Wilfred Watson Fonds Finding Aid
Wilfred Watson
Wilfred Watson Fonds
1946-1998
10.6 m of textual records and other material.

Biography of Wilfred Watson

Wilfred Watson was born in Rochester, England in 1911, the oldest child of Frederick Walter Watson and the former Louisa Claydon. He immigrated to Canada with his family at the age of fifteen, settling in Duncan, British Columbia. After one year of highschool, he found a job with a Vancouver Island sawmill. Watson attended the University of British Columbia from 1940 to 1943, earning a B.A. in English literature. During the Second World War, he served in the Canadian navy; after the war he continued his education at the University of Toronto, receiving an M.A. in 1946 and a Ph.D. in 1951. In 1949, Wilfred Watson was employed as a special lecturer in English at the University of British Columbia and from 1951 to 1953 he became professor in the Department of English at the University of Alberta, teaching at the Calgary campus. In 1954, he transferred to the Edmonton campus, remaining there as Professor of English until his retirement in 1977.

Wilfred Watson married Sheila Martin Doherty in 1941, who as Sheila Watson published The Double Hook in 1959. The Watson's both taught at the University of Alberta and participated in an intellectual circle that included the painter Norman Yates, and actor-directors Gordon Peacock and Thomas Peacocke among others (see Stefan Haag, M.A. thesis). Watson co-founded the Jazz Club "Yardbird Suite" in Edmonton in the early 1960's, and joined the editorial group of White Pelican (a quarterly review of the arts) in 1972. Wilfred Watson retired from the University of Alberta in 1977 and moved in 1980 to Nanaimo, B.C. with his wife Sheila. He passed away very shortly after his wife Sheila in Nanaimo in 1998, at the age of 87.

Wilfred Watson's writing career was prolific and continuously evolving and developing. T.S.Eliot accepted his first volume of poetry, Friday's Child, for Faber and Faber, publishing it in 1955, and Watson received the 1955 Governor General's Award for it.

He lived in Paris, 1955-1956, as the recipient of a Canadian Government Overseas Fellowship. Here he was introduced to the theatre of the absurd, and in the following years explored this interest with his own writing and directing activities. In the early 1960s, Watson made contact with Marshall McLuhan and developed a growing interest in McLuhan's theories, culminating with their collaboration on the study, From Cliche to Archetype. Watson started work on his first major play, Cockcrow and the Gulls, in the mid-1950s, and it was first performed at the University of Alberta's Studio Theatre in March 1962. Studio Theatre, where Thomas Peacocke and Gordon Peacock were both associated, was an important venue for the production of Watson plays.

During the 1960s Watson had his most prolific period of playwriting; Trial of Corporal Adam was produced in 1963; Wail for two Pedestals in 1964; and Let's murder clytemnestra according to the principles of marshall mcluhan in 1969. A play for Canada's centennial, O holy ghost, dip your finger in the blood of Canada, and write, I love you was produced in 1967. (For a complete listing of Watson's works, please refer to the Watson biography file at the University of Alberta Archives) During the 1970s, Watson concentrated on writing poetry, and his second volume of poetry, The Sorrowful Canadians and Other Poems was published in 1972. This volume of poetry experimented with using different typefaces and repetitions, and Watson later introduced Number-grid Verse in a volume titled I Begin With Counting. Number-grid verse involved a configuration that combines numerals and words juxtaposed on the page; this form allowed Watson to score poetry for oral performance by several voices. A second volume of number-grid verse, Mass on Cowback, was published in 1982.

