Dominion in the Athenaeum (London), 28 September 1889, would be forever regarded by Johnson as a milestone in her career. Written by Theodore Watts-Dunton, an eminent critic and versatile man of letters, it singles her for special attention, hailing her as “the most interesting English poetess now living.” After quoting “In the Shadows” in full, he expresses his “discontent that Mr. Lighthall has not enriched his anthology with more than two specimens of the poems of this young lady, who, although she bears the English name of Pauline Johnson, is of a famous Indian family, the Mohawks of Brantford.” Obviously intrigued by her heritage, he goes on to repeat most of the biographical data supplied by Lighthall. “But,” he continues, “let us do justice also to the Canadian poets of English blood, such as Lighthall himself, Mr. Wilfred Campbell, Mr. Bliss Carman, “Fidelis” [Agnes Maule Machar], and a host of others too numerous to mention.”20 However, doing “justice” to the other poets he names does not include any quotations or any discussion of their work. No wonder, then, that Johnson felt “she was largely indebted to [Watts-Dunton] for her success in the literary world.”21
The attention given to “In the Shadows” was particularly gratifying. Before its acceptance in The Week, it had been rejected by eleven American magazines, including Harper’s, whose editor, William Dean Howells, had scrawled on the margin: “It will never go. It has no backbone!”22 Johnson found Howells’ comment singularly ungracious because his father was her mother’s first cousin. Since he was fully aware of the family tie, his unkind frankness seemed difficult to explain. He had the reputation of being “one of the gentlest, sweetest, and most honest of men,”23 but Johnson took his honesty in this instance to be unduly harsh and concluded that he was not only prejudiced against her but was possibly embarrassed by the Indian connection. Her bitterness likely increased a few years later when his laudatory review of Lampman’s Among the Millet helped to “make” the reputation of her fellow Confederation Poet.
“In the Shadows” is typical of Johnson’s quiet moods. Instead of quoting all nine stanzas, as Watts-Dunton did, perhaps it will suffice to choose the first three to sample her style:
I am sailing to the leaward,
Where the current runs to seaward
Soft and slow.
Where the sleeping river grasses
Brush my paddle as it passes
To and fro.
On the shore the heat is shaking
All the golden sands awaking
In the cove;
And the quaint sandpiper, winging
O’er the shallows, ceases singing
When I move.
On the water’s idle pillow
Sleeps the overhanging willow,
Green and cool;
Where the rushes lift their burnished
Oval head from out the tarnished
The poem continues with a logical succession of images, depicting the passing scene as viewed from the canoe. It succeeds in capturing the mood of an idle day on the river, although a perfectionist might quibble over the rhyme and rhythm. There is a taint of carelessness about the occasional assonance (“cove,” “move”; “burnished,” “tarnished”) coming as it does amid a preponderance of true end-rhymes. The singsong cadence, suggestive of the dip and lift of the paddle, becomes a trifle monotonous—not an uncommon flaw in Johnson’s handling of rhythm.
In the late 1880s and early 1890s, nearly every month saw the publication of a new poem by Pauline Johnson, mostly in Saturday Night. From 1890 onward, she also began producing prose sketches on outdoor topics and Indian life, and published a couple of short stories. Writing was becoming a serious occupation, but it seemed unlikely ever to provide anything more than a meagre income at best. At the same time, her private life was slipping into the doldrums as she neared thirty. She was active in the productions of the Brantford Players, spent several summers vacationing in the Muskokas, and even took a trip to New York City, but found herself being left behind with a younger crowd as her old friends married and started raising families. She was too passionate to be resigned to the role of “old maid,” but the eligible men were increasingly younger than herself. Some of them were temporarily infatuated with her, including Hector Charlesworth (born 1872) of Saturday Night, but they eventually backed off for various reasons, not least of which may have been Johnson’s overly ardent nature in addition to the disapproval of their families. Her life appeared to be stagnating, but all that was about to change.
When Frank Yeigh, one of Johnson’s former classmates at the Brantford Collegiate, was elected president of the Young Men’s Liberal Association in Toronto in 1891, he had a novel idea for promoting the club’s “Canadianism” agenda. He sent out invitations to more than a dozen Canadian writers to read from their work at “An Evening with Canadian Authors,” sponsored by the Young Liberals, but only eight writers agreed to attend. A fawning Hector Charlesworth declared in Saturday Night “if many distinguished litterateurs could not come to Toronto, we had the satisfaction of having with us Canada’s greatest poet, Mr. William Wilfred Campbell of Ottawa, and Canada’s greatest and most representative poetess, Miss E. Pauline Johnson of Brantford.”24 The event drew an overflow crowd to the Toronto Art School Gallery on 16 January 1892. Enthusiasm began to wane, however, when several of the readers droned on too long and it became painfully obvious that men like Duncan Campbell Scott, William Wilfred Campbell and W.D. Lighthall lacked audience appeal.
Johnson appeared next after Lighthall finally finished a protracted chapter from his novel, The Young Seigneur. The poise and grace of this beautiful young woman standing before them captivated the audience even before she began to recite—not read, as the others had done. She had chosen “A Cry from an Indian Wife,” written during the Riel rebellion in 1885 and published soon afterwards in The Week. Having inherited the elocutionary talent of Smoke Johnson and her father, and having honed her natural skills in amateur theatre, she knew how to dramatize lines that might have struck the critical eye as commonplace when seen on the printed page. Charlesworth was so carried away by her passionate delivery that he was misled into reviewing the poem as “A Wail from an Indian Wife,”25 which is how this monologue appears to have struck the entire audience:
My Forest Brave, my Red-skin love, farewell;
We may not meet to-morrow; who can tell
What mighty ills may befall our little band,
Or what you’ll suffer from the white man’s hand?
Here is your knife! I thought ‘twas sheathed for aye.
No roaming bison calls for it to-day;
No hide of prairie cattle will it maim;
The plains are bare, it seeks a nobler game:
‘Twill drink the life-blood of a soldier host.
Go; rise and strike, no matter what the cost.
Then her tone softened as the wording became more conciliatory:
Yet stay. Revolt not at the Union Jack,
Nor raise Thy hand against the stripling pack
Of white-faced warriors, marching West to quell
Our fallen tribe that rises to rebel.
They all are young and beautiful and good;
Curse to the war that drinks their harmless blood.
They never think how they would feel to-day
If some great nation came from far away,
Wresting their country from their hapless braves,
Giving what they gave us—but war and graves.
As she continued, her voice alternated with anger and compassion to convey the mixed feelings of the Indian wife:
Yet stay, my heart is not the only one
That grieves the loss of husband and of son;
Think of the mothers o’er the inland seas;
Think of the pale-faced maiden on her knees;
One pleads her God to guard some sweet-faced child
That marches on toward the North-West wild,
The other prays to shield her love from harm,
To strengthen his young, proud uplifted arm.
Ah, how her white face quivers thus to think.
Your tomahawk her life’s best blood will drink.
She never thinks of my wild aching breast,
Nor prays for your dark face and eagle crest
Endangered by a thousand rifle balls,
My heart the target if my warrior falls.
O! coward self I hesitate no more;
Go forth, and win the glories of the war.
Go forth, nor bend to greed of white men’s hands.
By right of birth we Indians own these lands,
Though starved, crushed, plundered, lies our nation low ...
Perhaps the white man’s God has willed it so.
The vacillation of the Indian wife is a reflection of Johnson’s ambivalence as a person of mixed blood and hence of mixed loyalties. Her own bitterness comes through as genuine, but it is not unforgiving. While the rhetoric is too trite to be especially memorable in itself, it undoubtedly took on another dimension when delivered with the passionate intensity of a performer like Pauline Johnson. The audience at the Art School Gallery sat spellbound until she had finished and turned to leave. Then they burst into loud applause that did not subside until she took centre stage again to oblige with an encore. She had scored a personal triumph and saved the evening from turning into a disaster.
