One of the most important Canadian writers of the 20th century, Hugh MacLennan developed a literature that was distinctly Canadian, and is credited as the first major English-speaking writer to attempt a portrayal of this country’s national character.
A novelist, essayist, and professor of English at McGill from 1951 to 1981, MacLennan had already been honoured with three Governor General's awards -- Canada's highest literary prize -- by the time he joined McGill's faculty as a part-time professor.
MacLennan’s writing career spanned 50 years and included the publication of seven novels, three works of non-fiction and three collections of essays. One of his best known works is Barometer Rising (1941), which describes the social class structure of Halifax through the lens of the 1917 explosion that MacLennan had seen level the city as a ten year old. A number of other works, including Two Solitudes and The Watch that Ends the Night are also considered to be Canadian classics. MacLennan is also the most widely and most successfully translated Canadian novelist to date.
MacLennan’s shift in focus from international to national subject matter ushered in a new phase in Canadian literature. He won the Governor General’s Literary Award three times for fiction and twice for nonfiction – a total unmatched by any other writer. In 1984 he won the Royal Bank Award, and in 1987 he became the first Canadian to receive Princeton University's James Madison Medal, awarded annually to a graduate who has distinguished himself in his profession.
Shortly after MacLennan's death in 1990 author and journalist Philip Marchand acknowledged MacLennan's impact on the coming-of-age of Canadian literature when he wrote in the Toronto Star that MacLennan "showed how the writer of fiction can help to define a country in the imagination of its citizens."