A. M. Klein

A. M. Klein (1909-1972), journalist and lawyer, was widely regarded as one of Canada's leading poets. His novel The Second Scroll has been acclaimed by scholars and critics as a masterpiece. He contributed significantly to the emergence of a modern, distinctively Canadian literature.

A(braham) M(oses) Klein, born in Ratno, Poland, in 1909, came to Montreal as an infant with his immigrant parents and, except for a brief stay (1937-1938) in Rouyn, Quebec, lived his life there. He was brought up in a religious home, where family ties were close and affectionate. The influence of his home and of the closely-knit Jewish community during his formative years was reinforced by his biblical and Talmudic studies.

Although very much a product of the Jewish ghetto in Montreal, Klein was also influenced by the French-Canadian society with which the Jewish community was in continuing interaction. Though by no means uncritical of some elements in that society, particularly the anti-semitism voiced frequently during the 1930s, Klein in his poetry and other writings revealed a sensitive understanding and appreciation of the French-Canadian way of life and its values.

A third major formative influence on Klein was the English literary tradition, which paralleled and reinforced the influence of early Hebrew and Yiddish writings—the Bible, the works of medieval Jewish writers such as Yehuda Halevi, the lbn Gabirols and lbn Ezra, and such contemporaries as Bialik and I. I. Segal. He acknowledged his debt to Shakespeare, Milton, and Keats by direct statement and frequent quotation. His subsequent indebtedness to Joyce and Eliot is equally clear.

Between 1926 and 1930 Klein attended McGill University, where he was active in the Debating Society and cofounded a literary magazine, The McGilliad. After graduating he studied law at the Université de Montréal, taking his degree in 1933 and then practicing law in Montreal until he resigned in 1956.

Klein's involvement in Jewish community affairs began early. In the period 1928-1932 he served as educational director of Canadian Young Judaea—a Zionist youth movement—and edited its journal, The Judaean, and in 1934 he became president of this national movement. In 1936 he wrote and lectured on behalf of the Canadian Zionist Organization and edited its monthly magazine, The Canadian Zionist. Shortly after, he became associated with Samuel Bronfman, the noted distiller-philanthropist and Canadian Jewish leader. In part through Bronfman's good offices, Klein was appointed visiting lecturer in poetry at McGill for three years, 1945-1948. Throughout the 1930s his sympathies for the dispossessed and his passionate anti-fascist stance led him to identify with the C.C.F., a socialist party roughly the equivalent of the British Labour Party. In 1944 he was nominated as a federal candidate in the largely Jewish Montreal-Cartier riding, but withdrew before the election in 1945. He did run—unsuccessfully—in the federal election of 1949 and was somewhat embittered by the extent of his defeat.

In terms of community involvement, by far the most important activity that Klein engaged in was his editorship of The Canadian Jewish Chronicle. Klein had contributed to this weekly Anglo-Jewish paper from the late 1920s on and became its editor in 1938, remaining until 1955. Mental illness, evidenced occasionally from 1952 on, resulted in a thwarted suicide attempt in 1954 and in a period of hospitalization. His withdrawal from public life followed, and he became increasingly reclusive after 1956 until his death in 1972.

Klein's career as a poet began early. During his years at McGill he published poems in The Menorah Journal, The Canadian Forum, Poetry (Chicago), and elsewhere. His interest was quickened by his association with the "Montreal Group" of poets and writers, which included A. J. M. Smith, F. R. Scott, Leo Kennedy, and Leon Edel and was centered at McGill. This group represented a significant break with the earlier Canadian tradition of nature poetry and genteel, sentimentalized verse. Although Klein wrote many poems during the 1930s reflecting attitudes shaped by the Great Depression, the Spanish Civil War, and the rise of fascism, for the most part his major concern and the source of his inspiration was Jewish experience. His first volume of poetry, Hath Not a Jew … (1940), is limited to this Jewish world. Klein drew widely on his knowledge of events and personalities from the past and present and on Jewish fable and folklore to present a tapestry designed to reveal the richness of the Jewish heritage and the sufferings and aspirations of his people. Klein's poetic craftsmanship is clearly evidenced in this volume, in which he used almost every poetic form and device, often quite experimentally, with success.