Yeigh, who fancied the role of impresario, lost no time in hiring Toronto’s Association Hall and persuading Johnson to give a solo performance—not that she needed much urging. It was already dawning upon her that there might be a promising future in becoming a professional recitalist. The prospect struck her as much more exciting than being stuck in Brantford with dwindling chances of settling down in a happy marriage. Besides, she felt there was bound to be more money in performing than there was in writing, although she had no intention of abandoning poetry. She was resolved that, unlike most elocutionists of the day, she would recite only the material she had written herself. Thus, it came about that her performance in Toronto on 19 February 1892 launched a career that would last for the next sixteen years.
Pauline Johnson’s face in profile was pictured on the advertisements announcing the programme. Billed as “the Indian poetess in a series of Readings from her own poems,” she was clearly to be the star attraction of the evening. Announced in smaller lettering were Mrs. Maggie Barr Fenwick of Hamilton (“Canada’s Favourite Soprano, and Scottish Vocalist”), Mr. Fred Warrington (“the well-known Baritone”) and Mr. W.S. Jones (“organist”). At the last minute, Yeigh added Mrs. George Furniss, a Montreal vocalist making her first appearance before a Toronto audience. The musical numbers were enthusiastically received by the audience that filled the hall on that chilly winter evening, but it was Pauline Johnson who elicited the warmest applause.
“The local Four Hundred were there in full force,”26 Frank Yeigh exulted afterwards. They were the sort of audience likely to find their preconceptions about Indian savagery confirmed by Johnson’s opening selection, “The Avenger,” a bloody tale of “hostile feuds and violent jealousies.” It was a great choice to showcase her histrionic gifts; but, since she never reprinted it in any of her volumes of verse, she may have become uneasy about the stereotypes it perpetuated. In contrast, her second selection, “Pilot of the Plains,” is a tear-jerker about a faithful Indian maiden and her fated “Pale-face lover.” It is mawkishly sentimental, but apparently Johnson was able to make it sound more effective than it appears in print. Her next selection, “A Cry from an Indian Wife,” already familiar to many in her audience, was received with great enthusiasm.
For her final selection, she chose a poem she had written specially for the occasion. Called “The Song My Paddle Sings,” it would soon become her signature piece, but it got off to a bad start. As Frank Yeigh tells it, she was well into its undulating rhythms
then she stopped—stopped! It was more than a mere pause between verses. I vividly recall those awful moments that seemed like prolonged minutes as she plucked a rose to pieces from a vase on the table. What had happened? The silence of the audience waiting for an explanation was in itself terribly oppressive until she quietly remarked:
“I’m sorry I’ve forgotten the words and, if you don’t mind, I’ll give you something else.”
Her apparent composure—only apparent—her superb handling of a difficult situation won for her an even greater applause than any actual number. Some thought it was a stage trick, but she was new to stage tricks....27
It was stage fright, not a stage trick, but she recovered to return later to “The Song My Paddle Sings.” This time, she continued confidently:
August is laughing across the sky,
Laughing while paddle, canoe and I,
Where the hills uplift
On either side of the current swift.
Then her voice mounted with excitement:
And oh, the river runs swifter now;
The eddies circle about my bow.
How the ripples curl
In many a dangerous pool awhirl.
After the “seethe, and boil, and bound, and splash” of the next two stanzas, her tone muted again:
We’ve raced the rapids, we’re far ahead!
The river slips through its silent bed.
As the bubbles spray
And fall in tinkling tunes away.
And up on the hills against the sky,
A fir tree rocking its lullaby,
Its emerald wings,
Swelling the song my paddle sings.
“I have not spoken of the quality of Miss Johnson’s poetry, for it is sufficiently well known,” wrote the ever-devoted Hector Charlesworth in his Saturday Night review of the programme. “Her magnetism and her aptitude for public appearance,” he declared, “alone make the hearer wish to see more....”28 The fact that he does not say “hear more” may be an unwitting admission that he was mesmerized more by her appearance and personality than he was by her poetry. Yet, he thought highly enough of the latter to print every poem she submitted to his magazine, although he was not empowered to pay very much. For “The Song My Paddle Sings,” which appeared in Saturday Night on 27 February 1892, she received the princely sum of three dollars.
At thirty-one, an age when most of her girlfriends were married and raising children, Pauline Johnson unexpectedly found herself embarked upon a demanding career. For the next two years, under Frank Yeigh’s management, she was booked for recitals that took her across Ontario, the Maritimes, and the New England states. And that was just the beginning. Her mother, who thought the public stage was no place for a lady, wished that Pauline would take a sensible job like her sister Evelyn or else stay at home to settle down to her writing and help with the housework, but neither of those alternatives had any appeal. Unlike Evelyn, Pauline could not bring herself to face a dull office routine. Domestic duties were equally distasteful: “Ye Gods!” she once wrote to an acquaintance, “I have been housecleaning, carpets, windows, everything—it is not poetical nor even invigorating.”29 She tried in vain to reassure her mother that her goal was simply to earn enough money to publish a collection of her poems. Emily Johnson was not pleased with the spectacle she fancied her daughter was making of herself.
Like a performer from a Wild West Show, Johnson began appearing during the first part of her programme dressed in an “Indian” costume of her own creation. Starting with a buckskin shirt and skirt, ordered from the Hudson’s Bay Company in Winnipeg, she allowed her imagination to run free as she added accessories. Rabbit pelts, draped over her left shoulder, hung down past her elbow. Silver trade brooches, inherited from her Mohawk grandmother, glittered on the front of her shirt, and her father’s hunting knife and a Huron scalp (inherited from Smoke Johnson) dangled from her waistband. A bear-claw necklace, which modestly filled the expanse left by low-cut neckline, was a gift from Ernest Thompson Seton, the artist-naturalist, with whom she became friends after admiring his painting “The Sleeping Wolf” in a Toronto show. The skirt, daringly short for the time, showed off to advantage her buckskin leggings and beaded moccasins. As a finishing touch, she threw across her shoulder a red blanket upon which the Duke of Connaught, Queen Victoria’s nineteen-year-old son, had stood in 1869 to be inducted as a chief of the Six Nations. The getup passed as something authentic and added greatly to the effectivenes of poems such as “Ojistoh,” a spine-tingling tale about a Mohawk wife’s escape from a Huron warrior who rode off with her:
He cut the cords; we ceased our maddened haste;
I wound my arms about his tawny waist;
My hand crept up the buckskin of his belt;
His knife hilt in my burning palm I felt;
One hand caressed his cheek, the other drew
The weapon softly—“I love you, love you,”
I whispered, “Love you as my life.”
And—buried in his back his scalping knife.
During intermission, she would quickly change into fashionable drawingroom clothes before returning to the stage to recite gentle lyrics such as “My English Letter,” (inspired by Michael Mackenzie) that resonated with her largely Anglophile audience:
Imagination’s brush before me fleeing,
Paints English pictures, though my longing eyes
Have never known the blessedness of seeing
The blue that lines the arch of English skies.
And yet my letter brings the scenes I covet,
Framed in the salt sea winds, aye more in dreams
I almost see the face that bent above it,
I almost touch the hand, so near it seems.
Presenting herself first as an Indian maiden and later as a modern sophisticate was an attention-getting gimmick, but it served to demonstrate one of her pet contentions: the instinctive adaptability of native people to progress. Some of her audience may have seen it as a tribute to the contrasting elements in her heritage.
