Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project
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Life and Work of J.W. Bengough, Canada's Cartoonist

Thomas Bengough

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John Wilson Bengough

For fans of John Wilson Bengough (1851-1923), this biography by his brother Thomas contains a wealth of anecdotal information, sort of a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Newspaperman. Thomas himself clearly intends to cast his brother in this light, referring to him frequently as “our hero” and occasionally lending self-conscious narrative shape to the story of his brother’s life.

Almost immediately, though, Thomas’s literary instincts are overshadowed by his own garrulousness, and “The Life and Work of J.W. Bengough, Canada’s Cartoonist” is mainly a rambling account of life in late-nineteenth-century Ontario, especially Toronto. In fact, it reads rather like a “who’s who” of news—those who made it as well as those who published it. Thomas Bengough clearly enjoys dropping names, and a sampling of the breadth of colleagues and acquaintances within the Bengough circle is truly astonishing: Erastus Wiman, journalist, prominent and disgraced businessman, and ardent proponent of commercial union with the United States; James Beaty, whose newspaper publishing business at one time comprised at least 5 of Toronto’s early newspapers; S.J. Moore, who founded Moore Business Forms (on an idea inspired, appropriately, by a dry goods clerk); Sir Oliver Mowat, premier of Ontario (1872-96), Thomas’s employer, and sometimes target of J.W.’s satire; writers as diverse as Sarah Curzon and Norman Bethune; even Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister and J.W. Bengough’s chief victim, makes a cameo appearance when J.W. encounters him in a House of Commons side room.

This is very much the story of “our hero’s” successes, as a journalist, a publisher, a cartoonist, a Canadian. Ultimately, for all the details about who J.W. knew and what he did, this biography gives only glimpses of the man he was. The description of the dinner party hosted by Erastus Wiman in J.W.’s honour, for example, shows us the temperance man, thoroughly dismayed by his fellow cartoonists’ preference for after-dinner drinks over speeches, leaving us to imagine how to reconcile the prim teetotaler with either the young rebel who wouldn’t hold a job or the satirical wit who put Canada on the political cartooning map. Nor, disappointingly, does this biography make much reference to J.W.’s literary output, and there is no mention at all of the plays that form our chief source of interest here. There is nothing here to help us understand when, how, or why J.W. decided to lampoon these Shakespearean scripts, or why he didn’t pursue their publication. In the end, this is J.W. Bengough drawn with a satirist’s brush: in broad strokes, without the details that might clutter or detract from the main point the author is trying to make.

The J.W. Bengough Fond is housed at the William Ready Division of the McMaster University Archives.

Dorothy Hadfield

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