In 1944 Klein published The Hitleriad, a savagely satiric indictment of Hitler and his henchmen. Klein's high expectations regarding this work were unfulfilled as critical reviews ranged widely from acclaim to mild disapproval and a large audience was not reached. In the same year appeared Poems, a volume still entirely devoted to themes Jewish, particularly to historic and current anti-semitism. The opening section, however, entitled "The Psalter of Avram Haktani," expressed, for the most part, the poet's religious questioning and affirmation and, at times, a lyrical celebration of personal experience.

In the 1940s Klein moved in a literary circle known as the Preview Group of poets, which included F. R. Scott, P. K. Page, and Patrick Anderson, writers with whom he shared friendship and common literary views. He also associated with a rival group, the First Statement poets, chiefly John Sutherland, Louis Dudek, and Klein's friend Irving Layton. Partly as a consequence of this renewed literary activity, partly because the war against fascism was drawing to a victorious close, Klein felt freer to direct his creative energy into wider channels than he had been permitting himself for some time, and his final volume of poetry, The Rocking Chair and Other Poems, appeared in 1948. Here the experience drawn upon is primarily Canadian rather than Jewish, with Quebec—and more specifically Montreal—its urban and rural landscapes and its people—being the focus of the poet's loving and critical attention. The qualities of irony, of genial and wry humor and biting sarcasm, of tolerance and affectionate understanding of human foibles, of sentiment and passion which characterize his early works are found here also, but there is even greater mastery of his craft, of artistic discipline, than in much of his earlier poetry. For this volume, Klein was awarded the Governor-General's Medal for Poetry in 1949. Eight years later the Royal Society of Canada bestowed the Lorne Pierce Medal for poetry on Klein for his poetic achievement.

Klein's reputation as a writer rests primarily on his poetry, and rarely is mention made of his short stories, although he wrote many over a period of 25 years. Most of them appeared in small magazines of limited circulation and brief duration. The subjects were varied, the majority reflecting some aspect of Jewish life and folk-lore. Like his poetry, they reveal Klein's fascination with the child-like and the macabre and with the comically absurd, the pathetic, and the terrifying.

Klein turned also to the writing of novels. In 1946-1947 he wrote a novel, That Walks Like a Man, based on the lgor Gouzenko spy revelations in Ottawa, but failed to find a publisher for it. His next effort was much more successful. Following a journey through Israel, Europe, and North Africa sponsored by the Canadian Jewish Congress in 1949, Klein found a congenial subject, and his novel The Second Scroll (1951) may well be regarded as his greatest single literary achievement. In this novel Klein presented an encompassing vision of Jewish history and destiny and probed the broader question of the nature of good and evil and its bearing on the relationship between man and God. It clearly bears the stamp of greatness.

Klein also applied his special literary gifts to journalism. His major contribution in this field was as editor of The Canadian Jewish Chronicle, the foremost Anglo-Jewish journal in Canada. For this paper Klein wrote weekly (1938-1955) two or three editorials and a full page of commentary on topical events. He also frequently added literary articles, book reviews, translations from Hebrew and Yiddish literature, poems, and short stories. As a journalist in the days of threatening Nazism and struggling Zionism, he became the spokesman for the Jewish community. A representative selection of his journalism is to be found in the published collection Beyond Sambation (1981).


Further Reading on A. M. Klein

Additional information on Klein and his work can be found in Canadian Literature No. 25, (Summer 1965), a special A. M. Klein issue; The A. M. Klein Symposium (Ottawa, 1975); M. W. Steinberg, "A. M. Klein's 'The Second Scroll': A Twentieth Century Pentateuch," Canadian Literature No. 2 (Autumn 1959) and "A. M. Klein as Journalist," Canadian Literature No. 83 (Autumn 1979); Usher Caplan, Like One That Dreamed (1982); and Journal of Canadian Studies 19 (Summer 1984), a special Klein issue.