In the latter part of 1892, realizing that Johnson’s performances would benefit from more variety, Yeigh teamed her with Owen Smily, an English music-hall entertainer, who was nearly eight years her junior. Not only did Smily have charm and blond good looks, he could bring down the house with his comic recitations and clever impersonations. A versatile showman—he could even rattle off any tune on the piano—he taught Johnson the tricks of catering to the crowds and winning them over with humourous repartee. It might strike her mother as slightly vulgar, but Johnson had learned from experience that undiluted refinement did not always play well. Under Smily’s tutelage, she perfected a style that was more suited to popular entertainment than it was to high-brow art. It would lead to six successful years for the partners, whose relationship became almost as intimate as marriage except that Smily was not sexually interested in women.
They regularly closed their programme with a playlet adapted by Johnson from her short story, “A Red Girl’s Reasoning,” which won first prize in a contest conducted by Dominion Illustrated in the fall of 1892. It is the story of Charlie McDonald and his half-breed wife Christine, whose happy marriage ends after Charlie learns to his surprise and humiliation that Christine’s parents were united only by an Indian contract, not by a Christian ceremony. To his way of thinking, such a marriage cannot be legal and Christine is thereby a bastard. Turning on him in unforgiving anger, she uses the same reasoning to denounce her own marriage:
“I tell you we are not married. Why should I recognize the rites of your nation when you do not recognize the rites of mine? According to your own words, my parents should have gone through your church ceremony as well as an Indian contract; according to my words, we should go through an Indian contract as well as through a church marriage. If their union is illegal, so is ours. If you think my father is living in dishonor with my mother, my people will think I am living in dishonor with you.30
It made for good theatre. Smily, dressed in tie and tails as Charlie McDonald, was a convincing English bigot. Johnson, looking haughtily elegant in her satin finery, revelled in the role of the passionate Christine.
Her recitals were often sponsored by local organizations that willingly paid the customary $25 fee, plus expenses, feeling assured of collecting a profit from the proceeds. By the spring of 1894, she had saved enough to afford the long-awaited trip overseas to find a London publisher for her poems. While New York would have been a closer market, she was too much of a Britisher at heart to want an American imprint for her book. Many colonials, Johnson among them, still felt that the English capital was the centre of the universe. Although her mother had left the land of her birth at the age of eight, her attachment to it remained strong. She had filled her children with the conviction that England was the fountainhead of culture and refinement. As for London, although Emily had never been there herself, it loomed large in her imagination and took on added lustre as the city where her Howell grandparents had met and married.
At the end of April, after a big send-off at Brantford’s Kirby House by well-wishers who presented her with a purse of English sovereigns, Johnson set out for New York to take passage for Liverpool. In her baggage, she carried letters of introduction from the Governor-General (Lord Aberdeen), the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario (George Airey Kirkpatrick), the Canadian Minister of Justice (Sir Charles Hibbert Tupper), Professor William Clark of Trinity University, and many other worthies of considerable prominence. Boarding the Cunard steamship Etruria, she was prostrated by seasickness soon after sailing and was still feeling queasy when the ship docked and she caught the train to London.
London! For many newcomers the storied metropolis is overwhelming and sometimes disappointing, but Pauline Johnson was not a woman to be easily daunted or discouraged. Having arranged from Canada for lodgings on the northern but still respectable limits of Kensington, she was soon settled into a small “studio” on the top floor at 25 Portland Road, Holland Park West. The rent was almost more than she could afford, but a reputable address was essential for her calling cards as she set out to infiltrate the city’s social and literary establishments. If she could make a name for herself in those circles, she would stand a better chance of being taken seriously by a publisher. Furthermore, since she was unable to afford the rent on any London hall, she was counting on being invited (and paid) to recite in private residences.
For the full story of her London venture, we turn to the lengthy interview she gave to the Brantford Courier after her return:
I first saw Sir Charles Tupper [the Canadian High Commissioner], who was kindness itself. It so happened that I arrived in Whitsun week when all the notables were out of town, so that I had to wait ten days before securing any appointments with the others. Finally I saw the Deputy Lord Chamberlain [Edward Pigott] who said that in coming to him with a letter from Professor Clark I was bringing the highest commendation obtainable. Mr. Pigott placed himself entirely at my service and asked what he could do for me. I asked for a letter to Theodore Watts, of the Athenaeum, who is considered the best living literary critic and who had already favorably noticed my work in that magazine. Mr. Pigott, the next morning, not only sent me that coveted letter, but also eight others: to Lady Blake, wife of the Governor of Jamaica (a great Indian student); Sir Frederick Leighton, President of the Royal Academy; Frederick McMillan, the well known publisher; Mr. Pollock of the Saturday Review; Mr. Moy Thomas, critic on the Daily News; Hamilton Aidé, the artist/musician of London; Clement Scott, the leading dramatic critic; and to Mrs. Comyne Carr, literary critic. With these letters, inside of four days I found that I had the entrée to the choicest literary circles of London. As soon as I presented them, the inevitable remark was “From Edward Pigott, then you are indeed welcome.”
My first recital was at the home of Lady Helen Munro Fergeson (a daughter of the Marquis of Dufferin ). Nearly all those present were titled people and I met with a very enthusiastic reception. In fact, from first to last I did not see a sign of the so-called English chilliness. It does not exist. It is not necessary for me to say anything further about Lady Helen’s hospitality beyond the fact that she is a Dufferin.
My next recital was at Hamilton Aidé’s [spacious Hanover Square drawing room] at an afternoon reception when I met about eighty of the literary and dramatic celebrities of the metropolis. They included Clement Scott; Miss Kingsley; Geneviéve Ward [American-born tragedienne of the London stage]; Mr. and Mrs. H.M. Stanley [the former famous for his “Dr. Livingston, I presume”] ...; Lady [Helen] Blake; the Duchess of Montrose; Mr. and Mrs. [Richard] Hovey31 [Bliss Carman’s American friends]; Mr. George Alexander, the actor; Mr. and Mrs. Beerbohm Tree [the actor-manager and his actress wife]; Mr. [George Frederick] Watts, the Royal Academician; and so on. All present gave me a thoroughly warm welcome and I was enthusiastically received.
At a later stage of my visit I was invited again to Mr. Aidé’s where I met many more distinguished people. These included this time Mrs. [Frances] Hodgson Burnett [author of Little Lord Fauntleroy, etc.], who is far younger looking than I expected to find her with a handsome appearance and genial manner. Another recital was at Lady Blakes’s where I met many of the nobility and leading people. Among the latter [was] George Cross, the second husband of “George Eliot.” Mr. Knowles, the dramatic critic of the Fortnightly Review was also there and he has taken my story “A Red Girl’s Reasoning” with the idea of having it dramatized, perhaps by Henry Arthur Jones, the greatest dramatist in London today. At the close of the recital, Lady Blake presented me with broach in the shape of a lyre surmounted by a star composed of pearls. Engraved on the case was “A tiny memento of friendship and admiration from Edith Blake.” I attended many other receptions, including one given by Miss Beverly Robinson whose magnificent voice has wonderfully improved since she was last heard in Toronto and who is rapidly winning her way as a vocalist in musical London.
Among the most homelike hospitality extended to me was that of the Marquis and Marchioness of Ripon in whose drawing room I twice recited after semi-diplomatic dinners. Two of the most famous and exclusive houses in London are those of Alma Tadema, the artist, and Sir Frederick Leighton, president of the Royal Academy. It would be impossible to describe the artistic beauty of these two homes. Alma Tadema’s place is tropically magnificent, graced as it is with marbles, bronzes, carvings, inlaid mosaics, statuary, and world famous pictures. The grounds have tiled walks of marble and the flowers are strange and luxuriant. Both he and his wife are charming and I spent two happy afternoons there—afternoons which will ever dwell in my memory. At Alma Tadema’s everything seems to scintillate with color and sunshine; at Sir Frederick Leighton’s, the grandeur is more stately and sombre. The chamber which most impressed me was his famous Damascus hallway composed of tiled floor, walls and dome, with rich stained glass windows and hanging galleries. In the centre a fountain plays, throwing sprays of water into a basin composed of one solid block of black marble.