The 1980s also saw Watson return to writing for the stage; The Woman Taken in Adultery, a short play, was performed at the Edmonton Fringe Festival in 1987 and a major play trilogy, Gramsci x 3 was produced by Studio Theatre in 1986. The number-grid verse concept was applied to these later plays as well. Wilfred Watson also wrote some short stories, essays, and a novel, although a lot of what he wrote was never published. In her article on Wilfred Watson for the Gale Dictionary of Literary Biography, Diane Bessai writes: "Wilfred Watson, playwright, poet, teacher, and literary theorist, has steadily conducted a one-man revolution in Canadian letters from the 1950s to the present."(pp 382)


Scope and Content

The Wilfred Watson fonds span a period of over fifty years, and provide a wonderful record of the creative processes of a noted Canadian poet, playwright, teacher and literary theorist. Wilfred Watson was a writer brimming with ideas and his papers provide evidence of his creative endeavors; his numerous notebooks are filled with drafts of plays and poems, ideas for further development, excerpts from his own reading and study, sketches, and jottings about his daily activities. In addition to his notebooks, there are files of his writing drafts (encompassing the many genre he wrote in), very complete correspondence files, drawing files and sketchbooks, and supplemental material including sound recordings and photographs.

The records arrived at the University of Alberta Archives in three separate deposits (the last deposit of records made after Wilfred Watson's death), with excellent listings and descriptions attached. The archivist brought the records in each of the three deposits together physically and intellectually, while retaining many of the original groupings adhered to in the first listings. The notebooks, for example, were kept chronologically by Wilfred Watson, so the notebooks from all three deposits have been pulled together and arranged in their original date order. Likewise, the correspondence in each deposit was arranged alphabetically by correspondent and in the comprehensive finding aid, all of the correspondence is together and arranged in alphabetical order. The series designations include the following eight series, and were arrived at by considering the contents of the records.

Watson's notebooks are of particular research value as they provide so much information about Wilfred Watson's creative thought processes, as well as information about his teaching plans, readings, Department of English activities, and even a daily weather observation from his study window. The notebooks also held loose sheets of paper, and these have been removed for conservation purposes and placed in a separate file following the notebook they were retrieved from. The series of literary drafts and writing files is also very significant; often several different versions of a particular poem or even an entire play are present in the files. The writing files take on added significance since they provide evidence of, as Wilfred Watson was once described, "a prolific poet who publishes little." As Diane Bessai noted, Watson's plays, while given lively reviews in the daily press at the times of their first performances, "have not been widely produced since". His writing, particularly his later writing, was often considered controversial and experimetnal, and was not readily published or produced, so it is important that his work is preserved in his own archive. The correspondence files, particularly the letters between Wilfred Watson and Sheila Watson, provide another fascinating glimpse into these writers' minds. The Watsons, due to work and schooling circumstances, lived apart off and on over the years and their letters became their main link. Their letters, written regularly to one another, usually go beyond the ordinary to explore mutual ideas about writing, writers, literature, and projects they are working on in their own studies.

A detailed series and file list follows, with further information provided about each of the eight series in the Wilfred Watson fonds. A subject/name index is included at the end of the inventory to assist in locating specific files.


Arrangement

The fonds consists of the following series:

1. Journals and Notebooks
2. Literary Drafts/Writings
3. Sketches/Artwork
4. Correspondence
5. Student Records- Watson
6. Reference Material
7. Personal Papers
8. Audio-Visual Records


Restrictions

Restrictions on Access

There are no access restrictions on these records.

Restrictions on Use

Standard copyright and third-party rights restrictions apply to the Watson material.


Administrative Information

Custodial History

Wilfred Watson retained his records in his offices until they were given to the Archives in a series of donations.

Preferred Citation

Please note the following example for citation purposes:

"P. Turzon, Le Consul de France a Louis A. Romanet," Mai 21, 1928, Correspondence, Box 1, Folder 7/1/2-1, Accession Number 72-81, Louis A. Romanet Fonds, University of Alberta Archives.

Acquisition Information

Wilfred Watson's records were received at the University of Alberta in three separate accessions over a period of eight years. The first set of papers came from materials left with Professor Diane Bessai in 1980 when Watson moved from Edmonton to Nanaimo; the second donation was made directly to the Archives from Wilfred Watson; and the third donation of papers were sent from Shirley Neuman after Professor Watson's death in 1998. Shirley Neuman, Wilfred Watson's literary executor, oversaw the original listing, description, and transfer of the Watson records to the University of Alberta Archives.