STEPHEN, A.M. (1882-1942)




Author Tags: 1900-1950, Fiction, First Nations, Literary Landmarks, Poetry, Politics

LITERARY LOCATION: The Felix Apartments, 610 Jervis Street (Jervis and Pender)

Little-known today, A.M. Stephen resided here, in Suite 41, as possibly the most progressive of all Vancouver authors. Convinced that “in child welfare lay the welfare of all the world,” Stephen’s Child Welfare Association was instrumental in establishing the Mother’s Pension Act, the Minimum Wage Act, divorce law amendments and improved social services for destitute female emancipation. “Woman has rebelled,” he wrote, “and rightly so, at the double standard that she has been subjected to.”

Stephen successfully implemented numerous educational reforms. “The central principle of our graded system,” he claimed, “is that the child must fit the school and not the school must fit the child.” One of Stephen’s radical beliefs was that sex education should form part of the school curriculum. In 1923, Stephen led the way for the creation of the Birth Control League of Canada, the first such organization in Canada, in keeping with the aims of Margaret Sanger’s American Birth Control League. Alexander Maitland Stephen also corresponded with Norman Bethune, raised funds for China, wrote for the leftist newspaper, The Western Tribune and published two significant novels, The Kingdom of the Sun (1927) and The Gleaming Archway (1929), as well as books of poetry and plays.

QUICK REFERENCE ENTRY:

Few authors have contributed more to British Columbia society than A.M. Stephen, the first B.C. author to prominently double as a social reformer.

Born in Ontario in 1882, but raised in Victoria, “A.M.,” as he was later known, abandoned law after one year to prospect for gold in the Klondike. He punched cattle in Alberta, worked as a guide in the Rockies and taught school at Rock Creek, B.C. in 1906. He studied architecture at the University of Chicago until 1913 when he went to England and enlisted in 1914. Injured in France, he returned to Vancouver with a shattered right wrist, virtually penniless, and opened a structural engineering firm in 1918.

Convinced that “in child welfare lay the welfare of all the world,” Stephen’s Child Welfare Association was instrumental in establishing the Mother’s Pension Act, the Minimum Wage Act, divorce law amendments and improved social services for destitute female emancipation. “Woman has rebelled,” he wrote, “and rightly so, at the double standard, that she has been subjected to.” Turning to teaching, Stephen agitated for numerous reforms, some of which were implemented after his dismissal for insubordination. “The central principle of our graded system,” he claimed, “is that the child must fit the school and not the school must fit the child.”

One of Stephen’s radical beliefs was that sex education should form part of the school curriculum. In 1923, Stephen led the way for the creation of the Birth Control League of Canada, the first such organization in Canada, in keeping with the aims of Margaret Sanger’s American Birth Control League. He criticized the “ignorance and inertia of those... still living in the dark ages of medieval priestcraft and superstition.”

In the Twenties, Stephen worked for the Western Tribune, a leftist weekly, and gained his reputation in poetry as “the Canadian Carl Sandburg.” He also wrote an historical romance, Kingdom of the Sun (1927), about a gentleman adventurer named Richard Anson who sailed aboard Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind, only to be cast away amongst the Haida. Anson’s love interest is a golden-haired princess, Auria, who must choose between her mystical duties and her earthly affection. The novel is drawn from evidence that fair-haired, blue-eyed Haida were encountered by explorers in the late 18th century.

In The Gleaming Archway (1929), A.M. Stephen’s fictional prototype is journalist Craig Maitland, a dreamer in the twin realms of love and politics: Maitland takes his holidays in the rough ‘n tumble of the Squamish Valley amongst “reds,” Indians and expatriate English eccentrics. He befriends a Marxist publisher, a Russian revolutionary and a beautiful Englishwoman, who is married. He returns to Vancouver to work for The Beacon, a socialist weekly headquartered on Pender Street. He forms a sentimental friendship with emancipated colleague, Madge, atop Grouse Mountain and in Capilano Canyon, but impulsively marries Shannon, a painted lady with a heart of gold whom he meets in a Chinatown gambling house. The gleaming archways of Craig Maintland’s idealistic spirit come crashing down to earth until he accepts an invitation to leave on a treasure hunting expedition in the South Seas, unaware that friends have arranged for him to be reunited with his first true love, Jocelyn, whose husband has conveniently died.