One more visit I must tell you of [is] that to Douglas Sladen’s, one of the most popular poets of London. His receptions are noted as attracting all the brightest literary and dramatic stars. Here I met Jerome K. Jerome, who was most genial and asked me to take a canoe trip up the Thames with him. He is a young and good looking man with a very taking manner and an exceptionally hearty laugh. You can identify him at once with Three Men in a Boat or any of his other books. Amelie Rives, the well known American writer was there also. She is a spirituelle and beautiful girl —in fact, one of the most attractive women I have ever seen. “Cynicus” [Martin Anderson], the famous caricaturist of society fads and one of the most noted artists of London, was another notable and likewise Mrs. Louise Chandler Molton, the poetess. These are simply a few of many receptions and celebrities at all of which and among whom I was enthusiastically welcomed.32
Johnson does not mention Gilbert Parker, but she met him at one of Hamilton Aidé’s salons. An ex-patriot Canadian in his early thirties, Parker was not yet a bona fide celebrity, but he was already being touted in certain quarters as a “rising novelist.” Fashionably dressed and strikingly handsome, with a well-trimmed black beard but unkempt ambition, he was rapidly gaining the reputation of being a “climber.” By a remarkable coincidence, his fourth book of fiction, The Translation of a Savage, had been published just prior to Johnson’s arrival in London. In many ways she was the embodiment of his heroine, Lali, “an Indian girl from Fort Charles of the Hudson’s Bay Company, with a little honest white blood in her veins.”33 Married to a Hudson’s Bay man, who sends her to his native England to be “civilized,” Lali soon proves that social differences are superficial and easily surmounted. It seems almost certain that Johnson was aware of the novel and may even have read it; but, if she found its generalizations somewhat patronizing, she would forgive its author and in time would count him among her benefactors.
Meanwhile, she had not neglected her search for a publisher for her poems. Armed with letters from Edward Pigott and Professor Clark, she bearded Clement Scott, the lion of London drama critics, in his den. An intimidating man in his early fifties, Scott was both respected and feared for his pungent reviews that could make or break a play or a performer. He was also the author of sentimental verse, some of which Johnson had undoubtedly read and concluded that there was a soft side to his nature. Clutching her manuscript and looking very appealing when at last she stood before his desk, she knew instinctively what approach to take:
[He] glanced up through an awful scowl, growling out “Well?” There is only one way to deal with a man—that is through his vanity—so I turned to the door again saying, “I’m afraid to come in.”
“Come back here!” he growled louder.”What are you afraid of?” I went back. “I’m always afraid of a man who can make one or ruin one with a stroke of his pen,” I answered.
He looked over my work then scribbled a line of recommendation to John Lane, the best London publisher.34
John Lane, aged forty when Johnson met him, had long ago shaken his upbringing on a Devon farm to become London’s most avante-garde publisher, issuing limited editions by Oscar Wilde, Richard LeGalliene and other aesthetes. Since he was aiming at a sophisticated market, a Canadian Indian “poetess” was an unlikely addition to his roster, but it was not easy to reject a manuscript that had been endorsed by Clement Scott. After receiving favourable opinions on its market prospects from three more readers, he asked one of them, the Scottish poet John Davidson, to work with Pauline in editing the poems for publication.
Altough Davidson was close to Johnson in age, he treated her like a child whose copybook had been brought to the teacher to be marked. Whether he damned or praised her lines, she was too intimidated by his masterful attitude and moody temperament ever to challenge his pronouncements. In the end, she was fairly well satisfied with his choice of thirty-six poems to make up a slim volume of eighty-eight pages. Only eight of the selections deal specifically with Indian topics, and with one exception (“The Happy Hunting Grounds”) those poems are placed at the beginning to establish an aboriginal tone. With a show of modesty, she chose The White Wampum as the book’s title. Wampum beads, which were used as currency by many tribes, came in two colours: white (made from whelk shells) and dark purple (made from qhahog shells). Since white wampum had only half the value of purple, Pauline was using the title to denote pride in her race but humility over her talent. Having appropriated her paternal grandfather’s name of Tekahionwake, it would appear on her book in brackets after E. Pauline Johnson. She would continue to use that double signature for the rest of her life.
She spent a fortnight checking proofs before sailing for home in mid-July. As the shores of England disappeared from view, she had many reasons to feel pleased with herself. She had been the “hit” of the season in the salons of Mayfair society where she moved with ease. She had also rubbed shoulders with the artistic crowd, albeit she found “thinking London,” as she called them, “so very clever, so far beyond me.”35 Above all, she had achieved her goal of finding a publisher—and a prestigious one at that. If everything went according to plan, The White Wampum would be off the press in October. She was also happy at the thought of the fashionable wardrobe packed in her trunks. The glamorous evening gowns she had ordered in London would cause a big stir in the little towns and country villages on tour.
Reaching home on Thursday, 26 July, Johnson lingered in Brantford only over the weekend before going to Toronto to complete arrangements for a tour to the west coast. It must have been a big disappointment to her mother to have this roving daughter spend so little time with her. It also dashed her hopes that Pauline would give up touring once she had found a publisher for her collected poems. It is misleading to claim that “in 1894 Pauline had pressing financial obligations towards her mother”36 and therefore had no choice but to continue on the road. While she was always exceedingly generous with both family and friends, whether or not she could afford it, she was not her mother’s main support. Emily Johnson had a small income of her own from the rent on the Chiefswood property, but it was Evelyn’s humdrum clerical job that paid most of the bills.
In truth, Pauline Johnson liked being on the move too much to settle down like Evelyn, and she had not yet lost her zest for performing. She and Smily were now under contract to a new manager, Ernest Shipman, who arranged an itinerary of mostly one-night stands in railroad towns from Orillia to Victoria. Back to a tight travelling schedule again, Johnson knew what challenges to expect in the foreseeable future. Rather than being daunted, however, she was exhilarated, especially at the prospect of crossing the continent for the first time. In the early stages of the trip, she confided to a friend:
These autumn days are gorgeous. The atmosphere is rife with amethyst, amber and opal tints, parented by the far off bush fires, and the thin north air. The sun lays [sic] like a ball of blood, and oh! the stillness, the silence, the magnitude of this country impresses me as it never has before. I cannot tell you how deeply I love my Canada, or how infinitely dearer my native soil is to me since I started on this long trip.37
Although she had seen little of England except London, her visit abroad had sharpened her appreciaton of Canada. Already she was contemplating a second collection of poems, a volume that would consciously celebrate the Canadian scene. Thus, her verse became more patriotic, sometimes obliquely as in “Where Leaps the Ste. Marie,” but blatantly in the likes of “A Toast” (“To the ‘Queen of the Coast’/Vancouver”) and “Canadian Born” (“We first saw light in Canada, the land beloved of God”).
Journeying westward in the Pullman cars of the Canadian Pacific Railway, completed only eight years earlier, was the ultimate in train comfort, but Johnson and Smily did not always travel first class between stop-overs. Sometimes they were booked in the “colonial” cars filled with immigrants and sat on wooden benches and slept on wooden shelves. Some of their engagements were near the line, but frequently the destinations were far enough away to necessitate a jolting ride over rough roads in a four-wheel cart. One of their most enthusistic receptions was in Winnipeg where they gave four concerts to cheering crowds.
Besides her unending interest in the landscape from the muskeg of northern Ontario to the rolling prairies, Johnson was intrigued by the glimpses of Indian encampments along the way, first the Objibwas and later the Blackfoot and Crees. More so than her own Six Nations people, these tribes were still clinging to traditional ways even as they found themselves in a losing struggle against European encroachment. From her train window one day the sight of an Indian chief standing beside his prairie tepee prompted her to write “The Silhouette” with its forlorn conclusion:
With eyes that lost their lustre long ago.
