Mitchell, W.O. (1914-98)

W.O. Mitchell conducting a class in short story writing at the “Writer and Drama Workshop” held at the Valley Center, Fort Qu'Appelle, in August 1956. Mitchell is reviewing a composition submitted by one of the students.
Saskatchewan Archives Board R-B6144

William Ormond Mitchell is best remembered for Who Has Seen the Wind and the Jake and the Kid stories which grew out of and defined the Saskatchewan prairie. He was born on March 13, 1914, in Weyburn. Two events in his early life indelibly marked him and, he claimed, made him a writer. When he was seven his father died, and his memory of this event was the genesis for his first novel, Who Has Seen the Wind, a lyrical work knit together by recurring motifs of birth and death. The second pivotal event occurred in 1926 when he contracted bovine tuberculosis of the wrist and was withdrawn from school. Forced in upon himself, he often wandered alone on the prairies, becoming acutely attuned to the “poetry of earth and sky.” Out of this grew his remarkable ability to describe the prairie in all its moods. As one of the first Canadian writers to valorize his own region, he paved the way for others to write about their own place and people. The prairie landscape and what he called “the energy of death” are central to his exploration of loneliness and, most importantly, the bridging of one human to another. To cure his tubercular wrist, he and his family spent the winters from 1927 to 1931 in California and Florida; however, each summer they returned to Saskatchewan to spend time at their cottage at White Bear Lake. There he met Sheepskin, the Assiniboine chief of the reserve, and developed a sympathy for Native peoples which later led to his concern for the Stoneys of the Alberta foothills and inspired his novel The Vanishing Point (1973).

From 1931 to 1934, he studied philosophy at the University of Manitoba. After two years taking courses in journalism and play writing at the University of Washington, he landed in Alberta in the middle of the Depression. For the next four years he survived by selling magazine subscriptions, encyclopedias, insurance and radio advertisements, even doing a high-dive clown act for a carnival. He completed his BA at the University of Alberta, obtained a teaching certificate, and began writing seriously. His first two published short stories in Maclean’s and Queen’s Quarterly (1942) showed his talent for both the humorous and the more philosophically serious. That same year, he married Merna Hirtle.

In 1945, after two years of teaching, Mitchell moved to High River in the foothills of Alberta, where he turned to freelancing and completed Who Has Seen the Wind (published simultaneously in Canada and the United States in 1947), reviewed as one of the best Canadian novels ever written. From 1948 to 1951, Mitchell lived in Toronto where he was fiction editor for Maclean’s. There he began to write the Jake and the Kid radio series for CBC (1950–56). Drawing on the oral narrative tradition of the prairies, he produced over 200 episodes about a hired man, a fatherless boy and his mother who live on a farm near the fictional town of Crocus, Saskatchewan. His humorous portrayal of Crocus and its eighty citizens entered the imaginations of Canadians across the country, and at the height of its success the series was described as Canadian culture in the making. Mitchell adapted the stories for a CBC television series (1961), but his most successful television plays were The Devil’s Instrument (CBC, 1962) and Back to Beulah (CBC, 1974), which won the ACTRA award for best script. Similarly Mitchell exploited his Jake and the Kid material for the stage. His first play was a one-act adaptation of The Day Jake Made Her Rain for the drama workshop at Fort Qu’Appelle (1953). Royalty is Royalty, premiered by the Greystone Players of Saskatoon in 1959, was his first full-length play; based on Jake and the Kid stories about the visit of the Queen to Crocus, it was later adapted as the musical, Wild Rose (1967). The most popular of his nine plays, The Black Bonspiel of Wullie MacCrimmon, was first performed by Regina’s Stoneboat Theatre in 1976.

Mitchell thought of himself as a teacher as well as a writer, and devoted much of his time to working with developing writers. In his first writing workshop in 1952 at Fort Qu’Appelle for the Saskatchewan Arts Board, he began teaching his “freefall” process, a spontaneous gathering of sensory and autobiographical fragments which go into the making of stories. He later established the creative writing program at the Banff Centre, which he headed from 1974 to 1986; and from 1968 to 1986, he held five writer-in-residencies at universities across Canada. In 1968, the Mitchells moved to Calgary. By this time he had become one of the most publicly recognized authors in Canada, and was sought after to perform readings from his novels and from semi-autobiographical tales such as “Melvin Arbuckle’s First Course in Shock Therapy” and “Take a Giant Step.” These pieces became the genesis for the highly successful How I Spent My Summer Holidays (1981), a dark sequel to Who Has Seen the Wind, in which Mitchell returned to his prairie and Weyburn community roots. These two books, along with The Vanishing Point, established him as one of Canada’s most accomplished novelists.

Mitchell was honoured by his home province, receiving his first honorary degree from the University of Saskatchewan, Regina Campus (1972) and the Lifetime Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Saskatchewan Arts Board (1989). He received two Stephen Leacock Awards for humour and a further eight honorary degrees; he was also made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1973, and named to the Queen’s Privy Council in 1993. Mitchell died in Calgary on February 25, 1998. He will be remembered as the writer who put the Saskatchewan prairie on the literary map of Canada; but, recalling his Weyburn roots and the words inscribed on his father’s gravestone, he expressed a wish that he too would be remembered as a caring, honourable man, “Loved by all who knew him.”

Further Reading

Latham, S. and D. Latham (eds.). 1997. Magic Lies: The Art of W.O. Mitchell. Toronto: University of Toronto Press; Mitchell, B. and O. Mitchell. 1999. W.O.: The Life of W.O. Mitchell, Beginnings to Who Has Seen the Wind. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.