Stephen launched the B.C. branch of the League Against War and Fascism and was narrowly defeated as a CCF candidate in the Alberni-Nanaimo riding. He was later expelled from the CCF for advocating a popular front with the Communists. He corresponded with Norman Bethune, raised funds for China and wrote numerous pamphlets analyzing global politics. Stephen’s radicalism was tempered by violent RCMP actions in Regina during the great trek of the unemployed to Ottawa in 1935. His second son, Leslie, born in 1914, was helping at his cousin’s ranch for the summer in Saskatchewan. In Regina to buy grain for seeding, Leslie Stephen was caught in the riot and so brutally beaten on the head by police that he became a lifelong invalid. A.M. Stephen succumbed to pneumonia in 1942. Wreaths were sent by such diverse groups as the Chinese Benevolent Association and the Boilermakers and Iron Shipbuilders Union.

FULL ENTRY:

A.M. Stephen, the greatest humanitarian of all Vancouver writers, led an exemplary life and his writings have been under-valued and under-recognized by the city.

Alexander Maitland Stephen, the social activist and author, known to his friends as A.M., was born in Hanover, Ontario in 1882. His parents were both of aristocratic Scottish ancestry. They moved to Victoria, B.C. in 1898 where their son articled with his uncle’s law firm at age sixteen. Disenchanted with the majesty of the law and possessed with a socialist impatience, Stephen abandoned a career in law after one year in order to prospect for gold in the Klondike. He punched cattle in Alberta, worked as a guide in the Rockies and taught school at Rock Creek, B.C. in 1906. Never greatly attracted to money, he reputedly turned down a promotion in Victoria selling life insurance for $300 a month in order to take a $1-a-day cow-punching job. He worked briefly as a logger in Oregon in 1910. His studies in architecture at the University of Chicago until 1913 took him overseas to England where he enlisted in 1914. He was injured in France and returned to Vancouver with a shattered right wrist, virtually penniless, in 1918, to open a structural engineering firm.

A.M. Stephen's crusading spirit for social reform led him to form the Child Welfare Association. Convinced that “in child welfare lay the welfare of all the world,” his Association was instrumental in establishing the Mother’s Pension Act, the Minimum Wage Act, divorce law amendments and improved social services for destitute female emancipation (“Woman has rebelled, and rightly so, at the double standard, that she has been subjected to.”)

Turning to teaching, Stephen agitated for numerous reforms, most of which were implemented after his dismissal for insubordination. “The central principle of our graded system,” he claimed, “is that the child must fit the school and not the school must fit the child.” One of Stephen's radical beliefs was that sex education should form part of the school curriculum. As a founder of the Canadian birth control movement, he criticized the "ignorance and inertia of those... still living in the dark ages of medieval priestcraft and superstition. In 1923, Stephen led the way for the creation of the Birth Control League of Canada, the first such organization in Canada, in keeping with the aims of Margaret Sanger's American Birth Control League.

He turned to his pen for his living, becoming associate editor of the Western Tribune, a leftist weekly. His popularity as a public speaker reputedly caused him to move from Dundarave in West Vancouver to Vancouver. In 1924 he lived in suite 27 in the Manhattan Apartments at 784 Thurlow.

A great admirer of Swineburne, Stephen published his first successful book of poetry, The Rosary of Pan, in 1923. After editing two school anthologies, The Voice of Canada (1926), and The Golden Treasury of Canadian Verse (1927), and issuing a second acclaimed poetry collection, The Land of the Singing Water (1927), Stephen’s literary reputation was established across Canada. A.M. Stephen’s first novel, the Kingdom of the Sun (Dent, 1927), is an historical romance about a gentleman adventurer named Richard Anson who sailed aboard Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind, only to be cast away amongst the Haida. Anson’s love interest is a golden-haired princess, Auria, reared by the Haida to serve as an ethereal princess. Auria must choose between earthly affection and mystical duties. The novel is drawn from evidence that fair-haired, blue-eyed Haida were encountered by explorers as early as Juan Perez in 1774.