With visage fixed and stern as fate’s decree,
He looks towards the empty west to see
The never-coming herd of buffalo.
Only the bones that bleach upon the plains,
Only the fleshless skeletons that lie
In ghastly nakedness and silence, cry
Out mutely that naught else to him remains.
Johnson reached Calgary on 19 Sepember to find a telegram from Evelyn bearing the shocking news of the untimely death of their brother Beverly at the age of forty. He had been found dead of an apparent heart attack on a street in Columbia, Pennsylvania. Starting out as a cashier in a Hamilton bank, he had remained in the banking business, moving in turn to Montreal, Toronto, the Maritimes and New York City. At the time of his death he was on an organizing and inspection tour for the Anglo-American Investment Company. Clever and capable but aloof by nature, he had not married, and had not even maintained close ties with his family. Nevertheless, Johnson was grief-stricken, recalling happy days at Chiefswood and a dashingly handsome older brother who was a virtuoso on the piano. However, since it was impossible to return to Brantford in time for his funeral, she put on a brave face and fulfilled her contract, which ended with a performance in Victoria ten days later.
Back in Brantford by mid-October, Johnson was home only a week before she was off on a series of appearances in Ontario. The haste was indicative of the hectic pace that would last, with few respites, for the next fifteen years as she crisscrossed Canada, made forays into the northern United States, and took two more trips to England. Not only was her schedule relentless, but the hardships on the road often included rough travelling conditions, makeshift halls (even barns), a lack of proper dressing rooms, inferior hotels, and poor food. Prone to colds and throat infections, she often had to perform when she was unwell, and on one occasion she was laid low for several days with a virulent attack of erysipelas, which led to a loss of hair and left long-lasting scars on her face. The details of her experiences on tour are recounted in the admirable biographies by Betty Keller (Pauline) and Charlotte Gray (Flint and Feather). This present study concentrates only on selected incidents.
An invitation for Johnson to recite before the English Literature Section of the Royal Society of Canada on 17 May 1895 in Ottawa was a literary coup. Although she was not a “fellow” of the Society, it was a mark of official approval to be asked to take part in the programme with the likes of Archibald Lampman, William Wilfred Campbell, Duncan Campbell Scott, and Frederick George Scott. Invited to dinner at the Duncan Scotts beforehand, “[s]he had asked if she might come in her buckskins, but it was decided that she should postpone getting into her Indian attire until after dinner.” Fred Scott, who was also present, joked afterwards that “It was a bitter disappointment to me that this arrangement was followed for, as I told them at dinner, I should have loved to have been able to boast to my grandchildren in my old age that I had once taken a lady to dinner in her buckskins.”38
Johnson and her costume scored a triumph later that evening at the Society’s meeting, held in the Normal School auditorium, when she was called to the stage to recite “The Song My Paddle Sings.” The applause that followed was so pressing that, of all the poets present, she was the only one who had to oblige with an encore. She chose “Beyond the Blue,” a sentimental monologue in which the speaker finally wins the devotion of his dead friend’s dog. The poem had been written in time to be included in The White Wampum, but it was rejected, presumably at the insistence of John Davidson. Nevertheless, it made a good recitation piece, being particularly suited to Johnson’s flair for dramatic delivery. She could count on it to please an audience, the Royal Society being no exception.
A few months later Johnson was in the Maritimes where she met Charles G. D. Roberts for the first time. The latter had recently resigned from King’s College, hoping to survive by his pen while waiting for something better to come along. Having returned to Fredericton with his wife and four children, he was living temporarily with his parents in the rectory on George Street until affordable accommodation could be found elsewhere. For several years, he had been corresponding with Johnson, offering advice and encouragement, and she was greatly in awe of him as a mentor as well as a poet. As her train crossed the Tantramar marshes one August afternoon, she was thrilled by the thought of entering the Roberts landscape: “Tantramar! with its mile upon mile of low, level, salt marsh, outreaching to the far pale horizon—that giant tract of reclaimed land that Roberts has sung into fame....” A few hours later, as she and Smily stepped off the train at Fredericton,
someone came quickly towards us with outstretched, welcoming hands. We knew him at once, that eager, tenderly-strong face, that firmly-knit athletic figure, the easy Bohemian manner of dress, that happy trick of absolute good fellowship, it was undoubtedly he, of Tantramar, Roberts himself, with as warm a handclasp for us both as if we had all known each other for years.39
In what Johnson called “the friendly days that followed,”40 she was a welcome visitor at the rectory where she met Roberts’ wife and parents. Elsie Pomeroy records: “The two poets [no mention of Smily or May Roberts] went for a drive along the St. John River to Crock’s Point, a lofty bluff ten miles north of Fredericton, in the Parish of Douglas where Roberts was born.” This outing inspired Johnson’s poem, “The Douglas Shore,” which she dedicated to Roberts. In turn, he “presented her with the manuscript copy of Songs of the Common Day and a pen with which many of the poems were written.”41 Roberts was too susceptible to attractive women not to be captivated by Johnson. A few weeks later, he warned Edmund Clarence Stedman, the American poet and critic, of her impending visit to New York: “I gave her a card to you. Beware, beware, beware! She is a poet; & she is charming!”42
Although it seems unlikely that Johnson and Roberts ever met again, they continued to keep in touch. Even before they met, he had promoted her work, and she would forever regard him as one of her champions. “You are the original voice of Canada,” he once told her, “by blood as well as taste, and the special trend of your gifts.”43 When she returned to Fredericton in 1900, Roberts was living in New York City, apart from his family, concentrating on prose and the beguiling Mary Fanton. According to Roberts’ son, Lloyd, who was going on sixteen at the time, Johnson “set the conventional little home of the Georges [the rectory was on George Street in Fredericton] in an uproar by carrying a nude turkey down Queen Street on a Saturday afternoon and, incidentally, perpetrating a liaison with the Queen’s Hotel bell-hop.”44
After Johnson had spent nearly a year worrying over the delay of The White Wampum, it finally appeared in mid-July 1895, published in London by John Lane, but in North America it bore the imprint of Lamson, Wolffe (New York) and Copp, Clark (Toronto). One of its first notices appeared in Saturday Night, which made the smug claim that its magazine had originally published “the best pieces in the volume.” While not widely reviewed, its reception was mostly favourable, although there was a general preference for the lyrical poems over the Indian pieces. This was a reversal of Johnson’s stage experience where the Indian selections usually made the greatest impression on an audience. Lacking her passionate delivery, the words on paper seemingly did not have the same impact. A review in The Bookman (New York), while not entirely unfavourable, was probably the most hurtful because it faulted her ability to make her Indian characters come alive:
Her knowledge of the fast-dying race is intimate, and her sympathetic treatment of the virtues and heroism of the redskins quickens almost to tears; but her art, strange to say, bewrays her, and, after all, we get nearer to the life of the Indian through Longfellow and Whittier. Especially is this so where she deals with human nature; there is none of the strange fascination that creeps over us as we read Hiawatha. But in Nature poetry she is better skilled.45
Johnson’s partnership with Smily came to an end in the fall of 1897. After six years, he had grown tired of playing a supporting role to the star of the show. On her own again and out of money, she placed heself with a new manager, Thomas E. Cornyn, and headed for Winnipeg, telling the press she was making it her new home. As the Gateway to the West for the waves of immigrants that followed the opening of the railway, Winnipeg had become a lively boom town. Johnson loved its vitality, and the crowds that flocked to her recitals loved the versatile performer who looked so exotic in her buckskins and later so elegant in her evening gowns. In either costume, she was a beautiful woman. Youthful, too, or so she seemed, for at thirty-six she still created that illusion with some success. She was admired by many young men, who vied for her attention. The most persistent was Charles Drayton, aged twenty-five, distinguished by his bullish good-looks and the determined set to his square jaw.
