CANADA'S THIRD WAVE
".....at every second of his life he was, as we all are,
infinite, unseizable, imponderable."-Philip Toynbee, Biography as an
was a bad year. The stock market crash precipitated the beginning of several
years of economic bleakness that have come to be known as the Depression.
Roger White was born in that bad year, 1929, in Toronto becoming part of what
literary critic Maxwell Geismar called 'the generation of '29.'
A new Conservative government had taken office the year
before under R.B. Bennett. Two years later Canada ceased to be a colony of
Great Britain thanks to the Statute of Westminster. This little-known fact
mattered little to most Canadians at the time.
The first wave of exploration in Canadian history had been religious and
economic: missionaries, voyagers and fur traders. The second wave was
technological and scientific: railway builders, miners, the many fields of
science and technology. The third wave that explored phenomenal existence was
cultural. The poetry of Roger White, beginning in the late 1940s, became part
of this third wave. This, too, is a little known fact.
Until WW1, 1914-1918, romantic and adventurous tendencies in Canada were
associated with western and northern Canada. Intellectual adventurousness had
its roots in classical civilization and the minute examination of the
Judaeo-Christian tradition. Until WWI and perhaps even WWII the classical
tradition of western civilization still held the centre of Canadian
intellectual life. But after WWII a new continental, north-south,
consciousness began to emerge and with it a global, an international,
perspective. The classical tradition began to lose its centrality on the
Canadian intellectual landscape.
This new and emerging continental, north-south, divide provided the matrix for
the developing embryo, the first seeds, of an evolving Bahá'í consciousness in
world literature. Within the context of this continental, this American
expansiveness, a new literary cosmopolitanism invited readers to a luxurious
feast, a great banquet of world literature. A host of writers, rising as they
did above ideological and cultural differences to sound the unified note of an
'international perspective,' began to be heard more and more as decade
succeeded decade in the last half of the twentieth century.
The Bahá'í voice in this literary cosmopolitanism was a
small one and not surprisingly for a community which did not exceed twenty-five
thousand members in Canada and, perhaps one hundred and fifty thousand members
in the United States at the turn of the millennium. Globally, though, the
Bahá'í Faith was the second most widely spread religion on the planet. The
emergence of a Bahá'í consciousness, a Bahá'í perspective, in the literature of
the people's of the world was inevitable. This emergence has taken place in
several forms and several places. One of these forms is the poetry of Roger
The Canadian consciousness, whether turned toward classical or Judaeo-Christian
history, whether turned toward the west, the north, the south or, indeed, to
the entire planet as it increasingly was, could not be conservative. It was
impossible, wrote Canadian cultural historian George Grant,
to build a conservative nation on a continent right beside
the most dynamic nation on earth. It was not only impossible, it was
ridiculous to even try. Canada had tried to do this until 1939. After WWII in a
rapidly developing global cultural marketplace and ethos Canada moved
increasingly in waters that covered the face of the earth. It was in these
waters that White's poetry belonged. Although there is a strong Canadian
flavour to his poetry as early as 1947, his poetry reached out to Bahá'ís
around the world by the 1980s.
In 1929, though, White's hometown Toronto was a homogeneous Scotch-Irish
community. It was noted for its smugness, its snobbery and its sterility. This
was to be the case until the large intake of immigrants was absorbed in the
late 1940s and 1950s. That conservative ethos and philosophy was rubbed off,
given a shift outward, loosened up, as a post-war nation moved imperceptibly
toward an era of multiculturalism by the 1970s. Perhaps this rubbing off
process was part of White's release, too, from that same Canadian smugness and
sterility which he was born into in Toronto and which he was sure to be part of
the air he breathed in Belleville, also on the northern shore of Lake Ontario,
in the 1940s. In 1947 White had begun to take an interest in a religion that
had been in Canada, by then, for half a century. Something was sure to rub
during this association and it did for nearly fifty years.
In the late 1920s and 1930s Canadians still wondered why their former Prime
Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier had said that the future belonged to Canada. It
seemed to them that the era of the farmer was passing and that Canada was
rapidly being urbanized. The optimism of the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries had been tarnished by WWI, to put it mildly, and what was
left of that optimism was obliterated by the Depression. Whoever the future
belonged to it was not Canadians. Of course, a new optimism was born again
after WW2 and White tasted its fruits beginning perhaps with his first job as
the war ended and his first poetry in 1947. The religion he joined in 1947 was
also one of a great optimism and it filled his poetry for half a century.
On 29 October 1929, Black Thursday, the boom of the 1920s came to a crashing
halt and the New York Stock Exchange collapsed. Within a year millions of North
Americans were without work and without money. Canada was desperately affected,
so inextricably tied to the US economy had she become. By 1933 one-third of the
Canadian workforce was unemployed. The new fiery leader, R.B. Bennett, elected
in 1930 had no solution to the problem, although he was clocked at speaking
some 220 words per minute. John Bernard White, Roger's father, moved to
Belleville that year. A job there was better than none in Toronto.
Here in this small Canadian town, hugging the northeast shore of Lake Ontario,
Roger White entered primary school. Here he stayed until grade ten when he took
his first job as a court reporter and Justice of the Peace in the Family and
Juvenile Court of Hastings County Ontario. He was now 15. The year was 1944.
The 1920s and the 1930s came to be known as the years of Boom and Bust. When
WWII ended these roller-coaster years were over. Although Canada had entered
WWII with little emotional enthusiasm for the project of defending the Empire
and western civilization and although the war was an exhausting process, Canada
was surprisingly recharged. Her economy was transformed by the war.
Unemployment disappeared and the standard of living rose all across the
country. There were jobs everywhere and when peace came in 1945 Roger White was
16 and enjoying that first taste of employment.
