Frederick Philip Grove (ca. 1871-1948), Canadian novelist and essayist of European birth and mysterious background, is best known for his realistic novels of pioneer life in western Canada.
Serious doubt has been cast by D. O. Spettigue (1969) on the facts of Frederick Philip Grove's autobiography. One thing is reasonably certain—our knowledge of his life in Canada is accurate. Having taken this caveat into account, we can say that Grove was born in northern Europe, probably in Germany, emigrated to North America in his youth, and spent the years of his early adulthood in the United States, where he may have taught school in Kentucky and traveled as a harvest hand in the Middle West. This itinerant experience, which may have taken up as much as 2 years of his life, appears to have had a profound effect on his writing.
In 1912 Grove appeared in Haskett, Manitoba, where he became a teacher in a small rural school. In 1915 he married Catherine Weins, a fellow teacher, and settled down to a 9-year career at various levels of primary and intermediate education. He began to write and studied for an extramural degree from the University of Manitoba. The Groves were outstanding teachers, and he was noted in particular for his enthusiasm and enlightened and progressive views.
Grove's first book was over Prairie Trails (1922); it was followed by another collection of essays based on his Manitoba experiences, The Turn of the Year (1923). These books are distinguished by a freedom of style and a control of language admirably suited to the evocation of the climate, the scenery, and the variable moods of the Manitoba prairie. A third collection of essays, It Needs To Be Said (1929), is a distillation of his speeches and thought on culture and society.
Grove is best known for his novels, which are frequently divided into the "prairie novels" and the "Ontario novels." Two of the prairie novels—Our Daily Bread (1928) and Fruits of the Earth (1933)—can be described with one of the Ontario novels, Two Generations (1939), as being novels of the soil. In them Grove presents a self-centered and single-minded protagonist who labors unremittingly at taming the soil in order to found the basis of "a new world which might serve as the breeding-place of a civilization to come." In Settlers of the Marsh (1925) and The Yoke of Life (1930) Grove again uses a pioneer prairie setting, but he explores human relationships and the psychological elements that underlie them. He holds that man acts not out of reason but as a result of passion. Human passion drives man to irrational and tragic conflict within himself, and man is fated to defeat and destruction by forces which are beyond his control and which he neither understands nor recognizes.
In The Master of the Mill (1944), Grove's most ambitious and complex work, he tells the story of a family whose growth to power and wealth parallels in nearallegorical terms the development of Canada as a confederated nation. The major themes are the rise of modern capitalism, generational conflict, and the rise and fall of family fortunes as these are linked with the drive to materialistic power, the realization of creative ideals, and the decay of mind and vision.
Grove's autobiographical work, now questioned as to factual reliability, comprises A Search for America (1927) and In Search of Myself (1946). In the latter he states that the tragic quality of man's existence is heightened in the North American experience. He believes that American civilization is characterized by mass production which destroys the artist and by a standardization of life which erodes individuality. He gave himself to fantasy-satire in his last published work, Consider Her Ways (1947), an unrecognized but unusually clever, successful, and prophetic "study" of an expedition of ants engaged on a research project on man.
In the latter part of his life Grove was well known as a public lecturer. He lived briefly in Ottawa, where he was a director of the Graphic Press, and then moved to a farm outside Simcoe, Ontario, where he worked as a dairy farmer and struggled with his writing. In 1934 the Royal Society of Canada awarded him the Lorne Pierce Medal.
The first book-length study of Grove was Desmond Pacey, Frederick Philip Grove (1945). In terms of contemporary and readily accessible appraisals, D. O. Spettigue's intriguing investigation, Frederick Philip Grove (1969), is recommended. There is, as well, a more traditional approach to Grove in Ronald Sutherland, Frederick Philip Grove (1969). For a useful and handy cross section of critical opinion see Desmond Pacey's Frederick Philip Grove (1970) in the McGraw-Hill series "Critical Views on Canadian Writers."
Hind-Smith, Joan., Three voices:the lives of Margaret Laurence, Gabrielle Roy, Frederick Philip Grove, Toronto:Clarke, Irwin, 1975.