Drayton had the air of a man who knew what he wanted; and, almost from the first moment he saw her, he thought he wanted Pauline Johnson. The son of a prominent Toronto family, he had been lured west by the opportunities that the rapid expansion in Winnipeg had created for forceful, well-educated young men like himself. He was soon on his way to success as an Assistant Inspector for the Western Canada Savings and Loan Company, but he was tiring of the bachelor life of a man about town. He was sure that Pauline Johnson had all the important qualifications he was looking for in a wife: poise, charm, impeccable manners, and beauty. He took her youth for granted, and she was careful to conceal her age from him. In the social environment of Winnipeg where many highly-respected citizens were of mixed blood, her Indian heritage did not strike him as a significant factor.
For her part, Johnson had always had a weakness for dashing, athletic young men. Charles Drayton, besides possessing the aforesaid attributes, was good company, well-bred, well-connected, and had good prospects. In short, he was the sort of man she had been hoping in vain to marry ever since her girlhood days in Brantford. Whether he evoked a really deep affection is another matter. If he inspired any love poems, none of them has ever come to light. In spite of his being an acceptable suitor, it is quite possible that she saw him as a “last chance” rather than representing the love of her life. Accordingly, she said “Yes” when he asked her to marry him. On 26 January 1898, the Toronto Globe reported: “The announcement of Miss Johnson’s engagement to Mr. Charles R.L. Drayton is made, and each of the principals is receiving congratulations of their numerous friends in [Winnipeg] and the east.”
With a tentative wedding date set for September, Emily Johnson must have been greatly relieved that her daughter would be making a suitable marriage at last and likely giving up her stage career. Even as she received the news, however, she was in failing health, and a few weeks later Johnson received a telegram in Regina that her mother was dying. Because of blizzard conditions that delayed the eastbound train, it took her five days to reach Brantford. She arrived at her mother’s deathbed barely three quarters of an hour before the end came. She stayed on in Brantford nearly a month and then, in a decision that would have disappointed her mother, went back to the stage. What would have been even more disappointing were the ominous signs that already the course of love was not running smoothly.
The fact that Johnson was making no immediate plans to retire from the stage was enough in itself to ring the alarm bells for Drayton. Would she be content to stay at home like a proper wife and raise a family? Since the announcement of their engagement, there had been weeks at a stretch that they had not seen each other because she had been on the road. If that alone was not sufficent to cool his ardour, he was buffeted by chilling blasts of disapproval from his father and older brother. They demanded that he come to his senses and marry someone of his own class. By this time, too, he may have found out that his youthful-looking intended was his senior by eleven years. Following the death of his mother in early July 1899, he stayed on in Toronto and was soon caught up again in his old social set. Just before Christmas, he went to see Johnson in Winnipeg and obtained her consent—how readily no one knows—to cancel the engagement. On 18 June 1900 he married Lydia Howland, the daughter of a former mayor of Toronto and granddaughter of a former Lieutenant- Governor of Ontario.
While still recovering from her mother’s death and a broken engagement, Johnson parted company with Cornyn temporarily over what she felt was his unsatisfactory management of her tours. It was during this personal low point that Charles H. Wuerz came into her life as her new manager and possibly became her lover. Little is known about Wuerz except that he was a blond, good-looking German, born in Heidleburgh, who became a small-time promoter in New York. Nor is it known when or where he first met Johnson, but she employed him early in 1900, dazzled by his charm and convinced that he was a good man to manage her finances. Being totally inept in money matters herself, she was taken in by his grandiose but unrealistic schemes for raising funds for a tour of Australia. Skilled as she was in manipulating men, usually by appealing to their vanity, she was no match for Wuerz, who took advantage of her at a time when she was most vulnerable. Several poems, written during this period but never included in any of her collections, have the sound of a woman deeply in love, although “Heidleburgh,” the least passionate, is the only one that identifies Wuerz:
In Heidleburgh, where you were born,
The dawn must wear strange disguise;
Since it has left its wealth of grey and melting shadows
In your eyes.
Did Fate decree your art and mine
Should weave into a future skein,
When you were born in Heidleburgh
And I was born in vain?
In Heidleburgh, where you were born,
The sunshine must be fine and rare
To leave its wealth of golden sunshine
In your hair.
Did Fate decree your promise hour
Greet mine of storm and stress and rain,
When you were born in Heidleburgh
And I was born in vain?
Before the end of 1900, the plans for Australia had come to nothing. Wuerz was gone, Johnson spent the next three months in seclusion, and the nature of their liaison remains forever open to speculation. Gone, also, was a lot of Johnson’s money that had been spent on expensive advertising and otherwise squandered. Saddened if not wiser, she signed again with Cornyn, who booked her to tour with his wife, a concert pianist. It was soon apparent, however, that the two women could not get along together, largely because Mrs. Cornyn resented Johnson’s billing as the star of the show. Their programme of poetry and classical music was deemed too high-brow, and frequently failed to draw enough of a crowd to pay expenses. Finally, stranded and penniless in Campbellton, New Brunswick, Johnson sent a desperate wire for train fare home to Ontario to Clifford Sifton, the federal Minister of the Interior and Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, who had once offered to come to her assistance if the need ever arose.
Parting company with Cornyn for the second and last time, Johnson wrote to J. Walter McRaye, whom she had first met in Winnipeg two years earlier, offering him a contract as her stage partner and manager. A bumptious little man with a cherubic smile and a moderate talent for reciting, McRaye had introduced himself to Johnson during a party at Winnipeg’s Clarendon Hotel and eventually persuaded her to let him take part in her programme during a week’s tour in rural Manitoba. Always full of overweening self-confidence, he wrote to her a few months later, suggesting that she hire him as her partner and manager, but she had already made arrangements with the Cornyns. Now, not knowing what else to do, she decided to take a chance on him. It would prove to be a wise move.
McRaye was not another Smily. He lacked the wit, talent and versatility of his predecessor. Many of Johnson’s friends thought he was obnoxious, and her family considered him to be the sort of ill-bred man their mother had taught them to avoid. Unable to become a star on his own as a recitalist, he wished to shine as Johnson’s satelite. As self-serving as his motives may have been, however, there is no disputing his devotion to Johnson’s welfare. He took care of all of the worrisome details, carried her luggage, looked after her when she was ill, and cheered her up when she was feeling low. Under her coaching, he improved his skills as a performer, and the recitation of William Henry Drummond’s popular habitant poems became his forte.
The summer of 1903 saw the appearance of Canadian Born, Johnson’s second collection, consisting of thirty-one poems, largely regional pieces that had been inspired by her travels from one end of Canada to the other. Published by the George Morang Company of Toronto without the benefit of international co-publishers, its distribution fell far short of The White Wampum, and the reviews were much less favourable. The one she likely found particularly upsetting appeared unsigned in Saturday Night where she had been accustomed to kindly treatment. Notwithstanding the bluntness, its assessment seems pertinent enough to bear repeating in full:
Its title ... is derived from the first piece in the book, a truculent expression of Canadian prejudice and provincialism as distinguished from broad and worthy patriotism, and like several other pieces in the book, having the ear-marks of Kipling’s style, but not the virility and variety of Kipling’s thought..... Miss Johnson is quite evidently not writing as good verse as she once did. There is nothing in these pages to equal some of the earlier poems which made her reputation before she turned entertainer and came in contact with the taste of the groundlings. In reading such pieces as, for instance, “Canadian Born,” “Beyond the Blue,” “The Riders of the Plains,” it is only necessary to recall that Miss Johnson has toured the West as a reciter, and that original compositions with flamboyant local color are good cards at one night stands on the prairie. To write these pieces was good business, to recite them was (let us hope) still better business, but to tie them up for good to a hard-earned and not wholly invaluable literary reputation by gathering them together in a book where East and West alike will see and sample, is neither good business nor good taste.