Two years later, at the age of eighteen, Roger came into contact with a small
group of Bahá'ís in Kingston, a large city near Belleville which Roger visited
from time to time. Roger's first poem dates from this same year, 1947. That
international climate was beginning to stir in the Canadian consciousness and
it was reflected in the first significant wave of new members. The Bahá'í
community of Canada grew from about one hundred in 1945 to three hundred in
1952. By the mid-1960s the numbers had gone to over three thousand. The
essentially international nature of this new message was beginning to attract
an essentially conservative people on a highly dynamic continent that was going
global, indeed, as the world was becoming a neighbourhood.
Of course, this phenomenon was not confined to North America. White got in
early, as the Bahá'ís did all around the world, for theirs was a religion made
for a planetary culture and civilization. As its nationally elected body, the
Canadian National Assembly, formed for the first time in 1948, 
indeed, as the North American Bahá'í community passed into
its second half century, Roger White was beginning to write his first poems.
Few would read any of them for another thirty years.
White was born into a world, the North American world, which had just seen the
final separation of the writer, the poet, from society. Some literary
argue that this process of separation
had begun in North America in the mid-nineteenth century and was completed in
the 1920s, in the Jazz Age. The energy which had conquered the continent in
the previous two centuries had, by the 1920s and 1930s and with the help of the
worst war in history and the deepest depression of the industrial age, lost its
direction. What some called the generation of '29 was psychologically
homeless, placeless and free to create a new world. Little did that world know
that a new world
was in fact being created
even as it went through the chaos of that great bottoming out. This generation
existed, White existed, at the very start of a unique transformation, a turning
of a cultural tide. With a new courage and a new faith won from crisis, new
novelists arose at the very period when the nucleus and pattern of a future
world Order was being formed: 
Hemingway, Passos, Faulkner, Wolfe, Steinbeck. White began his contribution in
the forties, a later part of that new wave. The Beat poets: Ginsberg, Kerouac
and Burroughs were forming their first relationships in the mid to late
forties. A new wave was indeed on its way after the holocast of the second
great war of the century, one of the lowest points in the history of
The literary critic, Clement Greenberg, had remarked acutely about the
modernist poets of the 1930s, the years before WW2: It is small-scale
poetry, lacking resonance, lacking real culture.....Its makers have neither
inherited nor acquired enough cultural capital to expand beyond the confines of
their immediate experience and of a narrowly professional conception of
By the time White began
his poetic work, though, in the late 1940s the cultural capital had begun to be
built anew. There had begun a new turning to belief and the embryo of new
forms of poetry was finding its first shaping. White had been one of those
precious adventurers of those post WW2 years, searching the unknown, a writer,
at once unique and common, who would make his discoveries and endure them until
his passing near the century's end. One of his discoveries was an emerging
Order associated with an emerging world religion.
Enjoying his childhood during that "little overture to the immense drama of the
as Geismar called those years
between the wars, an overture during which the nucleus and pattern of this
emerging world Order was given its initial shaping, White would come to play a
part in formulating an understanding of its beliefs, its outreach, its meaning
to the generations that had joined its ranks in the second half of the
twentieth century. This embryonic Order, a democratic theocracy in its
political form, was going through some of its crucial early stages in its
institutional evolution during his lifetime. The sociologist Max Weber had
called these stages 'the institutionalization of charisma.'
Everything was changing for that generation of '29. Of course, Plus ca
change, plus ca la meme chose.
The inherent conservatism of the Canadian
psyche was slow to move, even if it did live beside that great Dynamo to the
south. White wrote about this change and this conservatism in his poetry.
Living through nearly two-thirds of the first century of the Formative Age of
the new religion and being one of its members for nearly fifty years after he
had joined its forces in the forties, he was certainly part of its first wave.
For history has its waves upon waves. The first wave of Bahá'ís, some 555 in
the years 1898 to 1948,
was succeeded by a
second in the years, 1948 to 1998, in the first century of its Canadian
experience. It was here that the poet Roger White made his home, swam in the
sea of its waters and discovered some wondrous gems which he once wrote were
part of an "unmerited grace."
Maxwell, Geismar, Writers in Crisis: The
American Novel 1925-1940
, E.P. Dutton and Co., Inc., NY, 1971.
The seeds of this global embrace, a
conception of life embracing all societies finds its birth according to Maxwell
Northrop Frye, Divisions on a Ground: Essays on Canadian Culture
Anansi, Toronto, 1982, p.67. George Grant was one of the leading philosophers
and culture analysts in Canada. He was Professor of Philosophy and Religion at
McMaster for many years after WWII.
Will C. van den Hoonaard, The Origins of
the Bahá'í Community in Canada: 1898-1948
, Wilfred Laurier UP, Waterloo,
Maxwell Geismar, Writers in Crisis: The American Novel 1925-1940
Dutton and Co., NY,1971, p.276.
In the 1920s and 1930s the Bahá'í
Administrative Order took its first shaping. See Loni Bramson-Lerche, "Some
Aspects of the Development of the Baha'I Administrative Order in America:
1922-1936, Studies in Babi and Baha'I History, Vol.1
, Moojan Momen,
editor, Kalimat Press, 1982, pp.255-300.
Weber, arguably sociology's greatest
thinker and writer in its first century, had given a theoretical expression to
this process in his writings on religion in the last decade of his life,
Will van den Hoonaard, The Origins of
the Baha'I Community of Canada: 1898-1948
, Wilfrid Laurier University
Press, Waterloo, 1996, p.310.
Annie Dillard in Occasions of
, Roger White, George Ronald, Oxford, 1992, p.ix.