W.O. Mitchell Biography
WILLIAM ORMOND MITCHELL (1914-1998)
W.O. Mitchell--writer, performer, and teacher--is best remembered for Who Has Seen the Wind and the Jake and the Kid stories which grew out of and defined Saskatchewan prairie.
Mitchell was born on March 13, 1914 in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. 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, episodic work knit together by recurring motifs of birth and death. A deep sense of man’s mortality lies behind all of Mitchell’s writing although his vision of life is fundamentally optimistic.
The second pivotal event occurred in 1926 when he contracted bovine tuberculosis of the wrist and was withdrawn from school.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 and sensuous particularity. 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, the quest for “how to be,” and, most importantly, the bridging of one human to another.
To cure his tubercular wrist, he and his family spent the winters of 1927 to 1931 in California and then St. Petersburg, Florida. However, each summer they returned to Saskatchewan to spend time at their cottage at White Bear Lake. Here he met Sheepskin, the Assiniboine chief of the reserve, and developed a sympathy for native peoples which later led to his concern for the Stonys of the Alberta foothills and inspired his novel The Vanishing Point (1973).
From 1931 to 1934 he majored in philosophy at the University of Manitoba. After two years taking courses in journalism and play writing at the University of Washington (Seattle), 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 advertisement, even doing a high-dive clown act for a carnival.
In 1940 in Edmonton he met Merna Hirtle whom he married two years later. He completed his B.A. at the University of Alberta and obtained a teaching certificate. With Professor F.M. Salter as his creative writing mentor and Merna as his first editor, he began writing seriously. His first two published short stories in Maclean’s and Queen’s Quarterly (1942) showed his talent for both the humourous and the more philosophically serious.
In 1945, after two years as principal in Castor and New Dayton, Mitchell moved to High River, a small town 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, it remains the classic Canadian prairie novel.
From 1948 to 1951 Mitchell lived in Toronto where he was fiction editor of Maclean's. Here he began writing the Jake and the Kid radio series for CBC which ran from 1950 to 1956. Drawing on the oral narrative tradition of the prairies, he produced over two hundred episodes about a hired man, a fatherless boy and his mother who live on a farm near the fictional town of Crocus, Saskatchewan. Mitchell’s 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 a "power in the land" and "Canadian culture in the making." Mitchell adapted the Jake and the Kid 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 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. His other stage plays include The Devil’s Instrument, Back to Beulah (which won the Chalmers Prize in 1977), and The Kite.
Mitchell thought of himself as a teacher as well as a writer and devoted much of his time to working with beginning and developing writers. In his first writing workshop in 1952 at Qu'Appelle for the Sasktatchewan 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 left High River, where they had raised their three children, to move to Calgary. By this time Mitchell had become one of the most publicly recognized authors in Canada, and he was sought after to perform readings from his novels and from his semi-autobiographical tales such as "Melvin Arbuckle's First Course in Shock Therapy" and “Take a Giant Step.” These reminiscential 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 novels, along with The Vanishing Point, established Mitchell as one of Canada’s most accomplished novelists. His other published work includes The Kite (1962), Dramatic W.O. Mitchell (1982), Since Daisy Creek (1984), Ladybug, Ladybug... (1988), Roses Are Difficult Here (1990), For Art's Sake (1992), The Black Bonspiel of Willie McCrimmon (1993), and An Evening With W.O. Mitchell (1997).
Mitchell was admired and honoured by his home province, receiving his first honorary degree from the University of Saskatchewan (Regina, 1972) and the Lifetime Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Saskatchewan Arts Board (1989). He received eight other honorary degrees, two Stephen Leacock Awards for humour, and was 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.”
Barbara and Ormond Mitchell, Trent University
Latham, Sheila and David, ed. Magic Lies: The Art of W.O. Mitchell. Toronto: University of Toronto Press,
Mitchell, Barbara and Ormond. W.O.: The Life of W.O. Mitchell, Beginnings to Who Has Seen the Wind.
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1999. Click here for excerpts
and Ormond. Mitchell: The Life of W.O. Mitchell, The Years of Fame.
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2005. Click here for excerpts
Mitchell, W.O.. Papers. Ms. 19. University of Calgary Special Collections, Calgary, Alberta.