In The Gleaming Archway (Dent, 1929), one of the first of numerous novels from British Columbia to feature disaffected male journalists, Vancouver is referred to as the Mystical City and the City Beautiful. A.M. Stephen, himself a Vancouver newspaperman, has a fictional prototype in the novel, Craig Maitland, who is a dreamer in the twin realms of love and politics: “To Craig Maitland, standing upon the edge of Grouse Mountain plateau, it seemed that he had paused for a moment upon the brink of some dream world which was built of the aerie substance of imagination—a perishable palace of beauty wrought of star-dust and moonbeams… Only when one looked towards the city, which lay like an aeroplane map unrolled to southward, did one realise Man, the microcosm, had entered and had changed this universe of the Titans and had placed these puny structures in contrast with nature.” As a moderate socialist, Maitland takes a respite from the restrictions of a journalism career and holidays in the rough ‘n tumble Squamish Valley amongst radical “reds,” Indians and expatriate English eccentrics. He befriends a Marxist publisher, a Russian revolutionary and a beautiful Englishwoman. He also meets a brutish, volatile leftist named Bud Powers, who proves to be his nemesis as the symbolic representation of the primitive elements of man’s nature that invariably scuttle social progress. Unluckily in love (Jocelyn, the Englishwoman, is married), Maitland returns to Vancouver to ardently assist in the publication of the Beacon, a socialist weekly headquartered on Pender Street. He forms a sentimental friendship with emancipated colleague, Madge, atop Grouse Mountain and in Capilano Canyon, but impulsively marries Shannon, a painted lady with a heart of gold whom he meets in a Chinatown gambling house. Eventually, the gleaming archways of Craig Maintland’s idealistic spirit come crashing down to earth and he accepts an invitation to leave on a treasure hunting expedition in the South Seas, unaware that his friends have arranged for him to be reunited with his first true love, Jocelyn, whose husband has since conveniently died.

Stephen believed that “authentic poetry, in whatever genre it happens to be, is always better than the best prose.” As an active member of the Vancouver Poetry Society, he eventually formed a Vancouver chapter of the League of Western Writers in 1931. A reviewer in the Vancouver Sun wrote, “I think that A.M. Stephen is the Canadian Carl Sandburg, the logical successor to Bliss Carman as the poet of the country. I think he’s a genius.”

His much anthologized poem of tribute, “Vancouver,” was printed in the Sunday Province on October 1, 1934, and can be found in Brown Earth & Bunch Grass (1931), which contains another poem called "Kitsilano" -- "Where the miles of fragrant cedar/And the dark firs whisper low/To the curving line of silver/Where the moonlit waters flow,/There are ghostly echoes surging/In the sea wind borne afar/From the hidden lands that slumber/Out beyond the western star..."

In 1935, he published an epic lyric titled Verendrye (1935).

He had close personal ties with Bliss Carman and Sir Charles G.D. Roberts. Stephen the activist used his literary stature to promote his social concerns after the demise of the Western Tribune in 1929 because of the Depression. As a member of the Progressive Film Association, the Vancouver Art Gallery, president of the Vancouver Lodge of the Theosophical Society and a highly respected critic of his times, Stephen successfully launched the B.C. branch of the League Against War and Fascism. He stood as a candidate for the CCF predecessor of today's NDP) in the Alberni-Nanaimo riding and was narrowly defeated. He was later expelled from the CCF for advocating a popular front with the Communists. He corresponded with Norman Bethune, raised funds for China and wrote numerous pamphlets analyzing global politics from a leftist perspective. Possibly Stephen’s radicalism was tempered by the violent RCMP actions in Regina during the great trek of the unemployed to Ottawa in 1935. His second son, Leslie (born in 1914), was helping at his cousin’s ranch for the summer in Saskatchewan. In Regina to buy grain for seeding, Leslie Stephen was caught in the riot and so brutally beaten on the head by police that he was made an invalid for life.

A.M. Stephen succumbed to pneumonia complications at St. Paul’s Hospital on Dominion Day, 1942. Wreaths were sent by such diverse groups as the Chinese Benevolent Association and the Boilermakers and Iron Shipbuilders Union. His wife arranged for a collection of posthumous poetry, Songs for a New Nation (1963).

BOOKS:

Poetry

The Rosary of Pan
The Land of Singing Waters
Brown Earth and Bunch Grass (Vancouver: Wrigley Printing, 1931). Self-published.
Verendrye--A Poem of the New World, An Epic of V Episodes
Songs for a New Nation

Novels

The Kingdom of the Sun (J.M. Dent & Sons, 1937)
The Gleaming Archway (J.M. Dent & Sons, 1929)

Anthologies

The Voice of Canada, editor
The Golden Treasury of Canadian Verse, editor
Canadian Voices and Others, editor

Plays

Canadian Drama for Little Folk (aka Classroom Plays from Canadian History)

Editor of two anthologies, The Voice of Canada and The Golden Treasury of Canadian Verse.


[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2010] "Fiction" "Poetry" "Classic" "Politics" "1900-1950" "First Nations"