LIVESAY, DOROTHY (1909-1996)
Born in Winnipeg on October 12, 1909, to journalist parents, Dorothy Livesay over some sixty-five active writing years published twenty-one volumes of poetry, four of fiction and nonfiction prose, and a myriad of articles, reviews, forewords, agitprop and docudramas, edited volumes of the creative writing of others, journalistic pieces, and uncollected individual short stories and poems. She spent only two phases of her life–her first and sixth decades–in the Prairies and would engage intensely with most of the other places she lived–British Columbia, Ontario, New Brunswick, Africa, England, and France. But Livesay's writing throughout bore the indelible psychic imprint of that first landscape, the Canadian Great Plains: its openness and multiethnicity were powerful influences on her work.
Livesay's family moved to Ontario in 1920, but when she was in her twenties, a moderately Marxist Livesay passed back through the Prairies on a promotional tour for a new leftist periodical. Prairie laborers were mobilizing to break out of the long-standing grip of the Great Depression, which in Canada had hit their region the hardest, and Livesay's contact with Prairie workers from coal miners to sugar beet harvesters encouraged her creative combining of art with her agenda for social change. That aspect of Prairie inspiration continued to inform her thought and technique in her subsequent years in British Columbia and abroad.
Later in life, a seasoned writer and academic, she took two positions as writer in residence in the Great Plains: 1968–71 at the University of Alberta (Edmonton) and 1974–76 at the University of Manitoba. She helped found a new literary journal, CV/II, that was a supportive venue for emerging Prairie writers. In the 1980s she spent summers near the Icelandic community at Gimli, Manitoba. These years saw a literary revisiting of her Prairie origins in some poems of Plainsongs (1969, expanded 1971) and particularly in the linked stories entitled A Winnipeg Childhood (1973), expanded and renamed Beginnings (1988). Those stories follow a lightly disguised Dorothy ("Elizabeth") through a vivid rendering of her childhood in a Prairie city, charming readers with its descriptive simplicity, its magicrealist treatment of the commonplace, and its fluid, rhythmic prose.
Livesay absorbed and developed the Canadian Prairie's early-twentieth-century optimistic vision of infinite possibilities, of a new and egalitarian society, passionate and fresh. One must note, however, that she also shared the no less historical Prairie sense of isolation, alienation, exclusion, and marginalization. Yet that personal perspective dovetailed productively with another Great Plains element, the multicultural patchwork of Winnipeg, which shaped her lifelong interest in social justice and equality and the rights of minorities, a conviction embodied in verse dramas such as her liberatory treatment of the hitherto reviled Métis leader Louis Riel, "Prophet of the New World." The inherent drama of the Prairies, its strong horizontals and majestic skyscapes, the enormity of spaces and intense contrasts of light: all seem connected with both Livesay's preoccupation with nature as well as her gravitation to polarities and complementarities in human relations and the universe. Dorothy Livesay died in Victoria, British Columbia, on December 29, 1996.
See also PROTEST AND DISSENT: Riel, Louis.
Lee Briscoe Thompson University of Vermont
Thompson, Lee Briscoe. Dorothy Livesay. Boston: Twayne, 1987.
University of Manitoba Department of Archives. The Papers of Dorothy Livesay: A Research Tool. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba, 1986.