University mourns loss of literary giant

(Edmonton) The University of Alberta community is mourning the sudden and tragic death of an alumnus whose dedication to telling stories of Prairie life was matched only by his enthusiasm for life and his generosity. Robert Kroetsch, author, poet, teacher and one of the U of A’s greatest success stories, died June 21 in a car accident. He was 83.

Born in 1927 in the central Alberta village of Heisler, Kroetsch, a voracious reader, once said that, of all the books he had read as a youth, he never found a story that spoke to his life and experiences. It was then that the young Alberta farm kid dedicated his career to telling the story of life on the Prairie.

“That’s a terrible thing for a child, to be reading and reading and never encounter a wheatfield or central Alberta,” Kroetsch said in a video created to recognize his 2003 University of Alberta Distinguished Alumni Award. “So there was the script and I wasn’t in the script. One of the things that made me speak was to say, ‘I was going to put my story into that script somehow.’”

Kroetsch left the farm to attend the U of A, where he graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in 1948. He put down his pen and went to work as laborer uploading and unloading riverboat barges in Canada’s North, an experience that eventually found its way into his first novel, But We Are Exiles (1965). After university, Kroetsch took a number of different jobs—including a time as a civilian information and education specialist for the United States Air Force in Goose Bay, Labrador. 

In 1954, he decided to attend graduate school at Middlebury College, Vermont, and began his academic career at Binghamton University in New York. While living in the United States, he began to write and started putting Alberta’s story into words. Eventually he returned to Canada in the mid-1970s to teach at the University of Manitoba. Upon retiring, he returned to Alberta, where he continued to write.

With writing characterized by humour, rich characterization and intellectual rigour, Kroetsch is considered by many to be Alberta’s most important writer of fiction, poetry and literary criticism. Critics say Kroetsch is also the first author to successfully write realist fiction about Canada’s West—no other work signifies that arrival than his novel The Studhorse Man. Set against the backdrop of a rough-and-ready Alberta emerging after the Second World War, this story about the adventures a horseman encounters in his quest to breed his rare blue stallion was the winner of the 1969 Governor General’s Award for Fiction.

Through all of his writing and his teaching, Kroetsch not only gave voice to Alberta’s and Western Canada’s story, but also gave his fellow writers, literary critics and students ways to think through and understand what it means to write and read contemporary Canadian literature. His leadership and influence on the direction and growth of Canadian literary studies over the last several decades is widely recognized.

Among his numerous literary awards, Kroetsch was presented with a Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Distinguished Artist Award in April of this year and was honoured with the Writers Guild of Alberta Golden Pen Award for lifetime achievement at the 2011 Alberta Book Awards June 11. Kroetsch was given an honorary degree from the U of A in 1997 and was made an officer of the Order of Canada in 2004.

All told, Kroetsch’s more than 40-year career saw him pen nine internationally acclaimed novels, 13 books of poetry and seven books of non-fiction, essays and exploration. Over the last decade, Kroetsch worked with U of A Press to publish three new books of poetry and reprint some of his older novels.

“Almost every western Canadian writer can tell you a story about how Robert Kroetsch could make you feel as if you were the only person in a room full of people. It was his gift to encourage aspiring writers while offering tremendous insight into the work of established writers—his colleagues and friends,” said Linda Cameron, director of the U of A Press. “As Robert’s publisher, his visits stood out and were a highlight of the day. He was always polite, generous in his response to our questions, and appreciative of our work. He was the kind of author publisher’s dream of working with.
“He lived life more fully than anyone we know. He will be missed.”

To watch video created to recognize Kroetsch’s 2003 University of Alberta Distinguished Alumni Award, click here.

To read U of A English professor Tom Wharton's thoughts on the loss of his mentor and friend, click here.