However, there are some capital verses in Miss Johnson’s new book, notwithstanding the general falling off from her former standards. She can still voice with elegance the tragedy and pathos of the redman’s fate as in “The Corn Husker;” a word-picture as in “Silhouette;” and as in “Give Us Barabbas,” she can demonstrate her mastery of poetic invective. She is not ill at ease in “vers de societé” as exemplified in “Lady Lorgnette.” Neither has she lost the power of responding to Nature’s moods. But what is apparent in her work is a general carelessness not hitherto found there, a disposition to be easily satisfied if not positively slipshod. And for those who knew and admired Miss Johnson’s verse at its best, the present volume of poems can therefore bring only a sense of disappointment.46
Saturday Night is not alone in singling out “The Corn Husker” for approval. It still remains one of her most frequently quoted poems:
Hard by the Indian lodges, where the bush
Breaks in a clearing, through ill-fashioned fields,
She comes to labour, when the first still hush
Of autumn follows large and recent yields.
Age in her fingers, hunger in her face,
Her shoulders stooped with weight of work and years,
But rich in tawny colouring of her race,
She comes a-field to strip the purple ears.
And all her thoughts are with the days gone by,
Ere might’s injustice banished from their lands
Her people, that to-day unheeded lie,
Like the dead husks that rustle through her hands.
Undoubtedly, the highlight of the Johnson-McRaye tours came in 1906 when the partners were in England from the third week of April to the beginning of November, spending most of the time in London. Their patrons (and sometimes their hosts) on this occasion were Lord Strathcona, the Canadian High Commissioner; and Sir Gilbert Parker, the best-selling novelist and a member of the British House of Commons. Strathcona, now in his eighty-sixth year, was a man of such enormous wealth and prestige that his endorsement was enough in itself to open many doors. Sir Gilbert Parker, their fellow-Canadian, had acquired a wealthy wife, a title, and widespread fame as the author of The Seats of the Mighty and The Right of Way since Johnson met him in 1894 at Hamilton Aidé’s salon. Having made a practice all his life of cultivating the “right” people, Parker was able to provide several useful contacts, including Sir Arthur Pearson, the press mogul, who invited Johnson to write some articles for the Daily Express.
Although Johnson and McRaye were registered with a London agency, their bookings were scarce until they took the bold step of renting Steinway Hall for a recital on the sixteenth of July. Strathcona and Parker used their influence and connections to insure a crowded and appreciative house. At the reception afterwards Johnson met Theodore Watts-Dunton and announced to one and all that she owed her initial literary success to one of his reviews. The flattery worked so well that Watts-Dunton invited her to “The Pines,” his Putney residence, where she met and charmed Algernon Swinburne, now a burned-out shell of a man, whose rhapsodic poetry had been a part of her upbringing at Chiefswood.
Early in August, three Indian chiefs from British Columbia arrived unannounced in London to present their grievances to King Edward VII over hunting and fishing rights. The London press gave them so much publicity that the government feared it would be bad public relations not to allow them a royal audience. While the chiefs waited for the king to return from a week-long regatta at Cowes, Johnson was asked to interview them. Although she did not not speak the language of any of the chiefs, they managed to communicate through her limited knowledge of Chinook (a hybrid language developed for trading on the west coast), and the smattering of English understood by the visitors. With Chief Joe Capilano of the Squamish band, she struck up a special friendship that would continue until his death in 1910.
Following the success of the Steinway Hall recital, Johnson and McRaye were steadily engaged until they sailed for home in November. Aside from Johnson’s six-week holiday in England the next spring -- for which she had to borrow money -- the tours continued until the partnership ended in 1909 with her decision to retire and McRaye’s marriage to Lucy Webling. It was an amicable parting, Johnson attended his wedding, and he remained forever dedicated to her memory. He was still cashing in on her name to the day he died in 1946, or so said some of his detractors, but he had earned the right to bask in his memories of their association:
Pauline through the late years had many illnesses, which had undermined her strength and she looked forward to a rest and a chance to do some of the writing she had planned. Vancouver was the city she liked best; it had always welcomed her, and I think we had appeared there over a dozen times in many years of touring. I arranged a trip across the Rockies and after a good-bye performance in Kamloops, she said farewell to public life and settled down in a cozy flat in the suburbs of Vancouver.47
Planning to give an occasional recital locally, Johnson hoped to live mainly by her pen, having already become a regular contributor to The Mother’s Magazine and The Boys’ World, two American publications. Among her frequent visitors was the friend she had made in London, Chief Joe Capilano, whose Reserve was opposite the city across Burrard Inlet. She became so enthralled by the legends he related in his mixture of Chinook and broken English that she wrote them down for the Vancouver Province, which paid her seven dollars for each submission. Taking artistic licence, she reshaped the stories for effect, and a couple of them had not been told to her by the chief, but the general verdict on them would be that she had “done great things for [Vancouver] by unearthing its surrounding romance.”48 Joe Capilano did not live to share the celebrity. The old chief died peacefully in his sleep, on 10 March 1910, before the first of the twenty-one stories appeared.
A few months earlier, Johnson had received a devasting forecast of her own mortality. Having long ignored a lump that was growing in her right breast, she was already suffering severe pain before she went to see a doctor. The diagnosis was cancer, requiring a mastectomy, but the condition was so far advanced that the prognosis was not good. With great stoicism, she continued her regimen of writing and even gave a few recitals, but sometimes she was too heavily dosed with morphine to function. As the cancer spread, she was soon too ill to fulfill any more engagements, and by February 1912, seemingly near death, she entered the Bute Street Hospital, a private institution that had been converted from the gracious three-storey home of a former doctor. Within a few months, however, she rallied sufficiently to be able to take daily walks, often to Stanley Park, one of her favourite outings.
Meanwhile, as it became known that she was in dire financial straits, donations of money came in from numerous sources, but it was through the efforts of the Women’s Press Club, the Women’s Canadian Club, and Lionel Makovski of the Vancouver Province that she obtained security. They arranged for the publication of The Legends of Vancouver, consisting of fourteen “Capilano” stories plus an account of the Duke of Connaught being made an honourary Mohawk chief in 1869. This last item, entirely off topic, was an obvious attempt to benefit from the Duke’s recent appointment as Governor-General of Canada.—her supporters were leaving no stone unturned. By the end of 1912, the little volume was into its fifth edition. Walter McRaye, who had returned to Vancouver, came up with the idea of selling copies autographed by Johnson for two dollars each. He also launched into a letter-writing campaign, urging hundreds of people who had met Johnson to order a copy. The gratifying response meant that she had a “means of keeping the ‘wolf’ away.”49
When the Duke of Connaught came to Vancouver on an official visit in September 1912, he took time out of his busy schedule to spend a half hour at Johnson’s bedside. She was very ill again, but she put on a brave front and happily recalled the day long ago when, as an eight-year old child, she had watched as her father “took from his waist a brilliant deep-red sash, heavily embroidered with beads, porcupine quills, and dried moose hair, placing it over the Prince’s left shoulder and knottng it under his right arm,”50 thus completing the ceremony of creating an honourary chief. Before her royal visitor left, she told him about Flint and Feather, the collection of her poems that would be published shortly. To her great joy, he gave his consent to the following dedication: “To his royal highness the Duke of Connaught, who is head chief of the Six Nations Indians, I inscribe this book by his own gracious permission.”
