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Emergence of a Bahá'í Consciousness in World Literature:
The Poetry of Roger White

by Ron Price

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Chapter 3


" every second of his life he was, as we all are, infinite, unseizable, imponderable."-Philip Toynbee, Biography as an Art, p.196.

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.'[1] 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.[2] 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 White.

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,[3] 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, [4] 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 critics[5] 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[6] 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: [7]Lardner, 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 civilization.

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 poetry.[8] 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 centuries,"[9] 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.'[10]

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,[11] 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."[12]

[1] Maxwell, Geismar, Writers in Crisis: The American Novel 1925-1940, E.P. Dutton and Co., Inc., NY, 1971.
[2] The seeds of this global embrace, a conception of life embracing all societies finds its birth according to Maxwell Geismar, op.cit., p.296.
[3] 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.
[4] Will C. van den Hoonaard, The Origins of the Bahá'í Community in Canada: 1898-1948, Wilfred Laurier UP, Waterloo, 1996, p.285.
[5] Maxwell Geismar, Writers in Crisis: The American Novel 1925-1940, E.P. Dutton and Co., NY,1971, p.276.
[6] 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.
[7] idem
[8] ibid., p.281.
[9] ibid.,p.294.
[10] 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, 1910-1920.
[11] Will van den Hoonaard, The Origins of the Baha'I Community of Canada: 1898-1948, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Waterloo, 1996, p.310.
[12] Annie Dillard in Occasions of Grace, Roger White, George Ronald, Oxford, 1992, p.ix.
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