Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

STEAD, ROBERT (1880-1959)

Robert James Campbell Stead was a pioneer of realist fiction on the Canadian Prairies. Born on September 4, 1880, in Middleville, Ontario, to Richard and May Campbell Stead, he grew up on a farm near Cartwright, Manitoba. Stead quit school at fourteen to work at various jobs, including journalism, and before he was twenty he had founded a rural weekly. By 1913 he was publicity director for the Canadian Pacific Railway's colonization department in Calgary, and in 1919 he moved to Ottawa to direct publicity for federal departments, including immigration and colonization, until his retirement in 1946.

Stead's literary career began with The Empire Builders (1908) and other volumes of Kiplingesque patriotic verse. He then wrote a series of popular romances of pioneering, including The Cow Puncher (1918), which sold more than 70,000 copies, and The Homesteader (1916), which went through multiple editions and was reprinted in 1973 as a classic of its genre, representing the garden view of the Prairies.

What is remarkable about Stead's career is that in the 1920s he abandoned popular (and lucrative) romances for realist fiction. Grain (1926), in particular, with its ironic narrative voice and its stumbling hero, Gander Stake, marked an antiromantic shift in his fiction. Stunted by the numbing labor and cultural deprivation of the farm, Gander is unable to relate even to the soil he tills.

With Frederick Philip Grove and Martha Ostenso, Stead is credited with initiating the sober view of European settlers' spiritual alienation from the land that distinguishes Prairie realism. Stead died in Ottawa on June 25, 1959.

Dick Harrison Sechelt, British Columbia

Fee, Margery. "Robert J. C. Stead." In Dictionary of Literary Biography, edited by W. H. New, 92: 370–73. Detroit: Gale Research, 1990.

Thompson, Eric. "Robert Stead (1880–1959)." In Canadian Writers and Their Works, Fiction series, edited by Robert Lecker, Jack David, and Ellen Quigley, 3: 214–76. Toronto: ECW Press, 1988.

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