It was Walter McRaye, probably acting with the best of intentions, who informed Evelyn Johnson that her sister’s illness was terminal. Evelyn, who had her mother’s strict sense of what was “proper,” immediately left her position as assistant to the head of the Sheltering Arms Home in Philadephia to go to Vancouver. Unfortunately, it was inevitable that tension would follow since, in temperament, the two women resembled Martha and Mary, the New Testament sisters. Like Martha, Evelyn was “careful and troubled about many things” (Luke 11:41), while Pauline was as heedless as Mary about practical matters. As a Martha, Evelyn was never as lovable as Pauline, who became the darling of her family and a general favourite everywhere. Being neither as popular nor as pretty as her younger sister, Evelyn grew up with an inferiority complex that her inherent pride could not overcome. Always cautious and sensible, even as a young woman, she had broken off her engagement to a Mohawk suitor over the rumour that he sometimes drank too heavily. Thus ended the first and only known romance in her life.
After their mother’s death, Evelyn went to the Central Technical School in Toronto to take a domestic science course, which enabled her to find employment at a succession of institutions in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The pay was minimal, but she was proud of making an independent living and was outspokenly censorious of Pauline’s improvident lifestyle. She would have been horrified if she had known how often her sister had written to acquaintances, begging for loans. Luckily, she never heard the comment by Achille Fréchette (brother of Louis Fréchette, the poet; and husband of Annie Howells, a distant cousin of the Johnsons) after he had been importuned by a desperate Pauline: “The poor thing has a hard time of it, I am afraid, and this life does her no good. She and a young Californian [Ontario-born McRaye had spent a winter in California] give a third-rate show in small towns about the country, and don’t do much for Art nor for themselves.”51
The sisters had not seen each other since they attended the wedding of their brother Allen and Floretta Maracle on 25 June 1907. As long as they remained apart, absence made the heart grow fonder. “Dear old Ev,” Johnson would write in her letters, but she was never long in Evelyn’s company before becoming upset by her sisterly badgering. While Evelyn loved Pauline and was proud of her celebrity—though somewhat grudgingly, perhaps—she was exasperated by the latter’s perceived wilfulness. The argument over Chiefswood was a case in point. Evelyn, with her obsession for planning ahead and leaving nothing to chance, wanted Pauline to sign over her share of the house before she died. It struck her as pure cussedness that Pauline refused, insisting stubbornly that the matter would be settled in her will.
The biggest clash of all was over Johnson’s wish to be buried in Vancouver. For Evelyn, it was unthinkable that her sister’s final resting place should be anywhere other than the ground that was hallowed by the graves of their grandparents, their parents and their brother Beverly. In her attempt to circumvent this break with familial tradition, Evelyn made an uncharacteristic mistake in allowing her emotions to overrule her practicality. She rashly proposed taking Pauline “home” to Brantford, away from the comfortable environment at Bute Street Hospital, the care of her trusted doctor, and the solace of a devoted circle of friends. She eventually had to admit defeat, but in the meantime she had alienated her sister still further and antagonized most of the latter’s friends.
In a merciful release from her prolonged suffering, Pauline Johnson died on 7 March 1913. Three days later, on what would have been her fifty-second birthday, the city of Vancouver honoured its adopted daughter with a spectacular funeral. Offices were closed and flags flew at halfmast in official tribute. As the cortége left Bute Street Hospital, the three-block route to Christ Church Cathedral was lined four or five deep with solemn spectators. The cathedral was packed with mourners while an overflow crowd filled the street outside. After an impressive service, her remains were taken to the crematorium in preparation for the ashes to be buried later in Stanley Park as she had requested. Since no one had ever been buried in the Park before, the federal government, which leased the land to the city, was reluctant to set a precedent. Finally, either through the intercession of the Governor-General or the Minister of Militia and Defense (sources differ on this), permission was granted on the condition that the body be cremated.
During the final year of her life, despite pain and flagging energy, Johnson had devoted much thought to the planning and preparation of Flint and Feather for the Musson Book Company of Toronto (co-published in England by Hodder and Stoughton). It included The White Wampum and Canadian Born in their entirety, plus fifteen miscellaneous poems (five more would eventually be added in later printings). It came off the press in December, less than three months before her death, incorrectly assumed to be a complete edition of her poetry. Not until 2002, when Carol Gerson and Veronica Strong-Boag edited E. Pauline Johnson: Tekahionwake, Collected Poems and Selected Prose, would anything close to a complete edition be available. Flint and Feather, lacking the love poems in particular, does not represent the full range of her work.
While she declared “My aim, my joy, my pride is to sing the glories of my own people,”52 only a small proportion of her poems are about the peoples of the First Nations. Only “A Cry from an Indian Wife” deals with a specific contemporary issue, although the consequences of “might’s injustice” is a general theme in several others. Mostly, like the corn husker in her own poem, “her thoughts are with the days gone by.” Sometimes in her prose, she deals with matters like residential schools; but, in her poetry, pride in an heroic past overshadows the realities of today. By her own admission, she assayed the role of spokesperson for the Indians, but it was probably her radiant personality that spoke louder than her words.
Like most of her fellow Confederation Poets, a large part of her work consists of nature poetry. Some of her descriptive detail is especially precise and pleasing. These lines from “Marshlands” are comparable to some of Roberts’ pictorial artistry: “A thin wet sky, that yellows at the rim/ And meets with sun-lost lip the marsh’s brim.” Images in poems such as “Moonset” sometimes have the deftness of Lampman: “The troubled night-bird, calling plaintively,/ Wanders on restless wing.” When it comes to love poetry, however, she is unmatched by the others in displays of passion in poems like “Wave-Won” (“in delirium reeled/ Our maddened hearts”), making the amorous lyrics of her male contemporaries seem pallid by comparison. On occasion, some of her light verse, such as “When George Was King,”53 is engagingly playful.
After 1900, Johnson began producing more prose than poetry, but as a writer she has always been best known as a poet. It was mainly with poetry that she regaled her audiences, and it was her poetry that found its way into anthologies and school readers. Legends of Vancouver was the only book of prose to be published during her lifeime. In 1913, immediately after her death, William Briggs of Toronto published two collections culled from her many magazine pieces: The Moccasin Maker (with an introduction by Sir Gilbert Parker) and The Shagganappi (with an introduction by Ernest Thompson Seton). While an analysis of those works does not fall within the scope of this present study, it should be noted that they are valuable for what they reveal about her attitudes and reactions, both as a woman and as a person of mixed blood. “I imagine you mean a half-blood, not breed,” says one of her fictional characters. “I do not like the word ‘breed’ applied to human beings. It is a term for cattle and not men.”54
The critic who dismissed Johnson’s poetry as “cheap, vulgar, and almost incredibly bad,”55 may not have read all of it. Admittedly, the range of quality is as wide as the range of subject matter, and some of her poems—“Canadian Born” keeps coming to mind—are unabashed doggerel. Many of them are uneven, teetering between distinction and triteness, but there are several that in turn are stirring, graceful and moving. “The less of Johnson’s work one reads,” says George W. Lyon, “and the less time one spends trying to comprehend the persona she created or the context in which she worked, the easier it is to sneer at her.”56 Aside from the cachet of her Mohawk heritage, she had the distinction of being one of the rare performers who wrote her own material. However, like most successful recitalists, she found that teary melodrama and jingoistic rhetoric were almost certain to be big crowd-pleasers. Accordingly, since it affected her livelihood, she prepared hefty servings of sentimental and patriotic fare to suit the public appetite. In fairness, however, it must be stressed that she also catered to discriminating palates with zesty dramatic monologues and lyrics of considerable delicacy.
As a poet, she never ranked with the best of the Confederation group, but in person she was undoubtedly the most picturesque, the most charismatic. To say that she was also courageous sounds almost too conventional. A word like “pluck” or “spunk” seems a more pungent expression of what it took in her era to face the challenges of being a half-blood and a woman who had to earn her own living. Her stance as a Mohawk, her beauty, her charm, her wit, and --yes—her poetry made her a legendary figure in her own time. Today, the legend lives on.